Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The 17th (or 18th) Annual Pazz & Jop Critics Poll

Hard News in a Soft Year

The night Voice music editor Joe Levy and I began tabulating the 17th (or 18th) Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll, the war had been on for more than a week, and my CNN habit was in remission. So we played music uninterrupted as we counted from 8:30 till 4 and 9:30 till 1. Though Public Enemy led for the first quarter (wouldn't that piss people off?) before giving way to Sinéad O'Connor (who dominated straighter, smaller polls), by bedtime Neil Young looked like the shoo-in we'd figured. We were having fun, sampling dark horses (matched Replacements surrogates Soul Asylum and Goo Goo Dolls) and cracking wise about other people's tastes (today Tim Buckley, tomorrow Essra Mohawk). Glimpsing the top of the mountain (287 voters, 32 more than the 1989 record), we broke for lunch and picked up a paper. There it was: oil slick all over the front page, for me an even worse nightmare than the bombing of Tel Aviv. Suddenly fun was beyond us. Back upstairs, after a brief TV fix, I felt compelled to hear music that was painful and familiar: Wild Gift, Exile on Main Street.

As it happened, our suggested return-mail date was January 17, so that many out-of-towners found themselves trying to say something clever about their fave albums as the U.N. deadline passed and the countdown began. Geopolitics put our little world in perspective--or so it seemed in late January. But one reason the Gulf War is so horrible--and I'd call it the most disastrous event of my conscious lifetime--is that it tempts us to think about nothing else at a time when so much else desperately requires our attention. Culture vulture though I am, I wouldn't put the death of rock and roll up there with nationwide bank robbery, semitropical winters, the future of excommunism, or even the budgetary suicide every public school parent is now up against--especially since I suspect the obituaries are premature yet again. But they were out there, set off by Billboard chart-watcher Paul Grein's observation that 1990 was the first year since 1963 that not a single guitar band had a number-one album. And as I pored over the mountain, I realized that for many critics, especially the sharpest young ones and the bitterest old ones, 1990 seemed like a turning point. Something is happening. And nobody really knows what it is--me included. So don't get your hopes up.

Poll results reflect this uneasiness only insofar as they represent small departure from recent trends at a time when so-called trendmakers crave a breakthrough. Never have albums seemed more irrelevant. As Mike Rubin notes in the section headed "Yesterday's Papers"--and I recommend that you read the conversations I've constructed from this year's ballots before winding through my inescapably inconclusive comments, which I've held down some to make room--1990 was a year in which press coverage of the usual profusion of product (despite a lousy Christmas, the biz isn't complaining too loud yet) gave way to larger thematic concerns. Or maybe smaller. Hard news, maybe. Or maybe just what hard-news hardheads (the guys who churned out videogame criticism and called it military analysis) dismiss as "back-of-the-book copy"--reported and even investigated "stories" instead of celeb profiles or reviews.

Censorship was the heavy deal all year, and don't tell me it's a red herring, not with retail chains prescreening sex 'n' violence and so-called parental warning stickers keeping tapes out of Saudi Arabia. Though metal took its licks, rap obsessed the watchdogs, generating racial controversy and racist hysteria even as the Oreo and the Sno-Cone topped the charts, and rock/rap sexism (though not, fancy that, homophobia) ballooned from boring old left-lib plaint into national nightmare. Everywhere, Public Enemy and Madonna angled for the ink Sinéad O'Connor dove into. Predictably, all of these headline-stealing issues and personages inspired mucho respondent analysis--especially rap, which remains "the new punk" on formal and cultural momentum alone. But to my surprise, it was Silli Vanilli that really stirred the critics up. I assume you know how dumb the shit was--John Leland found ghostsingers behind Frank Farian's video-friendly concoction a year before Rob and Fab confessed their sins. And the voters were hip, only rarely bemoaning the shame and scandal of it all. But among many conservatives, as I'll label them--the Clubrats described toward the top of the long section called "Mass Culture Theory," or professionals like Geoffrey Himes, who spends his life reviewing the "news events" hardheads demand (the reason concerts rather than records dominate daily rock coverage)--the story struck a spark.

