Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Party in Hard Times

Time to Take Your Clothes Off and Contemplate Your Impotence

The worst one-two finish in the history of the Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll couldn't have come in a worse year, and it's my sworn duty to tell you why. The year was so bad it quashed a worthier worst one-two finish and continued on to a worst one-two-three, so bad that a worse finish yet could come in a worse year yet--namely, the 2003 this worst year sets up. But hey--rock and roll, big deal. If next Presidents' Day Annan has snookered Wolfowitz and Sharon is on a leash and the worst son of a bad man has failed to slip another quantum of GNP to the one percenters, I won't care if Pazz & Jop does go to early favorite Daniel Lanois. Meanwhile, history sucks, and headed by two of the dullest works of well-turned semipopularity ever to contemplate their own impotence, our 29th or 30th poll sucks right along with it.

One way or another, artists can't help responding to current events. The question isn't whether, it's how--with denial always an option. From Tweedy and Beck to Cee-Lo and Karen O, from Charles Aaron to Shannon Zimmerman, almost all our finishers and the vast majority of our respondents are dismayed if not outraged by September 11's fallout: the imminent attack on Iraq, invasions of privacy bleeding into curbs on expression, the arrant escalation of the class war initiated by Reagan. But that doesn't mean they know what to do about it, and this old artistic dilemma is further snarled in reactions to September 11 proper that go deeper than outrage and dismay: mourning, disorientation, uncertainty, fear. While the oligarchs in Washington jumped to arrogate more power to their cohort, the rest of us grieved, seethed, tossed and turned, worried about right and wrong, and tried to reclaim our lives. Recall if you will how brave and weird it felt to go to a club or celebrate a birthday in the early autumn of 2001. Then realize that a lot of the apparently apolitical music honored by our critics this year was created under comparable emotional circumstances.

And then add the complication that a lot of it couldn't have been, because it predates that pivotal day. Eight of our top 40 got votes in last year's poll: Hives, Drive-By Truckers, Super Furry Animals, Andrew W.K., Soundtrack of Our Lives, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, an earlier version of the N.E.R.D. album, and our winner (do the words "back story" mean anything to you?); so did several of the information thefts expropriated for the illegal-times-two Best Bootlegs in the World Ever. Linda Thompson's return is a life project, and many early-2002 releases--Streets, Elvis Costello, Norah Jones, Doves, Clinic, Cee-Lo--were begun if not finished before the world changed. Even Steve Earle's Jerusalem, with its focus track claiming John Walker Lindh is a human being, was mostly written by August 2001. And except for Jerusalem, which insisted, and our winner, so redolent it wrapped any meaning its admirers hung on it in a haze of regret, none of these albums was burdened with ex post facto relevance. All registered as getting-on-with-our-lives records, background music for a party in hard times.

These before-and-after distinctions will seem overly fine to two camps that concur on little else: the hedonists who scoff at any politicization of pop discourse and the moralists for whom pop discourse is never political enough. Both find that music post-9/11 was as down with its own program as ever. Even our critically sanctioned kind is escapist on the singles chart, where the artistic action is bright of plumage and light of foot to compensate, and self-involved on the album chart, where blue brontosauri, hoary anodynes, great-headed shows of significance, and other protected species still rumble across the plain: Solomon Burke's latest comeback, which has him trading backslaps with once-famed songwriters in a push-me-pull-you bacchanal the Grammys understand too well, or Sigur R--s's deliberately incomprehensible attempt to bring Debussyan tone color to their gray-green land. But other bands demonstrated that formalism needn't be ponderous to be self-referential. Austin's Spoon jacked up their groove and pared down their sound on an album that accentuates keyboard yet announces its intentions with the opening words "small stakes"; Dakar's Orchestra Baobab ended the long retirement that followed their climactic final LP with a masterful encore CD whose four best tracks improve songs from their first life. These were spirited and resilient records that had zero to do with the world situation they helped the world survive. Career albums topping career albums, they were music for music's sake, down with their own programs.

Which brings us--God have I been dreading this--to our underwhelming winner-by-a-mile and surprise runner-up. Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Beck's Sea Change didn't amass near the support of Dylan and the Strokes in 2001 or OutKast-Harvey-Radiohead-Eminem in 2000; with voting up 12 percent to 695, they pulled markedly fewer points. But they're Pazz & Jop albums of the year regardless, and I wish they were easier to tell apart. Remember folk-rock? Well, this is folk-rock--evolved folk-rock, postmodern if you must, but folk-rock nonetheless. The giveaways are (a) pedigree and (b) drumming. Beck has long served as celebrity spokes-person for an antifolk movement long turned pro, and while alt-country turned out to be where songwriting adepts Ryan Adams and Rhett Miller shored up their popcraft against the roil of grunge, Wilco chose a different kind of genius move--channeling Woody Guthrie for Billy Bragg. Beck is also the white-funk trickster of Midnite Vultures, and although I'm truly sorry about his girlfriend, his groove there was knock-kneed enough to kick off a mutation into string-swathed crooner of sad songs all by itself. Wilco's drummer is Ken Coomer--you could look it up, and I bet you'll still have to. His most prestigious side credit is an inert track on Jerusalem, which rocks high-octane when Will Rigby is driving.

