Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Interrogatin' Interventions

Newspaper and magazine reviewers, many of whom flirted with academic careers once upon a time, generally regard their university-based brethren and sistern as out-of-it stuffed shirts sifting highfalutin trivia. File copy till your head is spinning and it's hard not to suspect that tenure, sabbaticals, and three-month vacations add up to a con, which isn't even to mention status, a sore point when there's always somebody calling you a hack and an open wound when the charge rings true. Lit profs and the like, meanwhile, are wont to dismiss their media-based opposite numbers as middlebrow entertainers purveying commercial prevarication. Convinced of the omnipotence of "mass communications," an idea that got its start in the university, they resent the power of print and TV over arts that are supposedly the academy's domain as well as the celebrity (and paycheck) afforded the lowliest byline and emptiest talking head. In short, the uneasy coexistence of what ought to be complementary approaches to criticism is undermined by ignorance, envy, and contempt.

Inevitably, there are exceptions. Not every culture expert comes equipped with blinders and straitjacket, and some work both sides--many professors master the craft of the readable book review, there's considerable crossover in theater and the visual arts, and it's common enough for journalists to moonlight at colleges and universities. What's more, the current situation would count as progress even if the exceptions were less numerous. The myth of high culture will never die, but it's no longer the unassailable ideological citadel it was in the '50s, when academic critics could hardly bear to stoop as low as The Saturday Review, The Atlantic, Harper's, and the NYTBR. At least now the two sides peer myopically across the great divide. And because they don't buy the myth, the symbiotic new disciplines of critical theory and cultural studies--the first derived from the all-texts-are-mine 'tude of Claude Lévi-Strauss and Roland Barthes, the second rooted in the working-class aesthetics of Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams, and both energized by that confluence of radicalism and media saturation some call the '60s--are happy to enlist journalists in their trahison des clercs. So when Princeton's Andrew Ross, a poetry specialist turned American Studies honcho who got through the theory wars by writing the essential (and readable) popcult overview No Respect, convened a conference called "Youth Music and Youth Culture," he went so far as to ask some rock critics down.

This wasn't American academia's first such event. Popular culture studies have been a featured attraction at Bowling Green State University in Ohio for two decades now, the International Assocation for the Study of Popular Music has been operative since 1981, and I have on my desk an invitation to submit a paper for a February conference at the University of Missouri with the inauspiciously all-inclusive title "Rock `n Roll, Mass Media & Society." But there's never been such a high-powered confab at such a prestigious institution. Among the bigtime savants on the agenda were Dick Hebdige, whose Subculture: The Meaning of Style was the handbook of young postpunk intellectuals; Susan McClary, a feminist musicologist whose respect for Madonna has gotten her into trouble with everybody from her bosses to Camille Paglia; George Lipsitz, a cultural historian whose class consciousness would shame Raymond Williams himself, and Lawrence Grossberg, America's longest-running professor of rock. In addition, Ross corraled such varied drawing cards as Deee-Lite's Lady Kier Kirby, voguer Willi Ninja, Rush Communications president Carmen Ashhurst-Watson, and Donna Gaines, the rogue Ph.D. who will publish more encomiums to computers, pornography, metal, juvenile delinquency, Jericho Turnpike, and the unlike in this newspaper the moment we get her to write them.

As someone who depends on scholarship and theory for data and stimulation, and whose regular contact with academia is limited to teaching a nonfiction seminar at NYU, I was happy to join this company. True, I prefer not to write for free, and since the other critics scheduled were Greg Tate, Nelson George, and Scott Poulson-Bryant, I somehow doubted my trade would have been so well-represented if the university produced more counterparts to Rutgers rap expert Tricia Rose, the only African American scholar to appear. Indeed, with George and Poulson-Bryant cancelling and Tate first playing his ax with Women in Love and then reading from a novel-in-progress that has Academe's multiculturalism wars evolving into social revolution, I was the only rock critic to speak as one. My presentation, which unlike most held to the prescribed topic and time limit, departed from my usual habits by praising folkies, protest music, and what it seemed only appropriate to call college rock. I chose this focus because I knew such sympathies would seem outreeacute; a subculture-oriented gathering emphasizing rap, disco, and metal. This was irritating. But the main thing that bothered me was that I ended up feeling like one of the few critics of any sort to put in an appearance.

