Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The 12th (or 13th) Annual Pazz & Jop Critics Poll

Virtue Rewarded

Nineteen eighty-five sure was busy-busy-busy for Chuck and Elvis's love child. You'd think it'd have its hands full just perverting the nation and feeding the world, but those were epiphenomena. Now more than ever, "rock music" is first and foremost an engine of the culture industry, whence all the rest of its inescapable visibility flows. It didn't set quite as many dollars in motion as in 1984, when the phony recovery of 1983 came true, but the dip wasn't panic-worthy, maybe 5 per cent off a record year. Having caved in to the Clean Lyrics League, the companies half believe Congress is going to give them their stupid home-taping tax, and if it isn't clear where the Next Springsteen will come from now that ZZ Top has flunked the first audition, there's product due from Michael Jackson himself. So nobody's complaining, yet. Nobody except us complainers.

I refer, of course, to the 238 pros, fans, hacks, and illuminati who participated in the 12th or 13th Annual Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll, and really, what else did you expect? As anybody who's got more important things to worry about knows without thinking, critics are malcontents as a matter of life commitment, and though rock critics value enthusiasm more than their less callow colleagues, often that just means they holler nay at the top of their lungs rather than acting civilized about it. Having fallen in love with rock and roll when it delivered them from the goody-goody bullshit that's shoved down teenaged throats with a trowel, they like dirty lyrics, though they can live without the baddy-baddy bullshit of W.A.S.P. and maybe Prince too. They don't think good will can feed the world, though some of them give Michael and Lionel and Bob Geldof credit for trying. And they don't have much use for the biz's blockbuster recovery, especially if they prescribed quality-not-quantity three years ago, when record execs were whining about their own imminent demise.

Not that the boom looked so bad in 1984, when most of the blockbusters--Bruce and Prince, Tina and Cyndi, Van Halen and ZZ--were deemed hot enough artistically to make our poll. But the big blockbuster of 1985 was a blockbuster of 1984--Born in the U.S.A. sold six million copies or so after topping last year's poll (with no causal relationship implied, I assure you)--and when it came to the little blockbusters the voters pushed reject. Despite some sharp antibacklash from Barry Walters and Dave Marsh, Madonna's sextuple-platinum Like a Virgin wasn't hot enough artistically (or whatever, Mrs. Gore) to rise higher than 85th, while Phil Collins's quadruple-platinum No Jacket Required finished 108th and Wham!'s quadruple-platinum Make It Big (the best of these three albums by me) got one mention. The only multiple-platinum in the top 40 is John Cougar Mellencamp's honorably overwrought populist symbol, Scarecrow, and the Mark Knopfler Band's contemptibly contemptuous aural microwave, Brothers in Arms, although three double-platinum items did make significant showings out of the money. Whitney Houston's 48th-ranked diva debut vied with Sting at 21 and the Smiths at (a gratifyingly tepid) 46 for the coveted All Things Must Pass Overrated Trophy. Significant in another way were Stevie Wonder's 61st, easily his lowest finish ever not counting the Woman in Red soundtrack, and Prince's tie for 51st, the most precipitous flop in Pazz & Jop history. "Majors See Black Music Boom," says Billboard. "Critics See Major Crossover Sellout," sez I.

Of course there were exceptions--there always are. Rick Rubin's metal-rap powered Run-D.M.C.'s sophomore gold to a generous 32nd (and L.L. Cool J's freshman vinyl to a hopeful 37th). Luther Vandross's platinum return to form scored consistently enough with black music loyalists to come in 30th, and Aretha Franklin's best album in 15 years soared in at an underrated ninth and may yet get what it deserves in the marketplace, though as of now it's "only" gold. Sade's platinum Diamond Life--by an African-turned-English model-turned-singer whose mood music broke in the dance market, which ought to be crossover enough to satisfy Lee Abrams himself--lulled the electorate so seductively it came in 14th (with the late-'85 follow-up Promise 56th so far). There were platinum finishes as well from old man down the road John Fogerty, former boy Don Henley, and aspiring middlebrow Sting. That brings our precious metal total up to around normal at nine, and I left the first for last: Talking Heads' Little Creatures.

