Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Rock 'n' Roller Coaster:
The Music Biz on a Joyride

book cover

1. Woe is Us

Because only those willing to suspend their disbelief in eternal youth invest any real confidence in the staying power of rock and roll, premature obituaries have been as much a tradition of the music as teen rebellion and electric guitars. Ever since the '60s--in fact, ever since the '50s--I've scoffed at them. The nasty rumors of 1982, however, proved so persistent, pervasive, and persuasive by the fall of that year I was half a believer myself. And now that they've vanished as utterly as Peter Frampton, I find it difficult to shake that bad feeling. Teen rebellion and electric guitars aren't looking particularly eternal themselves these days.

As often happens, 1982's rumors surfaced at the top of the information pyramid--it was the major stories in Time and Newsweek that seemed to crystallize general unease into near panic. In February and April, Jay Cocks and Jim Miller filed trend pieces reflecting the gloom that first gripped the record industry after the Great Disco Disaster of 1979 and took another turn for the worse after the Bad Christmas of 1981. Essentially, both were laments for what used to be called rock culture, but Miller, who is less sentimental than Cocks, got the scoop in the process. Rather than indulge in blanket critical condemnations of a music that had made successes out of the Police, Rick James and X, he had concentrated on the slump in the music business and on the dubious utility of marketing strategies designed to combat it. His conclusion was grim: "Rock 'n' roll has a future all right. But whether it can ever recapture its cutting edge and resume a leading role in defining the frontiers of America's popular culture is another matter entirely."

As 1982 slogged on, the music business was analyzed in major dailies and the consumer music press and bewailed week after week in the trades. The story was there, too. Right on time for Robert Palmer's August feature in the Times, CBS closed 10 of Columbia's branch offices and laid off 15 percent of its total staff--300 jobs. Other companies also retrenched. In arenas and auditoriums, concerts were fewer and more sparsely attended; the likes of Fleetwood Mac and Blondie canceled dates for lack of advance response. By year's end record sales, off 11.4 percent in 1981, were rumored (somewhat hyperbolically) to have dipped 15 percent or more. Gold albums were reported down from 153 to 128, platinum from 60 to 54. Where REO Speedwagon's Hi Infidelity had moved six million copies in 1981, 1982's apparent pacesetters, Asia and John Cougar's American Fool, hadn't sold half that many. And the industry's doom merchants were quick to point out that the first casualty of this lost revenue was venture capital--money for new and marginal talent.

The official explanation for these misfortunes concentrated on that well-known social evil, home taping. Dominated by Japan and therefore (ask Detroit) vulnerable to political attack, the audiocassette industry is still fighting off a Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) campaign that seeks legislation to control record rentals and institute a hefty surcharge on blank tape sales--despite the Supreme Court's recent Betamax decision, which holds that home taping doesn't violate copyright law. In the beginning the theory was that such consumer "theft" was costing the record business upwards of $1 billion a year looked fishy to most observers, but eventually it gained some converts--last spring, with recovery already in the air, the Chicago Tribune quoted with apparent equanimity RIAA president Stan Gortikov's remarkable claim that for every record bought another is taped. Although a suspiciously unspecific October 1983 RIAA study asserts that 425 million hours of prerecorded music were home taped annually (1982 blank tape sales were barely half that), detached analysis of the more detailed 1982 Warners survey which kicked off the furor suggests a maximum annual loss of around $350 million, much of it absorbed by distributors and retailers. Though this isn't chicken feed, it no more accounts for a billion-dollar slump than that other slant-eyed bogeyman, videogames. It would have been poetic justice for the industry that considered itself too big for the 45-rpm single to be ruined 25 cents at a time. But if leisure activities cut into each other than mechanistically, the sports equipment boom of the late '70s would have done music in.

While paying their respects to the International Nipponese Conspiracy, hipper record execs tended to single out a less exotic culprit: radio. This was a traditional tack, but a persuasive one, because the long-standing symbiotic rivalry between the two industries is rooted in a real structural incompatibility--bizzers are after your money while broadcasters only want your minutes. Record men need maximum product exposure, but radio craves ratings, which usually go to tightly defined formats and can't measure enthusiasm, much less the willingness of listeners to pay for what they're half hearing. Radio's cowardice and conservatism--its consultancies, its racism, its fear of tuneouts--have clearly helped shape an ever more passive music audience, homogenized and fractionalized all at once.

Sympathy would have come easier, however, if a passive audience wasn't just what the industry always wanted. Long ago it showed itself quite willing to jettison actively discerning record buyers whenever their finicky tastes interfered with the development of a more profitable if less spontaneously musical interest group we'll designate the suckers. In the late '70s, this looked like a defensible business strategy that happened to be bad for music, but it backfired big, because it resulted in a market (audience) with no deep-seated loyalty to its product (music). When the suggested list on albums went up to $8.98 in 1980 and 1981, the quintessential consumers the industry had always wooed so shamelessly displayed a quintessential consumer response: price resistance.

The question of record prices (which have since risen even higher) floats on in the usual raft of alibis, all with some truth to them. Yes, raw materials and distribution have gone up. And even though corporate as well as artistic megalomania has fed the superstar mystique which is so bound up with today's inflated royalties and production costs, it's the corporations that have to adjust for them somehow. Yet after the rationalizations are over, this is still the standard capitalist nightmare--the reality of the numbers has somehow subsumed that of the goods. The industry is stuck with potential consumers who just don't think albums are worth so damn much, and the industry knows it. In a late 1982 Dallas test, retail record prices were reduced two dollars for a week and volume rose 42 percent. When prerecorded cassettes came down a buck, achieving parity with discs, they jumped from 28 percent of the album market in 1981 to 42 percent in 1982. Midlines--selected catalogue items that list for $5.98 or $6.98 and discount for as much as two dollars less (though the markdown has been eroding drastically of late)--proved one of the slump's few steady profit areas, emboldening Warners to reduce its list on all catalogue to $6.98. And such novel items as overpriced but cheaper-per-purchase 12-inch singles and EPs helped spark 1983's recovery. But though high prices hurt business in a major way, it probably isn't economically feasible to lower them across the board--not when the biggest artist advances assume triple-platinum sales, sometimes now at $9.98 list. If John Cougar were Billy Joel, American Fool would have lost money.

