Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Freedom for Every-Which-Where!

Hey hey hey, a serious uptick in the Republic of Crunk Guitar

Whine about Lil Jon and Ashlee Simpson if you want. There was still plenty of good news in popular music this year, and it's all over the 31st or 32nd Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll, our largest ever hey hey hey. Any album list headed by The College Dropout, in which young Kanye West proved as deft and surprising a recalibrator of African American crossover as young Barack Obama, and SMiLE, in which acid casualty Brian Wilson excavated the same pivotal decade that tripped up veteran John Kerry, has its past-and-future straight. Any Top 10 that boasts three alt-minded rock bands who've convinced the RIAA to blingify their CDs is fighting the good fight. And if the Top 10 also reveals would-be optimists overrating good intentions and pretending small victories are big ones, well, that was 2004 for you. The Democrats gained control of the Colorado legislature November 2. Hey hey hey.

So right, it's good that dapper Franz Ferdinand invaded and weird young Modest Mouse flowered into goofy older Mickey Mouse--good too, kind of, that each revived the venture-capital model in which major labels wager seed money on bands who are in it for the music, kind of. Congrats to the not-for-profit Grey Album, Danger Mouse's illegal mash-up of Jay-Z (corporate honcho throws self on open market) and the Beatles (corporate keepers brandish attorneys). Thank Jack White for refurbishing Loretta Lynn and U2 for refurbishing war-is-over-if-you-want-it. The Streets' Mike Skinner warmed up for his Booker Prize, and with input from some Texan carpetbaggers, our nonfascist neighbor to the north generated an alt-rock sleeper cell worthy of its overwrought raves. And who can fault Green Day, whose "punk opera" not only revived their sales but got nominated for an album Grammy while calling Americans the idiots they are?

All but one of these are admirable records. But I wish I could swear they belong in the same paragraph with The College Dropout and SMiLE. Maybe the Arcade Fire's Funeral, whose unabashed loveliness and complex tone could portend something wider ranging, or just grander. But the U2 is the genial front job any reality-based assessment would predict, the Franz Ferdinand and Modest Mouse are lightweight on purpose without achieving buoyancy, and I'm not the first listener to reluctantly conclude that A Grand Don't Come for Free, Van Lear Rose, and The Grey Album read better than they sound. And then there's American Idiot. In a year when pop musicians politicized with unprecedented unanimity-- Nashville alone pro-Bush, many actively opposing the reactionaries and/or getting out the vote, and only a few rappers sidestepping Kerry on lefter-than-thou grounds--American Idiot was the sole Top 10 album to take a protesty tack, and got much love for it. But to my ears it founders on sodden songcraft--never mind Dookie, try the tunes on 2000's neglected (and no less conscious) Warning--and half-congealed themes. Beyond some light name-calling (sharpest on the Japan-only B side "Governator"), the signature "Don't want to be an American idiot" was as far as its politics went, because American Idiot is in substance an anti-political record. Ultimately, it's about punk's inability to change anything, even Billie Joe. That dull buildup you hear is the familiar sound of confusion taking itself seriously.

I impute this message of helplessness to the work of art, not its creator, who did also put a song on a Rock Against Bush comp. But where I'd rather get my art is Rock Against Bush itself--or NOFX's 2003 The War on Errorism, not exactly Linton Kwesi Johnson but smarter than Green Day, even on "Idiots Are Taking Over." Such smarts prove highly intermittent on our 2004 lists. They show up in Rilo Kiley's CEO-targeting "It's a Hit" and Tom Waits's war-torn "Hoist That Rag" and Morrissey's waspish "America Is Not the World," in Nellie McKay's wisecracks and the Drive-By Truckers' worldview, in rumblings from U2 and TV on the Radio, in the hardcore rabble-rousing of Eminem's "Mosh" and the vernacular conspiracy mongering of Jadakiss's "Why?" And that's about it. Odd, no? This was certainly the first presidential election in Pazz & Jop history to dominate artists' and voters' mindsets. Yet the election's issues and personalities remained all but unaddressed by the music the poll honored. My guess is that this disconnect succumbs to the hoary fallacy--belied on my own list by Todd Snider, Jon Langford, Andre Tanker, Public Enemy and Moby--that "art" precludes "propaganda." But for purposes of argument let me posit instead that it was deep-structural. All these passionate anti-Bushies kept on musicking as usual because they sensed that nothing less than the freedom to make and hear the precious stuff was at stake.

