Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The 19th (or 20th) Annual Pazz & Jop Critics Poll

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Alternative, Alternative, Who's Got the Alternative

Back in November, nobody knew who would win the 19th or 20th Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll. By January, everybody did--everybody but me. "It's not good enough, Joe," I protested earnestly to Crown Poobah Joe Levy, and of that I felt certain. The kvelling about Arrested Development's 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of . . . --the first winning album ever named after how long the band shopped for a contract, but not the first whose title begins with the numeral 3--started the moment it was released last March. Pumped by a cover that looked as if Dwayne and Freddie had hustled a spinoff from A Different World, I home-taped it, confident that sooner or later one of those juicy titles--"Raining Revolution," "Blues Happy," "Dawn of the Dreads"--would grab my mind-ass continuum. But a boring thing happened on the way to the pleasure dome. First Voice music editor Joe Levy found himself unable to land a review--one, two, three excellent writers eagerly signed on, then came up dry. And having run the record through my head a dozen times, so did I. Not horrible by any means. Interesting. But too often the beats shambled and the raps meandered, and though I certainly enjoyed "People Everyday"'s gangsta dis, the rhymes vagued out as well--or, worse still, preached. So I declared the album a Consumer Guide Dud forthwith.

P.S.--Then I moved my car. And one night in May something relaxed and mysterious punctuated the new jack schwing thwocking out of my Blaupunkt. It was Arrested Development! On "urban" radio! "Tennessee," great song, how did I miss it? Well, it was the 14th cut on a 57-minute album, and I don't even know which "Tennessee" I heard--the commercial 12-inch featured four mixes, a subsequent promo three more. But right, I blew it--should have named "Tennessee" a Choice Cut and split. Goofy, deeply downcast, aglow with tragic hope, Pazz & Jop's overwhelming number-one single is an adamantly spiritual but humbly unpreachy meditation on black pain that stands as a far more startling radio novelty than the number-three "Jump." If I prefer "Jump," that's because popcraft is sacred and "Jump" is an act of God--and because "Tennessee" does meander, even if it seems miraculous as a sunshower after too much slick dance music or hardcore rap.

I'm trying to be nice here. It's churlish to put down a progressively conceived popular and critical favorite that sounds good on the radio. And compared to Elvis Costello's Imperial Boredom, the only other Pazz & Jop winner I wished had stood in bed, 3 Years . . . is a funfest. But those three aborted critical paeans stick in my mind, as do all the wan-to-belittling poll comments, not to mention the interested parties who professed themselves as delighted with its electoral prospects as they had been with Our President's. "Do you ever listen to it?" I'd ask. Somewhat sheepishly, every one allowed as how he or she didn't. And this unenthusiasm is reflected in our results. The support for 3 Years . . . just about duplicated that of our 1989 winner, which was not only a soft-edged rap debut, but a soft-edged rap debut beginning with the numeral 3: De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising got 1070 points from 255 voters, 3 Years . . . 1050 from 253. De La Soul, however, attracted only 89 voters, Arrested Development 97, so that Arrested Development averaged only 10.8 points per supporter, the lowest ever for a winner; in recent years Nirvana got 12.8, Neil Young 12.3, De La Soul a flat 12. Clearly, a lot of people voted for this album because they felt they should, not necessarily as a racial or genre token but simply to reward the band for taking on the thankless burden of rap reform. Tonya Pendleton of The Philadelphia Tribune sums up the feeling: "A welcome relief from the excesses of gangster rap--it's moving, intelligent music that you can groove to."

Ah yes, gangster rap. It was a terrible year for gangster rap, whatever that means any more--street, hardcore, I don't know. The defamation of Ice-T's dead-eyed metal sendup Body Count (which finished a hard-earned 31st despite scattered copout and antimusicality charges) was only one symptom of a dilemma wracking the rap community, whatever that means any more--constituency, market, I don't know. Rap is undergoing a crisis of authenticity that makes Philly teen dreams, Hollywood hippies, punk versus new wave, and who's got the funk look like style wars. Hooked on sexism, blamed for the violence it prophesied, threatened musically by formal quandaries and brute property rights, the talking heads of black CNN found themselves between rock and a hard place. Over in the middle distance was the white crossover audience for four of the five 1992 rap albums to sell a million: Sir Mix-a-Lot, Wreckx-N-Effect, House of Pain, and triple-platinum Kris Kross. And in their face was the spiritual source of the music, the fast-changing core audience of fucked-over young black males, making an unreasonable demand it was hard for any rapper to gainsay: that rap be for them.