Nor does all this dollars-and-cents evidence point to the no-nonsense social science conclusion that the "recession-proof" music industry simply wasn't--that in tandem with the demographic dip that always awaited rock and roll as the baby boom grew up, the near-depression of the early '80s was just too much for it to take. Without doubt the much-bruited Reaganomic "recovery" occasioned a mood shift that helped bring back young middle-class record buyers back into the stores. But the biz earned its recession-proof rep by surviving several recessions, and it got beat in the latest one for the most fanciful reason of all: quality. By this I hardly mean that if only the big labels had promoted such cult favorites as Blood Ulmer or the Human Switchboard or Southside Johnny or Black Flag, the world would now be safe for rock and roll. I've never sung that old song. But I'll settle for the commercial cover version, popularly known as "Nobody Loves You When You're Bored and Bland." One thing about cults--they do love what they like, enough to seek it out and if necessary pay a premium for it. All of the industry's payola and market research and supergroup status-mongering couldn't instill that kind of enthusiasm in the passive audience. Whatever excitement people are once again finding in music begins with content--or anyway, with form/content. As bizzers like to say, it's in the grooves--or anyway, that's half the story. And if there were hypes at work too, well, they damn near hit the record business upside its pointy little head.

2. New Technology, MTV, MR, "New Music," and Michael Jackson

So many accounts of rock and roll's recovery dwell on new technology--business analysts always prefer machines, which can be owned, to human beings, who (according to enlightened capitalist theory) can't. But in fact bizzers progressed with science only after first clambering headlong in the opposite direction. It took years of ghetto blasters and walkmen, both far more stimulating to the public appetite for music than high-end hi-fi, before the tape crusaders had the bright idea of lowering the price of prerecorded cassettes. The digitally recorded super-fidelity laser discs now causing such a tizzy are much more to their taste in toys--high per-unit profit, perhaps even with music that's already in the can. Indeed, laser playback may eventually be as big as stereo. But it may also die like quad, or (more likely) wind up almost as specialized as vinyl audiophile discs, a hardy growth area throughout the slump; the new technique enhances classical music--where an eminently rerecordable repertoire can easily be sold again to its upmarket cult--far more acutely than it does rock and roll, which as of now is almost never recorded (as opposed to mixed) digitally.

A similar pattern is evident in video. Before their misreading of disco ate up all that venture capital, forward-looking record execs used to dream about producing and selling consumer videos, which five years later is still risky business. But even Warners, half of MTV's parent corporation, clearly had little inkling of the vast hype potential of the 24-hour rock-video cable service. Currently in 18.4 million well-heeled, leisure-conscious homes, MTV sparked the recovery if anything did. For all its infinite venality, MTV provided a breath of proverbial fresh air for the rock audience and a shot in the proverbial arm for record sales. Of course, if the majors had been prepared with Linda Ronstadt and REO Speedwagon videos when the channel went on the air in 1981, it's conceivable it would have flopped, or meant very little. Instead, bizzers handed the ball to mostly British "new wave" longshots. Appearance-obsessed art-school types who were eager to stake some of their Eurodollars on the stateside profits rock and rollers dream of, these young musicians came up with lots of snazzy clips. Thus MTV was the making of such bands as Men at Work, whose debut eventually outsold both Asia and American Fool in 1982; the Stray Cats, London-trained Massapequabillies whose midline-priced debut compilation is now double-platinum; A Flock of Seagulls, with their high-IQ haircuts and dumb hooks; and let us not forget Duran Duran.

Much as I hate typing with my fingers crossed, I'm willing to venture that MTV won't ever be as conservative a cultural force as AOR. The circumstances that thrust it briefly into the commercial forefront of "new wave" were temporary, and that was never the whole story--the rampaging "new" heavy metal has also been a major beneficiary of its clout, as have "Puttin' on the Ritz" and Linda Ronstadt's Nelson Riddle album. But because visual information is so specific that people quickly get bored with it, the channel craves novelty by nature. And thus, inexorably, it has shaken radio up. MTV was certainly in Lee Abrams's AOR mastermind last January, when he took a quick look at KROQ, which had jumped to the top of the Los Angeles Arbitron ratings after switching to a new wavish format in 1981, and ordered his faltering SuperStars consultancy network to double the amount of new music it played. Although Abrams, who in 1979 had a brief fling producing art-rock substars Gentle Giant, reserved special praise for "techno stuff," he apparently can use a dictionary. So he defined new as recently released, which often turned out to mean Huey Lewis and Quiet Riot rather than "Free Bird" and "Stairway to Heaven."

For many younger bizzers, of course, the innocent words "new music" resonate with significance, and the annual New Music Seminar, launched by Rockpool and Dance Music Report in July 1980, is their very own industry confab. The term "new music" was apparently appropriated from the downtown minimalist avant-garde just as "new wave" was taken over from the French auteurist avant-garde, and no one knows exactly how to define it--the Wall Street Journal has called it "futuristic 'technopop'" and "a blend of rock, soul and reggae" in the same sentence. I'd suggest that, as with "postmodernism," the sweeping yet abjectly relative vagueness of the term signifies above all a fervent desire to deny antecedents which are in fact inescapable. Having once defined "rock," an equally amorphous category, as "all music deriving primarily from the energy and influence of the Beatles," I would now define "new music" as "all music deriving primarily from the energy and influence of the Ramones and the Sex Pistols." Then I would hope against hope that two qualifications were understood: first, that "energy and influence" refer more to sociological movement than to formal musical development, and second, that I'm making fun.

