Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Kids Are All 50

Music has been a realm of the young ever since it outgrew the primordial constraints of work, warfare, and ritual and forged its link with courtship. But once it was broadly commodified in the 19th century, the product was inevitably conceived for those with the means to pay, a category that included many students and/or young wastrels but was dominated at every level of taste by heads of households and their wives. This always unstable arrangement changed visibly after World War I--the callowness of the Vallee and Sinatra masscults was frequently noted by older people who preferred older singers, and big-band historian George Simon's synonym of choice for the swing public is "the kids." In the 1950s, though, it blew up altogether. Rock and roll didn't merely target young woo-pitchers, it targeted teenagers, and in case they were too dewy-eyed to get the message it told them about it in so many words. Where the more juvenile Tin Pan Alley lyrics made a pretense of bridging the gap between unfledged lover and responsible spouse, the more combative rock and roll songs made a point of exacerbating it. Rock and roll defined youth as puberty and transformed adolescents into a market, an interest group, and a generation.

Given the ineluctable tendency of all living things to grow older, this was also an unstable arrangement, so unstable it's amazing it lasted as long as it did--about 10 years by my reckoning, until various Dylans, Beatles, Stones, etc., elected to act their ripe young age of 23 or so instead of feigning puerility, turning into grown-ups, or drying up and blowing away. The young-adult rock they triggered was multidetermined in the extreme. It was fueled by the strictly aesthetic passions of musicians and fans disinclined to put rock and roll's fun and innovation behind them. It shared an economic base with the hippie counterculture. It had a sociological correlative in the tendency of baby-boomers and their successors to marry late and parent later. But most of all it was bound up in the brevity of adolescence itself. No matter how big teen rhetoric sold, teendom itself ended fast. The valorization of youth is a Romantic habit of thought Americans have been accused of overdoing since well before the '50s; the national inclination to invest boundless hope in the next generation is one reason it produced rock and roll in the first place. Given the material preconditions, there was no way the first rock and rollers were going to give up their claim on this wondrous state when they weren't 19 anymore.

Though it took chutzpah if not genius at the time, in retrospect this was obviously plain good sense. And like all human endeavors, it was also obviously doomed. I mean, what about when you're not 29 anymore, or not 39--even, ulp, not 49? History would seem to teach that anyone who battles mortality too long ends up looking ridiculous. And in the minds of all kinds of people--some of them too young to know better at twentywhatever, some of them prematurely embittered at twice that--the musical consequences verge on the grotesque. I insist, however, that it isn't because I've now passed ulp without looking back (though not without some anxiety and much incredulity) that I think this lesson smells of the punditry that's decried America's foolishness, vulgarity, and all-round lack of civilization since Washington Irving was a pup. Death is biological, but youth and age are mutable, socially constructed concepts, and life expectancy you can mess with. Not that the risk of looking ridiculous isn't major--no facelifts for me, thank you, and though Jessica Mitford isn't my idea of a deep thinker, I'd never deny that the American way of death is long on avoidance. But I'd rather look ridiculous than let both history and the rest of my life pass me by.

Conveniently enough, rock and roll is perfectly positioned to provide guidance in this matter, not just for old folks but for any somethingsomething forward-looking enough to be interested. Let cultural neoconservatives prattle on about how adult classic pop was; all they mean is that prerock songwriters never questioned an ideology of youth and age that's clearly been in transition for most of this century even if cultural neoconservatives won't admit it. But that option isn't enjoyed by the few '60s rockers currently worth our attention--the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, and Leonard Cohen, all now past or nearing 50, with who knows who else (Paul Simon? Joni Mitchell? Pete Townshend? Don Van Vliet? maybe even Eric Clapton?) sure to make surprise reappearances and the likes of Bonnie Raitt, John Prine, and Richard Thompson (and Bruce Springsteen?) galloping up behind. It's the pop option; it's why Paul McCartney and Elton John aren't worth our attention (and the reborn Clapton is less than the sum of his roots). Rock survivors are forced to confront not just adulthood, but adulthood in a cultural context that idealizes youth by formal definition. Addressing the rock aesthetic as obliquely as Cohen and Reed or as head-on as Young and the Stones, each suggests what it might mean to live till you die, need when you're 64, and rage against the dying of the light.