Inside the rap world--where artists as diverse as EPMD, Black Sheep, Da Lench Mob, M.C. Brains, and Too Short went gold with barely a pop ripple or critical notice--there were two acceptable responses to this ghettocentric demand, both of which courted up-and-coming hards by rejecting the prevailing orthodoxy of jagged, densely explosive, Bomb Squad mixes. Progressives favored the jazzy swing of Gang Starr (Brooklyn, old jack, 43rd) and the Pharcyde (California, crazee, tied for 100th), while a new neotraditionalist faction stuck to the straight-up funk of 105th-place EPMD (who also produced 106th-place Redman and the trippier 78th-place Das Efx), with the so-called soul grooves of 49th-place Pete Rock & CL Smooth splitting the difference. These artists are also diverse--anyone who believes rap is monolithic has never listened to two decent albums back to back--but while none are gangstas, only Gang Starr and Rock & Smooth try any positive messages; the EPMD crew in particular is waging a de facto rebellion against the calls to self-improvement that trip so readily from the self-appointed race men of the old and new schools, and also against what rappers loosely refer to as "critics," which means anyone who puts them down. What else can you expect when entertainers barely out of high school become point men in the struggle against a system of oppression that defeated Malcolm and Martin? But it also reminds me of the '70s, when waves of metal bands led a young, angry, male, working-class audience into its own unreconstructed market niche.

As with metal, I understand in theory and can't connect in practice--of the 10 albums just cited, only the Pharcyde's gets me going for more than a cut or two. The same goes for the electorate, where our sizable little contingent of rap specialists--which would be larger if we'd managed to get out the vote in our precinct at the hip-hop nationalist Source, where a ghettocentric response to the crisis has long been in full effect--gave the above-named most of what support they received. Raised on college radio, rock criticism's thirtyish mainstream has its own program--the alternative rap of Arrested Development, Basehead (10th place), and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy (19th).

Arrested Development pursues this program consciously, aggressively. AD headman Speech has attacked the sexism of Cube, Quik, and N.W.A in "20th Century African," a column he cowrites for his parents' community newspaper in Milwaukee, and was happy to tell an interviewer: "There are a lot of people who look up to rappers, and I want people to be aware that sometimes what artists are saying isn't always right." Talking revolution soon-come rather than violence now--"So this government needs to be overthrown/Brothers wit their A.K.'s and their 9mms/Need to learn how to correctly shoot them/Save those rounds for a revolution"--Speech typifies the rarely acknowledged class divisions of a music that seems doomed to romanticize the street even when that's where it comes from; he's the kind of young progressive whose parents own a small newspaper. Yet unlike Basehead and the Disposable Heroes, Arrested Development at least squeezed into The Source's five-page spread of 1993 "Noizemakers" (though they didn't make any of the 45 Efx-and-Rock-dominated year-end top fives the mag printed). Their Afrocentric rhetoric, and off in the middle distance their multicultural pop reach, should keep them in some kind of contact with the hip hop community. But it would be easier to believe that Speech is strong enough to negotiate the tricky internal politics any grander reform scheme will require if his music packed more firepower.

As for Basehead and the Disposable Heroes--and my own alternative rappers of choice, Philadelphia's street-leftist Goats (five mentions)--they'd better settle for college radio. And that's sad--sad for the hip hop community, but also sad for rock critics. To an extent the almost complete absence of non-alternative rap in our top 40 is a statistical blip, but I'm struck nevertheless by the bare 40th-place finish of Ice Cube's The Predator, which stormed Billboard's pop charts at number one and went platinum in January. (I'll take this opportunity to run down 41-50--Ministry, Klaatu Doing Business as XTC, Gang Starr, Skeletons, Suzanne Vega, Sade, jazz champ Randy Weston, Lemonheads, Pete Rock, and pomo diva Annie Lennox--and mention that when I totted up the record-breaking pile of 54 late ballots for my own amusement, I didn't find an Ice Cube in the bunch. In an expanded 308-voter poll, Cube comes in 49th, Gang Starr 55th, Pete Rock 56th. Tori Amos and the Roches also fall off, while Annie Lennox leapfrogs ecstatically to 32nd.) With nothing more epochal than Arrested Development on the horizon, it bodes ill that the Prophet Cube is losing his crit cred, that Ice-T blinked, that Public Enemy's avowed nonalbum got only one mention, that the nearest thing to another Cypress Hill coming out of left field was AD itself. It means the critics--and the demanding if faddish consumers they don't so much speak for as provide a clue to--are rejecting rap's core audience in much the same way the core audience is rejecting them. And though I hate to say it, I can hear why.

