Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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"The Smart People"

From October 30 to November 2, some 5000 dewy-eyed idealists, brown-nosing careerists, and/or brain-addled hedonists converged on the World Trade Center to further their understanding of "alternative" rock. Instituted in 1981, two years after the New Music Seminar began its headlong mutation into the gargantuan megaschmooze we know today, the CMJ Music Marathon endures invidious comparisons by birthright. Fanzine grad Gerard Cosloy, who'd be "alternative"'s soundbite king if only the stuff was important enough to get on television, told Frank Owen in Newsday: "It's a trade show just like the car show or the computer show at the Javits Center, except there's probably fewer hookers and the music is a little worse." But any mortal who's negotiated the tiers of bizzers at NMS--and would rather skateboard down I-95 on the third of July--knows CMJ's version is nowhere near as "hypey," as a 21-year-old D.C. editor-publisher who found the get-together too "mellow" put it. This year there were two small showrooms' worth of booths, few parties sans gigs, no hospitality suites, and an awards ceremony that took an eon and a half to hook up the satellite for Richard Thompson's thank-you-and-good-night. NMS has long since dwarfed the disco record pool that gave it life. But Music Marathon honcho Robert Haber--whose wife, Joanne Abbot Green, ran two floors of the Vista Hotel by walkie-talkie for the duration--is still in the magazine business.

CMJ was once simply College Media Journal, and remains above all a programming aid for college radio. With its rah-rah reviews, DIY correspondence, agate playlists, and genrefied charts aimed at genrefied ad bases, it's a trade with pretensions. But those pretensions are modest, earned, and far from delusory. CMJ will never be biz enough for Radio and Records or alternative enough for Forced Exposure; I prefer Hits and Swellsville myself. Even if it let writers sign their reviews, I doubt a one of them would prove as reliable or provocative as, for instance, departed Rockpool scribes Kevin Doran or Andy Dunkley. Its promo-friendly, trend-happy charts have less good music on them than Billboard's--a lot less. And its hybrid vitality serves a musical as well as commercial function anyway. As Jesse might say, it keeps hope alive. Unlike his desperate-to-be-hip consumer-press counterpart Bob Guccione Jr., Haber gives off the vibe of someone who has found his virtuous, interesting, and of course profitable niche. When he predicts that alternative rock "will stay alive for ever and ever"--yes, those are his exact words, I wrote them down--he shows about as much grasp of history as John Sununu. But for as long as there's an ozone layer, I hope CMJ preaches the inevitability of progress to a perpetually renewable cadre of gullible worker bees. Faith can move mountains.

Since my job is listening to music, not palaver, I avoid biz confabs. This time, however, I was a good boy. Not only did I cram all or (more often) part of 21 acts into four nights--getting significantly bigger kicks from Roy Nathanson and Michelle Shocked, artists I respect, than from Peter Stampfel or the Mekons, artists I love, and walking out stupefied by the well-respected leftwing punk-art-rock of Fatima Mansions, whose logo was on the Marathon goodie bag--but I sat through three keynote addresses and attended more panels than I could take notes on, exiting whenever I got bored. A couple of times I didn't: a pop-and-politics parley featuring Dave Marsh and sane, sainted Vernon Reid didn't flag even when Lady Miss Kier ac-cent-tchu-ated the positive, and a star-studded discussion of capitalist exploitation lived up to its billing when Ice-T worked his pimp-and-ho metapho and Diamanda Galas was cheered wildly for a 15-minute diatribe about how bizzers don't appreciate her Art.

In short, CMJ reminded one stereo slave that a modicum of metaphysical conundrum is good for the constitution. Is programming censorship? Is criticism censorship? Is getting an advance you can live on selling out? How can I play your records if you don't service me? How can I service you if I only manufacture 2000 records? How can rock and roll change society? When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks? Alternative to what? And above all, will the indies ever get their distribution together? In substance or in so many words, all these questions arose at the panels I saw, and at others I couldn't make, and at many similar conferences I've skipped altogether. Except for the gibe at criticism (how could anybody think such a thing?), not one has a definitive answer I'm aware of, but that doesn't make them meaningless, and most of the attendees I interviewed professed themselves stimulated. It's worth noting, though, that the 21-year-old who found the Marathon too mellow told me she was bored because she'd already made up her mind about this stuff.

Although only 800 of the participants took advantage of the Marathon's student price of $95, in most cases a perk from stations that rarely remunerate anybody, even the conventioneers who paid $235 at the door were young--bizzers and all, I'd estimate a median age of at most 25. Most of those I talked to were there for the first time, which was perhaps one reason they ignored the specific entreaties of CMJ's "NO MASTURBATION" flier, trooping to the floor mike to grouse about label reps or boast how cool their stations were, just like always. Perhaps it's also why their general knowledge often proved wanting. From the kid who estimated that Bongwater moved product in the "five or six figures" ("barely five," Shimmy-Disc owner-janitor Kramer corrected bemusedly) to the kid who told an MTV progressive that her channel should run a disclaimer explaining that its purpose was to sell things (the combined efforts of several panelists failed to convince him that viewers already knew this), what a lot of them needed was, well, a seminar.

