Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Albums While They Last

Shiny Round Objects Negotiate Their Own Digital Divide

Guess who didn't win the 27th or 28th Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll. C'mon, I'll even give you a hint. If you were rooting for him, you didn't give him much chance. But if you regard the motherfucker as the epitome of all that is vicious and/or venal in popular music, you may well have assumed the worst--after all, assuming the worst is a habit of yours. Now you got it, right? His name is, his name is, his name is--Mr. Triple Trouble himself, Eminem/Marshall Mathers/Slim Shady, who finished only fourth among the 586 pros, prose poets, hacks, hackers, slackers, hobbyists, copywriters, and gray eminences who participated in our most humongous rock critics' poll ever. Eminem was way ahead of the neck-and-neck if not yet tits-and-pecs Shelby Lynne and D'Angelo, but well behind third-by-a-hair Radiohead. Although PJ Harvey attracted no more voters than her fellow Brits, whose leader sang more winningly on her record than on his own, Pazz & Jop's almost-famous point system boosted her almost-perfect record to second in a year when supporters of D'Angelo, Eminem, and Radiohead felt no obligation to deny their faves' flaws.

As for the perfection of our biggest winner since Pazz & Jop hit cyberspace, suffice it to say that OutKast's fourth album has people crying masterpiece, and that whatever my personal rankings I was glad Stankonia beat Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea. Having decided that The Marshall Mathers LP was so intense it had to be my No. 1 even though Harvey had generated the more through-inspired record, I was in no position to quibble that Stankonia doesn't maintain for 73 minutes. If the voters felt that OutKast's singles-topping "Ms. Jackson" and "B.O.B." blew such distinctions away, that feeling alone proved it. Hallelujah! Our first real rap winner since De La Soul in 1989 or--depending on how you define reality, always the key to hip-hop metaphysics--Arrested Development in 1992. And while the surest proof that the end is near may well be that our best golfer is black and our best rapper is white, African American artists have suffered polite liberal prejudice so regularly in our poll that it was nice to see OutKast benefit from it. Relative to the dreaded Mathers, the reformed Atlanta drug dealers--hey, that detail couldn't be some Slim Shady persona-twist, could it?--seem pretty safe.

But that's a jaded reading. Stankonia is also the deeper musical choice, its hooky funk far stickier than Eminem's brightly tripping high-versus-low pitch juxtapositions and its raps even more rapid and rhythmic, with bonus points from diehards hung up on music being played live. Its vision of a community as enmeshed in pleasure as in responsibility is a way out of the gangsta trap, too. But in 2000 Eminem was the more momentous artist, and not only because he was white, or "provocative." It's because he was brilliant, galvanizing an audience everyone knew was there with rhymes of exceptional if not unduplicated technical bravado that layered levels of meaning hip-hop had always hinted at but never so fully exploited--and also because, far from indulging the woman-hate that has long been a sorry cliché of our richest genre, he begins the ugly labor of unpacking it, in terms that never kowtow to the public moralists whose imprimatur would taint any such development for his faithful.

Please, I'm not claiming Eminem is a caped crusader battling for justice under cover of warning sticker. He's just a rock star, the old-fashioned kind who cares (even) more about fame than money and isn't a creature of the lifelong career calculation that distinguishes the current glut of Mickey Mouse Club alumni from the Bay City Rollers. But he's so intimate with the dissembling pseudoauthenticities gangsta rappers lay on friends and foes that he's taken them somewhere, and in this, as Frank Kogan's "Open the Trapdoor Eminem" makes as clear as is suitable, his stardom provides leverage. Many believe such multifaceted contradictions are over the heads of a young audience that's even more confused than he is--surely that's why pundits are in a lather over his Grammy nods while no one peeps about Steely Dan's 19th-place Two Against Nature, in which cheaters plot to drive a wronged wife insane and a lovable pedophile sets up a three-way with his "Janie Runaway." I don't think so--teenagers in love generally hear lyrics better than professionals holding their noses. And one reason I decided to publish Kogan's explication de gestalt was that a lot of my colleagues weren't getting it either.