The New Music Seminar began as a mildly bohemian one-day affair in a friendly recording studio, and it was still pretty bohemian in 1982, when it attracted 1100 to the Sheraton Centre. In 1983 it was at the Hilton, enrollment had more than doubled, and while the very occasional protests and hoots of derision startled veteran bizzers, bohemian it wasn't. "Everyone realizes that they are the future of the industry, so there is less rowdiness," opined organizer Joel Webber, and with the Police, Eddy Grant, Kajagoogoo, David Bowie, Culture Club, and Madness in the top 10 and Duran Duran, Naked Eyes, the Eurythmics, Prince, the Human League, and Men at Work bubbling up from the top 30, this sense of destiny was understandable. Not that some bohemian stragglers didn't find the chasm between the Sex Pistols and Kajagoogoo eminently hootable, and not that all the skepticism about new music came from disillusioned punks, either--"It's our business to give the audience what they want," announced Ocean City, Maryland, deejay Brian Krysz, who clearly didn't think these New Yorkers had any idea what that might mean where he's from. But somewhere in between the old bohos and the old pros there was a comfortable consensus that the ailing music industry had pulled itself back from the brink by finally coming to terms with the progress it had resisted so pigheadedly for so long.

One factor was missing from this analysis, however: Michael Jackson. "New music" is such an all-encompassing concept that an enthusiast could claim it subsumes all the others. But there's no way it subsumes Michael. The overwhelming success of Thriller, which now claims 20 million or more sales worldwide and has long since surpassed Bridge Over Troubled Water as CBS's biggest album of all time, is the fulfillment of the blockbuster fantasy that has possessed the industry since Saturday Night Fever. For years retailers argued that if only the nudnicks over in production could suck people into the stores with another piece of product like that, they'd take care of the rest. And there are those who believe--cynically, in my judgment--that Thriller is the whole secret of the recovery.

The thing is, Thriller couldn't have happened in a vacuum. Insofar as new music is basically Anglodisco, its rapprochement between the white rock audience and dance music worked to the enormous advantage of Thriller: for all its whiteskin provincialism, its defanged funk and silly soul, the world of new music is somewhat more open to black artists than the world of AOR. (What isn't?) Certainly neither Prince nor Eddy Grant could have crossed over without first proving themselves in the white dance clubs, and while Michael Jackson obviously didn't need this more hospitable atmosphere--not with Paul McCartney and Eddie Van Halen on his side--he just as obviously benefited from it. But here too it was MTV that made the biggest difference. Once again indulging its disgraceful if not unconstitutional reluctance to air black music, MTV at first turned down Jackson's videos and only after CBS president Walter Yetnikoff threatened to withdraw CBS clips from the channel--the story is denied on both sides, but it's clear some heavy muscle was applied--did MTV capitulate. Soon thereafter the $200,000 production number Jackson contrived around "Beat It" turned into the channel's most wildly popular item ever. With MTV fallen, AOR jumped in after top 40 and black radio and a hit album was transformed into an unprecedented megacrossover.

The triumph of Thriller makes an edifying record-biz fable. A heroic tale of music marketers moving the news from the grooves to the yearning masses, it would seem to refute my brave assertion that the recovery owes more to art than it does to hype. Of course, I did hedge--all I really claimed was that the hottest hypes surprised the wise guys, and indeed only the most "creative" bizzers caught either MTV or new music on the upswing. But in any case the dichotomy is a false one. Just like the neat binary oppositions between form and content, the division of hype and art is a middlebrow convenience, useful in obscuring the vulgar details of the pop process, which needn't be deep to be enduring or meaningful. With Michael Jackson or the Stray Cats or Culture Club, it's hard to say where art leaves off and hype begins, because all three devote unmistakable aesthetic energy to the promulgation of image as well as to the invention of music. Now, as we learned in the '60s, image promulgation is tricky business and trickier art, but unlike my more earnest colleagues, I'm proud to admit that after a dull gray decade of grind-it-out professionalism I'm rather enjoying the current flashstorm. Granted, my pleasure is sure to diminish as the most cunning of the ignorant young posers currently overrunning the London video industry dig in for the careerist haul. But if hype it's gotta be, I'll take mine tacky, thanks.

3. Kajagoogoomania

All descriptions of the current pop moment invoke the British Invasion hook sooner than later, so why not. But let's get one thing straight. Unless you favor the formulation in which the second British wave began Hollies-Donovan-Cream circa 1967 (making the current incarnation number seven or so), the so-called Invasion was more like an occupation, or an endless parade. Granted a fair share of misses--most significantly T. Rex and Slade, two seminal singles bands who were huge in England in 1971 but scored one real hit between them here--it lasted from 1964 all the way till 1977, when Malcolm McLaren, who didn't get to invent punk but did do his damnedest for his nation's economy, set about revitalizing the troubled U.K. branch of an industry that was marching off a cliff without knowing it.

Unfortunately for McLaren, progress wasn't merely illusory in the U.S., where disco and AOR were reaching sizable if fickle new markets. Even at that, many armchair promo men, ignoring the stylistic precedents of T. Rex and Slade as well as the Sex Pistols' unseemly politics, actually professed surprise when this latest London phenomenon failed to conquer America in turn. Instead, of course, McLaren's style of innovation traveled so poorly that Brittania's image was besmirched among the captains of America's music capital for half a decade. Which is why all this talk of a "second" British Invasion is basically bullshit. What we have here is a reactive return to normalcy, with conveniently prepackaged Brits regaining their customary advantage in the musical balance of trade. I insist on this not to beef up my pitch for American music, a worthy cause that's turning into one more pious cliché, but to take the barb off the British Invasion hook, the hidden intent of which is to make this pop moment seem altogether more . . . gear than it actually is. Oh, it's different, sure; times change. Still, all the headline-writers hope to intimate, isn't it kind of like Swinging London all over again?

