Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Don't Believe the Gripe:
The Death of the Death of the Death of the Death of Rock and Roll

Let's see now. Hem, haw. It was the worst year for music since, er . . . 1995.

Guess that won't do, will it? Well, how about--gripe, mumble--it was the worst year for guitar bands since . . . That's a peg, I suppose. Since when, though? Make it 1990. It was in 1990, according to a widely cited Billboard article, that for the first time in the post-Beatle era not a single "rock" album hit No. 1, although due to the failure of vaginas to remind Billboard of Jimi's axe, appropriately arranged efforts by Bonnie Raitt and Sinéad O'Connor failed to qualify. Not coincidentally, 1990 was also the year the ground-breaking rappers M.C. Hammer and Vanilla Ice enjoyed their long, silly No. 1 runs. And soon an unknown band from Seattle would usher in a new boom cycle for both the music business and electric guitars. Which brings us to the 1996 bust. Which was real. Right?

Right. The 1996 Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll extends the 1995 trend in which the disruptive mix-and-match sampling techniques originally naturalized by hip hop made more waves than the guitar-powered aftershocks of grunge. And this aesthetic development had a commercial correlative. As the Times was so shocked to report, 1996 was indeed the year in which new rock product by such designated sure shots as R.E.M., Pearl Jam, and Hootie & the Blowfish failed to attract consumers in the vast numbers the industry had projected, or wished, inspiring much millenarian blather in its retail sector. Of course, as anyone who read Billboard was aware, retail was showing signs of pie-eyed overexpansion and overdue shakeout even during the boom. Moreover, the headlined downturn wasn't in revenues per se, which continued to rise slightly, but in the steep growth curve of recent years, an unnatural trajectory many attribute to recycled CD catalogue. And anyway, plenty of voters would argue that what's bad for the music business is good for music. Still, I take the slumplet seriously, not just because I suspect that the diminished seed money it portends is a bad thing, but because after working all my life to get respect for popular music, I believe popularity is a good thing. Decades of Iron Butterflys, Osmonds, Journeys, and Celine Dions have yet to spoil my delight in the risk and mess it entails.

Pazz & Jop generally takes a healthy interest in sales, honoring hits of quality more often than not, and although Johnny Huston huffs that the widely acclaimed winner of our 23rd or 24th poll isn't "the King of America," merely "the 100th highest-selling album artist of the year," the going-on-platinum sales of Beck's Odelay put it in the black even by today's advance-bloated standards. Nevertheless, we believe we're onto something that abides after profits have turned to fertilizer: truth and beauty, justice and pleasure, Art, the Mattering. Few of us are disquieted by the far scanter sales of the 1995 winner, PJ Harvey's To Bring You My Love, or the drastically lower 1993 numbers of Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville, and we're kind of proud that Hole's now-platinum Live Through This had barely reached gold when the ballots went out in 1994. So whether or not Polly Harvey's music is ever taken up by the so-called mass audience, we believe it will be remembered as intensely as that of her superstar stablemates in U2, who are also admired by a good chunk of the electorate (and will still be after their designated sure shot, hopefully entitled Pop, fails to save Strawberries from Chapter 11 in 1997). And we know from experience that the poll is an excellent if hardly foolproof indicator of potential fan appeal.

Yet if some sort of sea change toward soundscape feels like what's happening, when I got all right-brained and examined the numbers, what they presaged for guitar bands began to seem pretty complicated. To start with, definition is tricky. We clearly can't limit the concept to "alternative" when artists like Guns N' Roses and Richard Thompson live off it. [File Under Prince] has to count even if Guy and Tony Toni Toné and the once seminal guitarist Curtis Mayfield do not; latter-day honky-tonkers like Dwight Yoakam and Jimmie Dale Gilmore qualify even if Rick Rubin-era Johnny Cash is as folk as Ani DiFranco and The Ghost of Tom Joad. Amy Rigby counts the way Bonnie Raitt does, and so does Iris DeMent, by just a hair this time; austere Gillian Welch does not. And folkie-with-a-sampler Beck, resented in some quarters for putting new juice in a white fanboy form, obviously presents a big problem. But if I'm wrong to rule that Odelay and Mellow Gold aren't guitar-band albums, for reasons I'll explain later, that has no effect on my conclusion, which is that Gibson and Fender needn't downsize quite yet.

