Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The 16th (or 17th) Annual Pazz & Jop Critics Poll

New Kids on the Block

Somewhere nearby you'll find 1989's cash crop, the list of 40 albums that has always been the leading export of the Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll. Give it the once-over--you'll be glad you did. Judiciously employed, the critics' top 40 will serve as a dandy consumer guide, and not only that, it's got a hook. The obvious-in-hindsight winner and the unprecedented top 10 tell a story about shifting tastes in American popular music, a story that's just beginning even though it's been brewing for a decade. It's the story of a new beat, a new sound, a new aesthetic. It's the story of racial nightmares and crossover dreams--of dysfunctional prejudice, resurgent Afrocentrism, cultural desegregation. And it's also the story of rock and roll eating itself and then rising from its own leavings like some mutant bottom-feeding carp, a giant goldfish with a yen for the sun.

I'll tell the story as best I can, but I'll tell it more briefly than has been my custom. No, I'm not written out after my decade opus; in fact, having plowed through the voter comments, which are excerpted in chunks and snippets throughout the supplement, I feel compelled to clarify my views on the album, which this poll still honors among rock concepts and artifacts. But for some years a related story has also been emerging from Pazz & Jop--about consensus, or fragmentation, or pluralism. It's become increasingly obvious that no one voice can sum up the poll with the kind of authority that was plausible a decade ago, and thus I've invited three additional essayists to usurp my space. Voice columnist Nelson George is the most prominent African-American rock/pop critic (and critic of African-American rock/pop); Arion Berger edited the LA Weekly music section for most of 1989 and continues to oversee the paper's record-review pages; and chronic nonparticipant Tom Ward joins a great rock critic tradition by denying that he's any such thing.

Given my space limitations, I'll dispense with the details posthaste. The 16th or 17th poll was our biggest ever: 255 critics nationwide made our deadline. The P&J affirmative action program showed moderate progress among African-American voters (19 to 29, near as we can tell) and none, taking into account the increase in voters, among women (39 to 45). But there was a major generational leap: spurred in part by 25-year-old Poobah (and Voice music editor) Joe Levy, we got ballots from well over 30 professional/semiprofessional critics aged 25 or younger. What's more, 11 of the kids' top 15 acts were 25 or younger themselves. But even without the youth vote the five under-25 artists in the top 10 would still have finished top 11, and this is news. Only once before has the poll been so topheavy with whippersnappers--Prince-Replacements-R.E.M.-Run-D.M.C. in 1984--and somehow De La Soul-Neneh Cherry-N.W.A.-Soul II Soul-Pixies has a fresher look. It's not just their haircuts, either--it's their professional experience. Run-D.M.C were 1984's only newcomers, to the racks or the poll. This year young artists put four debut albums in the top 10. With an indie EP and album behind them, the Pixies are veterans by comparison.

Oddly enough, De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising isn't the first debut album ever to finish on top--nor, strictly speaking, the first teenaged winner. It shares both distinctions with 1977's No. 1, identified with its 21-year-old front man but also showcasing a memorable young bass player: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols. Amerindie loyalists please note, however, that it is the first winner not distributed by a major label. Whether these are significant parallels, cheap ironies, some strange amalgam of the two, or none of the above remains to be determined, with generational disagreements at least as intense as racial ones. Without the black vote, De La Soul still would have won; without the youth vote, they would have finished behind old farts Neil Young and Lou Reed. And when I toted up a minipoll of the 26 over-40s I could identify, I was surprised to find De La Soul down in eighth place, substantially behind not just Reed and Young but gangsta-minded bad boys N.W.A.

Then I thought again and realized that I'd handicapped De La Soul to win myself--until I played the record a couple more times and decided it was just too slight to go all the way, knocking it out of my own top 10 in the process. I wonder how many of my fellow graybeards went through something similar. Very much like the Neville Brothers' fourth-place Yellow Moon, which topped the 40-plus tally while finishing 17th among the 25-and-unders, 3 Feet High and Rising is so smart, so warm, so musical that only a pigfucker and/or stick-in-the-mud could dislike it. These three suburban teenagers rapped without swagger or inferrable threat; their dumb humor and original sound were out there for all to hear. But though they won handily, they also won with the weakest general support of any winner in P&J history, because they were also arch and obscure. Three-to-four-minute song lengths looked like pop moves and sounded like deconstruction, a title that evokes the music's childlike growing pains turned into a dick joke, the beat didn't go on, and oldsters who don't tumesce at the drop of a sample found themselves enjoying the group at a distance. I mean, Yellow Moon has a groove, Jack. Let po'-boy purists complain that the production's cold not cool--this is essence of second-line, the rhythm of the spheres. You go with its flow. Granted, I wasn't sure it belonged on my list after it barely left my cassette case all summer. But faced with a lousy year, I remembered the Wild Tchoupitoulas and gave it the nod.