In other words, we weren't being "liberals," striving to protect the unfortunate here and overseas. We were acting out of raw self-interest. Not just because plausible scenarios involving terrorist attack (remember terrorist attack?) could quickly transform our democracy into a bold-faced showpiece of postmodern fascism. Not just because some trade or currency wrinkle too boring to go into could impoverish us all. But because constitutional democracy, as conceived by those who now control its mechanisms, is being retooled to render your lifestyle and mine fiscally insupportable. Never mind Social Security, where "reform" would kick in slowly, sandbagging the young people now being told that boomers want to steal their payroll taxes. There's a faster way to destroy the safety net, soaking states where rudiments of government for the people survive--namely, to abolish the federal tax deduction for state and local taxes in the name of balancing a budget squandered on the rich and Iraq, thus forcing blue states to slash human services and reducing their residents' discretionary income. It's enough to tempt your Democratic representative to add a buck in VAT to the price of every CD.

Math being for poobahs and Harvard M.B.A.'s, I apologize for burdening you with these apparently nonmusical abstractions. But Bush's determination to compel all of us to compete Darwinistically for our semblance of comfort--to convert every American into a mini-capitalist or a serf--has musical consequences. The relevant goals, in this context, are the privatization of progress and the curtailment of leisure by forced attrition. By withdrawing from the human services sector, the government will dare do-gooders to put their money where their rhetoric is. And of course, every increase in work hours and reduction in discretionary income starves the music and film industries--which at their crassest remain stubbornly liberal--and shrinks the arts' material base in academia, bohemia, and the helping professions. Collateral damage is a specialty of these robbers with fountain pens.

In such dire circumstances, going on about rock criticism and its discontents feels frivolous. Slogging through comments that included extensive selections from blogs I never read, I was often annoyed by the insularity of it all. Franz Ferdinand and Loretta Lynn, Usher and Devendra Banhart, Morrissey and Elliott Smith, "Redneck Woman" and The Grey Album, Hotlanta's "Yeah!" and Metropolis's "Yeah"--all big and rather different stories. Us content providers--many of the younger ones serfs unless backed up by school loans or parents or spouses or actual jobs (almost certainly underpaid if they're editorial)--are expected to exploit the discretionary income of the better-compensated young by playing these stories for all they're worth, meaning more than they're worth, in the desperate hope that advertisers etc. And they served this function all too well. In every case I've just cited, the big stories came with overrated music.

Not bad, usually. But overrated--palpably limited in ambition, achievement, or both. With due respect to the pro-gay posture I pray they stick with--which isn't required of the fabulous Scissor Sisters, who proved everything they had to in 15 minutes--Franz Ferdinand are a cautious little band compared even to their conceptual forebears the Strokes. Lynn stopped recording her own songs because "One's on the Way" and "When the Tingle Becomes a Chill" were truer than "Portland Oregon" or, God help us, "God Makes No Mistakes." The once precocious Usher is a cute sex object matured into the usual conniving pussy magnet; the permanently precocious Banhart is a female-identified weirdo-on-principle whose spontaneity is already a cultivated pose. Morrissey came back--from where, exactly? to what, exactly? Elliott Smith released a posthumous album very much like his prehumous albums, which not even the junkies manqué who love him claim had much life to them. Gretchen Wilson's high-trash Tanya Tucker tribute is as painstakingly constructed as Danger Mouse's time-seizing '60s update, and neither is as convincing as it swears it is. "Hell yeah!" Gretchen's sisters chorus on cue. "Yeah!" screams a 20-on-a-scale-of-10 shorty going all up on Usher, aware without thinking on it that if she don't Luda will ejaculate her from his Jag. LCD Soundsystem's lead cyborg sums up the collective dilemma after his girlies intone their own "Yeah"s: "Everybody keeps on talking about it/Nobody's getting it done." I just wish he'd added, "Including me."

