Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Yes, There Is a Rock-Critic Establishment
(But Is That Bad for Rock?)

Since I am one source of the persistent rumor that Bruce Springsteen is the first rock star in history ever to be propelled into prominence by print information, I feel obliged to qualify it. For one thing, he's probably not the first--possible precedents include Bette Midler (but does she count as rock?), David Bowie (but just how far did we push him?), and (I hate to bring this up) Bob Dylan. Much more important, even a recording artist who is as ideal a critic's hero as Springsteen is depends ultimately on audible media. Although that usually means radio, it doesn't always--the Monkees and the Partridge Family were launched by television shows, while Grand Funk Railroad and ZZ Top built record-biz fortunes from the concert circuit.

As has oft been told, Springsteen developed his original "cult" by frequenting modest rock venues up and down the East Coast. More to the point, though, is that the word-of-mouth thus generated was directly responsible for Springsteen's critical blitz. For it was all the long lines and phone calls from would-be critics that induced Jon Landau (a Springsteen admirer but not a gung-ho concertgoer) first into Charlie's, a Boston music bar, and then into the Harvard Square Theatre in May 1974 to witness that "rock and roll future" we have since read so much about.

This particular is obvious but essential, and we'll return to it: Music must be heard. Qualifications aside, however, something unique has been going on here. Both the relative unanimity and the geographical spread of Springsteen's critical support were unusual but not unparalleled (cf. Randy Newman). What was new was the rapidity with which sales followed raves--the assent of the disc jockeys and ascent of the charts seemed to succeed each other almost instantaneously upon the August Bottom Line gig and the release of Born to Run. Still newer was the extent of those sales. Springsteen is not yet an across-the-board hit (he sells in Houston but not in Dallas, in Cleveland but not Chicago), but even if he never breaks through in all major markets (which he probably will) Born to Run is likely to go platinum--sell a million copies. Neither Bette Midler nor David Bowie has ever made a platinum album, and not counting two greatest-hits collections, Bob Dylan has earned only one, Nashville Skyline.

So if Springsteen ain't no Elton John, who has been going instant platinum of late, his popular success is still enormous. What's more, there is no doubt that it kicked off from that Landau quote. Amplified by a reported $50,000 in Columbia promotion money, that lone risky, zealous review had journalistic reverberations that continue to this sentence. And those were the least of it. Although taken together with all its descendants Landau's piece probably didn't sell 10,000 LPs directly--music must be heard, and so even that $50,000 was devoted mostly to radio spots (with little album excerpts) rather than print--it can justly be said to have engendered a star.

To observe that such a "hype," as it is called, always produces a backlash is already a cliché: perhaps I can coin my own cliché by pointing this out. As usual, the Springsteen backlash didn't touch its intended target commercially--the story had already taken root and the music was already being heard. Bob Greene and Mike Royko, perpetrators of the two major-byline putdowns, may well be dumb enough to congratulate themselves for Springsteen's failure to crash the Second City. In fact, however, they left not only the artist but the critics untouched. Claims that we were victims of the CBS publicity department (Greene) or our own pretentious sobersidedness (Royko) were too foolish to carry the kind of backlash that stings a little. Anyway, Zorro had already been and gone; one of the earliest and most acute reviews of Born to Run, by Langdon Winner in the Real Paper, had faced the hype down. Springsteen, Winner observed, "Has gone to the finest pop schools. He respects his elders. He bears the finest credentials and upholds the highest standards. Like all dutiful epigone, he threatens to become the consummate bore." Thus, Born to Run was "the complete monument to rock and roll orthodoxy," or, as the title put it, "Bruce Springsteen's Nobel Prize Bid."

Because this happened in Boston, though, it didn't even ripple other print media. That distinction awaited Henry Edwards' duller, vaguer, and later piece on the same theme in Section Two of the Sunday Times. In the great tradition of just-be-sure-you-spell-my-name-right, Edwards became the straw in the wind that broke the camel's back. John Rockwell's daily Times pieces had established Springsteen's importance, but it was only after October 5, when Edwards reacted, that the great newsmagazines began racing toward the notorious double cover of October 27. And it was in the wake of that storm that the flag on the current issue of [MORE] began to wave: "Chris Welles on the Springsteen hype."