The big Pazz & Jop story is clearly black artists--only three times have blacks placed even three albums in the top 10, and this year suddenly they jump to five, adding the six top singles for good measure. But there's more, because those darn Negroes have more than one groove, and they don't all mean the same thing. If once, to adapt a notion from Pablo Guzman, the punk groove jolted pop to its roots, by the late '80s white rock settled for stasis as it raced through its forcebeats (or marched through its power chords or slogged through its grunge or tiptoed through its funk lite or trotted through its jingle-jangle-jingle or rocked through its rock and roll). At the same time, Prince and various Jacksons and Yo! MTV Raps were reminding forgetful bizzers that white Americans love it when colored people sing and dance. And slowly, painfully, a lot of rock criticism's left-leaning ex-/quasi- bohemians learned to think on their feet--with them, even. But they didn't all think to the same beat, or agree on how much a beat could mean. In the '60s we called this different strokes for different folks.

De La Soul's rhythms were the most dissociated in the top 10, the Nevilles' the steadiest. And so voters raised on TV quick-cuts found truth in De La Soul, which won with the weakest general support (the lowest total-voters-to-points quotient) in P&J history, while baby boomers anchored to the big beat since childhood held fast to the Nevilles' line. Accustomed to rhythmic signification, black voters came on strong for the easy, house-inflected world-funk of Soul II Soul's Keep On Movin', which except maybe for The Raw and the Cooked was the most meaning-free album in the top 40, adding just a patina of Afro-universalism to an affirmative groove believed to speak for itself. Cross-demographic fave Neneh Cherry put varied rhythms in the service of varied messages, and cause celebre N.W.A. was juiced by both mastermixer Dr. Dre and the Federal Bureau of Investigation--and came in second with the oldest voters as well as the youngest, a lesson in who cares about rebel attitude around here. In the short run, rock criticism is a fun gig; as lifework, it favors hardasses.

Not that all critics have rewired their sensoriums for future shock, or abandoned literary concerns; not that the straight four-four has suddenly lost all force or appeal. The poetic women who loomed large in 1988's music headlines took a tumble, from Tracy Chapman (third to 37th, though she was fifth among black voters) to Michelle Shocked (sixth to 64th) to 10,000 Maniacs (29th in '87 to four mentions) to the Sugarcubes (35th to one mention). And even if the Chapman and Shocked followups were objectively disappointing, as one might say, I smell the fickle media in this shortfall: although it was like Kate Bush never went away, at 92nd Laurie Anderson gets my most-underrated nomination, and the last time the tied-for-90th Roches made such a good album it finished 11th. Instead the literary four-four was returned to the copyright holders--for sheer news value, old white guys (with one woman allowed in the club) rivalled young black ones. Last January you could have gotten 100-1 on a hall-of-fame exacta of Neil Young, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones, and upped the odds astronomically by throwing in a secondary legend like Bonnie Raitt, Aerosmith, Don Henley, or 23-year-old P&J debut band NRBQ.

None of these records is as automatic as jam addicts complain, but half of them are as boring as John Cougar Mellencamp's or Graham Parker's, neither of which made top 100, and I'm proud that my fellow 40-and-overs put only the two best in their top 15: Young's Freedom, as masterful a total album as he's ever made, and Reed's New York, praised for its clunky politics as it gets over on its cannily tossed-off music. Like Tom Petty, who turned in the most undeniable record of his life by accident, they proved that rhythms don't become extinct and grace isn't something you strive for. And like the ever craftier Mekons, plus maybe the ever tamer Replacements and conceivably the ever more lapidary Elvis Costello (just not, please, the terribly tortured Bob Mould or the fatally fussy XTC), they also demonstrated that the old rockcrit ideal of the good song, with a tune you can hum and a lyric you can put your mind to, will still sustain the occasional long-playing phonogram. But rock and roll future they ain't. Rap is.

Critically speaking, hip-hop is the new punk, nothing less. Not merely because it put six homies plus dabblers Cherry and Quincy Jones on the album chart and three others among the top six singles artists, but because the youngest writers--and I don't just mean specialists like those at The Source, the national hip-hop mag founded by Harvard undergrad Jon Shecter--are behind it so passionately. For sure a general rhythmic reorientation has been crucial to its upsurge, but that's only the root: as has long seemed inevitable to anyone with a sense of how pop forms evolve, rappers are finally positioned to pick up where the Clash left off (and Bruce remains). Stressing the verbal while taking care of music more diligently than their punk counterparts, so competitive that artistic oneupsmanship is an obsession, sharing rock's immemorial boys-into-men egoism, and committed to the kind of conceptual in-your-face that Nelson George thinks is overrated and most rockcrits live for, rap has gotten serious about its fun. Arion Berger may be right to consider its world-shaking pretensions delusory, but not many in her critical generation are inclined to give up on the dream.