So suddenly I get eight or 10 letters hyping live over Memorex, and with common sense on their side. After all, which came first--the juke joint or Sun Studios? But even if Sam and Elvis did recreate a roadhouse music, which is highly debatable, so what? The medium may not be the message, but the medium sure changes the message, and Stayathomes like different kinds of messages than Clubrats. Or vice versa. Himes's "unmasked emotion" is cant--it happens once in a while, usually when the sound man fucks up, but the most you can expect from someone who's singing the same song for the 200th or 2000th time is the variation on authenticity quote unquote that the forgotten popular culture theorist Reuel Denney termed "self-stimulation." David Sprague's "wild abandon," however, is more subject to performance discipline and its obverses, though it sure gets faked a lot. And the question of who can "really" play or sing isn't altogether meaningless--while technical skill obviously doesn't guarantee artistic innovation or listening pleasure, it does help sometimes, even on record. But the main thing that happens at shows is that you encounter other people there. The artiste first of all, with all the extra inflections that fabricated intimacy, physical detail, and interpretive variation large and small can afford. Even more important, listening to music live puts you in contact with other listeners. Instead of imagining a pop community, you encounter one.

This isn't the main thing the conservatives care about, of course. That would be art in all its truth and beauty--especially truth, a truth associated with unmediated perception and "human" scale, though some wise guy might wonder why it so often comes in a four-four box. Relatively speaking, their opposite numbers, who I'll call the couch potatoes, are relativists, skeptics, pop intellectuals. Truth and beauty aren't their game. One reason they stay at home so much (almost as much as the average fan!) is that they like to read and watch television, which ain't so easy when you hang out in bars three-four nights a week. Whether this makes them smarter or stupider is beside the point--either way they feed on secondhand information. I say civilized human beings have always shown this sort of bent for abstraction, though not to the extent of fashioning pomo theories out of it. And although that doesn't end the discussion--people who like rock and roll have always had their problems with the way civilization quote unquote defines the civilized (as non-Islamic, say), not to mention the human--it's why I side with the couch potatoes even as I dream of getting out more.

So say it loud--what all our deliberations and computations add up to is a bunch of ABSTRACTIONS. The points are abstractions, the results are abstractions, and, oh fuck, in many ways the albums are abstractions too. Sure they have physical reality, even in the digital form so few critics resist any more. And sure our judgments proceed (can proceed, should proceed) from our aural experiences. But not only are these experiences intangible in themselves, they generate intangibilities of a greater order of magnitude. We have the presumption to construct imaginary communities around them even though we can't swear our significant others went to the same heaven we did last night. And we assume they can stand in for barely expressible ideas--certainly when we write about them, and too often when we vote for them as well (many critics clearly feel obliged to augment their favorite records with representative black/white/female/male/indie/pop/disco/metal/jazz/worldbeat mentions, a piety I deplore). One reason voters are forever discovering that they prefer singles to albums is that singles aren't so burdened with abstraction--they're usually experienced publicly, on the radio or the street or the dance floor, and--in the famous guilty pleasure effect--less subject to superego review (although I confess to leaving Bell Biv Devoe's swing-jacking "Poison" off my list solely because I found its sexism intolerable). Albums are still supposed to resonate like Great Works even though we suspect the concept of the Great Work is an oppressive fiction.

Statistically, that fiction held this year. As music has factionalized and consensus softened, the top Pazz & Jop albums haven't been getting such Great numbers--in recent years only Prince's Sign `O' the Times has won big. So it's no surprise that the 1990 triumph of Neil Young & Crazy Horse's Ragged Glory was less than sweeping--its points-per-voter quotient fell about midway between that of 1988's controversial It Takes a Nation of Millions, and 1989's flukey 3 Feet High and Rising, which had the shallowest support of any winner in poll history. Although the point strength of the top 10 albums was respectable, the wan kudos volunteered on The Rhythm of the Saints and Interiors and Graffiti Bridge and even Goo and Time's Up made you wonder how much the critics raved about their faves after their reviews were in. But I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got and Fear of a Black Planet were powerful second- and third-place finishers in both votes and corroborating commentary. As different as the top three records were--the Young an atavistic garage stomp, the O'Connor a singer-songwriter effusion bursting with rock/rap/worldbeat juice, the PE the impossible followup to a revolutionary LP--they obviously entered many different voters' lives (185 named at least one, 61 at least two, 10 all three). And most of us can take comfort in the one overarching value all three artists share: they don't have much use for the American flag as it's currently displayed. Ragged glory indeed.

