Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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CG-80s Book Cover

Music Gap

Between 1980 and 1990, rock evolved drastically, meaningfully, essentially, and crucially--though not self-sufficiently--as music. Mere music. Most of the innovators ignored the melodic and harmonic details that fascinate trained music critics, and while art-rock types made their contributions, it was along the meld lines of punk-disco fusion that the most telling changes appeared. As quasi-organ keyb, the synthesizer, a plaything of dance wimps before arena bands and pop factories took it up, transformed the timbral identity of a music that's always been more about sound than notes--pop partisan Stephen Holden believes such archetypes as Boy George and Madonna even sing like synthesizers. And in the epochal sampler form, the synthesizer both epitomized and undermined rock's reduction to capital. On the dire side, studio schlockmeisters learned to construct full arrangements from taped libraries of licks and beats, so that musicians became extraneous even in "band" music, and some believe rappers and dance DIY-ers were even worse--that by sampling hooks whole from old hits and flops they cannibalized history, robbing the past of more than they could possibly give the future. I say their claim-jumps were righteous and past due. Rap sampling was postmodernism without the fuss, traditionalism giving traditionalists the finger. It was the people taking control of technology, joining a pop battle that began when rogue entrepreneurs discovered that Edison's phonograph wasn't a dictaphone. It won't be the whole future. But it's here to stay.

And the synthesizer wasn't even the big story, because the '80s were a rhythm decade like no decade since the '50s--a decade of drummers as well as drum programmers, disco over the edge, funk grooves motorvating the most piddly PoMo and New Pop and CHR, B-boys and -girls who talked more musically than their churchified counterparts sang. It was the decade that appreciated Charlie Watts and made James Brown its Elvis. Maybe attitude was the secret of punk, maybe Tommy Ramone was; the secret of postpunk was rhythm, young drummers coming out of nowhere by the hundreds. Only it turned out they weren't good enough, for if anything was killing indie rock by decade's end, it was the death-rattle of the solid four and its fancier variants--or else the inability of its practitioners to come up with a message, attitude, chord change, or whatever as interesting as a decent dancebeat. Less slyly offhand than Paul Westerberg or Chuck Berry, the vain, nasty, prolix eloquence of street-rhyme tradition was something new in rock and roll, but to comprehend rap you had to parse its groove. Put the muscular funk of the Sugarhill Gang up against the herky-jerk hither-and-yon of De La Soul and you'll learn plenty about their respective lyrics--and more. And the information will be direct and accessible like Steely Dan's chords never were.

Unfortunately, this isn't to say many children of the '50s--or the '60s, or maybe even the '70s--are capable of absorbing it. The famous generation gap still looms and lurks, with those who first rallied against its inequities now on the other side, where they continue to pursue their own interests--and continue to take shit, though not for the same reasons. The worst thing an L.A. hardcore kid could call you before the invention of the yuppie was "boomer," meaning baby-boomer, meaning a member of what that horrible old fart Peter Townshend once dubbed "My Generation." My generation has been over thirty for fifteen or twenty years now, and while it isn't quite as set in its ways as its predecessors--the mystique of lifelong growth isn't altogether a bad thing--it trusts itself a lot more than it trust rap.

And though I suppose this self-regard is healthy, as they say, I wish it were less predictable. When punk arose at least there was a split, with forever-young hippie stalwarts enthusiastically participating or observing. But for the vast majority of boomers rap is pure Other, and a great many postpunks aren't too fond of it either. Just as the demands of punk rhythm reinforced simple ageist complacency and paranoia in alienating my contemporaries from the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, so the radical music of rap, reducing melody all the way down to hook and sometimes dispensing with that, turns off both big-chillskis and postpunk zealots. Once again there's a strong ideological element: rap's gangsterish connections and black-power in-your-face are meant to scare the fainthearted just as punk rage and alientation were. But rap's synthesis of attitude and sensibility is so complex and contradiction-ridden that it's usually simplistic (and self-serving) to blame its rejection in this or that arena solely on race. Class animus from above is a more reliable constant, and the turnoff potential of rap's piggish sexual politics shouldn't be pooh-poohed. But age would seem an even more telling factor, with purely musical affinity crucial. Many aging rock-and-rollers just can't get with the new rhythmic language--the language of many of the decade's best albums.

Complicating this question further is the spread of what's usually called world music, though with Europhile and Afrophile factions increasingly distinct, world beat is the more evocative term. In the U.S., world beat is not kid stuff. Its enthusiasts are decidedly thirtyish, and insofar as they're attracted to the dance rhythms of black Africa and its diaspora, they're responding--and responding rhythmically--to the same dissatisfaction with foursquare rock and roll songcraft that's made rap so attractive to young whites. The difference is that where rap is aggressively disjoint, world-beat rhythms are suffused with spiritual confidence; they seem whole in a historical moment out of conceptual control. Sure some world-beat fans are chronic tourists who prefer their black folks exotic and out of sight, but more prefer their entertainers all grown up rather than mannish boys--or stuck in the petulantly middle-aged permanent adolescence of so many rock stars, aging punks most definitely included. Call it the yin half of a rhythm decade that could certainly use a little. I'm happiest on both sides myself.

Rock and roll's '80s were multifarious in the extreme. Ornette's acolytes made smarter jazz-rock than Miles's; folkies in and out of the closet explored roots that included folkiedom itself; the classically trained didn't seem so culturally deprived; and Brian Eno married Roger Williams and named the baby George Winston, who discovered a grassroots demand for the aural escape of new age. There were good country albums and good blues albums and vault finds from all manner of titans, notably Jimi Hendrix; occasionally some dinosaur would peek out of his cave and make a record that proved he wasn't extinct, though that didn't happen nearly as often as the papers said it did. But rap and related dance musics, world beat, and what I've broadly designated postpunk were the vital movements. They'll continue vital, too--including postpunk, which is too big to just disappear. Sloppy college boys will have plenty to do with their ears for the foreseeable future. And they don't have to be the only ones. Really, boomers--I know the children cut into your loud time something fierce, but there's an awful lot new to hear for those with the will and spirit to listen. There is no need to forswear the pleasures of your youth, or to bog down in de facto nostalgia. That's one thing this book is for.

Christgau's Record Guide: The '80s, 1990

The Meaning of Rock Canons and Listening Lists