Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The 24th (or 25th) Annual Pazz & Jop Critics Poll

The Year of No Next Big Thing

Bonbon Top 40 and a Bottomless Anthology Supplant an Old Vanguard

Because the 24th or 25th Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll was the biggest-and-bestest ever, it tempted me to come out shilling for our big fat turnout and shiny new machines. Because the winner was in doubt well into the computerized tally, his margin of victory the smallest since . . . Blood on the Tracks?--no no no, Born in the U.S.A.--it beckoned the frustrated sportswriter in me. But I run this thing because I like being a rock critic. My boyish delight in the charts doesn't do as much for my cardiovascular tone as my adult pleasure in the kid music I call rock and roll. And this year, its kiddie and grownup quotients soared in parallel, with confusing consequences for the art-in-itself critics supposedly monitor.

If one generalization can apply, which it never can, try this: a terrible year for the rock "vanguard." Yet though nobody this side of MTV would mistake a grizzled popcult booster like me for an avant-gardist, I wasn't wild about the myriad shapes the tried-and-true assumed. As an admirer of our winner, Bob Dylan's darkly traditionalist Time Out of Mind, I nevertheless prefer Blood on the Tracks and seven or eight of its predecessors. I am underwhelmed by second-place Radiohead, an arena-rock band that could do with smaller gigs on its touring schedule and fewer on its hard drive, as well as most of the electronica-flecked hedgers and retro-fretting folkies-in-disguise waving guitars further down the list. Topping a platter of pop-'em-in-your-mouth singles, meanwhile, is a teenybopping bonbon said to be as addictive as "I Want You Back," but though I'll certainly take Hanson's milk-fed cheer over Radiohead's bulimic paranoia of convenience, I still like my chocolate bittersweet (and my symphonies not at all). Only in hip hop, saved from self-destruction by a song and dance man rather than the wizards of Shaolin, are the year's old-fashioned pleasures big enough fun, and that's ignoring a consumerism so corporate it inspires nostalgia for dookie gold.

If anything summed up rock's foreshortened horizons, however, it was the twin pop events of the year, the more undeniable of which was the resurgent singles chart, where in 1996 a mere 34 voters (out of 236) made the Quad City DJ's our winners. This year, as the electorate exploded to 441 (previous high: 308), the Middle American "MMMBop" attracted a much healthier 96 full-time fans, followed by the Brit-hits "Tubthumping" and "Bitter Sweet Symphony"--the first time black artists have ever been shut out of the top three. But the renewed respectability of pop evanescence peaked with the Spice Girls. Grown from the DNA of En Vogue, Elastica, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, they got a free ride from Alanis-haters turned Fionaphobes by making no attempt to conceal their inauthenticity, thus rendering it moot. Though I think "Wannabe" is a great record, I have my reservations about how eagerly pop intellectuals suck up this amusing pseudofeminist scam. The problem isn't politics even if their movie defines girl power as bearing a baby--a female baby, with her dad on the lam. It's that they're not good enough. Since none of them (including my favorite, Baby) dazzles as a singer or comedienne, and since the run of their material is bland Eurovision crapola, their deepest pleasures are ipso facto convolutional: femme-friendly respite from feminist puritanism along with people-friendly respite from rockist puritanism. And if in the end they ain't all that, well, what else you got?

The answer many critics embraced was an overwhelmingly male-defined imaginary world somehow untainted by political incorrectness. Declaring it a pop event may seem cheeky. But at its distribution level it enjoyed phenomenal exposure and spin control, and it was named by more Pazz & Joppers than "MMMBop" itself, only the second time a No. 1 reissue has outdrawn a No. 1 single (the first was Robert Johnson over Deee-Lite, 1990). Just as the Spice Girls address a pop present that assumes no pop future, asserting the significance of the trivial more fiercely and playfully than any academic culture vulture, Harry Smith's dazzlingly repackaged Anthology of American Folk Music addresses a pop present that has longed for permanence since at least 1823, when the obscure Brit songwriting team of Henry M. Bishop and John Howard Payne penned the 19th century's greatest hit, "Home Sweet Home."

I love the Anthology myself--it's not all as transcendent as is hoped, but it keeps opening up. As everyone should know by now, the old songs it canonized in 1952 are hardly unbesmirched by commerce. They were recorded for sale to subcultural markets circa 1930, not unlike indie-rock today. Nor are they especially homey, or sweet. Selected by one of the signal bohemians of our era, they're the opposite of parlor music, many of them surreal, dislocated, and/or violent tales of what this year's winner summed up in the title of his 23rd-place 1993 album: a World Gone Wrong. And so, while inspiring the so-called folk revival, they also presaged rock and roll, which first revved up their social utility and then claimed their themes. In 1997, many rock and rollers--seeking formal solace in a world gone wrong and around too long to take techno-utopianism literally--felt a need to access their ingrained knowledge.