This isn't as absurd as it might seem. I should remind my more mature readers that in 1964 most new music fans were still in diapers, if that. They may be acquainted with the music of the "first" British Invasion, but its excitement comes to them second hand, and 1977 definitely doesn't satisfy any hankering for a direct hit. British punk was a great pop moment, but it was also a great antipop moment, excluding potential listeners far more antagonistically than any generation gap. When it didn't put new clothes on the old radical fallacy that youth is sitting out there eagerly (if passively) awaiting an Alternative, it worked off the supposed truism that rock and roll thrives on shock--just outrage the Establishment and every teenager in the NATO alliance will throw money at you. It would have been wonderful if some synthesis of these ideas had reunified the pop world, and in fact it was wonderful anyway. But it's hardly a surprise that unity didn't ensue, because punk's antagonisms weren't aimed solely at the Establishment; they were also aimed at the complacent or self-deluded or indifferent or just plain different rock fans who failed to get the message. Some of these were converted, others quickly became very pissed off, others remained indifferent, and still others changed their minds a little. These divisions persist to this day; very roughly speaking you could say that Swinging London II comprises most of the people who changed their minds plus many indifferents and a significant admixture of reconverted converts. And for all its backbiting, infighting, and ridiculously sectarian trendiness, its pop impulse--which in this case means nothing more noble than its craving for commercial success--is more wholehearted, though not more idealistic, than punk's ever was.

Yet avant-garde polemicism notwithstanding, 1977 does stand as a great pop moment, and reconciliations notwithstanding, 1983 remains a dubious one. That's because 1977 held out a promise far more radical and far more realistic than that of Elvis or the Beatles or the hippies. Where the myth of rock culture had vitiated rock and roll's rebel strain by glamorizing it, punk simplified it by focusing it, and though it perceived the mechanics of hegemony and oppression clearly enough to despise all '60s-style utopian folderol, it refused to surrender its idealism-in-the negative. In contrast, all 1983 could offer was 15 minutes of pleasure in the limelight. Or let's get to the point and make that three minutes. Punk's populist strategy was to reclaim the quick hooky virtues of the then-moribund pop single, and though "new music" could be quicker, it's definitely taken over that punk idea. In the process it's also inherited two kinds of burnout--not only the no-future cynicism affected by 1977's cynosures and penny-rockets, but the flash-in-the-pan one-shotism of the pre-"rock" era. There's nothing more British Invasion about all of this than the bewildering profusion of new names on the charts. How do you sort them out? Is one of these bands really the Rolling Stones, you wonder, and another the Moody Blues? One the Yardbirds and another the Nashville Teens? One Peter & Gordon and another Wayne Fontana & the Mindbenders? One the Herd and another Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich?

The single's resurgence really does half-simulate a direct hit of that old Brit magic for those who missed the original action, and the flashstorm may endure; in case you thought I came up with all those forgotten names just to show off, I should mention that Peter & Gordon later turned into Peter Asher, the Herd into Peter Frampton, and Dave Dee into Atlantic's London A&R chief. Nevertheless, this ain't Beatlemania II. Even if a systematic preference for traditional guitar-based spontaneity over new-fangled synthesizer-based neoprofessionalism is usually stupid, deaf, or both, it can't be dismissed out of hand--the traditional approach does seem to make for relatively humane content. And while in 1964 and 1965 British singles shared air with the classic Motown and girl-group styles they'd displaced, these days the singles charts are still laden with some of the softest pap and fattest schlock in the history of popular music. Worse yet, there's synthesizer-based neoprofessionalism galore in both categories.

Perhaps worst of all, though, is that the current invasion exists primarily in the minds of its eternally colonialized invadees. Swinging London was basically a delusion, but at least it was a collective delusion, a stable base from which to launch a symbolic assault. This time the only bizzers in London who don't think the British charts are bor-ing tend to be on top of them at the moment you ask. Of course everybody's aware that after the shocking freeze-out of the postpunk years the Yankee dollar is there for the taking again, which intensifies the fashionable ferment and fills one and all with renewed confidence in the justice of things--it's been quite a while since British musicians felt their failure to invent rock and roll detracted in any way from their fundamental cultural superiority. But only such idealists-by-definition as U2, Big Country and the Smiths cross the seas with any sense of overarching superiority, and that's because a sense of overarching destiny happens to be their (quite sincere, I'm sure) chart-topping gimmick.

Over here, though, every pale-faced new youth on MTV is taken for a conquering hero. This kind of perceptual dysfunction is an old story in America, a lot older than rock and roll; Anglophilia, as the malady is called, goes all the way back to Benedict Arnold. I'm not joking, either: it's by no means unreasonable to link a weakness for Duran Duran to the chronic American inferiority complex in which culture isn't culture until certified by someone with the proper accent--Oxbridge, Scousie, whatever. Granted that the Vietnam years formented an understandable escapism in kids looking around for diversions and role models, and that the Reagan years are doing the same; not for nothing was the Carter intertyrannum the golden age of middle-American AOR. Granted that the new English hitmakers are almost as young as their American fans, a welcome change. And granted that peculiarities of education and marketing in Britain--and yes, its proximity to the Continent too--encourages surface formal originality in its pop music. But though escapism may be understandable, even in its antipatriotic guises its rarely admirable, and it never works in the long run. There are plenty of young would-be rock stars in America, though probably not enough young bizzers. And there was certainly more surface (and subsurface) originality in the rejected New York rock bohemia of the middle '70s than in any limey movement before or after punk. As for the deep structures of the music, which are rhythmic, they sure aren't generated in England. The Brits have been more attuned to Africa and the Caribbean than most Americans, but the beats that count still originate with black people here.