Rap is far too juicy to dry up and go away, and it contributed a respectable quota of albums to my own Dean's List. So of course I recommend Eric B. and Yo Yo and FU-Schnickens and BDP, Kris Kross too. I just won't claim that any of them was as momentous as PE and Ice-T and Cypress Hill in 1991--or as the Goats and the Disposable Heroes in 1992. Whether because the sampler has lost its power to surprise, as the easily bored Ann Marlowe believes, or because the copyright wars have squelched creativity, as I'll argue until there's a revolution in capitalist concepts of intellectual property, or just because the wrong artists sat out the year, rap felt a little tired. Moreover, the canard that the alternative pretenders lacked beats is hip-hop chauvinism of no relevance to the omniverous listener. For me the musical failure is Arrested Development's rootsy post-Daisy Age, which softens established rap parameters, not the pulse of the Goats and the Disposables, who meld hip hop usages into a longer, steadier rock groove (not so different from the swing and straight-up funk strategies, after all), or the wiggy indeterminacy of the private joke on rap that is Michael Ivey's Basehead. Supposedly, critics flock to alternative rap because they can relate to its corny "liberal" lyrics, and no doubt some do. Me, I don't think the lyrics are as cliched as they're made out to be, and I go to these records for music first.

Like the listenability test I threw at AD, music-first is one of those criteria that seems so incontrovertibly self-evident it becomes necessary to point out that it's not. Even the most enjoyable records don't suit all occasions, difficult and painful ones can reward your labor tenfold when you're motivated, and sometimes the keenest artistic pleasure is conceptual, which can mean anything from overall structure to formal frisson to the historical or political or ethical or just plain mental excitement of hearing a stranger choose the right moment to do the right thing--assume the right stance, forge the right synthesis, make the right statement. As you become less inclined to look to music for the meaning of life you discover that music per se endures much better than moments do, and so, although the concept album per se is associated with old fartdom, it's the excitable young who tend to overlook the messy details of what's actually in the bytes that underlie somebody's cool move. But that's neither reason to deny their concepts nor proof it's impossible to share them from a distance.

For me, PJ Harvey's Dry is a prime example. By yoking rock-not-pop late-'60s virtuosity to postpunk neoprimitivism and staking a strong-not-macho female claim on the rockist pose, it's conceptually powerful two ways, and the music-lover in me would add that the sheer sound is arresting no matter what it means. Unfortunately, I see scant evidence of the profound poet or witchy prankster some also perceive in Polly Jean Harvey, which bothers me more because too often the sound isn't shaped into fully realized songs (a pop demand, I know--sue me, I want it all). And while I admire her womanism and root for the uprising it spearheads, it's not my dream come true. So I ended up with Dry in the bottom half of my A list. But I'm not surprised that it came in fourth, nor that only one voter was so smitten that he or she (he, actually; Dry's 23 per cent female support was barely higher than women's 17 per cent share of the electorate) gave it even 20 points. With something to give now and plenty of promise for later, this is the kind of record that always inspire broad-based critical favor. The cult item was Pavement's second-place Slanted and Enchanted, which averaged almost 15 points per mention--and which to my ears not only packs the conceptual punch Joe Levy describes but stands up to heavy rotation.

That's the idea, of course--concept that "works," to use the subjective critical shorthand of artistic gatekeepers everywhere. To my ears, 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of . . . doesn't work, and neither does a rap album I somehow forgot to mention, the Beastie Boys' fifth-place Check Your Head. Great concept--arty posthardcore band turned world-class rappers address their whiteskin marginality by picking up their instruments again. Problem is, the execution is halfway there at best, and since they're into New Orleans funk rather than fast garage-rock, it matters--the pleasure and meaning of that style isn't an idea, it's the physical reality of the cross-rhythms. But as I know because I've asked around, many fans so enjoy the Beasties' "spirit of playing (and playing with) the grooves" that they listen to Check Your Head all the time. And whatever the limits of the listenability test, I guess I believe the voters also literally enjoy all the other failed concepts to march to the head of the class this year.