Although it is fairly well-reported and cultivates a judicious tone, Welles's piece--entitled "Born to get 'Itchy Excited'"--is the botched analysis I have been expecting ever since last May, when [MORE] ranked my vocation below copyperson on a ring-the-bell contraption at Liebling IV. An animus toward rock criticism is, I should point out, a natural consequence of [MORE]'s intellectual and commercial alliances. The first tenet of the mass culture theory which lends the magazine its panache (an article of belief that goes all the way back past Adorno on the left and Ortega y Gasset on the right) is that the mass audience ineluctably stifles aesthetic worth; so, scratch rock.

The first tenet of the newsroom cynicism to which any press journal must pay heed is that hard-news "digging" is a more blessed endeavor than feature writing, of which reviewing is the lowliest example; so, scratch criticism. [MORE] is not incapable of thinking beyond these shibboleths, but rock and roll, a genre now all the more déclassé for its identification with currently discredited '60s cultural phenomena, tends to bring out the worst in people. Just ask Mitch Miller.

Not that rock criticism doesn't often invite censure. Through shared passion as well as the obvious varieties of economic dependence, the sympathetic ties to the music industry that are essential to accurate criticism can develop into restrictive bonds. Because we are all self-taught (of necessity, since our academy is as yet informal), even the best of our work has the faults of autodidacticism: eccentricity, incompleteness, self-indulgence. The worst of our work, meanwhile, has the faults of drivel. Music advertising supports all manner of school and community newspapers, which means that rock criticism's ground floor is rife with hustlers and mooncalves. Copy-people do become rock critics; the music is the subject of too much fledging journalism. As a reader, I am forced to conclude that a lot of what I turn down as an editor eventually finds its own level.

Yet I read on, as much from inclination as from duty, and find that a fair portion of what is bad, like some strains of "bad" rock and roll, has the sloppy appeal of all open, democratic phenomena. We hope that what is good is open and democratic in the best way, culling the art (and the craft) (and the fun) from a masscult form that, except during its flash of status in the late '60s, has always been assumed drecky until proven otherwise. Among the best of us, the numerous contradictions of this task have been a subject of discussion and analysis for years. Chris Welles reports gleefully that the lines between "counterculture" and "Establishment" connect rather than separate, and that rock critics strive to retain their fannish fervor, as if we were barely aware of these conundrums. But in fact they have long since become working assumptions, by now passed off in asides or implied in an ironic tone that Welles fails ever to identify: rock critics are disinclined to bore their readers just to make sure media critics get the point.

Yet it seems to me that there is a story here, and what's more a story with an unpleasant edge to it. I'm part of the story myself, but not so close to its center that I don't find it disturbing sometimes. Perhaps Welles missed it because he was so entranced by his discovery of the obvious--although Newsweek, which called its treatment "Making of a Rock Star" but never quite explained how he was made, missed it too, and so did Henry Edwards, who could have figured it out if he'd followed his best instincts, which are those of a gossip columnist. For not only is Springsteen a rare instance of a rock musician who owes much of his stardom to print support. Not only does he embody critical standards that no one but Langdon Winner has tried to define with any precision. He also represents the first victory of a brand-new grouping of five journalists who for want of a more felicitous term I have to label the rock-critic establishment.

Quickly, in reverse alphabetical order:

John Rockwell, Harvard and Berkeley-educated with a specialty in German culture as well as music, wrote for the Los Angeles Times before coming here in late 1972 to work as a regular classical music stringer for the New York Times. He became a salaried staffer about a year and a half later, and although he still reviews classical music as well (especially SoHo avant-garde stuff), rock is his beat.

Paul Nelson was a founder of Little Sandy Review, a Minnesota-based journal of folk-music criticism, and worked in New York for Sing Out! and Rolling Stone before going to Mercury Records in the summer of 1970. He did PR and then A&R for Mercury, which fired him in January of 1975, essentially because he had afflicted the label with the New York Dolls. He is now the only critic who writes frequently for both The Voice and Rolling Stone; in addition, he edits a serious review section for the fanmag Circus and writes a biweekly column for the Real Paper.