Nevertheless, I can't go along with our old pal Malcolm McLaren, who claims that the new Brit wave broke because American bizzers "don't want black music taking over." It's not just that McLaren is oversimplifying with an ulterior motive as usual, not to mention capitalizing once again on an idea that black people had first. Nor is it that Michael J. has rendered further race war superfluous--sure it was Thriller's year, but Afrika Bambaataa and Blood Ulmer and the perennial George Clinton did great work in 1983 too, and none of them has cracked MTV quite yet. My skepticism has more to do with the sometimes useful, often unavoidable, but here merely obfuscatory vagueness of the term "black music" itself. Insofar as Anglomania kept conciliatory, professional black pop down in a strong year for the genre, it did so in fairly open competition; James Ingram may be a nice fellow, but Boy George has a lot more to tell the world. And there's simply no reason to believe that if every fop in England were suddenly to expire of synthesizer poisoning, hard, eccentric black funk would automatically fill the vacuum. A similar media conspiracy was posited to explain the mysterious shortfall of punk, but it was bullshit then, and it's bullshit now. Both punk and funk are avantish styles that articulate megapolitan street values. If they've failed to make a serious dent in middle America, that's largely middle America's fault, and choice: hegemony is subtle and not altogether undemocratic stuff.

If this seems like a retreat from my traditionally staunch affirmative action stand, I'm sorry, but it isn't. Of course black music would be more popular if it got the exposure it's denied by the manipulatively racist assumptions AOR and MTV make about their audiences. But that doesn't mean those assumptions have no basis in white listeners' actual tastes--tastes that don't necessarily reduce to race, and tastes they have a right to even though they live worse for them. Anyway, current music is too multifarious to justify any kind of single-genre campaign. Always craning their necks at the next big thing, opportunists like McLaren name pop music happen, but their perspective is screwy by definition. Even in the heady punk years of 1977 and 1978, there was great work from old farts like Fleetwood Mac and the Stones and Pete Townshend and oddballs like the McGarrigles and Joe Ely and Ronnie Lane, not to mention all the soul and funk and disco and blues and folk and country professionals who rolled merrily along as if Johnny Rotten didn't exist, which for them he didn't. More often, several promising-to-exciting things will go on at once. And then there are times that throw up no markers at all. This patternlessness doesn't have to mean there's no significant action. But it can be a bitch to figure out.

4. Wha?

To simplify things for those who are beginning to suspect I don't know what the fuck I'm talking about, I'll own up right now--I don't. But then, despite the headlines and profit projections and euphoric renewals of confidence, neither does anyone else. There are lots of trendhounds in and around the biz with a sharp take on some little part of it, and they'll try to convince the world (and themselves) that their little part--radio or video or synthesizers or dance music or digital sound or international marketing or music that matters or theft of copyrighted material--is the key to everything else. Only it never is. Even aesthetically, there's no longer a focus, although it's conceivable that some funkoid hero as yet unheard (not Prince or Michael J., in other words) will provide one sooner or later. And whenever I indulge my continuing passion for that elusive gestalt called culture, which is the main reason I ponder the business at all, I get dizzy just like any other trendhound. The difference is that the trendhounds enjoy the sensation, because they're on the roller coaster to make money and right now all they have to do is not fall off. Me, I'm a humble seeker after understanding, and at times like these I realize why the world's great philosophers have shunned amusement parks.

Or perhaps my dismay merely reflects my awareness that the skeptical but positive picture of the recovery I outlined was nowhere near skeptical enough. For instance, it may have given the impression that I can watch MTV for an hour without gastric distress. Never a big fan of the brainwash theory of media, I find sweeping attacks like Steven Levy's well-reported but tendentiously conceived jeremiad in Rolling Stone obvious and overstated. It's a distortion to label rock videos commercials; at worst they're promos, which is not the same thing, and if they borrow advertising techniques that's an inevitable consequence of their brevity, their natural lyric structure, and their roots in rock and roll's hook aesthetic. But to excuse the directors somewhat is only to make the music look worse. Great exceptions and pleasant surprises notwithstanding, most rock videos diminish the second-rate songs they're supposed to enhance; however circumscribed rock artistes may be musically, their literary and dramatic endowments are usually even narrower. Because videos visualize lyrics and compel contemplation of the artists' mugs, they bring home how slick, stunted, smug, self-pitying and stupid rock culture has become. Even more offensive than the racism the channel promulgates by omission is the way sexism that's only implicit in words and live performance is underlined again and again by the vaguely sadie-maisie mannequins who sing backup or play their mute rules in male jackoff and/or revenge fantasies. The clips make it all but impossible to reimagine songs you like--Billy Idol's fake-gothic misogyny and adolescent fear of commitment have ruined "White Wedding" for me forever. And they replace participation with spectatorism on the physical level as well--fans watch raptly instead of dancing or at least boogieing in the aisles.

True, whenever I think such thoughts I remind myself that early brainwash theorists once leveled similar charges at talkies. Because pop culture evolves like anything else, there's a chance that great exceptions and pleasant surprises--"Atomic Dog" and "Burning Down the House" and "Thriller" and "Atlantic City" and "TV Dinners" and "One on One" and even (Phil Collins's) "You Can't Hurry Love"--will eventually prevail, enabling the rock video to escape its current box, the one with genre movies, film school dream sequences, Helmut Newton, and Midnight Special at the corners. Who knows, maybe it will turn into a Genuinely Innovative Art Form that melds technological flash with aesthetic insouciance over a beat that makes it all happen.