Unannounced, 2000 turned out to be what some were proud to anoint "Year of the Rock Critic." Sadly, it wasn't in-house causes célèbres like Jim DeRogatis's Bangs bio or Richard Meltzer's Da Capo best-of that inspired the heavy breathing. It was sanction from popular culture's Holy See--Hollywood. First came High Fidelity, which deftly imported Nick Hornby's London-based record-geek novel to Chicago. And then the clincher, Almost Famous, an entertaining fantasy with a cute premise that presented both Lester Bangs and Cameron Crowe as paragons of a J-school integrity few were aware they had anything to do with. Fun flick, but the main thing it told me about rock criticism happened when it placed midway up the Voice's much smaller film critics' poll. As both filmmaking and culture myth, this critic preferred not just High Fidelity but Gladiator. Us guys may not be so classy, but as a group we're also not so damn avant-genteel. Which is why I was bummed by all the voters' Eminem-keyed boilerplate--from "homophobic" and good ol' "misogynistic" to "rhyme skills" and "urban stories," not all equally inaccurate but all useless rhetorically and analytically. After we win our Pulitzer, the new Voice ownership will publish the Eminem section separately and distribute it in schools. Also included will be the Napster-etc. "Danger-Sky Falling" and "Boogie Oogie Google," an unsolicited-and-then-some missive from inactive critic Julian Dibbell, whose name I struck from the rolls myself, but who was then invited to vote via--life can be so poetic sometimes--computer glitch.

Pazz & Jop's hugeness can be a pain in the ass; God intended better things for me than extracting indie labels from CDNow so surfers who've clicked over from The Drudge Report will know who to blame for the latest Nitin Sawhney joint. We did finally succeed in attracting more African Americans and hip-hop specialists (unidentical cohorts, as Condoleezza Rice and DJ Koala will soon explain to Charlie Rose), but beyond that I doubt the size of the thing impacts results much. What it does is provide proof against elitism, claiming aesthetic authority for informed consensus rather than rhetorical force. My theory has always been that listening to lots of music so you can write about some of it will teach anyone things they're better off knowing. Dullards dance with smartasses and cranks harangue geniuses as the buzzworthy corrects for the tried-and-true and the strictly personal stays that way.

Patterns assert themselves--Best New Diva, Great Country Hope. But they also shift. Those who consider alt-country yesterday's news because Jay Farrar took a powder, for instance, should note that 2000 gave us a young Great Country Hope (Shelby Lynne, whose fifth and best album is up for a "new artist" Grammy), an old GCH (Merle Haggard, whose 76th and best album snared a P&J debut), and a middle-aged GCH (Steve Earle, whose 11th and squishiest album coasted on cred), as well as the surprising reprise of trans-Atlantic transubstantiators Billy Bragg & Wilco, the suspect alt-countrypolitan resuscitation of the Jayhawks, and two standard-bearers from the Bloodshot flagship: Warners/Whiskeytown refugee Ryan Adams and Neko Case, 36th with her Boyfriends and 118th with her New Pornographers. Strap yourself to a tree with roots, they belong in any future-conscious overview of American pop. Over the decades, as more young critics cut their chops on college radio's different-is-better-but-new-will-do, the pop part has angered many militant avant-gardists, not all of whom would be voting if we applied the same exacting standards to criticism they think they apply to music. But polls generally measure consensus, and a thrilling consensus is what pop is.

So we examine the results and conclude that 2000 was a great year for hip-hop. Ignore the wailing wall of alt-rap ideologues and thirtysomething grouches sounding just like the doomsayers of that great year for alt-rock 1994--who, OK, had a point, but history doesn't always repeat itself, and this history began before alt-rock knew its name. After 20-plus years, the genre formerly known as rap is still exfoliating from both its pop-crossover and bohemian-purist trunks. Our record eight hip-hop finishers include Wu-Tang's Ghostface Killah commanding strong genre support and major-label alt-rappers Jurassic 5 jollying none, conscious pioneer Common forging onward, New York undergrounders Dead Prez and Talib Kweli & DJ Hi-Tek edging low, young loonybird Eminem and old quack Dre, and the most dominant P&J album since the mid '90s, when Hole, then Harvey, then Beck ran away with successive polls. Although it somehow failed to excite alt-country roots fanciers, Stankonia is very much of a place--East Point, the working-class-when-there's-work Atlanta 'hood where Dre 3000 and Big Boi live large without playa playing. Yet by backing up front-porch solidity with assault-weapon sass, its hugely successful run at the pop charts packs as much metaphysical ambition as any alt-rock master-statement. OutKast need to see more of the world before they can take it to George Clinton's stage. But note that no Clinton album ever breached our top 10. Not only do hits come more naturally to funk innovators these days, so does status.

Ah, hits--where "r&b" lives, supposedly, only on our chart rhythm things were always getting lost beneath the album--cut staples of college/alt radio. So we canned the reissues category, which had degenerated into a dick-size contest for well-promoted luxury boxes and tokens of retro hip, and expanded to 40 singles from 25. And in a technical adjustment to the Napster-etc. brouhaha--which moved the wags at Spin to name "your hard drive" album of the year--we defined a single (too broadly) as any individual song. So perhaps the way hip-hop and r&b overran our chart--11 rap records top 25, five more below, plus Aaliyah and Sisqó and Badu and Scott and R. Kelly and Lucy Pearl and Macy (not David) Gray and three Destiny's (not Desmond) Childs--reflects the dispersion of the album-rock vote into the mists of unlimited choice, while folks who love rhythm things remained social beings tryna get this party started. Or maybe, with deserving teenpop down to Britney and 'N Sync smashes (no Pink? no M2M?) and the 38th-place "Kryptonite" and "The Bad Touch" the only decent new radio-rock novelties (no Matchbox Twenty! no Bon Jovi!), the silly likes of "Country Grammar," "Shake Ya Ass," and "Thong Song" could be cheered on as the affirmations they always are. Maybe it was just a great year for hip-hop.

