Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Bill Clinton

For a president, Bill Clinton is what is called a cultured person, and he'll no doubt be good for the arts as cultured people define them. The NEA will rise up from its bed of pain. The film industry will reap the fruits of its seed support. Public television and radio will get theirs. Avant-garde types will breathe easier and create less reactively. A nice balance will be struck between the Oxonian-canonical and the Arkansan-regional. But I'm less sanguine about my own area of concern and expertise, popular music. And although cultured people may think that what happens to rock and rap--conceived these days as two separate things, though the distinction conceals more than it reveals--is of small import in a vast and troubled world, I believe this bodes ill for all of us.

While Clinton's saxophone is no match for Lee Atwater's guitar, his musical accomplishments added to his naked Presley-worship makes him our first rock and roll president--"Fat Elvis," as he was dubbed by my colleague Doug Simmons. And from R.E.M. to Michael Bolton, respectable rockers were outspoken in their support of the Bush-killer. It could even be argued that Rock the Vote--the most visible spearhead of a trend that saw the 36 per cent of 18-24's who voted in 1988 jump to 43 per cent in 1992, an increase of almost 2 million--was a significant factor in the Clinton victory. All of which makes it even odder that the wife of Clinton's vice-president, the PMRC's infamous Tipper Gore, has been an object of opprobrium in the rock world since the middle '80s. Joined by Susan Baker, wife of Bush henchman James Baker, it was Gore who launched the campaign against dirty lyrics that produced parental warning stickers. She was crucial in creating an atmosphere in which police could campaign successfully against Ice-T's (supposedly rap, actually rock) "Cop Killer" and corporate watchdogs could preemptively ban less renowned antipolice raps.

So although age-inappropriate sexual references were Tipper's big worry, and although nuttier crusaders continue that fight, the lyric wars have moved on to weightier matters than female masturbation, anal vapors, and suchlike. From Public Enemy's anti-Semitic flirtations to Ice Cube's riot-inciting "Black Korea" to the bloody burlesque of "Cop Killer," what began as a moral panic over rap sexism gradually shifted onto more complex and often dubious political ground. And the Sister Souljah incident--in which Clinton cynically distanced himself from Jesse Jackson by misrepresenting an interview with a minor rapper, who could have been caught saying far more objectionable things about white people if anybody in the campaign had cared enough to listen to her record--proved that Fat Elvis was no less indifferent to the nuances of black underclass expression than any other boomer. On the other side of the distinction, meanwhile, it's worth noting that new HUD secretary Henry Cisneros led a similar moral panic over supposed violence and obscenity at metal concerts as mayor of San Antonio, which remains a big hard rock town despite his efforts. Clearly, both men will be too busy to bother much with music, and it's also conceivable that a Democratic administration will prove so galling to family-values bigots that rightwingers will have bigger fish to fry, leaving all forms of pop a little more slack. Nevertheless, there's a real sense in which the scariest and least classy pop music--stuff that's not much fun for critics to defend--is the truest voice of the alienated young. And there's no indication that Clinton's Democrats want or know how to listen to it.

Moreover, if we acknowledge that all this may be more symbolic than real--that Clinton will inevitably lighten the threat of censorship and corporate surveillance simply by appointing a more speech-friendly judiciary--then let me spell out two little Latinate words that I predict will prove the key to cultural history in the Clinton era: intellectual property. In pop, the concept is most salient in rap, where the basic musical technique, sampling, has been severely curtailed by litigious copyright holders, but in fact it underlies the dominant corporate stretegy of an industry that's now more interested in exploiting bundles of rights than in developing talent. As postmodernist appropriation and recontextualization become the basic aesthetic assumption in every corner of an artistic generation, the right of artists to parody, to cut and paste, to redefine and recreate is being challenged by copyright lawyers whose notion of proprietorship grants no privileges or creative input to the audience. Instead it revalorizes the mystified creator--which most often simply means the owner of that creator's works. And sure enough, heading Clinton's transition team on communications policy is one of the most outspoken of these lawyers, the Information Industry Association's Ron Plesser. Information capitalism--a Clintonian concept if ever there was one. Hold on to your libraries.

Stereo Review?, 1993?