But even in this best instance the little matter of capital would make MTV one of the bad guys. Unless an act has the connections or know-how to oversee production, clips cost $15,000 for technically acceptable concert footage, with 40 or 50 grand about par for concept videos and $200,000 not unheard of. As an accepted part of promotion, videos raise the ante for struggling artists even more inescapably than high-tech audio; eight years after the first Ramones album seemed to harbinger a new era of rock and roll access because it cost $6400 to put on record, they put the game squarely back into the hands of the money boys. And while I don't buy the Mass Culture 1 fantasy of a nation of suburbanized adolescents lulled into passive consumerist pseudo-community by their television sets, I do believe that every popular form has its optimum audience size, and that rock and roll climbs above five million or so at its (occasionally invigorating) peril. In the stagnant information systems of AOR, MTV provided liberating alternative input--pluralism has always been one secret of good rock and roll. But MTV's tuneout-sensitive national programming cuts into the roots of that secret more drastically than the most hidebound radio consultants, who at least provide leeway for local quirks.

Nor has MTV moved radio to the left. Rather than putting AOR back on top, all the various shakeups have done is help the format hold on, and what's more, the latest shake-up has come in the form of a "new music backlash" already rumored at the Hilton in July. IN a typically visionary October memo, Lee Abrams' SuperStars HQ warned its stations that "progressive music is out." Artists such as Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, and Joan Armatrading (as well as many heavy metal acts) had "no business being on the radio" because the nation's tastes had turned "horizontal"--consultant talk for top 40, music that crosses demographic boundaries, which under the initials CHR (Contemporary Hits Radio) is the new hot programming idea. In New York, AOR bellwether WPLJ set tongues wagging a year ago when it added "Little Red Corvette" (performed by a black person, you know) and by June was playing nothing but hits, which in current radio parlance is not the same thing at all as rock, the term that designated all popular music except country and disco five years ago but is now considered too "vertical." Soon WPLJ was joined and vanquished by the smarmier (if more integrated) Z-100, which has just done a KROQ in the latest Arbitron and is momentarily tops among the city's music stations.

There's something comic about all this commotion--just imagine, maybe people actually want to listen to hit records. But in fact the pop single has become almost theoretical during the slump--after WABC went all-talk in 1981, New York was left without one genuine top 40 station, and if it weren't for MTV and the attendant Anglomania the format mightn't have come back at all. At least as decisive a selling point has been black pop, now awarded a fighting chance at the white market that was its birthright a decade ago, and insofar as it brings down bastions of white power like WPLJ, CHR is incontrovertibly a good thing. Not only that, you can listen to it. But this in no way justifies the eager comparisons to top 40's Beatlemaniac glory years I've heard from bright-eyed populists old enough to know better. It's not just that there were fewer Totos and Tacos and Kenny Rogers and Sheena Eastons glitzing things up in 1964; there were fewer in 1974, a closer precedent even if it's nobody's idea of retro heaven. Because "urban contemporary" (hurting in the latest ratings wars) resembles CHR more than it does any traditional soul format, because AOR still controls the crucial 12-24 white male demographic, and because the sharpest rock and roll fans are chary of all radio, top 40 doesn't command the consensus it did in the middle '60s. And it doesn't command the excitement either. It can't because that excitement wasn't as simple function of cultural reach or musical quality: it was bound up in a sense of expansive social possibility, with rock and roll more reflection than source. For the moment, that sense of imminent possibility is effectively dead.

And oh yeah, one more thing--horizontal radio ain't necessarily so great for the record business. One survey indicates that for every CHR fan who buys six LPs a year there are three AOR faithful, and while CHR can't be the root cause of such deplorable penny-pinching (the younger, predominantly female audience it attracts has never been all that free with its music dollars), it's not helping any. The phenomenal growth of the album market was predicated on the passionate, committed, "vertical" myth of rock culture; pop commitments simply aren't as steady and wide-ranging. So perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that, just as the slump was probably never as severe as the tape-obsessed doomsayers in a very emotional industry said it was, the current recovery clearly doesn't qualify as any sort of boom. When the tally was in, it turned out that the great comeback of 1983 had been good for only 111 gold albums while the great slump of 1982 had produced 130; moreover, platinum albums were down from 55 to 49 and platinum singles were down from four to two. And though gold singles--clearly the natural province of a song-conscious mass audience that regards music as a detail of its lifestyle rather than a part of its life--were up from 24 to 47, the gain was entirely accounted for by seven Elvis Presley oldies and 16 newly accredited kiddie records on the Disneyland label. So much for the nudnicks in sales.

Isn't this fun? First there was a slump, then there was a boom, and now what are we going to call it? A bloomp? I told you nobody knew what was going on. But before I get carried away let me emphasize that there really has been a recovery of sorts, though even in the unlikely event that the RIAA's final figures indicate gains of 10 percent, that won't quite make up what was lost between 1981 and 1982. Gold singles mean bubkes economically anyway--23 of them don't gross a tenth of the optimistic $360 million gain we're positing. But megaselling albums make a big difference. The dollar volume of only four albums--Thriller, Flashdance, Def Leppard's Pyromania, and the Police's Synchronicity, all reportedly well over five million, though because the RIAA doesn't audit beyond platinum we'll never know for sure--probably made up most of the industry's total 1983 gain.

For people who like popular music, this is inauspicious, because it commits venture capital to a blockbuster mentality. Experience has shown that blockbusters can't be predicted positively--except maybe for Synchronicity, nobody knew for sure that any of the albums I've named would do a quarter of the business they ended up with. But they can be predicted negatively, and they will be: it's going to get even harder for marginal artists with zero-plus platinum potential to find backing. Moreover, even though most CHR listeners aren't big record buyers, you can't make blockbusters without them. Musically, this is far from entirely regrettable, though there are AOR-to-CHR moves--Def Leppard's "Photograph," the works of late Journey--which combine the worst of both worlds in a way that make the top 40 tuneouts of a decade ago seem quaint. And then there's an additional drawback that should concern capital-conscious observers even more than it does most moralists: payola.