As it happened, Bob Dylan--who has now put 15 albums on our charts since Pazz & Jop began in 1974 or 1971, more even than Neil Young (14) or Prince (13)--had been on this trail all decade, certainly since his folk albums of 1992 and 1993. In 1997, he not only got it right but scored his greatest PR coup since he fell off that motorcycle. I don't mean to belittle an illness we're blessed he survived, but I'm convinced that Time Out of Mind is in no intrinsic way "about death." Its subject is the end of a love affair, plain as the skin on your face, and at times its bleakness is overstated--even if "The end of time has just begun" reminds me all too acutely of how the minutes crawl when the love connection is broken. The mortality admirers hear in it is their own, mirrored in a vocal mask half sage and half codger, in the nakedness of the one-syllable words the artist affects and the weary music that backs them up. The timelessness people hear in it, on the other hand, is what Dylan has long aimed for--simple songs inhabited with an assurance that makes them seem classic rather than received. In a year when the rock "vanguard," in both its struggling electronica and barely breathing post-rock cough cough modes, vowed to break the bonds of lyrics and verse-chorus-verse, only callow ideologues could simply ignore Harry Smith's and Bob Dylan's arguments for history. And many felt the Spice Girls and Hanson were an evolutionary outcome of this history.

Of course, only naive zealots believed songs, singing, and the four-four were actually on their way out. But with Nirvanamania grinding into schlock as Britain's acid house fissure spread in all directions, it did seem as if the infinite palette of computerized sound was about to work some permanent changes on the collective ear, not just of critics but of workaday consumers. And pollwise, at least, the failure of "electronica" stops with the term itself. Despite no-shows by Tricky and DJ Shadow, both certain to return in 1998, the Chemical Brothers plus Roni Size plus Prodigy plus Daft Punk add up to the largest number of techno artists ever to chart, with Bjork and Portishead and Stereolab and Primal Scream and Radiohead down with the program. But while our 16 U.K. finishers (counting Bjork and Stereolab but not full-time Frenchmen Daft Punk), the most since 1980 and the second most ever, include all of the above, they also include, in descending order of technophilia, U2, Cornershop, Spiritualized, the slackly electronica-associated Beth Orton, the Verve, Supergrass, Blur-not-53rd-place-Oasis, and Belle and Sebastian.

In short, as we should have known from Blur-versus-Oasis as well as common sense and casual observation, Britain's techno revolution was, gee, less than total. Not only did it leave a vacuum waiting to be filled by a high-concept readymade, but it produced numerous partial converts and the usual complement of rebels, skeptics, and go-it-aloners, including guitar bands aplenty. So Brits took over a new-blood function that Pazz & Jop has long vouchsafed Amerindies. This year adds to a U.S. honor roll that includes X, R.E.M., the Replacements, Husker Du, Sonic Youth, Pavement, Yo La Tengo, and Sleater-Kinney two minor bands on major labels: Ryan Adams's Whiskeytown, led by a dulcet young hook merchant with "left to pursue a solo career" embroidered on the seat of his jeans, and Doug Martsch's much meatier Built To Spill, a stubbornly domestic project of no discernible commercial potential. And although the four U.S. quasifolkie chart debuts include tuneful if depressive Elliott Smith and expressive if depressive Richard Buckner, the other two are showbiz hopefuls: Fiona Apple, Lilith Fair's answer to Alanis, and Ron Sexsmith, a thoughtful cutie-pie who wants to give Tim Hardin his shot at the brass ring.

The real change, however, is that excepting genius-from-nowhere miniaturists Belle and Sebastian and in their peculiar way Blur, who elected to escape the shadow of Oasis and the Kinks by aping Pavement, the British newcomers don't truck with Amerindie's antistar niceties. They've been in the papers too long. Back when Spiritualized's Jason Pierce was Spaceman 2 or the Verve's Richard Ashcroft wandered lonely as a cloud or Cornershop's Tjinder Singh thought music was just a hobby for him, they could pretend they were ordinary chaps who didn't care how many records they sold. But these days they've all joined the pop race, where they seem no less at home than U2 or Radiohead--there's little sense of strain in the ambitious sprawl all achieve. Where Amerindie's musical commitments are conceived as means to counterculturalism, in Britain the children of acid house control the radical rhetoric. So no matter how stoned or alienated or hedonistic these guitar bands are, they respect rock tradition and accept a pop system they're bent on beating. For them, vanguard is barely a concept anymore.