In this decade, the worst poll year for guitar bands was the aforementioned 1990, which was also a good one for rappers somewhat more durable than Hammer and Ice--the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, 18th that year and 87th this, and Digital Underground, whose best-remembered contribution to the hip hop weal will probably end up Tupac Shakur, two crews now victimized as much by their audience's appetite for fad and progress as by any dropoff in their own abilities. But ironically, as the saying goes, 1990's 19 sets of axemen--sole women: the Kims Gordon and Deal on bass, Georgia Hubley on drums--were led by a triumphant Neil Young & Crazy Horse, whose Ragged Glory inspired our cover line: "Guitars: Live and Memorex." Subsequently, guitar bands have charted a high of 27 finishers, in 1992, and a low of 23, in all three Pazz & Jops since 1994, which was also the year of Green Day and Soundgarden and a top five that went Hole-Pavement-R.E.M.-Nirvana-Young. And the numbers remain stable when you focus on futures. Narrowing the definitions to favor classic garage-band configurations, filtering out the varied likes of Rigby, the Mavericks, and the eternal Alanis Morissette, you find that seven previously uncharted guitar units made our top 40 in '94, nine in '95, and eight in '96.

This bean-count bears out what ought to be obvious: not only won't the dominant musical sound of the second half of the 20th century disappear overnight, but that magic twanger is likely to enjoy a maturity so active it will seem oppressive to the prophets of electronica, already impatient for a historical moment that's sure to take a form they can't predict. The gender barrier is permanently breached; for the nonce, it's much higher in techno. And partly as a result, although the simple pressure of history (including technological change) is the biggest factor, the guitar band's aural profile will continue to expand and evolve, just as the horn section's did between Sousa and Ellington, and just as guitars themselves have since 1955, when Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly and not so many others turned Chicago blues into pop, through the '60s, when guitars actually took over, through metal and punk and more metal and grunge and, whatcha wanna bet, more metal after that. And through plenty of other stuff, too.

But a closer look at the beans reveals that the electronicats aren't just whistling "Born Slippy." For starters, there's funny stuff going on with Pazz & Jop's rookies. Anomalously in an era when baby bands hone their skills with indie farm teams before going national, most of 1995's scored with debut albums, as the irrepressible biz-wise opportunists of Foo Fighters, Garbage, and Elastica concocted professional pop from the grunge aesthetic/moment and Uncle Tupelo bifurcated into down-to-earth Wilco and miasmic Son Volt. Maybe the opportunists are career artists, as they say over in a&r. But the careers in question seem pathologically dependent on catchy singles, a malady almost as fatal (you die of the cutes, humming uncontrollably, Day-Glo puke, it's awful) as the dread Alternian texturitis (for those who desire a dignified death). And in 1996, with our singles chart sporting a fresh crop of alternanovelties, Eels and Primitive Radio Gods where once Filter and the Presidents of the U.S.A. stood, all but two of our album newcomers reversed the pattern of the previous years by squeezing in on the low end, 24-29-34-35-38. This suggests some combination of diminished critical interest and attenuated talent pool. Whatever you think of Robert Schneider's weirdo brainchildren, you have to admit that Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control lack the ambitious sweep of the opportunists. Don't you?

So then. Perhaps it's time to ac-cent-tchu-ate the progressive. Having debuted at No. 2 in 1995, the bummed-out mixmaster Tricky wasted no time placing a still bleaker follow-up and his Nearly God guest-victim project in the top 20. Easier on the soul and meatier for the right side of the brain was Endtroducing . . . DJ Shadow, U.S.-released mid-November by a young Californian so out of step Stateside that he had to go to London to get a rep, which finished all the way up at fourth after barely creasing premature competing polls. With Goldie polishing his Metalheadz and L.T.J Bukem shunted over to a P&J compilation chart I hope isn't embryonic forever, these two artists represented the legible edge of soundscape in 1996. Tricky was felt and phantasmagoric, Shadow in control of the kind of macrostructures rarely noticed by the voters, who end up depending as much on songs as Alanis and Gwen--a pop predilection that is the secret of their oracular powers. Whether Tricky and Shadow have a growth curve in them remains to be determined. But simply by taking electronica to a recognizable formal conclusion, they gave lots of nonspecialists the touch of strange they craved while preparing them for further developments.