Dave Marsh was a founder of the Detroit rockmag Creem in 1969, when he was 19; he moved to New York in 1973, where he twice replaced me (at my suggestion) as rock critic at Newsday, first during a leave and then when I became music editor of The Voice. He has served a five-month term in Boston as music editor of the Real Paper and is now review editor of Rolling Stone.

Jon Landau wrote for the original Crawdaddy and put in two long stints as review editor of Rolling Stone, leaving each time to produce records. He has also written a column for the Real Paper (where his Springsteen quote appeared) and now occupied the Ralph J. Gleason Chair in Advanced Punditry at Stone, where he does a column called "Positively 84th Street."

Robert Christgau has been a columnist at Esquire as well as Newsday and The Voice. He has taught rock and roll, popular culture, and journalistic criticism at the Californian Institute of the Arts and Richmond College and once declared himself Dean of American Rock Critics.

These are rock critics rather than the rock press; despite Welles, the terms are not interchangeable. There is a big difference between an eloquent groupie like Rolling Stone puff king Ben Fong-Torres or a reporter doing her job like Newsweek's Maureen Orth and a pop intellectual like Landau or Marsh, both of whom hobnob with the stars (always dangerous, I say) less in pursuit of a story than of a better aesthetic understanding of the music that animates us all. Generally speaking, reporters accept the music and (if they are any good) question the artist; critics are always abstracting out from whatever's at ear to question the music itself. In a crucial aside, Welles opines that FM disc jockeys "tend to be frustrated rock critics," but that is silly, the vanity of a media critic whose own medium happens to be print. Since music must be heard, it is much truer that rock critics are frustrated disc jockeys. For the power impulse of the critic is not to make a star but to change the music--a fine distinction that isn't rendered any easier by the likelihood that in popular culture the most significant unit of creation is the persona.

Nevertheless, we are all committed to writing--somewhat equivocally in Landau's case--and we all exercise our power in a manner appropriate to writers. We are all convinced that what is called rock is America's most vital popular music, at its best the aesthetic equal of any other art form. We are not necessarily the most accomplished practitioners of the craft; most of us would acknowledge Greil Marcus, Jim Miller, Vince Aletti, Lester Bangs, to name only the most obvious veterans, as our equals at least, with Marcus and Miller functioning as ministers without portfolio in San Francisco and Toronto/Boston respectively. Nor do we represent all schools--Meltzeroid gonzo dada is still alive and well at Creem, where Bangs is editor, while former Creem editor Ben Edmonds runs a more poppish review section at Phonograph Record in Los Angeles. But we do constitute an establishment, as I must call it, for three inescapable reasons: We all live in New York, we all work for influential publications, and we are remarkably close-knit socially.

Springsteen's has been a New York media blitz; it's no accident that the man grew up 90 minutes down the Garden State Parkway, just as it's no accident Dylan and Midler launched their careers from communications central. But as recently as mid-1972, when Bowie and Midler were revving up, the idea of a rock-criticism establishment operating from Manhattan would have seemed impossible--only two of the five eventual principals even lived here. Boston, the ultimate college town and birthplace of the original Crawdaddy, was the critics' bastion, primarily because Rolling Stone's review editor was there, and what establishment there was comprised Landau's Boston regulars: Stephen Davis, Ben Gerson, Russell Gersten, Janet Maslin. But since beyond Stone these writers were pretty much limited to the Boston Phoenix and then the Rebel Real Paper, neither of which has much editorial outreach of its own, calling them an establishment is only a rhetorical convenience. Similarly, Peter Knobler of the New York-based Crawdaddy, who was writing prophetic Springsteen invocations before anyone, has been pretty much ignored during Bruce's boom; he runs an independent and often interesting magazine, but it carries no clout, attracting readers rather than a constituency.