And the way our electorate heard the year, it wasn't much of a concept Stateside either. Among the fanzine rumors and local heroes who placed down to 120 or so last year, a feat requiring the support of some half dozen voting weirdos, were five newly anointed cult bands: Tortoise (post-rock hack-hack), Smog (dim solipsism), Cat Power (antichauvinist low-affect), the Lilys (amplified watercolors), and the Sun City Girls (postskronk imperialism). But my disdain isn't the point--the point is that a few people who think critically about music credited their obscurantism. This year, although Ben Folds continued to pump out puddle-deep ironies as the putatively country-rock Geraldine Fibbers abstract-expressed themselves all over creation, the only newcomers with the slightest insurgent vibe were two sets of well-schooled L.A. popsters: star-crossed biz babies That Dog and up-and-coming self-promoters the Negro Problem. There were also below-40 repeaters both avant (Smog, Helium, Sea and Cake) and neoclassicist (Flaming Lips, Luna, Waco Brothers, Superchunk), as well as new solo artists (Jim White and Edith Frost the not-very-strangest, Ben Harper and Robbie Fulks most likely to succeed). But for the nonce the wellspring of out-there young American bands has dried to a trickle.

These disparities were so abrupt--not just the Amerindie falloff, but the 16 Brits, way up from five in 1996 and eight in 1995--that I suspected some demographic anomaly. Since we'd not only computerized but greatly expanded and updated our rolls from dailies, weeklies, and magazines nationwide, we added 259 voters who hadn't participated in 1996. (Note that every record with a mention, as well as every critic's ballot and an extra comments file, are posted at www.villagevoice.com.) It seemed conceivable that the new voters would gravitate toward major-label mailings and hence the U.K. But when we tallied up a minipoll of the 182 repeaters, the U.S.-U.K. distribution remained stable. The meaningful difference involved hip hop, where--despite much improved representation from name writers at the hip hop mags, the fastest-growing segment of the music press--we failed to attract the kind of second-string reviewers who in the alt world flock to Pazz & Jop. So in an even better poll the Notorious B.I.G. would have finished top 10 and the top 40 would have made room for Common, the thinking B-person's cherce, and most likely Rakim, the elder statesman returned. Such other high hip hop also-rans as Timbaland and Magoo, Dr. Octagon, Company Flow, the fast-spinning Return of the D.J., Vol. II, and New York's X-Ecutioners might also have contended. (In the real world, 41-50 went: Octagon, Foo Fighters, Common, Arto Lindsay, Return of the D.J., Chumbawamba, Timbaland, Paul Simon, Mike Watt, Rakim.)

But otherwise our results compute. Redoubling our electorate certainly wouldn't change the collective opinion of America's rock critics in re the indie/alternative scene long identified as rock's avant-garde, which is that it is at best in the doldrums--a finding I report with no outrage and little regret. What else could anyone have expected? Lo-fi to low-affect, abstinent to self-abusing, withdrawal has been the Alternian strategy since whenever the gatekeepers concluded that the wages of Nirvana was Smashing Pumpkins. That's why Sleater-Kinney is such a miracle--loyal citizens of Alternia's most Olympian stronghold, on Kill Rock Stars yet, they're nonetheless possessed by the need to hammer out music that explodes its own boundaries and everyone else's. But putting aside your favorite exception (I have mine), they're alone. No Alternians remotely like them combine the guts and the talent to come down from the mountain or up from the basement. You think Smog or Cat Power want to be--hell, are willing to be--loved like Sleater-Kinney? Much less Oasis? They don't even want to be loved like Pavement or Yo La Tengo.