How I tell them apart is that Wilco is the one I tried to hate and ended up respecting and Beck is the one I tried to like and ended up walking around the room until it could get home on its own. As I relistened, it happened again: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was so passive-aggressive I wanted to throttle it, Sea Change so pretty I wanted to tell it I was sorry, only then Beck's songs vaporized as Wilco's took on a weathered solidity. Clearly, though, the two share a genetic code: diffident vocals, winsome tunes, contained tempos, affectless rhythms, and, above all, texture as aesthetic signifier. Nothing wrong with texture, which as timbre, melisma, "microtones," etc. is a prized delicacy in almost every kind of music; in rock and roll, it's been sticking out its tongue at "classical" canons of tonal purity since 1955. But note that its present vogue privileges what once would have been called sound effects, and that these proceed from the sampler and hence hip hop, though in England they say techno. Most would rate Radiohead's OK Computer the apogee of pomo texture, well ahead of Beck's Odelay, but before those two I fell for Latin Playboys. Where OK Computer's sound effects are also alienation effects, all dystopian gloom, fractured groove, and hate-love relationship with technology, on Latin Playboys, David Hidalgo and Louie Perez conjure places and people past and present from Tchad Blake's audio treasure chest, blending them in with a hip, swinging, hip-swinging sense of time. My view of our dystopian prospect is that if I change my mind now about who was right, bin Bush has won.

As a token of their transcendent genius, Wilco split the difference. Our winner is temperate rather than warm or cold, reticent rather than sociable or disaffected, and barely sampled at all--more "treated," or just plain arranged. The way Jeff Tweedy's tunes seep through shifting strata of complication recalls Beck's in Odelay, but Odelay was a lot jollier than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and also than Sea Change, which signals a retreat by abandoning the sampler for sour strings, gobs of reverb, and passably parsable lyrics. Both records make a virtue of their entanglement in disconnected sound, their depressive inability to control an encroaching environment--a defeatism familiar enough from slacker days, only slackers were hyperactive, funny, or at least ironic about it. Wilco's and Beck's integrity comes down to a stubborn determination--distinctly American in its folksy affect and go-it-alone-ism--to tell the world how very ineffective they feel.

There's honor in this. But right below Beck, a better way glints through yet another pokey piece of soundscape Americana, the Flaming Lips' Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, where the psychedelic nutballs joke, cope, hope, and okey-doke with a lot more life than on 1999's The Soft Bulletin. I might have A-listed it if the pink robot was Dick Cheney instead of a stock sci-fi villain. But not even the guy I had penciled in above Beck found a way to get that specific. Had The Rising been half what it intended instead of a quarter, I could have nattered on about the matched insufficiencies of broken field run and power play, aestheticism and moralism, shards of sound and great gallumphing truckloads of good old rock and roll. But it wasn't. It was a failure, magnificent or pathetic or tragic or self-important or merely insufficient. Consider Bruce Springsteen's politics, as left-decent as any in the music. Then ask yourself how left-decent a reaction he got. And then try to imagine what better album might have radicalized his return. Should he have adopted the Mekons' "Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem"? Earle's "Jerusalem"? Would it have made a damn bit of difference if he had?

What, us effective? Of the finishers who responded directly to September 11, and there were several, only Earle seemed at all programmatic, a folkie without apology now. Elsewhere, politics were personal. If Sleater-Kinney and the Mekons were jolted upward pollwise, that's because they'd been jolted themselves; if Missy Elliott name-checked the World Trade on her way to Aaliyah's funeral and Eminem warned his army to stay out of Rumsfeld's, they were doing what came naturally. Sonic Youth recorded at Ground Zero without getting literal about it, chalked up survivor credit, and were propelled back onto our chart by the musical machinations of fifth member Jim O'Rourke (also all over Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and since I prefer the late-'90s Kim-and-Thurston Pazz & Jop snubbed, assume I don't get him). Three "conscious" rap albums--by gabby Blackalicious, esoteric Common, and the perennial Roots--could have been recorded in 1997 for all the social science they dropped: career name-namers Zack De La Rocha and Gil Scott-Heron, for instance, contribute only righteous generalizations to Blazing Arrow, which burrows its aspersions on patriotism so deep John Poindexter will never notice. The opposition was out there. Be-Afroed Mr. Lif rhymed against the bombing of Afghanistan and finished a respectable 89th; conscious godfathers Public Enemy rhymed against Bush and won the support of a single cross-dressing punk rocker. But the voters preferred Common at his uncommon worst, dripping keyb-enhanced rectitude.