I like to believe that my own establishment is more open than others--above personalities, encouraging all good work. That's why I'm so conscious that the Boston critics have all but disappeared from Stone since Marsh replaced Landau. I used to resent them--they were often rewarding, but their eccentricities reflected the unavoidable decontextualization of living up there, and I hoped their influence would diminish. But now I find myself missing their quasiacademic distance from power. Marsh, who barely began college before quitting to become a full-time editor and critic, was never comfortable amid Boston's intellectual types when he worked for the Real Paper (which recently solved its chronic music editor problem by splitting a column between two New Yorkers, Nelson and Bob Palmer). He says Boston's current fade isn't really intentional; it's certainly an immutable geographical fact that editors gravitate toward in-town writers. But it's also true that establishments protect themselves--conspicuous among the missing is the Phoenix's Ken Emerson, who goes with Landau's ex-wife, Janet Maslin, also missing.

New York's hegemony began when John Rockwell became the first Timesman ever to combine a talent for serious critical writing with an appetite for rock and roll, and hence the essential straight press connection. Then control of The Voice's "Riffs" section was transferred from a woman who used to assert that she never read music journalism to the self-proclaimed Dean of American Rock Critics. Suddenly the number of tastemaking media open to rock criticism had tripled. Relieve Landau of his editor's job, which has been boring him, and give it to the all but unborable Marsh; move Landau to New York and Nelson out of the biz; and there you almost have it. Not only do we all hold down key writing posts, but three of us (four when Landau utilizes his input channels at Stone) also have the power to dole out space (and what money there is) to other critics.

In addition, we enjoy a sociability that as far as I know has no parallel in comparable critical establishments--not on the infamous press party circuit, but in close personal relationships. Rockwell and Nelson are only acquaintances, and Landau barely knows Rockwell, gets along poorly with me, and doesn't see much of Nelson, who is a friend. But among the rest of us there is a lot of warmth and extra-musical getting together, a camaraderie enhanced but not defined by our shared love of America's popular music and our shared sense that rock criticism is a worthy and embattled discipline--both subjects we discuss, of course. The intensely energetic and talkative Marsh is the kingpin in this. He remains close to both Landau and myself despite our personal and critical disputes, connects frequently with Rockwell and Nelson, and in addition maintains relationships with many other critics.

Welles doesn't mention Marsh, only his forthcoming quickie book on Springsteen, but I think of Dave as Springsteen's most fervent and effective critic-fan. He has been: a notably vociferous advocate of Springsteen's ebullient, ambitious, but seriously flawed first album; one of the second albums quickest supporters; a good friend of Ron Oberman, Springsteen's staunchest ally at CBS when the second album failed to take off; the guy who took Landau to his first Springsteen concert; and an incorrigibly abundant source of inside dope (a lot of it from Landau, who by then was producing Born to Run) in the year preceding the Bottom Line triumph. Word-of-mouth on Springsteen was very active by then, and probably would have been if Marsh didn't exist, but I have no doubt that my sense of the larger potential of Paul Nelson's Voice story was originally instilled by Marsh; John Rockwell, whose split-page piece tipped the balance, was not directly affected, but he was part of the ambience too. Which isn't to say Rockwell didn't fall for Springsteen on his own; his interest fired by Landau's "rock and roll future" quote (in ads, not the Real Paper), he had raved about him the previous summer. So had Nelson and myself. But our fervor was fed by Marsh--not only as the establishment center, but as the archetypical Springsteen fan.

Springsteen's contemporary at 25 and much the youngest of us, Marsh is the complete rock and roller. Nelson and Landau indulge a fondness for singer-songwriters, Rockwell loves classical music, and I am a once and future jazz fan, but rock and roll is Marsh's sole musical passion--anything else requires an effort. He is also the complete autodidact, and as with Landau and especially Nelson, his other artistic interests tend toward the American popular romantic/primitive formalist--great and not-so-great detective novels and the kind of genre movies that Manny Farber and Andrew Sarris have long since established as genuine aesthetic objects.