David Byrne wasn't being modest when he predicted in 1977 that his debuting young band would "fluctuate between a large cult audience and a possible fluke mass success," because he's anything but modest--gracious, putatively self-effacing, but so proud that groveling for gold was inconceivable to him. He'd just work for it. With a big push from the press--Talking Heads '77 finished seventh, and since then every one of his band's studio albums has been in the Pazz & Jop top five--he's had his large cult audience since album one. And now, on the crest of years of intelligent media manipulation (visionary videos that predate MTV, high-art cachet from Tharp and Rauschenberg and Wilson, greatest concert movie ever) he has his not especially flukish mass success: Little Creatures is Talking Heads' first platinum album as well as their first Pazz & Jop number one. This result is jake with me even though I was rooting mildly for the runner-up Replacements--it's gratifying to see virtue rewarded, especially when there's no mistaking it for goody-goody bullshit. But I'm obliged to report that the Heads' victory looks slightly tainted nevertheless.

Early handicapping slotted Little Creatures at number one for the worst of reasons--there just wasn't any competition. Hailed in some quarters as a return to basics after five years of funk, its short songs for augmented quartet evince none of the fear of music that jammed up Byrne's short songs for minimalist quartet in the '70s. They're warm and supple and at peace with the world, reflecting his long encounter with black music (and also, I get the feeling, a remarkable woman), even if they decline the deeply nervous grooves of Remain in Light and its progeny. That is, they comprise the safest music he's ever made. I'm not one who regards safe as a damning insult when it insures this level of accomplishment, but in rock and roll it's never praise, and my initial delight faded noticeably: Little Creatures barely squeezed into my weakest top 10 in memory, and might well have been surpassed by the Pogues or Thomas Mapfumo if I'd had another week to listen. Nor was anybody else talking up the Heads. When Assigning Poobah Doug Simmons opened the ballots, he detected a surge for Scarecrow. Tim was no Let It Be and took the L.A. Times's in-house poll anyway. Sun City was turning into the rock critics' Live Aid. I even began to have nightmares of R.E.M.

But when the count began, a pattern asserted itself immediately and seemed a foregone conclusion by the time we finished the first folder. This New York band has gone national. Little Creatures garnered disproportionate support outside the volatile coastal corridors--not as much as Fogerty, but more than such midwestern heroes as Mellencamp and especially the Replacements. But with platinum acceptability contributing to the impression that it was a major album, it was the only consensus possible in an unprecedentedly flat year--a year so unimpressed with itself that three of its top 20 albums (Cooke, Velvets, Dylan) were recorded in the '60s and a fourth (Lost in the Stars) was composed in the '20s and '30s, a year so flat artistically that it diminishes the Heads' achievement and perhaps "rock music"'s vaunted visibility as well.

I know, I know, you read the same shit in this space all the time. Every year various turks and curmudgeons explain how rock and roll just died right in front of your eyes and you were too stupid or complacent to notice. And every year I step in wearing my voice-of-reason costume and explain how it's not as bad as all that. Unlike many rock and roll adepts--some inspired and almost all foolish--I've never been of a utopian/apocalyptic turn of mind, and no matter how grim things look in a given year I know that history progresses in cycles and years can be misleadingly arbitrary units of measurement. Still, 1985 does look pretty grim. And though it's been a long while since I've had such trouble getting the Dean's List up to 50 A LPs, this isn't a personal complaint. It's right there in the results.

I mean, consensus doesn't necessarily equal enthusiasm. At 4.5 points per respondent, Little Creatures is only the third winner ever to dip below 5.0, and two of those were instructively unmomentous precedents that came damn close anyway: Squeezing Out Sparks at 4.9 in 1979 and Imperial Boredom at 4.9 in 1982. Prorated, the Heads could have won our poll with 1979's Fear of Music or 1980's Remain in Light and come in a hair behind the Replacements with 1983's Speaking in Tongues. And 1981, when the top record got even softer support, had it all over 1985 in other ways. Sandinista! may have averaged just 4.3 points per respondent, but at least it was a risky mess instead of a neat retreat, and its runner-up was X's Wild Gift, which not only outdrew Tim (4.0 to 3.5) despite indie distribution but stands as a landmark where Tim and Little Creatures and even Sandinista! are more like points on a flow chart.