A similar logic would then pertain on the album chart, which for all its neotraditionalism has always honored the accessibly avant-garde--progressive populism, call it. This dream is mocked by avant-garde militants, who are so postpop they're barely aware that hip-hop might be an artform, although the city dwellers among them presumably recognize its existence as other people's noise. But for those who hold to the avant-pop hope/illusion, the argument would go, the scant guitar-band options have given way to an underground rap achieving critical mass and dozens of bigger names approaching maturity. Compared to the low-overhead Blackalicious or Del tha Funky Homosapien, the Jurassic 5 seem as blandly good-time to me as the Del Fuegos of early Amerindie, but I like what their finish signifies. Common finally made our chart with the most musical of his four honest albums. I'm only sorry that De La Soul (81st) and the late-released Wu-Tang Clan (45th) didn't get the respect their accrued accomplishments warrant.

It turns out, however, that the voters didn't find 2000 such a bad year for young guitar bands. After dipping to 18 in 1998 and 14 in 1999, Pazz & Jop debuts rebounded to 20 in 2000. These include the solo bows of Wu-Tang's Ghostface and Whiskeytown's Adams, the winterbloom of 63-year-old Hag, and the reunited Go-Betweens (whose '80s shutout proves that sometimes we miss even guitar bands), as well as the fresh hip-hoppers and Best New Diva Jill Scott. But Lynne and Neko Case lead us to a varied alt-rock contingent, from the aggressively conventional Travis and Coldplay and Marah and Queens of the Stone Age to the glacially keyby Sigur Rós to the dissimilarly punky Le Tigre and At the Drive-In to my favorite pairing, mopey Mancunian Badly Drawn Boy and calm Californians Grandaddy.

Few of the new newbies are alt-rock in the familiar Amerindie sense: the Springsteenish Marah and the metallic Queens forswear any collegiate vibe, Sigur Rós are from Iceland and hunger, and three others are just plain British. Even if Travis are dumb sub-Bluroroasis tunesmiths who seem alt over here because we've gotten so chauvinistic, together with Coldplay and Badly Drawn Boy they betoken an Anglophilia revival that picks up on the excitement that a few years ago surrounded electronica. Why not? Damon Gough isn't just another depressive with hooks--his album mutates like Tricky rather than marching like Bluroroasis. Six thousand miles away in the sun-baked Modesto flatlands, Jason Lytle of Grandaddy has also been nurturing a gift for song cycling. Thom Yorke, call your guru.

In case you were wondering, Yorke seems to be what happened to the excitement surrounding electronica. Was 2000 the year when Moby launched his world takeover from the top of our 1999 poll? Or was it the year when not a single danceable techno album placed among the voters' 100 favorites? The latter, I'd say. (Down to 50, for your tree-killing information: Björk, Bebel Gilberto, theasteriskedEgoTrip'sTheBigPlayback*whichgot30pointsfromallthede admag'splayasandstillfellshortfuckyouguys, James Carter's Chasin' the Gypsy, Wu, Emmylou, North Mississippi All Stars, Dandy Warhols, Modest Mouse's Moon and Antarctica, and John R. Cash). But it was also when the world's greatest rock band cough cough chose to concede techno its futuristic pretensions by emulating illbient texture and flow. Although Radiohead's subtle, synergistic exercise in pomo beauty is accounted terribly difficult by Kid A's anhedonic supporters, don't waste any paranoia on it. Not only was more recondite music available from sex symbol D'Angelo, the years to come promise terrible difficulties worth warning people about--and I don't mean the fallout from Primal Scream's dystopian XTRMNTR, which does a Radiohead-style solid for pomo ugly.