Not counting Lindsey Buckingham (and believe me, we were tempted), these failures were all top-20: Los Lobos's Kiko (sixth, third with the more middle-American late vote), Tom Waits's Bone Machine (ninth or seventh), K.D. Lang's Ingénue (12th), Lou Reed's Magic and Loss (16th), and maybe Bruce Springsteen's Lucky Town (17th, though raw critical loyalty certainly helped this ponderous, well-crafted disappointment, a shorter and by most accounts lighter piece of work than its more songful corelease Human Touch, which finished way down at 80). Tastes--and judgments--differ. Others would add or substitute R.E.M.'s Automatic for the People (third) or Neneh Cherry's Homebrew (13th), albums I say "work" despite their seriousness, or perhaps Lucinda Williams's Sweet Old World (11th)--maybe even, such is progress, Sonic Youth's Dirty (eighth). But with Arrested Development setting the tone, few would deny that 1992 was lousy with serious works of art, and not many would declare themselves improved in wisdom by all of them.

Together with Check Your Head, three of the four failures ended up after many, many plays in the computer file I call Neither--neither as dull as a Dud nor as effulgent as an Honorable Mention. More than R.E.M. or Cherry (both high B plusses) or Williams or Sonic Youth (both in my top 10), all these artists progressed, took chances, and so forth with their music, the better to frame their words. But their words don't justify the effort, or the notice. K.D. Lang casts herself as a cabaret singer and reminds us why cabaret singers dig Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Stephen Sondheim--hell, Alan and Marilyn Bergman. When Lou Reed writes about Andy Warhol, I listen; when he writes about death, I try to listen, really I do, but soon my thoughts turn to Michael Stipe, to Michael Hurley, to what's in the fridge. Set on balancing their Hispanic identity and their American prerogatives at a higher level of expressive fluency, Los Lobos prove their command of folk/rock sonics with lovely settings like "Wake Up Dolores" and "Arizona Skies" and their subjection to folk-rock corn with portentous titles like "That Train Don't Stop Here" and "Angels With Dirty Faces." And on Bone Machine Waits is an ace arranger under the thumb of a fourflushing singer-songwriter. When he's got the cards--"Goin' Out West"'s petty delusions, "All Stripped Down"'s final judgment, "I Don't Wanna Grow Up"'s parting shot--the Weillian bite of the junkshop music cuts through his plug-ugly vocal shtick and his fondness for literary subjects like hangings and unsolved murders. But he's always been a beatnik manque who got away with shit because it impressed pop pygmies, and he always will be.

These are the kind of records rock critics are always accused of falling for--the kind of records Sting makes, you know? But not since 1987 (U2, John Hiatt, John Mellencamp, Robbie Robertson, and the indefatigable Waits, not to mention Tunnel of Love and Skylarking, which worked) have we put up with so much bigthink. Voters noticed the trend, and their explanations make sense: AIDS, the economy, George Herbert Walker Bush. But what I mostly see is people getting older--young adults fending off intimations of mortality by rejecting the evanescent jollies of stance and synthesis for something more substantial, more verbal, more middlebrow. And if AIDS and the economy obviously fed their sense of rampaging limits, I think it's possible Nirvana had something to do with it too.

In the wake of Nevermind, critics braced themselves for an "alternative" onslaught of unknown dimensions, and if you like you can find one here. Hard-touring perennial also-rans Soul Asylum sold out and broke out; the Jayhawks relocated their Gram Parsons memorial to a major and soared. Play With Toys started out on Berkeley's Emigré, the Disposable Heroes as San Francisco's Beatnigs. Rykodisc's three charting albums put it in a league with every major except WEA, and three archetypally impecunious indies also made their mark--TeenBeat with Sassy pinups Unrest, who actually would have risen to 30 if late ballots had counted; Bar/None with transplanted Kansan Freedy Johnston, who would have gone all the way to 19 if his Midwestern backers had mailed early; and Matador with shockeroo runner-up Pavement, whose disjointly tuneful, perversely unreadable noise/sound collage would have been our biggest indie album since X's Wild Gift even if the stragglers had pushed it down to fourth where it belonged. On the other hand, Amerindie product disappeared from the singles chart and didn't even dominate EPs. Seattle's only album finisher got most of its points in 1991 and inspired the kind of opprobrium usually reserved for Madonna--Pearl Jam was the grunge band scoffers warned us about. And though 1992's indie albums aren't as folky as last year's, Rykodisc gave us one old-timer, one dead person, and one 46-year-old new Dylan, while Freedy Johnston's uncannily self-assured piece of singer-songwriter neotraditionalism achieves a, well, maturity that most of the conceptualizers on the chart would be lucky to imagine.