In general, though, the album list was inconclusive if not stagnant if not meaningless. Though rap is said to be hurting artistically, it landed exactly as many albums in 1989 as in 1990--six, with Queen Latifah placing the same record twice, 3rd Bass a late-'89 release, and the other full-fledged debuts by unreconstructed middle-classniks Digital Underground and A Tribe Called Quest in a year when street Afrocentrism was the power move. More debut albums charted in 1990 (10 counting Ice Cube and the Texas Tornados) than in 1989 (eight counting Bob Mould), but only sophomore-in-disguise Cube made top 10, whereas last year De La Soul-Neneh Cherry-N.W.A-Soul II Soul placed 1-5-6-9. Thanks partly to inspired poaching by Deee-Lite, Lisa Stansfield, and 3rd Bass, the top 40's black-artist total dipped from 14 to 11, but once again half the top 10 was black. There were seven albums by women in 1989, six (counting Deee-Lite) in 1990. Dance heroes Soul II Soul broke in a little higher in 1989 than dance heroes Deee-Lite did in 1990. Non-English-speaking Caetano Veloso finished 27th in 1989, non-English-speaking Youssou N'Dour 25th in 1990.

In fact, the only album "trend" I see is, of all things, white rock and roll. Early in the decade new indie groups bum-rushed Pazz & Jop every year, but not lately. In 1989, the only indie-style poll debuts came from NRBQ, a band older than some voters, and Galaxie 500 (who plunged to an astonishing one mention in 1990); in 1988 the Cowboy Junkies (who plunged to a less astonishing zero mentions in 1990) were the new kids on the block, though art-rockers Jane's Addiction and metallists Metallica and Guns N' Roses also made their dents; in 1987 it was two more sad stories, 10,000 Maniacs and That Petrol Emotion. This year five newish bands charted for the first time: the Black Crowes 31st, Faith No More 27th, Yo La Tengo 19th, and World Party 15th, while the Chills scored our cult record of the year, finishing 12th even though they made 11 fewer ballots than 13th-place Deee-Lite. Precedent suggests that some of these artists will never darken our poll again; except for the smart, sublime jangle-pop of the Chills' Submarine Bells, I found all their music slightly annoying myself. But flashes in the pan they're not--only the flashy Black Crowes placed a debut album. With the junk syncretism (kitchen-sink eclecticism? styleless mish-mash?) of Jane's Addiction up from 34th to 24th, it's my reluctant conviction that Faith No More will be around. And World Party might just turn into a Squeeze for our time--Beatles fans (also Tim Buckley fans) with their fun-filled conscience on Karl Wallinger's sleeve. Hold the obits, please. Critics can be so stubborn.

On the singles list, meanwhile, things changed plenty, and in the opposite direction. Women sang lead on only four of our 1989 top 25; in 1990, the figure was 12. And for all the rap-dance futurism of the last year's comments, 12 rock/pop singles underwhelmed seven rap and six dance singles on the list itself; this year, rock/pop singles were down to eight and dance up to 11. For all you category-haters out there, I'll hasten to emphasize that mine are dubious. People obviously dance to rap, especially the likes of "Bust a Move" and "The Humpty Dance," while dance records like "Buffalo Stance" and "Poison" get half their shit from rap (to make matters worse, I counted Snap's "The Power" as dance and Chill Rob G's as rap even though the tracks are identical). "Tom's Diner" is a dance record that owes an immense debt to rock (or folk, or whatever); "Epic" is a rock record that owes almost as immense a debt to rap. In fact, though dance singles obviously achieved some critical hegemony in 1990, with the crucial side effect of a surge in female voices (a bow to Martha Wash, who belongs on MTV no matter what you think of authenticity as concept and construct), this category-hopping is the story. For all their syncretic dreams and cute little experiments, the Pazz & Jop albums categorize pretty easy. The singles, which in the top 12 or so all got airplay in a dismal year for pop radio, ignore genre boundaries the way Fran Fried planned it.