It's conceivable they had no way to know better. Strangely or not, all of our "alternative" hip hop albums are copyrighted information products of UniMoth MegaCorp, while Koch signee Public Enemy is now an indie act no less than Mr. Lif and his Def Jux labelmate, 41st-by-a-tiebreaker RJD2. (41-50, available online like the rest of our results: soundscaping RJD2, O Dixie Chicks Where Art Thou, third-with-its-2001-points White Stripes, AYWKUBTTODLAMF, Friends of Karen O, Tom Waits's unbloodied Alice, she-has-my-2001-points Pink, Avril fans Boards of Canada, Boards of Canada fans Black Dice, state-of-the-union address Red Hot + Riot). Although the majors continued to bleed quality to small businesspeople less burdened by debt service, support for indie albums among our expanded electorate slipped slightly. Granted, exact counts are impossible, especially with every distribution and capitalization deal hiding its own wrinkle and the sign-'em-up farm-team model making a comeback (see Hives, Drive-By Truckers, Andrew W.K., Blackalicious, Houston ghetto boy cum former Rap-A-Lot recording artist Scarface, and soon Yeah Yeah Yeahs). But really, how was MCA's Blazing Arrow a drastic improvement over Quannum Products' NIA --music or promotion? Duh.

Also major-friendly is one of two significant European movements--not mashups, as indie as it gets even when 2 Many DJ's gets permissions, but what I'll designate Eurosemipop because Europop already means anything from ye-ye to Abba to *NSync to Coldplay itself. It would be willful to deny the tunes and sonics of Coldplay, Super Furry Animals, Doves, and Soundtrack of Our Lives, and they're of their own culture. Stateside semipop like Spoon and (O Neko Where Art Thou) New Pornographers is altogether quirkier and more intense; the few American bands who aspire to a comparable sound--prominent melody textured with worked harmonies, whitebread emoting, and arrangements that mix trad and pomo--end up beefcake or cotton candy. Which is why only a cowboy like me could call Coldplay or Doves semi-anything--although they're less laddish about it, in the land of Blurandoasis they were conceived to go for the gold. Gothenburg's Soundtrack and Cardiff's Furries are somewhat more boho. But all four distinguish themselves from, let us say, Clinic and the Hives by simple virtue of being dead on their feet--even Soundtrack, Stones fans though they may be. They hire drummers who could beat Ken Coomer within an inch of his life and then put that power in the service of the Antifunk. They aim for stasis even when they rock. Stasis is beauty. And beauty is . . . well, everything, innit?

Lyrically, let's say that the Swedes and Welshmen favor alt-style allusion where the English bands cultivate well-meaning commonplaces. I feel Coldplay's and not Doves', but both clearly whispered radio-video to whoever was running Capitol at the time. Funk, Antifunk, what's the diff. Just keep it vague, er, accessible--universal. When that's the name of the major-label game--which it needn't be, just ask such holdouts as Flaming Youth, Sonic Lips, E. Costello & His Amazing Gall Bladder, younger please, er, Queens of the Impending Stone Age, Scandinavia's Greatest Rock and Roll Band, Shadow Knows, Norah Jones is too all-ages--stasis is neither here nor there. If there's a market for beats, business schools, it's your job to provide beats.

For those who favor corporate support of the arts, this has long been a piece of luck. And in 2002 the voters finally offered clear statistical indication that great-headed shows of significance weren't the only evolutionary success in a music that remains blues-based historically whatever its chords. For the first time since "Sun City" edged Little Creatures in 1985--after "The Message" and "Sexual Healing" whipped Imperial Boredom in 1982--more respondents listed our No. 1 single than our No. 1 album. With a third of the electorate still standing moot on singles, this makes Missy Elliott's "Work It" pretty universal--hoisted aloft by 46 percent of the voters in her category where Wilco limped along at 29. For some voters, radio is a vast wasteland, the record business in its death throes. But for many others, pop innovation is at a historic peak, with artist-of-the-year beatmasters Timbaland and the Neptunes come to slash and burn the extinction-bound ponderosas on the album chart.