Since Marsh is a protégé and good friend of mine, I suppose a lot of what I've written about him will be construed as puffery, but in fact Springsteen has occasioned a fairly serious breach in our relationship. Some of the reasons are completely personal; some stem from a professional rivalry that intensified when Marsh became my counterpart at a magazine I usually dislike; some reflect my movement-holdout uneasiness over the gathering of the establishment and its attendant comforts and privileges. The organizing metaphor, though, has been Springsteen. I like Springsteen a lot, but unlike my four co-establishmentarians, I find it hard to think of him as rock and roll future. For both Marsh and myself, that is a serious (although certainly not decisive) doctrinal disagreement.

In the early-'60s tradition of Del Shannon (a closer analogy than Roy Orbison even if he isn't named on Born to Run), Springsteen is a rather operatic rock star. Years of touring have formalized his histrionic tendencies, and now he risks getting tripped up in his own self-consciousness. Further, as Langdon Winner puts it, "Bruce has a real problem with rhythm"; when John Rockwell extols Springsteen's phrasing, I recall uncomfortably that Rockwell's roots are with Caruso rather than Ray Charles. For unlike the R&B-and-blues-influenced titans who are invoked as his predecessors--Presley, Dylan, Van Morrison--Springsteen shows no aptitude for the relaxed scat; he is obviously attracted to rhythm-and-blues as teen rather than black music. But this in itself is far from fatal. It simply means that in these respects the great rocker he resembles is John Lennon, although Lennon's pretentiousness has been of a different and more limited sort.

Even so, I'll settle for a pretentious John Lennon--as long as his pretensions are grand, which Springsteen's are. And I'm not bothered by Winner's crack that Springsteen respects his elders. After all, so did the Beatles and Bob Dylan. But it's worth asking just who those elders are and what he does with what he learns from them.

It was an assumption of most early rock critics, who tended to be young litterateurs on a paying gig, that rock and roll was in hibernation in the years preceding Beatlemania. This was flat-out wrong. The early '60s were a rich if somewhat silly period that nurtured both the soul style (irrelevant here) and a wealth of not-so-ephemeral pop rock and roll, consummated in the enlightened hedonism of the Beach Boys and the great production machines of Motown and Phil Spector. This is Springsteen's era--he may talk Berry and Presley, but his encore is Gary U.S. Bonds. I sometimes wonder whether half of Springsteen's fans--Rockwell, Landau, and Nelson, for instance--aren't delighted by his music because they weren't lucky enough to have been glued to their radios in 1963; clearly, the other half--Greil Marcus and Dave Marsh--are delighted to experience the most unequivocal pleasures of their adolescence all over again.

Like the early '60s, the mid-'70s are a myopic time, but they lack hope and innocence; our rock hero is Elton John, who makes up for his visionlessness with overwhelming studio perspicacity. I'm sure it will seem willful to Jon Landau, who can't stand Old Four Eyes, but on mornings when I feel like playing Born to Run real loud I often opt for Elton's Rock of the Westies as well. Both answer my need for monolithic, full-sounding, produced rock and roll--a need I indulge freely because I know I have other very different ones. In fact, Born to Run--which Landau insists was Bruce's album, a creditable assertion in view of the spareness of Landau's other productions--may go down as the great album Phil Spector never made. That's plenty, as far as I'm concerned, but it's not enough. For like so many of the best American popular romantic/primitive formalists, Spector was a unique but very narrow artist. He had a vision, yes--but it was romantic to the edge of camp, barely adequate to his more innocent and hopeful time.

It's fine for Springsteen to set himself up as the boy Darlene Love is gonna marry, or to vouchsafe the Beach Boys some East Coast hustle--but only if he can transform the high fantasy content of those images into something more than another of the doomed-loser myths that have littered America's artscape since the frontier closed. Early rock and roll was energized by the class mobility and material transport of a genuinely expanding economy, and the fact that those stimuli have dissipated doesn't mean people don't still hanker after them. Springsteen does, and so do his fans. His aesthetic strategy on Born to Run is to duplicate that energy and then add a patina of tragedy, just to remind us things aren't so expansive anymore. His rebel adolescent hero can be jubilant or mournful, defiant or driven to self-deceiving, but one thing is certain--he can always feel sorry for himself. This is a high grade of sentimental escapism, indulgence of a sort that is anything but wise. There is nothing tough or new in it. The future, rock and roll version included, is going to be tough, and it had better be new.