A peculiar aspect of rap's new status is that it implies spectatorship rather than participation. Though many of the new rap-oriented critics are African-American, more of them are white. And though the Beastie Boys and now 3rd Bass (who finished 50th, just ahead of Ice-T, and were preceded from 41st by Soundgarden, Rickie Lee Jones, Beleza Tropical, the Bats, the B-52's, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and late-'88 holdovers Guy, Bobby Brown, and Lucinda Williams) won't be the last white rappers of distinction, the genre is no more likely to be taken over by Caucasians, as we're sometimes called, than bebop. Formulating an Afrocentric ideology certainly won't be any worse for young whites than slipping into a Eurocentric one; probably it'll be better. But until cultural desegregation is in full effect (sometime after the revolution, that is), I foresee a bifurcated music subculture, unwieldy no matter how essential. A similar audience structure didn't do bebop much harm. But bebop never had a broad-based black audience; it was boho music, critics' music, rarely even hinting at any politics beyond the black self-determination of its creative practice. In contrast, rap is activist and street-directed, and it's already won over as many white fans in this country as punk (or bebop) ever did. This could get very interesting.

In fact, it's plenty interesting already. Boys-into-men is putting it mildly--not counting metal (and I still don't see why I should), rap is the most sexist and homophobic subgenre in the history of a music that's always fed off male chauvinism. This excites critical concern, as it damn well should--N.W.A. can play at fucking tha police all they want, but Eazy-E has the symptoms of one sick case of short man's disease, and if there were any justice Roxanne Shanté would add his jimmy to her pickle jar and start a collection. Rap's friends as well as foes attacked its sexism plenty in this year's poll--almost as often as they went after Public Enemy's much better-publicized anti-Semitism. Both topics--often counterbalanced by potshots at the even viler ideology of former crit heroes Guns 'N Roses--are aired in the "Public Enemies" section, but given bifurcation, I'm struck by the virtual absence of complaints about rap's more sweeping racial chauvinism. When Def Jef's "Black to the Future," to choose just one example, tells an audience he assumes is black, "But the enemy is not your brother/It's that other motherfucker," he's articulating a healthy solidarity while leaving the "other" dangerously vague--the context disses racist whites going back to the slavers without specifying whether there's any other kind. Such complexities often get lost in fullfledged political discourse and must be nearly impossible to pin down in a few lines of rhyme. Hip hop critics have their work cut out for them.

I assume it's the hope of avoiding this work, and the useless guilt and whiteskin arrogance it will surely entail, that steers critics to role models like Queen Latifah and Boogie Down's KRS-One, whose standing I take as a mixed omen. Chuck Eddy is always too reluctant to believe that consciousness comes naturally to human beings, but he has reason to mock rap's "plethora of literate, well-meaning, eclectic, professional, ambitiously conceptual albums-as-artworks"--if there were any justice, 67th-place Shanté would have topped Latifah (and I didn't think so at first myself). As usual, Eddy is overstating. Rappers are pretentious in a fairly rude way when they're pretentious at all, which Tone-Loc and Young M.C. and even N.W.A. aren't; in rap, artistic advance is as likely to mean house effects (a specialty of both Latifah and Shanté) as Malcolm X or Langston Hughes or Sun Ra (83rd, by the way). But now that it's attained both commercial and critical respectability--meaning acceptance in a white world that can't be trusted to care for the music's longterm cultural vitality--you have to wonder when it'll get eaten up. Just because it's stayed healthy longer than any rock subgenre ever doesn't mean it's discovered the gift of everlasting life.

One of the failed white rap groups to come down the pike in 1989 (three mentions) has a name for this dilemma: Pop Will Eat Itself, a classic middlebrow-deconstructionist misprision of the sampling that underpins rap's historical intimations and seemingly indefatigable vitality. For art-student types like PWEI, this extreme dependence on the past, however irresistible, portends the music's ultimate doom. And indeed, it's certain that the professional musician's eternal complaint--"What will they have left to sample after they've put us all out of work with their thievery?"--will find a correlative in rappers who adjudge it cool to work with a band. It's also conceivable that sometime in the intermediate future sampling will just wear out--that for reasons we can't yet fathom, listeners will get sick of it the way many are now sick of the straight four-four. But assuming (and praying) that the soundbite method isn't stymied by legalisms, I'd guess that there's enough material out there to keep rap going past the intermediate future--whereupon the world may be ready for another round of James Brown rips. To be honest, I'm not bored by them yet. Of course, the right four-four still rings my chimes too.