And after that there's, well, there's Stereolab seventh and Everything but the Girl 12th. These finishes thrilled my advisors, and I was gratified if hardly surprised by the forward motion they signified. I just wish I was convinced it wasn't lateral motion. Early proponents of the alternaesthetic in which texture fills in for tune, EBTG have been around longer than, I don't know, Screaming Trees, and Ben Watt's drum 'n' bass doesn't enliven Tracy Thorn's sad croon any more decisively than his protoloungecore used to. So it isn't that history has caught up with them, it's that they've finally found their retro-with-a-twist niche, and could they have cocktail onions with that? As for the blithe Marxists of Stereolab, I'm down with their newfound knack for splitting the difference between class war and Wrigley commercial, but weightwise it turns them into Fountains of Wayne with a chick singer and longer songs. Once again no future, except perhaps in its synthy wink at the triviality it embraces with such post-Fordist savoir-faire, a fun quality few of us would call--and though I hate to put it this way, what else can I say?--revolutionary. P.S.: Something similar goes for their culture-bending sisters in Cibo Matto, who signify their commitment to innovation by hanging out in the right neighborhood.

It's not my (primary) purpose to make fun of an honorable record I don't happen to care for and a likable one that wears its limitations on its insert. I'm just trying get a grip on the latest death-of-rock rumor, which I'll call the fifth--1959 ("the day the music died"), 1968 (nobody believes me now, but it was the talk of the town; Esquire assigned a story, then axed me when I came up with the wrong answer), 1977-79 (disco), 1990 (see above), and 1996. This is a conservative count, of course--every year, every month, artistic malcontents broadcast obituaries for whatever genre isn't ringing their chimes or providing the wealth and fame they know to be their due. So at this late date I trust my skepticism is understandable. It could actually be, as is oft conjectured, that mindless pop pap--not the Cardigans, but poor Gwen Stefani--has already replaced dire pseudoalternative bellyaching in the hearts and minds of the 18-24s the biz dotes on. But that isn't what we care about. If Nirvanamania was a fluke, well, who expected anything better after Kurt died? Having survived Journey and Michael Bolton (on the same label, yet never seen on the same stage at the same time!), we can certainly survive No Doubt and even Celine Dion. The question is what music will get us through--if any.

As it happens, I haven't been much of a "rock" guy myself of late. Looking over a decade's worth of top 10s, I find that till this year only in 1994, with grunge rampant and hip hop and Afropop losing savor, did more than half my faves qualify; usually the figure has been three or four. Although this year's six-by-just-a-hair--Rigby, Fluffy, Sleater-Kinney, DeMent, Los Lobos, Nirvana--all got to me immediately, the basic guitar-band format has become so familiar that even the ones I end up enjoying (Girls Against Boys, Sebadoh, the glorious Imperial Teen) can take forever to show me their tricks. Since I disdain the marginal differentiations fanzines are created for, demanding nothing less than true sonic distinction--which often just means astutely produced tune-and-voice combos like Sebadoh's or Fluffy's, but sometimes inheres in interplay like Imperial Teen's, and when the right lyric grabs me by the earlobe I come back for more--you'd think stuff would sink in faster. But for me as for most people, diminished expectations do turn into self-fulfilling prophecies over time. And it's that formal satiety--often combined with the nervous compulsion to maturity that afflicts not-so-recent college grads as their liaisons turn into relationships and their jobs evolve willy-nilly into careers--that leaves smart young-adult rock and rollers hungry for new. Thing is, this is as true of artists as of fans. Sometimes they're merely worried about their continued marketability. But they didn't become musicians to get bored.