American popular romantic/primitive formalism challenges moribund notions of culture and limns a psychological dynamic that anyone who wants to affect this country (or this world) had better not only understand but harness. Nevertheless, it misses an awful lot. Most significant, its purview--just like our establishment, fancy that--is entirely male. I'm not being prissy here; I'm not suggesting that Springsteen write songs to Susan Saxe or give up male chauvinism for Lent. But he might try to defeat the stereotyping that afflicts even Terry in "Backstreets" and Crazy Janie, both presumably people he has known. The women of Dylan, or Ferry, or Fagen and Becker are hardly heroic sisters, but they are at least considerable rivals; their autonomy goes beyond that of Peggy Sue and the ladies of "East of Eden."

Admittedly, the politics of class and sex are a tick of mine, one that may well disfigure my analysis of an artist who has moved my colleagues so profoundly. If I could, I would point you to a counter-analysis, but the inglorious fact is that none exists. Critics have borne witness to his possession by the spirit of rock and roll all down the line, but Springsteen's ultimate significance has at best been hinted at. In this, Rockwell, Landau, and Marsh have been especially effusive, although I cherish fluctuating hopes for Marsh's book--after doing his best work to space and deadline at Newsday, Marsh could conceivably impart unaccustomed dignity to the term quickie.

The fannishness of rock criticism, which when it works evokes and analyzes good times simultaneously, has less to do with the paucity of solid Springsteen analysis than does its journalistic context--when a star is born you begin with a lot of star-is-born stories. But in the absence of a counter-analysis let me point out some underlying contradictions. The stock explanation of why successful media professionals like Landau and Marsh and Nelson (not so much Rockwell, whose enthusiasm is more purely musical) identify so intensely with an idealized youth rebel like Springsteen is that they want to preserve their own youth, but this is stupid. Say rather that they want to preserve their rebellion. Like most people with a rock and roll jones, these are natural fighters, but they are also adults who live comfortably in the Bloomingdale belt; in some sense, they have won. Springsteen is a fighter, too; he has always played a winningly articulate kind of loser, and now he is rich as well as smart. And so my colleagues both thrill to a fellow winner and identify with his loser rebel persona, forgetting in the rock and roll moment how much the winner in them shares with what the fighter was fighting against.

Which leaves a lot of fans, who we have finally moved en masse. Welles theorizes that Springsteen's success reflects "the psychological needs of those who operate the media" more than it does "the desires and interests of those to whom the media is [sic] directed," but this is massculture theory cant, the kind that can be plugged in anywhere. Obviously, Springsteen does fulfill the fans' needs and desires--that's why they buy him and not Randy Newman. This does not mean, however, that their experience of the artist doesn't differ from the critics'. For the most part, Springsteen the winner can provide them strictly vicarious delight; what they need and desire--ominously, I think--is an artist who romanticizes and even celebrates a defeat that is a lot more likely for them than it is for any establishment, rock and roll version included.

I said this story had an unpleasant edge, and that's it. I wrote it because I figured someone who knew whereof he spoke had better put his two cents in, and I put it harshly to make my point. In fact, things ain't so bleak. The rock-criticism establishment has nurtured artists much thought than Springsteen--Randy Newman, Lou Reed, Patti Smith. Moreover, Springsteen's own sentimentality is much preferable to that of the Eagles-style post-folk easy-listening so favored by FM deejays and opposed by us. Compared to The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, which preceded it, Born to Run sacrifices breadth for focus, spontaneity for power, humanistic narrative for expressionistic statement. But even if this is a false step, as some feel, it is not over the brink. For each album enriches the other; the limitations of each encompass an aesthetic stance consciously exploited, rather than defining a stylistic trap.

And now things could go either way. Springsteen could formalize down into yet another maudlin trials-of-a-rock-star opus. Or he could reach out and combine humanism and concentration, adding a little of his new media hip for perspective. That's conceivable, and it would really be something. And Landau and Marsh and Rockwell and all the others would have made it possible. Not bad for an establishment, if you ask us.

Village Voice, Jan. 26, 1976