Rap's "naive" (Berger's word, in a more limited context) belief that it will overcome--affirmed rhythmically and vocally even when the words are as hyperreal as N.W.A.'s or Public Enemy's--has got to light up critics whose subcultural representatives are as dolorous as the Cure or the Jesus and Mary Chain or even Galaxie 500, the closest Amerindie got to an up-and-comer in 1989. For rock and rollers who came up with the Sex Pistols, postpunk/garage crunch/chime constitutes a groove with the same compelling personal resonance that the Nevilles' smooth syncopations or Charlie Watts's rock and roll essence has for their elders, and many young critics voted for more guitar bands than rappers. But beyond the Pixies, who except for Sonic Youth are the only Amerindie band to rise in the poll (much less enter the top 10) since the Replacements and Husker Du, these preferences tended to be local and/or personal. At this point, postpunk is so vast, so various, and so devoid of focus or leadership that fastening on a guitar band is like picking a world-beat album--a lot of them sound pretty good, with more precise decisions up to happenstance. And if not everyone in the lineup of related 51-to-100 finishers--Jayhawks, Camper Van, Voivod, Faith No More, Syd Straw, Indigo Girls, Exene Cervenka, Stone Roses, My Bloody Valentine, Frogs, Masters of Reality, Yo La Tengo, Walkabouts, Young Fresh Fellows, Mudhoney, Smithereens, Pogues--is altogether bummed out or defeated, none could be called confident; the good humor that's their version of positive rarely lasts more than a song or two. No wonder their contemporaries spectate elsewhere.

The confidence factor cuts both ways, however. The main reason some critics still don't get rap is--well, call it rhythmic, or cultural. Hooked up to the straight four-four, they don't understand rap as music--they have trouble thinking on their feet. But rap's positivity puts another kind of cap on its critical consensus. Because we're usually serious and often dour ourselves, critics aren't as ready as the average culture consumer to buy rose-colored glasses or happy feet. Drunk on romance, a rock critic will still refuse a steady diet of love songs, preferring to savor one or two. Defiance is our meat--as extreme as we knew the Sex Pistols' rage to be, few of us were inclined to deny its conviction and truth value. And today, ridiculous though most may find the gloom of gothic or industrial, a modest pessimism is regarded as seemly--in a world whose salvation is in doubt, musicians are allowed to mix just a few smallscale epiphanies into their existential confusion, nothing grander. Hence, most of rap's boasts and calls to action bounce off critical skeptics, and silliness takes De La Soul only so far.

But rap does at least retain "underclass" credentials--despite the middle-class heroes it's generated, and unlike dance music, which rarely gets the same respect even though it's quite popular among poor people. Together with goofy-to-organic reinterpretations of Public Enemy's deep mix, house borrowings--standard keyb and piano hooks, diva soul, fuzzed-out bass, looser beats--dominated rap's musical development in 1989. But while Neneh Cherry and Janet Jackson and Quincy Jones and pomo poet Madonna all brush up against dance music good as any rapper, only Soul II Soul and, as it happened, Neneh Cherry came out of the club world. Even on the singles chart there's a paucity of dance flukes--unless you count Digital Underground, the Oakland electrorap crew whose forthcoming album handicaps as a Pazz & Jop sureshot, they begin and end at Inner City's 24th-place "Good Life," which finished a crucial two places ahead of the undeniable current crossover "Pump Up the Jam" (hope it shows up in 1990). Instead, as if to put their imprimatur on rap's seriousness, the critics sorted rap singles out from rap albums--of the seven in our top 25, only one appeared on a charting LP, or longform, or whatever the synonym is these days.

This is a major omission. Most house hits are irreducibly cultish, but I still put three of the poppier ones in my top 10, and given the chance might have gone higher (I didn't find out what "This Is Acid" was till six months after it imprinted itself one hot Bronx Zoo Saturday, and I've yet to lay hands on a copy). There's really no question that insofar as the new rock aesthetic is rhythmic and sonic it's happening at least as much in the clubs as at the intersection of Mean Street and Yo! MTV Raps. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean J.D. Considine's call for a new dance-music criticism will set off any stampedes--if rock critics mistrust rap's positivity, they feel something approaching contempt for house's. And while contempt generally demeans the beholder, it's not as if the disdain is gratuitous. Hard-core dancers whose minds still function in the daytime infer a social vision from the communal ecstasy (and sore tootsies?) of the dance floor, and they're not just jiving. But they are jiving a little. Because if on the one hand (foot?) utopian fantasies are always revolutionary, on the other they're always escapes. And despite the pomo bromide that every little escape helps breach our invisible prison walls, this apparently unsavable world is currently offering plenty of contravening evidence.