And in addition 1981 had a brave future. Some of its 12 debut-album artists proved as inconsequential as the Au Pairs and Romeo Void, or failed to fulfill expectations like Was (Not Was) and the Go-Go's and the MIA Human Switchboard, but in their own ways Joan Jett and Luther Vandross and U2 and (I hope) the Blasters have prospered mightily. I expect something comparable from Sade and the Jesus and Mary Chain, but not from 1985's other debuts, all five of them. I'll admit that Marti Jones isn't a major artist if you'll admit that Suzanne Vega isn't a major artist, which God knows also holds for longtime Brit eccentric Robyn Hitchcock (whose Gotta Let This Hen Out! finished close behind Fegmania at 45). Jason and the Scorchers may never again recapture their old Fervor, and L.L. Cool J has the look of the (94th in '85) Dream Syndicate or the (81st in '85) Del Fuegos, who also snuck their B-plus-at-best intros into the top 40 on local and/or stylistic loyalty. Granted, this foreshortened debut list doesn't include dead singers, dead composers, dead groups, or John Fogerty, all of whom made unprecedented showings that were in most cases deserved--and who between them don't promise any more than Biograph.

Nor am I much encouraged by the continued Pazz & Jop success of the rock indies--independently owned and distributed labels like SST or Profile rather than semi-subsidiaries like Slash or Def Jam or I.R.S. Since most indies are owned by obsessive entrepreneurs with less than no penchant for collective action, I've never seen them as bulwarks against capitalism--just little outposts of unpredictable aesthetic principle, pockets of structural resistance in the struggle for fun. But aesthetic principle is never any sharper than the art it applies to, which despite the supposed (or real, damned if I can tell) American rock renaissance doesn't look like any cutting edge to me--after searching every which-a-way, I've put only three new Amerindie bands on my A list, down from eight in 1983 and six in 1984. (Because they don't compete so directly in the youthbuck market, the folk and blues labels--which provide four African, four reggae, and one blues album on my own list, making Shanachie my favorite corporation this side of Warner Bros.--have better luck.) And structurally, the rock indies have had it--the majors now regard them as farm teams, swooping down and snaring likely looking bands or sometimes whole labels, most recently Hüsker Dü and Tommy Boy. Not that this is necessarily so bad for band or label--unlike some resentful souls, I don't blame the slight shortfall of Tim on Sire's Seymour Stein, a former indie owner who's used his signing privileges at Warners to oversee more good music than any other a&r scout of the past 10 years. Nor can I get all teary-eyed about the "commercialization" of DB's Guadalcanal Diary or Christian Burial's 10,000 Maniacs, picked up by Elektra for 58th- and 68th-place finishes, or of DB's 53rd-ranked Zeitgeist or Rational's 76th-ranked Game Theory, probably due for similar treatment. The sheer productivity of the indies, with their low overhead and lower profit margin, is welcome and healthy. But I wish I could still dream that pockets of resistance might someday connect and generate their own counter-establishment. Sponsoring enjoyable-to-important music while hanging on by their fingernails in a state of perpetual marginality, the indies have become hegemonic in spite of themselves.

Indies did manage to dominate the EP chart we devised for them five years ago, but that just illustrates my point. With '70s cult hero Alex Chilton leading the pack and '60s cult hero Roky Erickson bringing up the rear and album artists the Minutemen, UB40, and U2 finishing two, three, and five, the list looks almost as inauspicious as last year's, which as predicted gave us Jason & the Scorchers, period. Full Time Men are a one-shot, Fishbone and the Butthole Surfers substitute attitude for songs, and Big Black subsumes songs in attitude--Racer-X is a powerful abrasive, but not what you'd call generous of spirit. Which leaves country purist Dwight Yoakam, probably good for a better album than the Judds, and political popsters Lifeboat, probably good for a better album than Tommy Keene, to continue in the EP-launched tradition of Los Lobos, the Minutemen, the Bangles, and near misses Hüsker Dü and the Replacements.