If there's no point whining about this logical turn of events, there's also no reason to worry it's a life sentence. In pop, there are no life sentences; we're lucky there are two-year bids. Within months, at least in theory, Courtney or Madonna could redefine the game, and so could someone we don't know exists, someone of any race, gender, creed, or nation of origin. But let me put it this way--it won't be Liz Phair, it won't be Polly Jean Harvey, and barring miracles on top of miracles it won't be Sleater-Kinney. Nor will it be Pavement or Yo La Tango, who peaked artistically with their 1997 albums and were rewarded with, wow, critical acclaim, as well as, holy moley, viable careers, neither guaranteed permanent--old masters now, they've already reached out with all the common touch they'll ever command. I'll reserve some stray hope for Cornershop, whose formally pop collection of sublimely simple multicultural jingles just poked its nose into Billboard's album chart. But the dream of a nirvana where aesthetes have taken over rock and roll, which like most nirvanas always seemed kind of dull anyway, has played itself out. The best anyone could claim is that the ever-expanding diversity of available music, by some estimates up tenfold in a decade--our 441 critics voted for over 1100 different albums--is ultimately healthier for the ears anyway.

My own favorite albums of the year, easy, were by Pavement, Yo La Tengo, Sleater-Kinney, and--my heart's prize, a fragile, lyrical, sly, beatwise, embarrassingly beautiful cross-cultural appropriation--Arto Lindsay. Bohos all, New Yorkers and Olympians, every one on an indie even if Matador's sleeping with Capitol, and who was I trying to kid? Could I really argue that the average record buyer was crucially poorer for his or her indifference to these distinct and exquisite fellow spirits of mine? Well, maybe Sleater-Kinney, but not the others--they're too specialized, too rarefied, even if Alternians regard them as gauchely obvious by now. And although except for Arto all these continue to command broad critical approbation, the Brits who trailed and in the case of Radiohead led them represent, well, an alternative.

U2 have always put on too many airs to suit me, guvnor. Through studied hip and good intentions, through stylistic permutations that barely inflect their deliberate tempos, careful riffs, and tortured magniloquence, they epitomize a crucial strain of rock pretension--working-class strivers bent on proving they're not common. Pseudoironic title aside, Pop was a disappointment bizwise, moving a paltry 1.3 million after Achtung Baby and Zooropa totaled over seven, and also pollwise, where it scraped in at 31 after the albums just named charted top 10. But these shortfalls are relative. Pop was also the 50th biggest album of 1997--in the U.S., which is not U2's major market--and outsold all but six Pazz & Jop finishers (Notorious, Badu, Prodigy, Wu-Tang, and Apple, plus 1996's late-breaking Sublime). As for Pazz & Jop, I had hoped the wan, overworked, serious-as-taxes contraption wouldn't chart at all. But eventually I figured why fight poetic justice. Except for Cornershop, all the U.K. guitar bands to crash our top 20--the Verve, Spiritualized, and above all Radiohead--take their cues from U2.

It's not as if grandiosity has been monopolized by the quondam British Isles in our poll--after all, one of the dozen things that made Nirvana great was the pretensions they fulfilled. But these bands are more seignorial about their angst than any Yanks of consequence except Smashing Pumpkins--strictly in U2 mold. In fact, I just thought of this, maybe that's the mold dumber-than-mashed Richard Ashcroft can't break out of in "Bitter Sweet Symphony," as inane a single as ever has snared the voters' ears--that symphony is just like life only catchier, you see, catchier than any damn U2 hit too, as is my own proud pleasure by this asinine band, "The Drugs Don't Work." Although Jason Pierce's drugs worked so swimmingly for so long that some applaud him for discovering love L-O-V-E, Spiritualized retain far more functioning cerebral tissue. They're also the least U2-like of the three, superimposing the droning circle games of Spacemen 3 onto rock melodrama, and for all their exjunkiedom are refreshingly short on the fatalism pawned off as wisdom by the Verve and depressive if impressive Radiohead.

Admittedly, few crits lie down for Thom Yorke's pained critiques of conformist humans and unmanageable machines. The band's brains, they agree, are in its sonics, which achieve what U2 brags about--an electronically textured, augmented, and otherwise fucked-with guitar sound that occasionally even I find gripping, as on "Electioneering," which has the shortest lyric on the album. But in addition to the words I take exception to Yorke, who is a better singer than Stephen Malkmus the way Mariah Carey is a better singer than Mary J. Blige. Good pipes are the refuge of fools, the kind of fools the critics mean to speak for if not be this year--better the broad gestures deployed by high-handed rockers, they've decided, than the straitened circumstances affected by lo-fi snobs. But though I accept the principle, I can't get with the fact, and this is probably generational. The specious notion that punk was '50s rock and roll revisited does contain a kernel--like punk, the music I grew up loving was fast, short, lively, and good for a laugh. The music many critics in their thirties grew up loving, however, wasn't punk, not at first--it was AOR, which was slow, long, turgid, and somber. U2 made their mark on late AOR because they shared its penchant for the grand aural trademark, and to anyone weaned on AOR they and their progeny sound natural in a way they can't to me. Maybe being old ain't so bad after all.