This old argument has never had more weight. Tim and the Neps have placed 12 records by 11 different artists on our singles charts over the past two years, with the Tim-and-Missy combo twice No. 1 in a landslide and "Work It" 's Neptunes-Nelly preamble "Hot in Herre" third by a single vote in 2002--behind "Lose Yourself," Eminem's rock song about the rap agon. For purposes of argument I wish two-three had reversed--Eminem got respect by becoming less interesting and less hip hop in 2002, and "Lose Yourself" isn't even the best 8 Mile has to offer (especially 8 Mile the movie). Inconveniently, however, I never connected with "Hot in Herre"; for me the Neps' great triumph was the sly funk they fashioned in tandem with Tim and 127th-place Justin Timberlake. If they're the future, as Sasha Frere-Jones isn't alone in believing, maybe I'm just showing my age. But hear me out.

The producer as auteur is an idea whose time has come and then some; having gotten to where what are called beats sometimes reject, sometimes exploit, and sometimes just are what are called hooks, we need figureheads with more rebop than Jeff Tweedy. But it's one thing to insist that musicality in a rhythm music doesn't equal songcraft plus sound effects, another to explain how any kind of pure musicianship, rhythmic included, signifies in pop, which achieves meaning by any means necessary. I should have voted for the backward-unmasked "Work It," which grabbed me right after our deadline--it's a surreally inventive novelty, so eventful it would take thousands of words to describe (love that jackass, or is it an elephant?). But even more than "Hot in Herre," a novelty is what it is, a novelty about the liberating power of sex--especially if you think liberation involves oblivion, an ancient idea in people's music.

This is a myth whose efficacy is well-known at Pazz & Jop's anti-pop extreme, in the only alt movement of moment: the Brooklyn bohos who successfully declared themselves a scene in the wake of 9/11, embracing the soft-core porn deceptively trademarked electroclash before shape-shifting toward an alienated DOR ("dance-oriented rock," we called such earlier overrated bands as the Bush Tetras, ESG, and Liquid Liquid) best understood by the DFA label. Result: three charting singles, the dominatrix tongue-in-chic of the squeaked-on Yeah Yeah Yeahs EP, and the well-chilled eroticism of half-Brit Interpol's top-20 album. Right, the sexualization of pop has been accelerating for many years--since MTV, maybe disco. And as usual--here come da "Sexual Healing," now tell me where da "Message"--black musicians do it better. Still, this is a party in hard times however you slice it. Everybody's got a bomb, we could all die any day. But before we let that happen we'll fuck our lives away.

A believer in sex myself, I voted for Tweet-and-Tim's "Oops (Oh My)," where Tweet strokes herself in the mirror after a hot date, a consummation much preferable to Interpol's "You're so cute when you're frustrated dear/You're so cute when you're sedated dear." But I'm not convinced anyone should feel obliged to get naked at the drop of a hint, and wish Missy was autonomous enough to differentiate between sex-positive and boy-crazy; when she offers to "put my thing down flip it and reverse it," well, I like the way the image matches the music, but as a procedural guideline it seems a bit on the fancy side. I love the track, and in general prefer Tim's gnarled beats (every one a swamp, with old sneakers, interesting deadwood, and empty Henny bottles set out like folk sculpture) to the Neptunes' sleek, efficient ones (more like airports: strong franchise coffee, moving sidewalks, fluorescent lighting everywhere). But for me the most gratifying surprise of this poll was the Neptunes d/b/a N.E.R.D.'s In Search of . . . , which I now love for the same reasons I panned it in July: Obscenely wealthy, obscenely catchy thugs-by-association rationalize their ethics and throw their dicks around, only they're consumed by doubt and hence honest enough to make themselves look like jerks. As conflicted as Biggie or Ghostface and more self-examined, they'll be ready for the orgiasts whenever it cools down in therre--which is not to claim the orgiasts will be ready for them.

There I go, trumping a single with an album like I always do. Sorry, that's how I hear, and how I want you to hear. I'll never dis beatmastery, been pumping it forever, but even in hip hop I see bigger future in the Roots and Cee-Lo, both of whom chose this year to humanize their formal commitment with injections of singing and guitar. Up against my fellow citizens over in Williamsburg I'll take the Drive-By Truckers' underclass regionalism--or the alt logorrhea of Omaha's/Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst and Brixton's/the Streets' Mike Skinner, one texturing with an 11-piece band featuring bassoon and cello, the other with low-end electronic junk. And when I want to escape--which I often do, music is great for it--I have plenty of living options. Heading my fuck-what-you-say Dean's List, the longest ever, are the worldly, faithful, Muslim/Catholic, catholic/pagan Afrosalsa of Orchestra Baobab; the self-sufficient, ears-everywhere, middle-class microcosm of DJ Shadow; and the mad, bitter, guarded, indomitable truth-telling of the Mekons. I'm proud they all finished, never mind where. Jon Langford, who's managed to put out four albums since last March including one against the death penalty, is my artist of the year, and I intend to follow his example. The world won't end, you know. It will just get worse.

Village Voice, Feb. 18, 2003


2001 Critics Poll | Dean's List 2003