Given the general craving for affirmation, it's no wonder our 793 voters ratified artists who embraced their freedom to make music. Frequent finishers Wilco and Björk, Tom Waits and PJ Harvey withdrew deeper into private aesthetics--the first pair esoteric and obscurantist, the second spare and formalist. I found all four lacking but preferred the formalists; the electorate cheered them all on, favoring the obscurantists. Sonic Youth took both routes at once as usual, drawing out and smudging up their catchiest album since Dirty; Nick Cave wrote a few songs worthy of the real Leonard Cohen (not the imposter who came in 243rd) and stretched them into a double CD. Newcomers also received concept points that divided up mod and trad, with getting it done left for a better day. Live, Akron's Black Keys extract massive blues from a guitar and a trap set, but composing in that style is a rare knack, so Rubber Factory scored on accrued rep and improved distribution. And though Brooklyn's unkempt TV on the Radio may someday amount to more than 12th place in a critics' poll, I wish their boosters would admit that they get race points too. Regularly credited with a funk and soul imperceptible to the unseeing ear, they're the first African American rock band of critical consequence since Living Colour put the Black Rock Coalition into practice 15 years ago, and while Vernon Reid's Yohimbe Brothers (zero mentions) flow better, flow doesn't "rock."

Cultivating the most private aesthetic of all was the year's major underground trend. So disdainful of the literal that it's effectively apolitical even when it wishes otherwise, the artier-than-thou traditionalism of psych-folk is a hippie revival rooted in acoustic eccentrics I'd hoped were behind me three decades ago, from the Incredible String Band and Tim Buckley down to Essra Mohawk and I see where one site is hawking Kay Huntington, whose atrocious album may still be in my storage space (yours for $200 to the privatized progressives of my choice, folkies--how about the American Negro College Fund?). Psych-folk enrages some of my younger colleagues, but I'm too old to feel threatened--Devendra Banhart's talent is quirkier and less pretentious than Buckley's (not just Tim's, Jeff's), and the poetic acrobatics and pure brainpower of the equally arch Joanna Newsom just go to show that in these fragmented times any scene can generate a visionary.

These paired hereditary bohemians represent psych-folk uncut, but other finishers are close allies, as are 52nd-place Christian Sufjan Stevens, so much prettier and deeper than 48th-place ex-Christian Sam Bean. (41-50: electronica standard-bearers Junior Boys, electronica salesmen Air, tape-eating Walkmen, Alicia "Legs" Keys, tweaker-folk Mountain Goats, party girl Gretchen Wilson, new wave popsters Futureheads, d/b/a Iron & Wine, new wave art-rockers Secret Machines, prescription-only Ted Leo.) Though the Fiery Furnaces identify rock, their roots riffs, opaque verbiage, and whimsical air cross-market them as effectively as if they'd planned it. The vaguely tribal Animal Collective muster more charm if less skill than the Incredible String Band. And Nellie McKay has nothing to do with the trend at all--except that she's a trad-avant acoustic singer-songwriter who's vegetarian too. It's enough to convince you that fame-averse obscurantism is psych-folk's essential ingredient.

