Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Either And

Hey, folks--Frank Sinatra and rock and roll aren't mutually exclusive. Not that Mr. My Way could sing the music he once adjudged "a rancid-smelling aphrodisiac," as with typical elasticity of principle he eventually tried to. (Remember "The PTA, Mrs. Robinson, won't OK the way you do your thing/Ding ding ding"? How could you forget?) And not that his Northern, urban, assimilationist style had any rock and roll in it. But it wasn't as antithetical as Rudy Vallee's, Nelson Eddy's, Mario Lanza's, John Raitt's, Eddie Fisher's, or, shit, Tony Bennett's. Like innovators from William Wordsworth to Chuck Berry, Sinatra was driven to intensify formal language by making it more speechlike. Magically, within severe standards of pitch, timbre, and enunciation, his singing is every bit as colloquial as Bob Dylan's, Carole King's, or Rakim's--probably more so.

There's a game I like to play where I list my favorite singers of the first century of recorded voices. As it must, the list compounds raw personal taste, my individual somatic response to grain and shape and natural rhythm, with the critical judgment that informs everyone's aesthetic pleasure. There are rockers--Presley, Dylan, and (a taste call, way up) John Lennon--as well as Aretha Franklin and (way up again) Al Green. Two country singers, George Jones and Lefty Frizzell. But at two and three are Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday. And at the pinnacle is Frank Sinatra.

Pop is a cornucopia and a continuum. Either way, singing per se means bubkes in some music I adore (Thelonious Monk, Sonic Youth) and the world in other music I adore (Mahlathini, Peter Stampfel). And either way, most of the music I adore is rock and roll. But not all of it. And none of it excludes any of the rest. So when a savvy young critic praises Sinatra for delivering her from punk's canon of authenticity, I feel sad. When a broadly experienced older critic uses Sinatra's genius to bewail the impersonality of contemporary pop, I pray my arteries hold up. Either-or is for nostalgic ideologues. I want the world and I want it now.

Many claim they don't identify with Frank Sinatra--they just bask in his artistry. But that's not how singing works. Sinatra the man's gruesome amalgam of confidence and insecurity was configured in his so-called pitch problems--the way every line he sings seems to waver slightly as he holds it firmly in the grip of his technique. More than anything else, it was the ambivalence built into his certainty that made him the century's quintessential voice for so many of us. And it was the intelligence built into his body that made him just right for any rock and roller with a grain of sensibility.

Stereo Review, 1998

Note: A shorter version appeared in the Voice.