I don't think rock and roll is dying, even in its square old guitar-defined form. Not because Karin Berg signed the Chills, or because the Black Crowes are younger than the Rolling Stones, or because Yo La Tengo is the most shameless critics' band since the Pet Shop Boys. The poll has never had that kind of precise predictive value. It's just that after 17 (or 18) years of polling I know years are funny things--they're all atypical. Grein didn't count Sinéad or Bonnie Raitt because girls who play rock and roll ruin neat theses. Two rappers, one worse than the other, topped the pop charts for more than half of 1990, and though rap isn't dying by a long shot, I bet that never happens again. Springsteen hits the racks in April. And so forth. But though it hit a blank with the commercial shortfall of Amerindie (a hardy cottage industry in any case), the poll has always had general predictive value. What it predicts is that's something's gonna happen and we don't know what it is. What I'm hoping is that eventually we'll figure it out.

For years smart young critics have been pointing toward the rock-dance fusion Billboard has been bruiting lately--maybe not in the form of one famous professional (Phil Collins, say) jiving up his schlock by hiring another (Shep Pettibone), but that's biz for you. Critics rarely understand biz--they just sense what people need to hear a little quicker than bizzers do. So for a neat thesis we can posit rock-dance fusion as if no such thing had ever happened before--though in fact it was a fad (and a Pazz & Jop theme) 12 years ago, and what Brit New Pop was about, and also, from another angle, what rap was, is, and will be about. This thesis carries with it the usual unexceptionable abstractions--serious fun on the mind-body continuum. And not only is it all over the singles chart, it's revitalized the EP chart, which is topped by some postpunk guitar heroes' dance record (because they're reserving the real stuff for a new label?), a gangsta rapper moving on indie-rock turf (or getting paid more per song), and guitar uglies gone New Romantic (really new age). Extry, extry: Amerindie redoubt goes DOR.

But the thesis doesn't explain the out-of-nowhere showing of pop pigfuckers Pavement, who finished fourth (surrounded by Two Nice Girls and major-label product of wildly disparate quality) on one of the tiny labels the EP list is supposed to give a crack to. It doesn't explain a reissue chart dominated by brobdingnagian CD reclamations of music that safely predates postmodern fuss (a big-big-big reason the biz isn't complaining, and what happens when the zeppelin bursts?). It doesn't explain the top three albums, each of which honors the great god beat in its own cerebrally undanceable way. It doesn't explain Sonic Youth even if their drumming's gotten better, much less Living Colour, whose jagged, pretentious art-rock qualifies as DOR only if you subscribe to the theory of natural rhythm. It doesn't explain Rosanne Cash, whose songs sang clear when she toured without a drummer. It doesn't explain Los Lobos or the Texas Tornados, roadhouse-rooted though each may be. It doesn't explain Jane's Addiction or the Black Crowes, Iggy Pop or Eno/Cale, Reed/Cale or Robin Holcomb, Van Morrison or Bob Dylan, the Pixies or the Replacements. It doesn't even explain the Pet Shop Boys.

All right, we've been here before. Electoral processes are rarely unanimous, trends are never monolithic, and different critics like different kinds of music. Big deal. Radical pluralism or a thousand points of light, it's an old story, and as such a long way from the divine rupture of something-is-happening-and-we-don't-know-what-it-is. Indeed, I'm almost as sick of the metaphor as you must be. Like any concept, it risks turning into a shibboleth unless it absorbs new data--it's losing its explanatory aura. But what can I do? According to many respondents, 1990 was the latest in the endless line of worst years ever, yet having freed myself to seek out good records, I put together my longest Dean's List ever. And as usual my picks were radically pluralistic, including 13 and counting representatives of a black Africa that from Ladysmith to the Oriental Brothers has far more to offer than the estimable Youssou N'Dour, although economic disaster may strike before international acceptance does. Internationalism is built into the dance-rock thesis--I don't just mean Hull's own Beats International, I mean Snap--but as the term is usually understood it remains a far-future projection of indeterminate shape. Even for this radical pluralist, whose list was dominated by what we jokingly call rock and roll--17 guitarslingers as far-flung as Ministry and the Flatlanders and the Beautiful South, as differently same-old as Sonic Youth and Living Colour and the Chills and the Pixies and, well, Neil Young.