Yeah yeah yeah--maturity, what a drag. But like the man said, it's only castles burning. And now, in the wake of Lollapalooza and techno and accrued professional responsibility and Nirvana's dream-come-true-and-then-what and the shift of boomer power from popular music to the federal government (and, oh right, more birthdays than one could once conceive), rock criticism's thirtyish mainstream is wondering what's next while various collegiate-on-down cults--fanzine separatists, ravers, trancers, riot grrrls, overly self-conscious pop postironists, maybe even alternative rappers, all sniping and crowing and splitting off and dropping out and climbing back in again--are cordoning off whatever turf their immediate elders will cede them and claiming they're owed more. This dispute defines itself above all in terms of meaning it--of trying to say something even if it makes you middlebrow, because in the face of death and deprivation, irony don't cut it--and Pavement sets up on its cusp. 'Tudewise they stand between Sonic Youth, clearly old-guard as of this verbally direct, musically achieved, inexplicably unexciting release, and Unrest, who get over on more stance and less music than any finisher in Pazz & Jop history. Since Unrest don't lack IQ, they may follow in the footsteps of Sonic Youth and add music gradually, but for now the reaction against their smart-ass pomo irony--not theirs specifically, they're not that important, but the whole structure of feeling that culminates in Wayne's World, Achtung Baby, and, er, Malcolm X Park--generates high-concept new sincerity as surely as any underemployment epidemic or killer virus.

We've seen this split before, of course--middlebrow concept versus pomo irony is a new one, but the poll often pits meaning against pleasure, which usually reduces to albums versus singles. So it's fitting that another trend to spark comment was the concept album's obverse, the novelty record--an analysis that reflects the healthy awareness that a good laugh can help you cope every bit as much a profound insight. Still, even though our singles chart featured two songs about butts and two more about jumping around, I'm not sure I buy the theory that 1992 was a big novelty year, especially if we honor Greil Marcus's strict definition and insist that they be funny--"Jump" and "Jump Around" are delightful (especially "Jump"), "Rump Shaker" and "Baby Got Back" bodacious (especially "Rump Shaker"), but only the KLF's delicious Tammy Wynette tribute/exploitation "Justified and Ancient" makes me guffaw. Anyway, in the broader sense rap is always a novelty on pop radio, and all that makes this year different is that out of its identity crisis it's produced more Pazz & Jop chart singles than ever--six of the top seven and 10 of the top 19, including entries from Source faves Das Efx and Pete Rock & CL Smooth. What cheers me most about the singles chart is that that's what it is. Of the 28 songs in our jam-packed top 25, only eight are from any of this year's top 40 albums--and just as impressive in an era when MTV and such have replaced radio as song machines, only three are also on our video list. Although this could also prove a blip, it's the way things ought to be.

I wish they could be that way for me, but working with your ears is time-consuming. So shortly after discovering "Tennessee" on my Blaupunkt, I bought a newer car with a removable entertainment console, and while this upgrade enriched my music life, it rendered my singles experience more arbitrary than ever. As for albums, well, after you try fending mortality off with meaning for a while you discover why they invented irony, and also why they banned pleasure--men and women who deny themselves Madonna on what are at bottom niggling moral grounds bewilder me. I want it all--meaning and irony and pleasure, in the concept and in the bytes. So I pick and choose--Pavement not Unrest, Freedy Johnston not David Hildalgo, Eric B. not Pete Rock, Wayne's World not Achtung Baby. Those who know my quiddities may snort at the jewel that crowns my list, although in fact I enjoyed less contemporary Afropop than at any time since the stuff found its U.S. market niche. Nevertheless, the one 1992 release I could always count on for wisdom and fun and pure musical gratification was South African poet-singer Mzwakhe Mbuli's Resistance Is Defence (87th). Resistance Is Defence is alternative rap at its best. I wonder what Mbuli could do with a sampler.

Get on college radio? If we're lucky. As you know, Pazz & Jop wasn't the only place where rock critics' votes counted this year. The U.S. has a new president, and I'm for him, albeit less passionately than some think meet. But though I believe that culture responds as much to image, mood, zeitgeist as to the economic realities few claim Bill Clinton will change much, I'm not the kind of corny liberal (or convoluted radical) who's persuaded the musical playing field is about to undergo a drastic change. I'm not even certain that the year's happiest development, an upsurge in self-determined women that I trust will continue until such time as the fascists win, is totally momentous--not with women generating almost half my top 10 but less than a tenth of what follows. Sometimes it's salutory to make a point of music's ultimate dependence on the substructure, but with all the kvelling going on I feel more inclined this year to insist on its relative independence--even to agree that sometimes it leads the way. So I'll just pray that rap gets through its identity crisis, that public housing is erected where those castles used to be, and that my mind and ass remain a continuum long enough for me to get my sustenance from whatever happens next--and what happens after that.

Village Voice, Mar. 2, 1993


1991 Critics Poll | Dean's List 1993