Or maybe to indicate that, a few separatists notwithstanding, this wasn't much of a year for disengagement. McKay's hunger for a public presence counts as defiance in a state bent on repression. Of course alt-rock made a showing. A.C. Newman's solo record outran Neko Case's solo record; the Libertines took their falling-apart-in-front-of-your-eyes act so far that Pete Doherty withdrew from view, a confusing effect. The Arcade Fire are neither hype nor fluke, and though they could choose art-rock vainglory, they could also prove world leaders. But only Craig Finn's Hold Steady went alt all the way--Almost Killed Me could pass for a concept album about the circuit, and although Finn's storytelling has lost a few twists since Lifter Puller, I wish his Pushcart Prize bid well unless John Darnielle enters the Mountain Goats. But he sure didn't write better than the Drive-By Truckers, who put out a slightly subpar album in half the time it would have taken most bands to write half the material and toured like they were the Allman Brothers, or than Rilo Kiley, who secured major-label distribution for an album keyed to catchier songs than "Take You Out" if not "Somebody Told Me." And then there were the Blairniks of Interpol, who began their album with a hopeful "We ain't going to the town/We're going to the city," only to demonstrate why exurbanites flee the city and vote Republican to keep it away from their doors. "See the living that surrounds me/Dissipate in a violent race," their charting "Slow Hands" goes. Exactly what the exurbs are afraid of. City people dance to that? Sick, just sick.

Nevertheless, all over a theoretical pop/semipop realm I'll dub the Republic of Crunk Guitar, city people were dancing. Crunk guitar is theoretical not least because the guitars that color the sexist party hip-hop signified by the soon-passé "crunk" are dirty and metallic while the guitars (and synthesizers) that propelled young rockers onto the floor in surprising numbers are clean and electronic. The conflation merely insists that, no matter how loudly and justifiably their adherents and adversaries bitch and moan, for quite a while the putatively opposed worlds of hip-hop and alt/indie-rock have both been good to us. They're often escapist and that makes me bitch and moan. But I never forget, or regret, that human beings have always treasured music for the escape it affords.

In 2004, hip-hop, consistently underrepresented in our poll and by now declared dead as regularly as rock, nevertheless produced a second straight No. 1 album. Though the voters came out stronger for OutKast, I'll take Kanye's guaranteed pop-soul hooks, modest flow, saving cameos, group-focused vision, and dynamite sense of humor; hip to modern serfdom and too decent to peddle thug domination fantasies, he renders nerdiness at once cute and racially credible while mocking the lie that it will get the oppressed what they deserve. A sharp dip in r&b party anthems on our singles chart suggests that as hip-hop's commercial dominance gets old, its crassness looks worse. But we still signed off on a healthy complement of major and indie hip-hop albums. I rate Nas (59th) and the slept-on Mos Def (77th) over the belatedly beloved Ghostface, and in addition to the three worthy albums released by this year's indie-rap fave, MF Doom (whose Madlib collab Madvillainy was No. 11), recommend the Bay Area's arch-in-his-disgusting-way Z Man and Vancouver's sincere-in-his-businesslike-way McEnroe. In London, Mike Skinner's lit rode vocal dramatics that recalled without resembling the declamations of Ghostface and Chuck D, and Dizzee Rascal's up-and-at-'em made music of the scrawny techno-dancehall derivative that is grime. I also enjoyed ex-Detroiter Eminem, who was edged out by the competing white beatmasters of NYC's DFA.

Besotted with Franz Ferdinand's No. 1 single, some might argue that r&b party music was undercut by DOR--dance-oriented rock, kids, so abbreviated well before Duran Duran glitzed their way into your impressionable sensoriums. But the singles chart reveals dance music from every-which-where, with DOR just one component: the Killers' brazenly mechanical "Somebody Told Me," the Scissor Sisters for the moment and Gwen Stefani forever, some count "Float On," and let us not forget those Blairniks. Rather than danceability, what distinguishes our rock albums is chart clout. Of course Pazz & Joppers always like bands that sell a little, and here's hoping if not predicting that they'll always have Hold Steadys to get hot for. Rock radio continues to die, too. But the Franz Ferdinand-Green Day-Modest Mouse trifecta constitutes an uptick. Teenpop having given way to American idolization, which will also run its course, the surviving megalabels are pursuing saner long-term musical investment strategies on a playing field where indies are entrenched, prices have fallen, and downloading is a progressive force. If the world wasn't coming to an end, this might equal reason to be cheerful.