This is hearsay. But it isn't casual hearsay. It's widespread, detailed, privately uncontradicted, and to this longtime skeptic in the matter of commercial bribery absolutely convincing hearsay. Names are so hard to pin down legally that I have to keep even my generalizations vague. But it seems clear that in the wake of the Great Disco Disaster of 1979 the always common-enough practice of pay-for-play--giving radio personnel money and other emoluments to put records on the air and list them in trade magazine rundown--has mushroomed into standard operating procedure in singles promotion. The figure that's mentioned most often is $3000 per record, although some say that's low; it's generally agreed that without a total outlay of between $50,000 and $75,000 to certain key CHR stations it's virtually impossible to break any but the most obvious superstar singles. The exposure by no means guarantees sales, program directors have been known to refuse payment for suspected stiffs and off-format oddities, and nobody's saying a station won't sometimes go on a record because it's hot or even because it sounds good, or that only CHR is on the take. But where once payola was a sometime thing, now the precedent is ironclad, and while many record people wish they could crack it, they have no idea how.

The payola stories that have beset rock and roll since the pillorying of Alan Freed in 1959 have always been fueled by the secret belief that anybody who liked the music was a dupe anyway, and until now I've never been convinced that the practice did much harm. These days the stories come from lifelong rock and rollers. Maybe they're also do-gooding sore losers who want to dictate people's pleasures (just like rock critics). Nevertheless, the situation has changed fundamentally. Payola always differentiated among good records more than it hyped bad ones, but now that the pop hook which was once the professional secret of an elite of songwriters and producers has been mastered by literally thousands of young aspirants, there's a superabundance of programmable music: great records are rarer than ever, but most hits are merely good in one way or another, and there are many more than 40 possibilities available any given week. Whether the casual CHR audience can absorb more than 40 is of course another question. So arbitrary distinctions have to be made, and how better to make them than by the selective application of money? Needless to say, the capitalization dictated by required payola is once again controlled by powerful executives (and independent promo men) who are conservative in all the ways that hurt. It would be naïve to succumb to temptation and claim that in a free market, or with different hands doling out the dollars, the failure of excitement that was certainly one cause of the slump would have been avoided. But a system of compulsory bribes obviously makes it impossible to put across a record on sheer enthusiasm. And sheer enthusiasm is always where the best rock and roll has found its edge.

5. Eternal Youth

It would be a euphemistic evasion to ignore the music business's epidemic corruption, but it would be reformist sentimentality to suggest that corruption is the central problem. On the contrary, payola is peripheral to its central problem and would in one form or another almost certainly survive its speedy solution, which is unlikely in any case. Because make no mistake, folks: the problem is capitalism. What did you think I was talking about--the natural order of things?

Now, I'm aware that such rhetoric is apt to exasperate many readers, especially when I fail to lay out an alternative. Because make no mistake about this either: rock and roll is capitalist in its blood. Its excitement has always been bound up in the individualistic get-up-and-go of ambitious young men who looked around their land of plenty and decided that they deserved--hell, just plain wanted--a bigger piece, and it would never have reached its constituency or engendered its culture without the entrepreneurial derring-do of countless promoters, hustlers, petty criminals, and other small businessmen. But though there are still more than enough young rock and rollers to go around, the most ambitious of them are rarely as likable or as visionary as they were 20 and 30 years ago. That's mostly because nobody believes in the capitalist land of plenty anymore: where the pursuit of an audience was once a fair equivalent to the education of a community, in a self-proclaimed scarcity economy any kind of marketing smacks of exploitation. And the derring-do of the big businessmen involved is often on a grandly international scale.

As must be expected, the numbers game of conglomeration continues at a hellish pace. The latest projected megacorp will merge Warners, the '60s-oriented giant which has yet to get a handle on the '80s, and Polygram, number one internationally but just now coming on strong in the States, and as the owner of this newspaper would tell you, phonograph records are hardly the only goods or services at stake. Walter Yetnikoff of CBS, cleaning up in the current boomlet, is doing all he can to block the transaction, but not because he opposes mergers in principle: CBS acquired Chrysalis, one of four major American independent labels, early in 1983. RCA now distributes two of the others, A&M and Arista, and MCA has picked up Motown (and Sugarhill too). Many distributors may go broke if court attempts to prevent the Motown deal fail, which will make it even harder for the really small independents to get their music out. Structurally, this is bad news, although in concrete terms it may not appear to mean much: "underground" bands are pathetically eager to climb into bed with the first major to roll down the covers.

Such loose behavior is of course traditional: despite their disdain for social constructs, rock and rollers have always preferred to take their fun in the far-flung interstices of the system. Even if they believe the system can be changed, they usually don't think changing it is worth the effort, because they're not sure any alternative system would be much better. Also, they know damn well that corporate structures aren't as monolithic as lefties pretend they are: bizzers have furnished us with some great rock and roll over the years, and even now occasionally make room for the best of the hustling entrepreneurs and muscial idealists who might otherwise get up and go somewhere else. But I don't think rock and rollers (new musickers?) understand very well why they feel so angry or resigned or cynical these days, or connect the disillusion they feel to the downright despair afflicting poetry and novels and painting and theater.

What happens, of course, is that at a certain point your principled and even defiant acquiescence in a system you can barely touch begins to feel like a de facto commitment. This is tolerable as long as the system provides the fun and fulfillment you count on it for and doesn't make others suffer too blatantly, piggishly, or enthusiastically. Needless to say, Reaganomics doesn't work that way. Even all those who are doing well--who aren't hungry or homeless or out of work or in grim proximity to some foreign or domestic war zone--are rarely inclined to find much fun or fulfillment in their lot, because fun and fulfillment don't seem like the appropriate categories these days. That goes double for artists, whose work ordinarily calls for a certain modicum of sensitivity. Like the man says, it's a jungle out there, and for those who aspire to a musical vocation what might have seemed like a dream or a lark in 1967 or even 1977 now feels more like a gamble--all-or-nothing, go-for-broke. And so they retreat into ostrich craftsmanship, or else some of their rage twists around and catches them in the gut.