Hebdige tossed off acute random musical observations while rambling beguilingly about malls, "Walk This Way," and Wayne's World. McClary posited somewhat tenuous links between "In the Midnight Hour" and the 16th century craze for the Latin American chacona. Rose proposed a flow/layering/rupture model of rap aesthetics. Grossberg entered a welcome if murky defense of "rock" as concept and living thing. And from Juan Flores on Puerto Rican hip hoppers to Sarah Thornton on rave culture to George Yudice on the moral panic over Brazilian funk, other speakers had ace info to offer. But only Dartmouth musicologist Robert Walser, who plugged in a guitar to illustrate a funny and fascinating analysis of metal's immersion in the classics, and Princeton English professor Walter Hughes, whose funny and frightening history of disco in gay life propelled us from the age of orgy into the age of AIDS, told me something new about music I thought I had down--hit me with the aha that I expect of good critics whatever their affiliation.

There was no reason for surprise at this. As in the past, a lot of academic criticism could better be designated scholarship and often is. Moreover, the cultural studies ethos is vigilantly cross-disciplinary, coloring sociology and social history with aesthetic acumen rather than granting primacy to art itself--no myth of high culture in this crowd, and no tyranny of the text either. Although Hughes's disco paper proved yet again how brilliantly a smart fan can write about pop, a profusion of musical or even sociomusical apercus was unlikely. Then there was the language problem. Like most fields of discourse (as they say), the critical theory/cultural studies nexus has produced its share of invaluable terminology, from signify on down, and I believe Ross's assurances that this conference was relatively jargon-free. Nevertheless, the flow of flapdoodle had my little knot of outsiders shaking our heads--somehow I kept forgetting to jot down horrible examples, but essentialist, interrogation, formation, articulation, imaginary (as a noun), the old standby practice, and the currently unstoppable intervention were selling like hot cakes, and the atmosphere was so heady that my own talk landed on the verb to privilege twice. All these words have their place, but the theoretical context they mark out distances noninitiates, and their overuse is no less deadly than any other kind of verbal repetition.

Though the postdeconstructionists' academic enemies, who are usually also their political enemies in the multiculturalism wars, claim this vocabulary is designed solely to camouflage second-rate minds, just as often it swallows original thought--Lipsitz is quite bright and quite dull, and the many good ideas in Grossberg's work are almost impossible to disentangle from the cliches. Anyway, the postdeconstructionists have no monopoly on the self-evident and the half-true, as their enemies demonstrate anew with every attack. If anything, I'd give more credit to the high-theory claim that only a reconstituted language is adequate to a reconstituted analysis--but with a negative spin. Dally too long among semioticians, I say, and you may never shake your suspicion of the literal surfaces, uncontrollable undercurrents, vernacular ground, and plain common sense that are the stuff of most good writing. Journalism doesn't have this problem. It's never au courant theoretically, because it doesn't have the time and because it's beset by conflicting . . . well, let's call them imperatives of production, meaning editors and publishers who believe their audience/market is as dumb as they are and aren't necessarily wrong. But the way things have worked out, this makes the best critical journalism a refuge for what used to be called literary values--in the popular arts, a refuge that is often sympathetic to the politics and aesthetics of essentially antiliterary disciplines like critical theory and cultural studies.

I've heard horror stories in which English departments censor clear prose on the grounds that it's too "belletristic," and from what I know of the Lacanian takeover of film studies, I'm kind of glad pop music studies remain their very poor relation. But I'm such an optimistic soul that I believe that, just like blues and country, subcultural metaanalysis and highfalutin flapdoodle can have a baby. However mediated by sociological and political static their responses may be, all the conferees were there because music moved them. And since antiliterary disciplines attract their share of partisans who love writing too much to subject it to outmoded cultural myths, I believe that some vernacular permutation of the belletristic will eventually make a comeback. Maybe not among the panelists, though several of the academics quietly and effectively fought off the jargon bug. But I'd like to imagine that among the many undergraduates in the audience there was at least one who was so impressed by what Walter Hughes did for Diana Ross and the Pointer Sisters that he or she was already planning to do the same for R.E.M. or My Bloody Valentine at a similar get-together somewhere down the line.

Village Voice, Dec. 15, 1992