With that in mind, ask yourself how many of P&J's 23 rock acts seem comfortable with the accepted parameters of the form? Musicmeisters R.E.M. and tastemeister Joe Henry working New South neotraditionalism; guitarmeister Richard Thompson on his half-acoustic little double-CD and songmeisters Wilco claiming every parameter they can think of on theirs; reformed country phenom Steve Earle and unretiring grande dame Patti Smith; Sheryl Crow cognizing aural dissonance; Rigby and DeMent with bigger fish to fry; and grunge patriarchs Soundgarden and Screaming Trees, whose big-rock moves are the most conventional pieces of music in this year's top 40. And while quite a few of these artists mean to break molds (with virtuosity, passion, whatever), the list of those who already have only starts with [File Under Prince]: Sleater-Kinney storming the castle like Nirvana before them; Sebadoh and Imperial Teen playing Marco Polo in the moat; Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control throwing poop on their toy songs; arena-ska Sublime and rap-metal Rage Against the Machine; Jon Spencer avant-travestying da blooze; popmeisters Pulp reigning over a United Kingdom in which dance beats come as naturally as wanking; and the magisterial old cross-culturalists of Los Lobos sampling rhythms and styles live as well as sounds and atmospheres DAT. Obviously these groupings array themselves on a continuum, not in polarity, with the daring of individual transgressions subject to dispute. But to me they make clear that as it generated the inevitable epigones and deracinations, Nirvanamania opened things up even further than outside forces would have opened them up anyway.

And then there are the artists for whom a received form is a shot in the arm, mother's milk, life itself. Distinguishing between emergent culture, the shock-of-the-new malcontents crave, and residual culture, the old-fashioned staples they resent, Raymond Williams pointed out that the residual is often antihegemonic, affirming values the arbiters up top have cost-cut to pieces. This mechanism is regularly activated when the disenfranchised seize their expressive destiny, as in the P&J counterpart to all the women who took over the Billboard charts in 1996, the three lesbians and one housewife who staged two of the most startling rushes in P&J history--third-place Sleater-Kinney and eighth-place Amy Rigby, who handicapped to come in around 20th and 35th on their tiny labels. Compared to Nirvana's, Sleater-Kinney's moldbreaking seems midcontinuum, their less disruptive chops knocking down everything in the music's path on the strength of a resolve whose steadiness never diminishes its intensity, while all Rigby wanted from her producer was articulate settings for her naturalistic lyrics and tunes, which is all he provided. People who just don't get these records attend to the instrumentation and say what's the big deal. But rather than political correctness or some such canard, what propelled them so high was reliable usages imbued with new needs--an urge to grow up without blowing up, an urge to hold fast without getting stuck to the floor. And each of these was conveyed by the one musical element no inanimate device has yet generated: the human voice.

Voices are almost as personal in the reception as the production, and on both ends too many alt types so detest Michael Bolton that they've learned to do without what are narrowly designated strong ones. Voice is why Iris DeMent improved her 1994 showing on a robust album cynics found preachy, and because it's so personal, it's also why devotees love Cassandra Wilson's midnight drift and I don't. The poll honors a few great voices--[File Under Prince] again, and having wearied of poor Eddie Vedder, some would now add Mark Lanegan--plus, as always, a great many canny singers. But it's our two dark horses who make me wonder whether pipes could be making a comeback with a constituency deeply suspicious of their penchant for corn. Corin Tucker's power contralto (underpinned by Carrie Brownstein's power screech) is why so many skeptics quickly get Sleater-Kinney, and as a guy who kept playing Rigby's record well after he could sing along with the year's sharpest lyrics, I can attest that it isn't her words that carry the music, but how warmly they quaver around proper pitch.

What strikes me about Rigby and Sleater-Kinney is that they resist the trend in which four of the five top albums (counting Los Lobos's Tchad Blake connection) are sample-dependent: the most purportedly direct musical-emotional expression up against self-consciously recombinant bricolage. I wish I wasn't obliged to point out that such alternatives aren't mutually exclusive: Shadow topped my list, Rigby ran a strong second. And the finest thing I can say about our sweeping winner is that he doesn't think anything excludes anything. I don't count Beck as guitar-band, even though he fronts one on stage and plays the appropriate instruments in the studio, for the simple reason that he wants out the way [File Under Prince] wants in. His legal ID says folkie, but he manifests no more and no less fealty to that niche than to alt-rock, hip hop, or avant-garde--or, let us not forget, biz.