The other lists were at least as depressing. Of course I applaud the winning single and the strength of women on the chart (six of the top 15 compared to six of the top 40 LPs), and it's a pleasure to see the Ramones place so high after the intrepid Seymour Stein refused to release their most overt political act. But I'm distressed at the paucity of dance records, and suspect my colleagues are becoming disenchanted with rap as it abandons the last vestiges of noble savagery for the inevitable formalist phase signaled by the year's two most remarkable records: Doug E. Fresh's "The Show" and Double Dee & Steinski's promo-only three-cut 12-inch (call it The Lesson), both of which take the kitchen-sink pop-for-the-people philosophy of hip hop into the realm of full-scale information seizure. (One reads that the current owner of Lennon-McCartney's "Michelle," a guy named Michael Jackson, has threatened to sue Doug E. Fresh in England, where "The Show" has now sold more copies than "Rapper's Delight.") I mean, there are nice songs on our list, but for once I didn't get a lot of letters about how they were the vanguard. If 1984 was the year of the CHR single, 1985 was the year AOR horned back in. Except maybe for John Waite's "Missing You," which I prefer to regard as a magnificent fluke like "Hot Blooded" or "You're So Vain," there's never been a Pazz & Jop equivalent to "The Boys of Summer" or "Money for Nothing" or "Don't Come Around Here No More." Each in its way an expression of the male rock star's endemic and crippling cynicism, these phenomenally self-conscious pieces of popcraft were flukish only in the irresistibility of their hooks, and they bode ill--not least because each came with a high-charting video attached.

We have no intention of chucking the video category, as diehards continue to demand. But I must admit that after liking almost every title the voters picked in '83 and '84 I find many of the latest winners appalling. Although 1985 was the year I got cable, it was also the year I gave up nightclubs for morning feedings, and since I rarely remembered to turn MTV on with the sound off like some of my canny co-workers, I saw fewer videos than ever last year. So I missed both Heads clips and barely remember the Petty or Eurythmics. But except for "Sun City" and the perhaps overvisual minimalist tour de force "Cry," it seems to me that the main thing the others have in common is money--for nothing, just as the diehards claim. The idea of the video list is to lay a little rock and roll anti-bullshit--the low-budget spirit and simple pop smarts you see in some current documentary montage, for instance--on a medium designed to dazzle and overwhelm the unwary sensorium. But in this vote I detect instead the exact mood of luxurious passivity that those who finance these promos hope to induce in potential consumers.

Yet there is one bright spot among both singles and videos--the top one. I don't want to make too much of "Sun City," a not quite superb single that generated a strong but flawed album and a corny, courageous, gut-wrenching, educational, and rather beautiful video, but it's significant that amid all this year's corrosive commentary only one critic (besides Chuck Eddy, whom see) was moved to put the thing down--Don Waller, who complained that except for the hook it didn't jam. In a year paved with good intentions, "Sun City" was hard not to respect, and for many critics it fulfilled a long-cherished fantasy of really serious fun. Had it limited its attack on apartheid to South Africa it might have been dismissed as an elaborate radical pose, but "Sun City" brought its critique home, not only in its lyric but in its musical form, and perhaps even more important, it jammed sufficiently to dent those other charts, the ones in Billboard. It's not just crippling cynicism that induces some to suspect that the song's album votes exemplify what J.D. Considine (who made the single his number one) calls the "tendency to value 'significance' over listening pleasure." Virtue rewarded once again. But Howard Litwak's comment is just as apropos: "Maybe not the best album musically, but the best album emotionally, which is what counts in this poll." Litwak doesn't bother to mention that good emotionally presupposes pretty good or better musically, or that in this case (but maybe not the next) great politically plus good musically equals great emotionally. And no matter what Hilton Kramer wants you to believe, these are all aesthetic responses. That's what I love about rock critics.