In the section entitled "The W," you will find many conflicting theories of what Washington's return to Reaganism will mean to progressive music. I tend toward agnosticism in re such broad social questions, which means that at the very least I think it's deluded to wax optimistic, just as it's deluded to swear the damn Democrats will come roaring back in 2002. But as usual I hope you grant this much to Pazz & Jop's version of the damn Democrats, oldsters tied to the tried-and-true: New doesn't equal progressive. Although encouraged by the three Best Old Divas--Scott's impressive ninth place didn't cancel long-awaited efforts by Sade or Erykah Badu or the latest from the fecund Madonna--I suspect that our electorate's openness to young guitar bands comes at the cost of insensitivity to old ones, and that fresh-obsessed hip-hoppers taking De La and Wu-Tang for granted are no better. U2 wrote some songs and got many props, Yo La's lounge venture lost some fans as it reassured others, and while my clique was convinced that the world's greatest rock and roll band hip hip hooray had finally slipped, the 10th-place finish of Sleater-Kinney's All Hands on the Bad One, after 1999's The Hot Rock came in 23rd, could mean we were wrong. But some of my deepest satisfactions in 2000 were provided by old artists up to old tricks with new twists: Lou Reed's Ecstasy (63rd), Sonic Youth's NYC Ghosts & Flowers (104th, Jesus), and RZA's supremely meditative Ghost Dog soundtrack (83rd). Maybe I'm just a damn New Yorker, but the voters' preference for young repeater Elliott Smith's soupiest album, not to mention old farts the Jayhawks' smiliest, gets me mad.

Top 10s do rein one in. Me, I'd have loved to tip my ballot to the life-sentenced Waco Brothers (two mentions), in-it-to-win-it Amy Rigby (six), 'buked-and-scorned Fatboy Slim (six), postexotic Youssou N'Dour (nine). But I suspect many voters would have kept listing putative next big things, often strictly personal ones. Of the record 1621 albums named by our 586 respondents, 1021 appeared on precisely one ballot. Figure a mean length of an hour and it would take a person 40 work weeks to consume each of these leisure products once. Or put it another way--1621 is almost half the total estimated annual album production of the mid '80s. This is, as I hope everyone at least glimpses, the flip side of both the Napster brouhaha and the Mickey Mouse Club blitzkrieg, each of which is equally as responsive (or not) to the incomprehensibilities of defining and servicing an audience.

Ponder the 2000 label breakdown. A full half of our major-label albums came from the megacorp I call UniMoth--11 in all, four of the top seven, on Interscope, Island, MCA, Motown, Giant, DreamWorks. But breaking last year's record of 14, 18 of our finishers were on independent labels, be these well-capitalized ventures by renegade bizzers from the philanthropic Danny Goldberg to the profiteering Richard Branson or tiny outfits like Le Tigre's feminist Mr. Lady or renegade bizzer Aimee Mann's DIY SuperEgo. This is hardly a utopia--those don't exist, not under anybody's capitalism. But it's myopic to see only doom in the spectacle of a music industry that can conceive no market vast and malleable enough to manipulate on a scale acceptable to its number-crunchers except kids who don't yet know their own power--kids who may remain passive forever, probably won't, and are certain to change in other ways regardless. And it's also myopic to think the music industry stops with the five-going-on-four megacorps up top. Will Napster-etc. put an end to the album--and, boo hoo, Pazz & Jop--as we know it? I tend toward agnosticism in re such broad social questions, which isn't to say I don't wonder--and worry--sometimes. Then again, I'm also on record as mourning the death of the monoculture. Those who don't, which means all too many technodeterminists, should rejoice instead that for the foreseeable future some Internet facility or other will enable anyone with a modicum of motivation to get his or her recorded music to simpatico individuals--maybe retail, maybe fucking free.

Is this progress? Of a sort, at a loss. But in a historical moment when no music is capable of providing the relief all anti-Reaganites crave, maybe the path of wisdom is to leave the pronouncements on who and what does and doesn't truly herald progress to the Nayda-hatas and their opposite moralizers among the damn Greens. I just figure that in a marginalized left, the symbolic one Pazz & Jop monitors no less than the real-world one where it is oh so marginally situated, all who desire justice for the disadvantaged are my allies--however pathological their personalities, impotent their tactics, or delusory their respect for the actually existing disadvantaged.

As rock becomes ever more self-conscious, what I prefer these days to call popular music encompasses an ever more incalculable profusion of aesthetic . . . "levels"? "approaches"? "multivalences"? "tones"? But what's interesting about the ones rock stars go for is that they move masses rather than nurturing subcultures. For 30 years now, ever since I uttered the words "semipopular music," I've wanted both while too often settling for the easy one. Subcultures are for company, solace, protection, inspiration. Only if they're exceptionally strong and lucky do they have a chance of germinating change. Symbolically yet again, rock stars with a pipeline to the actually existing disadvantaged hold out the possibility of something more. The unlamented Eazy-E was proud to donate money to the damn Republicans, and I wouldn't put the same stratagem past his opposite immoralizer, Eminem's man Dr. Dre. But on the other hand, Eminem has cameoed on more rap records in the past year than anybody this side of that ho Snoop. So here's my modest proposal: that the good Dre, the dirty Southerner in the faggoty pants, give Marshall Mathers a call.

Village Voice, Feb. 20, 2001


1999 Critics Poll | Dean's List 2001