Admittedly, it makes me feel a little better anyway. But there's only so happy you can get about the Killers. So allow me to promote more far-ranging escapes--starting with, of all things, a longshot country finisher. Big & Rich are a bit wet for my tastes; though they usefully exemplify the varieties of Christian experience, that Jesus song is just too corny. But their irreverence and appetite are such a relief in a Nashville that's gynephobic and xenophobic when it's rowdy at all. Gretchen Wilson is lucky to have met them, and not only that--you just know they'd appreciate Piracy Funds Terrorism, the 23rd-place bootleg mix Floridian-Philadelphian Diplo imposed on the forthcoming album by Sri Lankan-British singer-toaster M.I.A. M.I.A.'s eighth-place bhangra-dancehall-grime "Galang" is only the most explicitly every-which-where of dance singles that include crunk lite from a peripatetic Army brat, ragga lite from Queens-based Puerto Rican-I-think twins, trash lite from queens doing their Elton John impression, blues-rap featuring an avant-garde trumpeter doing his Muddy Waters impression, fragile Norwegian-blond Europop, Blairniks, and DFA. Eclecticism/internationalism has long been dance music's way, but it intensified in 2004, and I trust its timing will keep getting better without further encouragement or explication from me.

Sometimes, however, explication deepens enjoyment as well as enlarging the mind. I'd love the Diplo boot more if it raided the Middle as well as the Far East, the way Hispanic/multiracial hip-hoppers and 1998 Pazz & Jop finishers Ozomatli did to jump-start their mysteriously-or-maybe-not 208th-place Street Signs. That's why I was so pleased that Youssou N'Dour's Egypt finished 34th. Always Islamic, N'Dour knows he's heard as merely African by the Americans and Europeans whose musics he's assimilated. So as a political act, the Senegalese Mouridist claimed Muslim by recording in Cairo. This uncommonly pointed one-worldism sinks deeper when you read not just the notes but the linked info at the Nonesuch website. The most gorgeous album of N'Dour's career celebrates an Islamic culture more humane than any fundamentalist one, or than the secular compromises putative liberals like Thomas Friedman pump. It's more humane than Nashville's culture, too--and, sometimes, NYC's.

In part, I know, my pessimism about America reflects my age. At 62, I had my expectations primed back when the goal of a humane society was axiomatic, and at 62, I deeply resent the prospect of spending my golden years battling goons who hate everything I've lived for. So it's salutory to replay The College Dropout--a record I once foolishly feared would wear thin--and hear Kanye's kiddies wickedly chorus, "We wasn't supposed to make it past 25/Joke's on you we still alive." That's how it goes with social disasters. They get worse than the crack epidemic, but not so's the end of the world is actually the end of the world--not even after a suitcase nuke, or the worst-case consequences of dumping the Kyoto accords. All year I remembered Ned Sublette's Cuba and Its Music, where slaves jamming their stinking barracones and then blacks crowding their overtaxed barrios musick defiantly anyway. Keeping it real f'real, West's songs import that impulse into modern African American life--music is a dream that waxes and wanes, something folks will steal because it's something folks live for. His good cheer assumes his people will get squeezed half to death, and won't stop won't stop anyway. Politically, he shows more smarts and better instincts than any finisher except N'Dour and the Drive-By Truckers.

Brian Wilson's good cheer proceeded from a deeper sense of entitlement yet proved deeply fragile--he broke down well before the '60s did. But the luck of career development impelled him to re-examine his own flowering, and though my aversion to '60s nostalgia knows no bounds, his political timing couldn't have been better. Nostalgia is for the weak-minded, but history is forgotten by those who find out too late why Karl Rove name-checks William McKinley. Smiley Smile was always wonderful, and psych-folkies may want to know that it's more eccentric than SMiLE. But SMiLE is a history lesson, one that's only rendered more vivid and persuasive by how silly it is, and also by how worn Wilson's voice is. The beauty it achieves regardless--the apotheosis of the Beach Boys' trick of respecting and undermining their music lessons simultaneously--defines the cultural space where the freedom to make and hear precious music was and remains unquestioned if not uncompromised. As in all works of art, that space is a fiction, or anyway a construction. But it's worth battling for.

Village Voice, Feb. 15, 2005


2003 Critics Poll | Dean's List 2005