Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Four neodisco best-sellers (not stars) off the top of my head: Paula Abdul, Vanessa Williams, Karen White, Sa-Fire. Who are these women? As a professional listener who's played all their albums several to many times, I could tell one from the other on a dare, but only if I was getting paid. To characterize them as bimbos would be both sexist and inaccurate. How about ciphers?

Of course, given the two options, you might prefer to be a bimbo, and some try to have their meaninglessness and eat it too. Unless Janet Jackson counts, the original bimbo/cipher was Jody Watley, a nonentity so convincing that she won the new-artist Grammy in 1987 even though she'd already enjoyed long and honorable success as one-third of the black pop group Shalamar. Where her "debut" presented her as, well, a sex object, on Larger Than Life (MCA) she pretends she's a normal person. In dance cipherdom, this is called artistic growth, and to some extent it actually is--producer Andre Cymone's grooves have improved, and several of the songs are neither silly nor anonymous. Gosh. For professionals and the platinum millions only.

Coming off the U.K.-spawned house/rap novelty hit Buffalo Stance, 25-year-old Neneh Cherry might seem to fit the neodisco mold. But whether she's changing The Next Generation's diapers or looking to get plowed by an Outré Risqué Locomotive, her Raw Like Sushi (Virgin) lives up to her slogans: "Survival. Attitude. Sex. Have fun. Stand strong." Half-African, half-Swedish, raised here and there by trumpeter Don Cherry, resident in Britain for most of this decade, she sings and raps with equal verve; though the change-of-pace followup, Manchild, may be a little too compassionate, she commands an impressive variety of vocal moods. She knows a good beat when she rocks one, too. More than zero--much more.

Playboy, June 1989


May 1989 July 1989