As of this historical moment, with the Shocking Pinks, Landing on Water, and so forth grotesque lessons in never counting a good man out, Young leads the way. It's true that his solution, which is simply to remain his own goofy self as he rocks out or folks around or whatever, won't work for anybody else except as inspiration, but his example provides solace and the weathered old-hippie faces of the "Harvest Moon" video may persuade a few wise souls that Giorgio Armani and Nordic Track are beside the point. As a formal interloper, Cohen--who since the '60s has portrayed himself as a poet among versifiers, graciously bestowing his sophistication upon our charmingly open-ended music--has it easier. On The Future he plays the Dutch uncle and the dirty older man of yore, only with more intense bitterness and more principled compassion, as if he's decided it's too late for irony--except when he subjects Irving Berlin's "Always" to one of the most affectionate total deconstructions in postmodern history. Since a lot of smart people discern spirit in Reed's somber Magic and Loss and cunning in Dylan's offhand Good as I Been to You, I'm willing to believe they're there, but to me both albums seem like withdrawals, into poetry and folk music respectively. I don't brake for cranks. (Have I mentioned the crank thing? Oh well, maybe another time.)

To my considerable dismay, this leaves us with the Rolling Stones--more specifically Mr. Mick Jagger, whose Wandering Spirit reveals Keith Richards's surprising Talk Is Cheap and forgettable Main Offender for the strictly musical genre exercises both are. Jagger has always been the meaning man in this crew, and there was a time when his unerring synthesis of the-thing and not-the-thing made him the most interesting singer on the planet. But that was when we all were young enough to forgive and even admire one another's sins; a quarter century later, this self-made sybarite, rich cheapskate, and aristocrat sans noblesse oblige is nobody's hero. He's managed to maintain his professional standards, but his two solo albums were forced flops; his audience demanded his group, and though I prefer the weak-selling, hard-to-take Dirty Work to such well-oiled promotional items as Tattoo You and Steel Wheels, I agree. Wandering Spirit is already losing chart ground, so I don't know whether it will right this trend saleswise. But I'm convinced the thing is as brilliant as it is dislikable. Powered by a bunch of young players who are smart enough to admire the Stones' deft minimalism even if they're not crafty enough to duplicate it, the album demands a literary parallel Jagger's stuck with until he enters a monastery. These are the confessions of rock and roll's Dorian Gray.

Oscar Wilde's Gray is a supernally beautiful, reflexively virtuous young man who's undone by the adoring flattery of an idealistic artist and the manipulative wit of a cynical man-about-town. In this modern version all three parts have been played since the outset by Jagger himself, who makes up for the fact that he's shallower than any of them with his superior sense of rhythm. Jagger the media-wise access coordinator and high-living public face is the brain and soul of Jagger the rock and rolling wonder of nature. But here the "glutton at the banquet"--a phrase the CD booklet puts in large type--claims he's weary of running what on two successive songs he calls the "race." Even the "Start Me Up" knockoff "Wired All Night," which includes the "hard as a brick" image everyone quotes, is basically a prelude to a mammoth hangover--who wants to get pronged by a brick anyway? In a world where marriage is less permanent than courtship (and a world compelled to remake its ideology of youth and age as a consequence), Wandering Spirit is permeated with the sense of erotic obsession and existential futility sure to beset any spirit too attached to the flesh. "Life is a bitch, it's way too short," Jagger bellows; "it's a barbaric world out there," he warns; "I grabbed the cat by the tail/The future with my finger nails," he recalls in a daze. Taken as a whole the album can be construed as an indictment of the hedonist's quest for eternal life. But that's to assume anybody serious enough to listen hard needs one--you have every right to dismiss this manipulative cynic's morality as a marketing tool if you want. I'm more persuaded by its moments of grace, especially the mock-country "Evening Gown," which on the surface seems as parodic as "Dear Doctor" yet could be sung as a weeper by George Jones, and the four rather different love-versus-loneliness songs that close things off, none of them as telling individually as they are in the wake of all that obsession and futility.

Don't try this hedonism stuff at home, kids--you take Neil Young more seriously than Mick, and you're right. I doubt Mick the person has the emotional juice to sustain the existential comfort and erotic solace of long-haul love myself. And as someone who's chosen that path I'd never claim it's a final solution anyway. But I'm glad Mick the artist made his kind of case for it. I guarantee you he couldn't have done it without rock and roll. And I don't see him doing it much before 50, either.

Village Voice, Mar. 23, 1993