Pazz & Joppers do a lot of dishing--the one-upmanship can get pretty vicious. I've formed negative impressions of my own over the years--some of these people I've never met strike me as thoughtless or conventional or complacent or naive, narrow-minded or status-conscious or overly earnest or pigheadedly one-dimensional, a little pretentious or a little dumb or just plain out of it. But others strike me as so smart they can fool themselves about just how superior their smarts make them. If more democracy is one thing we're in this for, then it had better extend to ourselves. Within certain broad limits I accept and respect the critics' tastes, which means I believe just about every one of the 535 albums they placed in their cumulative top 10 has some genuine pleasure in it. A few of the more dubious pleasures may actively contribute to our general benightedness, but most occasion sins of critical oversight at worst, and some approach a kind of creative misreading--who knows, maybe "I Want to Know What Love Is" is a great piece of music after all. And except within very narrow limits it's an idealist fallacy (a cynic's idealist fallacy) to blame the malfeasances of the culture industry on the venality of critics, a venality that when it's not completely imaginary--Pazz & Joppers may conceivably concoct their ballots to impress the Poobahs, but not to impress the record companies, who'll never see one per cent of them--is often pretty much inevitable. A world in which critics preferred Fear and Whiskey to Little Creatures and Centerfield probably wouldn't be a world in which the Mekons felt compelled to make Fear and Whiskey.

In a once-removed version of Chuck Eddy's Marsh-versus-Albini dichotomy (which see), disaffected critics explain why their mainstream colleagues like what they like with two less than harmonious theories: the same poor daily peon or free-lance moonlighter can be castigated as an arty, trend-hopping elitist from one side and a craven, trend-hopping shill from the other. As Eddy points out, the worst thing about the Marsh position is that it has a chilling effect on musical movement--without a few elitists there'd never have been an X or Pere Ubu, which to his shame would suit Marsh fine, or a PIL or Talking Heads, which wouldn't. Yet though I too suspect that many voters could afford to stretch their tastes some, it's willful to dismiss the music they like as reactionary. You don't have to be a fan of our top five albums, all but Tim by artists who've always worked for major labels, to admit that rather than proving the biz an inhuman monolith they're evidence of genuine and not necessarily riskless pluralism--within certain frustrating parameters, of course. The basic issue is one's tolerance for repressive tolerance. Is it ever (where have we seen this word before?) safe, not to mention fun, to allow oneself to be "manipulated" by the pleasure merchants? Is the compulsion to great refusals a virtue, a neurosis, a mark of oppression, or some combination of the three?

If I'm defending the critics after castigating them myself in the past, it's because in this depressing year I feel bonds with them. Especially when it comes to those pushing and past 30, rock and roll itself is one bond--and as far as I'm concerned, great refuser Richard Gehr of Spin betrays his bad faith when he complains that "we're getting too old for this crap." But there's also a bond of politics. The Pazz & Jop sample is skewed--presumably, some critics who find the Voice distastefully goody-goody don't participate. But I can't imagine a comparably representative panel of movie or book reviewers displaying the same antiestablishment instincts--film critics are too embroiled in the culture industry's megabuck economy, book critics too embroiled in literary "standards." I use the dated term "antiestablishment" deliberately, because these instincts are a legacy of the '60s vision of rock as counter-culture, a vision the music of the '60s never bore out all that specifically. That's changed. Needless to say, specificity still isn't a hallmark of these politics. On the music side it probably never will be, though two of 1985's losses suggest other possibilities: Linton Kwesi Johnson, who quit performing after releasing a definitive live album that tied for 85th despite late availability, and D. Boon, who died--damn right tragically--around the post-Christmas release of 3-Way Tie for Last, which squeezed in at 40 this year and will certainly be on the chart again in 1986. No goody-goodies, these guys. The way both combined inquiring, tough-minded politics with inquiring,tough-minded music would have been inconceivable back when we were making do with Phil Ochs and Country Joe MacDonald, and I hope we can expect more of the same, though I note regretfully that the leading candidates--Rubén Blades, perhaps Thomas Mapfumo--don't sing in English. Even so, more than half this year's Pazz & Jop albums are by artists who regard social commentary as a natural part of what they do. Not always for the best, either--Richard Thompson's and John Fogerty's politics are bathetic, Sting's and Mark Knopfler's smugly ironic. But the neoprimitivist orthodoxy in which the proper study of rock and roll is sex and drugs and rock and roll doesn't cut it any more. Just as star-eyed bizzers were attracted to rock and roll's potential as pure entertainment, left-wing rock critics were attracted to its democratic thrust, and now both tendencies have assumed trajectories of their own. Sometimes they rocket off in completely divergent directions, but sometimes they interweave again, as in sub-Springsteen Mellencamp, or Sade, whose high-gloss music hasn't yet rubbed off on her socialist sympathies, or Blades with his unvanquishable crossover dreams.

