Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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It's Barely Rock and Roll, But I Like It

By Simon Frith

Simon Frith is such a good friend of mine that I couldn't review Sound Effects if I loved it as much as I wish I did. Even at that, it's the one book I'd recommend to anybody eager to attain an understanding of how rock and roll works: the music's history and meaning as art, culture, and business are all here, summed up in less than 300 pages. But there are hedges in my rave: "eager" and "attain." To more casual truth-seekers I'd offer two alternatives, even though they predate the punk and disco explosions and contractions that changed the music utterly: Greil Marcus's Mystery Train for aesthetics and Geoffrey Stokes's Star-Making Machinery for economics.

As wonderful as I think those books are--Mystery Train, recently revamped and reissued, is still hard to put down--both seem romantic in retrospect, because both were conceived before the '60s has been fully absorbed. So Frith is the wiser by five years or so. But he'd probably be wiser anyway. This is an academic with a very cool head who makes the most of his library privileges, his knowledge of pop music fact and theory is unequalled, and he's had a good time listening. The problem is that Sound Effects--originally published in England in 1980 as The Sociology of Rock and now substantially revised--isn't romantic enough. Though no book has ever put together more good ideas about rock and roll, it's often hard to figure out just why the author bothered.

Frith isn't always prey to this difficulty, as admirers of his Creem and New York Rocker columns or his stunning essay on Beggars Banquet in Marcus's Stranded anthology are aware. At his best he writes about rock and roll with a calm warmth that is balanced, amusing, committed, and original. You don't read him for sparkling apercus or gonzo wit, but because his mind is so sharp and his affection so winning his writing itself is a pleasure. In this book the writing is drab except when the ideas are extraordinary, as they are in most of the third and concluding section. There are no groaners, and Frith is one of those rare academics whose style always achieves lucidity and a serviceable grace. But while Part Two's account of the music industry is succinct sociology that will have the impact of revelation among the uninitiated, it lacks any sense of discovery. And throughout Frith settles for language worn dull by overuse. There's nothing really wrong with phrasing like this: "the folk emphasis on songs and lyrics, on honesty and commitment, was slowly adapted by performers and their record companies alike to the commercial needs of rock." But unexceptionable is all it is, and anyway, "folk" should really be "folkies'," you don't "adapt" an "emphasis," and "needs" is vague and flat. The cumulative effect of such prose is a barely perceptible fatigue that would diminish any subject and definitely ain't rock and roll.

This stylistic shortcoming is symptomatic; Frith's analysis is astute and far-reaching, but its balance is off, because he's walking three tightropes at once. A Marxist ensnared by a capitalist culture fetish and a rock and roller with tenure, he's now adapting a British quasischolarly work for the American semipopular audience. He wants to amaze intellectuals who know virtually nothing about rock and roll: Frankfurt-school theorists who dismiss all "mass culture" as ruling-class propaganda, humanities profs who are convinced pop can't be art, and social scientists who regard all art/culture as grist for their mill. But he also wants to show some new steps to rock aficionados who know very little about anything else: the literate fans who still think liberation means doing your own drugs and sex without fear, or imagine that a market is an audience is a community is a countercultures is a vanguard; who equate art with self-expression, preferably via mediocre poetry or musical demivirtuosity; who believe that rock and roll, like all art, is dishonored by the reductive mechanisms of social science. And he has to contend with both camps' vision or the music business as a monolith of profit and/or philistinism.

Mystery Train or Star-Making Machinery deal with such notions by ignoring them. Marcus provides "images of America in rock 'n' roll music" without preamble or apology; Stokes asks no big questions and answers several as he sets himself to the plain and lovely task of recounting "the odyssey of an album." But Frith feels obliged to prove everything to everybody, and whether his motive is scholarly caution or radical agape (both, I'd say), it's guaranteed to bore all of the people some of the time. In the end, though, I'm grateful he bothered, because nobody else ever has, not in a systematic way. I have my reservations--Frith assigns too much weight to the club and concert experience, writes more convincingly about black music as a fan than as a cultural historian, never quite translates his English book about American music into American terms, and is less sophisticated than I'd hoped about "mass culture" and bohemia, two concepts I happen to have spent years thinking about. But even these objections are about emphasis, not substance--Frith is sophisticated enough for damn sure. I've never read more compelling structuralist criticism or bottom-line analysis, because Frith uses both devices (along with lots of others) rather than letting them use him. And though I've also spent years thinking about the aesthetics of lyrics, it was the chapter this sociology Ph.D. calls "Pop Music" that solved their riddle for me. Sound Effects is the book from which all subsequent theories of rock and roll will have to begin.

Even though Frith's first discernible joke occurs on page 152, the core of rock's value for him is fun, the essence of leisure. Much of what he has to say in Part Three, "Rock Consumption," is inspired synthesis; although I've never encountered a more convincing account of "youth culture," for instance (and I've plowed through more than my share), Frith's overview only boils down the best ideas of other writers. But if his vision of leisure isn't his own, then he's read Huizinga, Veblen, Rosenberg, and Berger (all cited in an impressive and useful annotated bibliography) more profitably than I have. For Frith, "leisure is an implicit critique-of work," a critique which in its rowdy, common, egotistic rock and roll form offends the revolutionary left no less than the law-and-order center. The specifics of this critique are determined in a continuing struggle between the industry and the fans, whom Frith bills above the artists. He doesn't oversimplify this situation, or wax revolutionary about it; contradictions of "order versus disorder, society versus the individual, security versus fantasy," he writes, are "contained within the industry, within the audience, within the musicians, within the music itself." But his conclusion has an apocalyptic ring: rock's "history, like the history of America itself, is a history of class struggle-the struggle for fun."

Frith's entire exegesis is illuminated by these ideas, which he makes explicit only at the very end. My chief regret is that he doesn't then go on and bring individual artists and audiences into their spotlight. I think this is because Frith the leftist academic can't believe that rock and roll comprises or even symbolizes a meaningful apocalypse. Its struggle is too limited, too theoretical, and in megapolitical terms too futile, the professor in him fears, to justify putting any of his own kind of sweetly ironic critical journalism between hard covers. "For every individual illuminating account of our common situation there are a hundred mass musical experiences that disguise it," he notes in his third-lo-last sentence, and he's basically right even if the percentages aren't quite so dire. But Frith wrote this book because rock and roll has illuminated his individual (and social) situation--because it's changed his life. And one of the things rock and roll has convinced the leftist journalist in me is that such individual instances are more significant than any percentages can indicate.

Village Voice, May 18, 1982