The obvious alternative attracts many gifted musicians: avant-gardism, pop or renegade. Devolving into three-chord clamor or forging toward total cacophony, recombining root musics or traversing alien structural and improvisational concepts, these artists put the limits of their acquiescence in boldface and let the fans fall where they may. Inaccessibility both formal and physical assures that their audiences won't be passive, and sometimes they make music galvanizing enough to jar some free-floating complacency loose as well. But by definition avant-gardists sacrifice the unique political purchase of popular form--the way it speaks to and for the populace. The charm of a walking tolerance advert like Boy George or a raving idealist like U2's Bono Vox is that their refusal to make that sacrifice doesn't seem ostrichlike; rather it evinces the kind of willful provisional naïveté that these days is rarer and wiser than irony. The enduring beauty and pleasure of black music from pop to rap likewise inheres in its will to keep on keeping on--nowhere are the material satisfactions of living in the U.S.A. evoked more seductively, and nowhere do they sound more earned.

For the doomsaying rock culture veterans who got us started several years and many thousand words ago, such marks of faith may not be enough, but they'll do. After rediscovering black music two miles from home at the Roxy, Jay Cocks toured triumphantly with SuperBrit David Bowie, and in a recent cover story Jim Miller analyzed Nouveau London coolly but admiringly without wondering whether such a scene could be honed to a "cutting edge" suitable for "defining the frontiers of America's popular culture." But Miller's tabled question about the sad fate of rock culture merits second thoughts, for if the sad answer is indisputable, the answer's meaning is not. Punk did its job by destroying the vestiges of my own faith in rock culture, but it didn't have the same effect among those it moved most directly, so that now two otherwise adverse youth populations--AOR's still sizable 12-24 white male demographic and the tiny core of perhaps 50,000 (?) postpunk clubgoers and record collectors who send their elected representatives to hoot at functions like the New Music Seminar--continue to make music the measure of things. We veterans are loathe to pass the flame to either side because in rock and roll populists and avant-gardists are supposed to work together, keep each other honest--on our kind of cultural frontier, you need both numbers and acuteness. But if that hasn't happened, the reason isn't the music's breakdown as a cultural organism so much as capitalism's breakdown as a nexus of social possibility.

I mean, just exactly what frontier is it supposed to take? In the present go-for-broke environment, all the arts are fucked. Those popular forms which remain cheerful avoid making stringent demands on themselves, as in the rich but rather complacent neoclassicism currently enjoyed by jazz musicians and Hollywood folks. Network television is network television, and while video artists are bursting with technological imperative, their visions of a public-access future are tinged with utopian folderol. It's also worth noting that video artists are rarely disdainful of rock and roll--or rather, of the capital that will be ventured if rock video opens up a little. And among poets and visual artists, for instance, the punk and funk subcultures that seem so truncated to participant-observers like me are viewed more positively, as a means to the "vitality" of their fitful dreams. Even on the classical side, progressives are having a listen-hear. After all, there's still a profusion of good rock and roll coming down, of every conceivable description and in a state of continual superpluralistic international cross-fertilization. In fact, when I'm in a certain frame of mind the music's somewhat shapeless quality these days seems almost a virtue--one of those metaphors that accrue to things you think about a lot, redolent with democratic fecundity. I'm sure I'd put my compunctions aside if a funkoid hero were suddenly to arise, but meanwhile it pleases me to remember that the myth of the Great Artist has become a quintessential capitalist hype.

And if I then conclude that for all that the current situation really won't do, it's not because I pine for rock culture; it's because I refuse to suspend my disbelief in eternal youth. That theme has been turning sour among AOR heads for a decade now, but the older I get the surer I am that it carries meaning--something like what Bob Dylan called busy-being-born before life got to him. It's certainly not a simple matter of age. On the contrary, it's an idealism-in-the-negative that might conceivably foster the kind of cross-generational alliances that have always been too rare among white Americans and that are needed desperately now. It's more a matter of attitude than ideology, and nowhere is its absence more striking than in Nouveau London. People say it's the youth of the new Brit hitmakers that puts them across to the MTV kids here, and to an extent that's true, and healthy as well. But even after you factor in America's inferiority complex and dead-ass bizzers what puts the U.K.'s young rock and rollers in the chips and ours in day jobs boils down to style, by which I do not mean haircuts. The good young rock and rollers here still partake of enough of our tattered national optimism to act as if youth rebellion is a real-life possibility, complete with a hearty fuck-you-if-you-can't-take-the-heat that as always I could do without, but also with a depth of commitment that seems to come naturally. In London, on the other hand, youth rebellion looks like a desperate game, a flamboyant and probably fleeting masquerade. What fascinates the new Brits about youth is that like everything else it'll betray you eventually, and unless I'm mistaken their fans everywhere find comfort in that. Expectations are such a burden these days.

I'm sure it will be said that like rock culture itself, eternal youth is an illusion worth discarding--that kids today are realistic and good for them. But that kind of realism is exactly what the neoconservative thrust of capitalist culture is about, and I'm against it. Of course I believe people should grow up, and yes, I think it's the better part of grace to accept the inevitable decline of body-pride, the purely physical exuberance behind rock and roll's fabled energy. But the fact that people grow up doesn't mean they have to stop growing, and if that sounds like some Marin County bromide, well, I learned it from Chuck Berry and John Lennon and George Clinton and, indirectly, Karl Marx too. Only people who insist on changing themselves are liable to end up changing the world around them, and although it would be nice to think rock and roll could change the world all by itself, I've never had much use for that fallacy. All I expect from rock and roll is what rock and roll taught me to expect: more.

Village Voice, Feb. 7, 1984