It's one job of the critic to figure out just what these inchoate messages mean. Since rock criticism often partakes of the same gawky naivete as the music, it's easy to dismiss much of this analysis. You can even exploit a tack of Gehr's and call it liberal, but despite the sentimental meliorism that pops up here and there that's just name-calling. Liberalism is the quintessential goody-goody bullshit; the worst you could call most of our respondents is postliberal. They crave justice but don't trust electoral politics and aren't so sure about any other kind, which is why they like music that puts a higher premium on realism and spirit than it does on correctness. Speaking very generally, the pointed Sun City and the well-meaning if quite inchoate Scarecrow got a big push from Marsh's Rock & Roll Confidential fans. The other albums in the top five kept their political distance. Especially on "Walk It Down," Little Creatures puts Byrne's willed optimism in a context of oppression and straitened opportunity; the Replacements' project of liberation is still individualist in the time-honored youthcult tradition; Tom Waits has made identification with the downtrodden his signature and defines downtrodden more keenly all the time, but though he croaks out Brecht-Weill's "What Keeps Mankind Alive?" with the bitterness of a longtime partisan, his own sognwriting distinguishes him perhaps too sharply from Phil Ochs and Country Joe MacDonald.

Take all this for what it's worth--in a flat year, it's a mistake to attribute too much significance to the critics' choices, or one's own. Waits's rise is partly a tribute to 1983's Swordfishtrombones, and Kate Bush's sudden prominence as women's hero also has a cumulative look. Though I love the Jesus and Mary Chain's Ramones-Pistols fusion and credit the Golden Palominos' early-70s revisionism, I don't expect either to change the world, and even if they do I think this year's historical consciousness--which also includes Hank Williams's Just Me and My Guitar at 42nd--will be around for a while. And yes, England has definitely made a rock and roll comeback, even on my list. Then again, my list includes five country albums, a meaningless aberration--could well go right back down to zero next time. A more meaningful statistic is the five albums from 1984. Getting a bead on the simple present becomes more impossible all the time.

I would like to say something about my number one album, which at 26 also qualifies as cult record of the year. The Mekons are an inchoate bunch of political punks out of the same Leeds scene that produced those pathetic biz casualties the Gang of Four. People like Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus have been hyping them for years, but not until now have they made an album professional enough to suit my notoriously fussy standards. Cheaply recorded, immersed in American roots that sound wishful now when invoked over here, Fear and Whiskey reminds me of nothing so much as my favorite album of 1976, Have Moicy!, in which a loose alliance of old folkies headed by Michael Hurley and Jeffrey Fredericks demonstated how aging bohemian rebels get by and have a good time. But where Have Moicy!'s old hippies live outside the law at worst, the Mekons are up against it: shot at, hunted down, interrogated. Needless to say, they don't have as good a time as the Have Moicy! crowd, but that doesn't stop them from trying. A difference that sums up a bad decade pretty suggestively, I think.

And if 1985 equals 1976, can 1977 be far behind? What do you take me for, some mystic? All I can say for sure is that it's not as bad as all that.

Village Voice, Feb. 16, 1986


1984 Critics Poll | Dean's List 1986