Beck won big, not spectacularly. Only the third victor to earn more points than the Nos. 2 and 3 albums combined, he was also the third straight--as critics' polls proliferate, a certain lemming effect sets in. His 47 per cent mention on 236 ballots (with the Voice between music editors, our turnout was the lowest of the '90s) hadn't been equalled since the '80s, when Prince and Bruce batted over .500 and Michael J. came close, and I know because several letters said so that a few fans who counted him a shoo-in threw their support to beloved longshots instead. There is an obverse, however. Calculated lowballing is no doubt one reason for how few points Odelay amassed from all those voters, only 10.3 per mention, a dropoff of a full half-point from the previous low, Arrested Development in 1992 (which I trust is now recognized as a duty pick, a suggestion that outraged its supporters at the time). But by way of comparison, 1994 sure shots Hole averaged 12.8 points per mention, 1995 sure shot PJ Harvey 12.4, and both inspired outpourings of hyperbole, while (as with Arrested Development) Beck's written support was surprisingly querulous. Since Odelay ended up sinking to 16 on my list, sounding pretty cold up against the goofy glow and slacker specificity of Mellow Gold--not to mention the funny flow and pan-African seriousness of the Fugees, who confounded duty and pleasure so sweetly and militantly that troubled hip hop ideologues still don't know what to make of them--I infer that, like myself, many of the winner's more detached supporters wondered whether there was enough there there. Protean and incandescent cut by cut, Odelay means by not meaning--it fetishizes indirection, which becomes simultaneously rational and huggable when couched in its song forms. For the old alternakids who love the record this strategy is mother's milk, soy milk, malted milk, and a shot of good Scotch combined. But it makes mere admirers itch.

Yet because I respect Beck, enjoy Beck, and like Beck, I have little doubt that he's humane enough to rectify this absence. I know the prophets among us think his samples are far too jokey and catch-as-catch-can, a rockist insult to the whole-universe soundfields they can hear with their body's ear in the latest techno subsubgenre, and they're onto something--hearing, seeing, feeling Spring Heel Jack spin in October was a trip I hope to repeat. But the predictive power of the utopian folderol rock and roll has been fending off since the '60s is so risible by now that I refuse to waste space on the argument. Extreme states of consciousness are for extremists, and one reason popularity is such a good thing is all the mad visions and overpowering emotions ordinary music lovers get to put to ordinary use. I hope Tricky and Shadow's growth curve leads us all the way up the mountain, where wizards unknown await. But most of those you read about in the funny papers are apprentices at best.

I began 1996 with dire predictions about the future of music, and I take exception to (or maybe just don't get) much of this year's top 40--e.g., the pleasantly pleasureless Gillian Welch; the politely literary Joe Henry; the archly boho Cibo Matto; Maxwell expiring of Afrocentric texturitis in that midway spot on the poll reserved in past years for such dance/r&b as Lisa Stansfield, Seal, En Vogue, Tony Toni Toné, and (here's a clue) D'Angelo; the Roots proving that good intentions aren't enough even if you throw in a human beatbox; and, saints preserve us, future Sleater-Kinney tourmate Jon Spencer. But many of these are what I call Neithers rather than Duds, and it could have been a lot worse. The deadly Tortoise foundered in a 41-50 that went Lovett-Dr. Octagon-Reed-Chesnutt-Germano-Girls Against Boys-Tortoise-Metallica-Cardigans-Fluffy (!). Aimee Mann was 74th, Dirty Three 87th; there were only two votes for Grant Lee Buffalo. The winner in the sadly unenthusiastic singles balloting was at least a dance ditty as dumb and wondrous as "Macarena" itself. And with the inability of the biz to repackage its history in perpetuity causing as much financial distress as Pearl Jam's refusal to make videos, at least the uncanonical surprise winner of our reissues ballot is a galactic titan. Thank heavens for Sun Ra--he could have been Esquivel.

I was encouraged too by the return of political complaint--Iris DeMent and Zack de la Rocha, Lauryn Hill and Corin Tucker--and note once again that the quality and effectiveness of the ideas matter less than the felt need to express them. This is Art, folks. One would like it to have social consequences and is certain that one way or another it will, but Art is where those consequences begin. That's why, in the end, I find I don't much care whether the biz booms or busts. If it booms we get some kind of '60s-style mass mess, with crazies and communicators expanding and compromising their reinvested emotions and their glimpses of the next world; if it busts a narrower subculture addresses the same issues in much the way Amerindie did in the '80s. There's worthy music down both forks--a futurism that isn't suckered by folderol counterbalanced against an eagerness to reconstitute traditions it would be dumb to throw out with the bongwater. Not what I dream, not what you dream, but what is? For a holding action in what could have been a dismal time, it will definitely keep me hanging on.

Village Voice, Feb. 25, 1997

Village Voice, Feb. 25, 1997


1995 Critics Poll | Dean's List 1997