Since Pazz & Jop often has predictive power, I'm warning you to watch out for the Verve, tuneful saps who in their escapist-murk period were counted arty enough for Lollapalooza's second stage; they will certainly outsell Radiohead as well as Spiritualized and may surpass U2. I only wish I could see how this will make the world a better place. For some reason, human beings need tunes--they order time, yoke beauty and logic, trigger the smile reflex, help you buy stuff, something. But tunes are also the refuge of fools. While classical folk believe they're only worthy when "developed," I ask merely that mine pack some extra charge. Whatever gets you high, but for me that didn't happen to be "MMMBop," an ebullient piece of product without the, I'm sorry, social vision of "Tubthumping," which finally triggered my hum reflex the day after we voted, and would now be my No. 3 single.

Nos. 1 and 2 were nonfinishers--Puff Daddy Inc.'s "I'll Be Missing You" and B-Rock & the Bizz's "MyBabyDaddy," both of which access ingrained knowledge too shamelessly to suit Pazz & Joppers. "Missing You" you know--the B.I.G. tribute is the r&b "Candle in the Wind" at over three million sales, and didn't hit me full on until I lost a dear friend in November. "MyBabyDaddy" sold 700,000 without approaching the same level of ubiquity, and I loved its nutty deep-South hook before I had any idea what the song was about, which is--as in Spice World, of all things--raising a baby (female, but that's muffled and incidental) with its dad on the lam. Thus it transforms a supposed national tragedy into a wild joke, a fact of life, and a party-shaking Miami bass track. And although the sample isn't the hook, which is all in Kittie Thomas's "Ghetto Gul" drawl, it's as dependent on the Emotions' "Best of My Love" as Puffy is on the Police's "Every Breath You Take." Well, big deal. Puffy's sample is a recontextualization as humane as MC Hammer's with "Super Freak" in 1990, when I voted for "U Can't Touch This," which also rescued a tune human beings can use from a mean-spirited blowhard (a feat attempted less warmly and boldly on John Waite's 1984 "Missing You," which jacks Sting's cadence but not his exact notes). And though the main thing both producers want to do is amass bills in large amounts, a side effect is to connect kids who think "Rapper's Delight" is a Redman song to a vast tradition every music lover should take pride in.

So with the Verve getting respect, I must second Carol Cooper's "It's Nation Time!" As you might expect in a year when singles rooled, 1997 gave up massive black pop. From turntablist magicianship to Puffy's steals (which aren't always that blatant, not unless you're a bigger fan of Bill Conti and Eddie Holman than I am), from Timbaland's Tidewater dub to the sonic overkill of the Wu (who can only benefit from the artistic competition), hip hop has survived gangsta without disrespecting its downpressed defiance. The gifted Erykah Badu is a mite too bourgie-boho for me, my brother, but if she writes more "Tyrone"s she can scat all the Egyptology she wants, and I'm a total convert to down diva Mary J. Blige (85th) and very-round-the-way girl Missy Elliott. While such counterparts as Maxwell and D'Angelo have yet to produce a "Tyrone" of their own, the sheer quantity of male singing talent is enough to make a choir director try A&R. Janet Jackson gave better content than superstars with far deeper throats. And if I were to name a 1997 album with the reach and grab of true vanguard pop, I'd go along with Spin, which challenged its alt-identified readership by putting the Notorious B.I.G. on its year-end cover. It's poetic, brutal, realistic, catchy, and forward-looking, and I very much doubt Bob Dylan has ever heard it--although Thom Yorke is working on ripping it off right now.

Tolerance lectures get us no further than pleasure lectures, and I'm not delivering any. You want to hum "Bitter Sweet Symphony," I can't stop you--sometimes I can't even stop myself. Until the rules are changed by Courtney or Missy or Tjinder or Ben Kweller or some now-anonymous kid whose dad just lost his kurta in Jakarta, my special favorites in the pop race will probably flow out of the same ingrained African American tried-and-true I've been quaffing from since doowop and Fats Domino. That doesn't mean, however, that I have any intention of abandoning a single tendril of the many-fingered eclecticism that put a record 78 albums on my A list this year. Art-in-itself doesn't equal culture in the hungriest and most daring of times, and this is neither. But it can keep you going till the game changes. And if the game never changes, then it will just have to keep you going anyway.

Village Voice, Feb. 24, 1998


1996 Critics Poll | Dean's List 1998