If I were Haber, I'd pay good money to develop a permanent lecture series that bore down on details of economic scale. What it costs to practice and tour, to manufacture and ship and work phones. Cash flow and profit margin at minors and majors. How much you earn as a regional sales rep, a DJ in a secondary market, a band moving product in the low five figures. Rent structures in Jersey City, the Valley, Austin, Dubuque. How many hours there are in a day. Plus maybe some media theory for those who've made up their minds about the unanswerable. By all means invite the renowned to address cosmic questions off the cuff. Give the stargazers and powersuckers their fix. Let the schmoozers and revelers make whoopee in the hallways and lobbies and clubs. But teach the ones who actually want to learn. Because we need them.

In keeping with the subgenerational snobbishness hip rock and rollers have indulged in since the Monkees, college radio has become a bete noire to the music's self-appointed vanguard. Take as an example the only attempt at humor on Consolidated's left-vegetarian white-rap extravaganza Friendly Fascism, a typically magnanimous satire which has the singer croaking over strummed guitars and a wimpy four-four: "College radio/You make me feel so different now/And even though during the day you're a stockbroker/But at night we read French symbolist poetry." Like nonstop joker Gerard Cosloy, who took over his own label with now-CMJ editor Craig Marks after high school, these oppression-fighters are repelled by the spectacle of smarty-pants liberal arts majors insinuating themselves into the mainstream music business they cheer Diamanda Galas for dissing. And they consider themselves above pseudo-alternative guitar-band orthodoxy.

Orthodoxies never change fast enough to suit vanguards, but they often change faster than vanguards have the wherewithal to notice. This one has long since evolved from the chiming, R.E.M.-rooled folk/roots-rock Consolidated parodies so clumsily into what Times man Jon Pareles succinctly described as "a balance of pop tunefulness and noise." Sonic Youth started it, although it's their Seattle-based DGC labelmates Nirvana who have finally turned the aesthetic into an R.E.M.-styled national breakout--a breakout that far surpasses anything achieved by such pallid R.E.M. heirs as, to name just two, A&M's Milltown Brothers and Giant's Raw Youth. Guitars still predominate, but much less monolithically--good or bad, Jesus Jones and MC 900 Ft Jesus and Godflesh and Wir and A.R. Kane and (arguably) Public Enemy (but not L.L. Cool J), none of them true guitar bands even when they employ guitars, are all smack dab near the middle of what college radio labels alternative. Friendly Fascism, wouldn't you know, made the CMJ top 10.

That's not all, either. The old college-radio ploy of block programming, which flanks "alternative" shows with metal, jazz, folk, blues, rap, and so forth, has blended into the redefinition of "alternative" underlying CMJ's genrefication moves--which as a basic assumption is now gospel for many MDs and the best DJs. There's obviously something naive about haphazard programming that by equating the new with the better attempts to mandate its famous shock, especially in a world where radio hobbyists often first hear the new they showcase simultaneously with their listeners--college DJs preselect very sporadically, and even MDs don't have the time to sift carefully, so a lot of half-assed music is just tossed into the air. Clearly, only listeners whose novelty jones is as fierce as NME's will enjoy separating the wheat from the chaff, although to convince themselves they're having fun they'll often play into the labels' hands by getting behind imaginary next big things. But after all, such "openness" is what the self-appointed vanguard wants too--it's just that the vanguard gets suspicious when uncool people come along for the ride. It's no less spiritually adventurous to make room in your sensibility for Metallica and B.B. King than to make room for Sebadoh and Tuli Kupferberg.

When Ice-T called the conventioneers "the smart people," it was more than flattery. Of course they're basically well-off or upwardly mobile kids passing through a demographic phase. But it's a waste of rhetorical energy to blame them for not being better, and it's special-interest prejudice to blame them for not being different. Rock and roll needs self-taught seekers like Ice-T far more than it needs college students, and it would be nice if more of the latter really wanted, as Consolidated puts it, "to change the world/Or at least the music industry." Instead, I could envision one of my two clearly biz-ready interviewees marketing ass-dead electrodance five years from now. But the other guy had some jam. MDing at his college station while moonlighting at a CHR, which he considered a doomed format because its target market had grown too disparate, he hopes he finds work in the indie world, and so do I. Because as long as there's an ozone layer, I'd just as soon there be citizens putting out fires and manufacturing decent bread. And I'd just as soon there be music processors who believe music has something to do with progress--whatever that is.

Village Voice, Nov. 19, 1991