As Elena Oumano says somewhere hereabouts, we dance to Armageddon to the beat of our own drummer. And as Joe Levy says somewhere else hereabouts, there's no reason to think guitar rock won't be a viable residual subgenre for a long time to come. It would be tasteless to make any grand claims for its ability to save or even improve the world at this horrible moment, but it certainly speaks to a little group of paras and professionals who'd like to see the world save or improve itself, and who take hope in the best of popular culture--"people's" culture, to and/or from as the case may be, generously accessible in both its renegade-seeker and utopian-hedonist forms. Looking over my own list, I was struck by all the high-ranking faves I'd classify as pop rather than rock, pop with historical perspective--not just Red Hot and Blue and The Civil War and also Evan Lurie's all faux, all true tango and Madonna's blindly underappreciated camp. They reminded me of Eric Weisbard's modestly visionary suggestion--a grander version of whatever inspired a vocal minority to campaign for the return of the video ballot--that our interest group comprises not just rock critics but all popular culture fanatics. And what are our interests? How about free expression for those human X-factors Victorians referred to as the dangerous classes? Spiritual growth from the ass up? Pop history as art history? The old ideal of art as community? Trial by disco for Allan Bloom? Like that.

Reclaiming mass culture is a couch potato's dream. Insofar as live-over-Memorex partisans hope to encounter a community instead of imagining one, it's a community fixated on difference--a community of people who already agree with them. There's admittedly something very abstract about the commonality couch potatoes posit as an alternative--real human beings are far more unpredictable than any work of art, however "complex," "vital," and so forth it may be, which bothers aesthetes no end. But there's something even more abstract about the Clubrat-Stayathome polarity itself--most of us fall somewhere in between. So let me tell you a story and turn the speculation over to my colleagues.

Like most of the voters in this pluralistic interest group, I didn't put Ragged Glory in my top 10--thought it dragged, basically. But though those who don't get Young may dismiss his victory as pure reaction, I like the record, which makes good on several potent fantasies--eternal renewal, the garage as underground, the guitar as shibboleth and idea. And I wasn't going to miss his gig even if it meant playing into Jim Testa's hands--especially not with Sonic Youth opening. When's the last time two such Pazz & Jop eminences shared a bill anywhere, much less Madison Square Garden? (Answer: in Chicago a month before, when Chuck & Flav and Kim & Thurston occasioned a police riot you may have read about.) Only between the display ad and the event fell the bombs, which transformed the concert as they have everything else. Ordinarily the kid from the cheap seats wearing a black American-flag T-shirt with the legend TRY BURNING THIS ONE . . . ASSHOLE would have served as a neat symbol of mass culture and its contradictions. Now he brought to mind Toby Goldstein critiquing Madonna's morality one minute and nuking the barbarians the next.

Young has made some exceptionally asinine political comments in his time, so I didn't know quite what to think when he skronked out an invisible Hendrix-style "Star Spangled Banner" after Sonic Youth went on and off. Wasn't so sure about the giant yellow ribbon hung around the giant microphone prop, either. Sure was nice to see that peace symbol up there, even if it was Freedom's logo. But though I've heard complaints about the predictability of his set list and the automatism of his abandon, I don't think he's ever swept me away like that. I admit the every-word-counts claim on "Blowin' in the Wind"--as if he was saying, "This is my song now, Bob, but I'd love for you to try and take it back"--put me in a receptive mood, especially the loud cheers for "Before they are forever banned." But though he didn't utter a nonlyric for two hours, that gallumphing beat provided political release, with warhorses like "Powderfinger" and "Cortez the Killer" and for that matter "Rockin' in the Free World" ideologically focused for once. And when during a delirious encore of "Welfare Mothers," he kept yelling "Day care, day care," I felt he understood. I didn't especially deserve the respite, of course--not the way they do over in the gulf. But we haven't yet figured out how to effect the transfer. All we can do is contest symbols and abstractions--rhythms and sonorities, flags and yellow ribbons--as we mourn and marvel at the incursions they make on our physical lives. Ain't much, is it?

Oh shit. Peace. And salaam.

Village Voice, Mar. 5, 1991


1989 Critics Poll | Dean's List 1991