The claims I've made for rap may sound old to nonbelievers--I've rooted hard for the stuff ever since making a Sugarhill best-of my top album of 1981. But as far as I'm concerned I'm just reading the tea leaves. Though as usual I've voted for plenty of rap this year, I gotta tell ya--between the trans-stoopid "Pump Up the Jam" and the mysterious "This Is Acid," it's the dance records that feel extraordinary on my singles list this year. Too much of the rap breaks down into sustaining pleasures (Tone-Loc and "Fight the Power"), forbidden sojourns (2 Live Crew and "Terrordome"), and album cuts without albums (Digital Underground and A Tribe Called Quest). What's more, at the top of my album chart itself you'll find something I never expected to put there again: three phonograms anchored to the straight four-four.

Since I've been misconstrued as proclaiming "the death of the album" or some such, I want to be very clear. It's the "great album" I have my doubts about, and by that I do not mean a Consistently Realized Work of Art Demonstrating Revelatory Literary Depth and Sonic Imagination. Taking different strokes into account, those will continue to manifest themselves--for all I know, Spike qualifies. But as I once said about great artists, a great album demands a great audience, and in view of rock's galloping fragmentation, the idea that any album can invoke much less create such an audience seems increasingly chimerical. Now, it so happens that for the different folks in my generational and racial fragment, where the need for continuity equals the longing for a steady groove, two qualifiers entered cultural production in 1989. Never mind that Neil Young's Freedom did better with the electorate at large than with Neil's fellow 40-and-overs, who didn't even find room for The Mekons Rock 'n' Roll in their top 15--those two records summed up the traditional rock sensibility in 1989. Yes, it's true that one merely rearticulates longstanding frustrations, confusions, and limitations while the other proclaims the imminent death not just of the great album but of the traditional rock sensibility. That still doesn't mean there won't be more.

What it may suggest is that, great or not, they won't mean much, and here's where this "death of the album" business starts making sense. Put it this way: even in popular music terms, albums are epiphenomena. I uncovered pretty much the usual number of gooduns in 1989, and those who find my tastes reliable can use this annual Dean's List as still another consumer guide. Enjoy, because I did; I love my albums, don't hear enough of them. But over the past decade I've stopped understanding rock history in their terms. Granted, they're such tidy artifacts that it's possible rock history will ultimately be written in their terms if it's written at all. Like all great-man theories, though, that history will be a gross distortion. Anybody with a modicum of pop sense has always known this, but in the '80s, multiplying media as well as galloping fragmentation have made it inescapable--even as the convenient annual construct generated by this poll, the album summary may well merit more disbelief than anyone should be asked to suspend. Right, at some level "hip-hop is the new punk" seems both statistically justifiable and poetically just. But even if you think albums mean more than I'm ready to claim, it was a lousy year. The numbers say so--never have the leaders gathered fewer total points. And so does the poetry.

Initially, it was a sense of poetry that moved me to break precedent and list a commercially unavailable item as my No. 1. Pulnoc's Live at P.S. 122 (the title handwritten on the inset card of this soundboard cassette) was in fact my leisure longform of choice in 1989, but that was no more my criterion this year than it ever has been--what made the difference was that not even Young or the Mekons sounded, well, great in quite the same way. And when Eastern Europe exploded in December I felt as if maybe the four-four had something to do with history after all. More phoenix than carp, Pulnoc are an amalgam of three of Prague's Plastic People, who started a year after NRBQ and suffered lots more than the road for the rock and roll life, and four of that seminal Czech band's 25-ish fans. They don't seem any more explicitly political than Charlie Parker--I don't understand Czech so I'm not certain. But they make trancelike vocals, hypnotic hooks, draggy drones, and guitar work not unreminiscent of Neil Young all mesh into a four-four that could make you believe in rock and roll future. I trust that their cleverly orchestrated publicity blitz will win them an official U.S. release in 1990, and I'm betting that in their way, which is naive in one respect and wiser than you'll ever be in another, they believe in the great album. They are contravening evidence that walks and talks and plays the guitar. I have not the slightest doubt that sometimes they long for escape just like any other human beings. And achieve it too.

Village Voice, Feb. 27, 1990


1988 Critics Poll | Dean's List 1990