Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Articles [NAJP]

Call for Papers

Revising the syllabus for the fifth edition of my course in music history and writing at NYU's Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music, I've run into the same problem I did last year. The text is a reader I compile of good writing about popular music from a deliberately wide variety of sources--academic treatises, popular histories, biographies, a quickie book about U.K. punk, the Osiris chapter of Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo. Naturally there's plenty of journalism--even after several decades of academic respectability, most of the best writing about rock is journalistic.

The lacunae that remain are striking. Has no one written anything decent about the music (not just the lyrics) of Woody Guthrie? If Sgt. Pepper is the most widely praised album in rock history, as everyone says, how come the best writing about it is either scornful or hedges its bets? (Hint: not because it isn't terrific--because it's too iconic.) But the one that's been bugging me is subtler. My analysis of rock in the '00s--augmented by four years of teaching music history to 30 or so very bright college students who want to be music professionals--is that, speaking very generally, blues-based forms have given way to what I in my ignorant way (a music critic for four decades, I cannot read music and, though I've acquired a rudimentary sense of history over the years, have little firsthand knowledge of what is called the classical tradition) would designate European-based usages. This can mean any number of things, from the RZA's Bernard Herrmann samples to the Arcade Fire's instrumentation to the increasingly complex song structures favored by pop songwriters to details of key and time signature I know only by hearsay and the gropings of my own ears. In general, these usages are not to my taste, and I can describe them only in vague terms like the ones I just resorted to. But I feel I owe it to my students, most of whom know more about music formally than I do, to let them read about this trend. And I can't find a single piece of journalism that addresses the theme or themes head-on.

Earlier this week I had a brainstorm: Jon Pareles! Chief NYT rockcrit Pareles is an old prog-rock guy with perfect pitch who studied music at Yale and sometimes takes notes by scribbling musical notes on a scribbled staff. Surely somewhere he'd addressed this question, if not in a thematically keyed essay then at least in a feature or review about an artist who illustrated the trend in one paradigmatic way or other. I emailed him Wednesday, forgetting that the CMJ Music Marathon was in full swing and he'd be out watching bands 12 hours a day. But there was an upside to that, as I learned when I read his first CMJ piece Thursday, viz:

Indie-rock, with full blog support, is now the refuge for the musicianly impulses of progressive rock. Pattern Is Movement, a two-man band (drums and keyboards) from Philadelphia, records mercurial songs that juggle Minimalist repetition, musical-theater melodicism and progressive-rock asymmetries. But onstage, like duos from Lightning Bolt to the Dresden Dolls, they happily pummeled the music, vigorously knocking down any hint of effeteness. Women, a four-man band from Canada, moved inexorably between the pointillistic guitar patterns of King Crimson and the enveloping squall of Sonic Youth.

Exactly, Jon, exactly. Tell me more. But alas, when Pareles generously grabbed a few minutes from his day, he could point to nothing more suitable from his catalogue than a feature on the '00s prog-rock band the Mars Volta. I may end up using that in the final week of the course, headed "Possibilities." But I wish I knew of somebody somewhere who dealt in these terms--polemically, if I had my druthers--with a band like one of the somewhat less explicitly prog bands he described at CMJ. My knowledge of what writing is out there is sketchy in the extreme, so I harbor hope that someone can point me somewhere useful. But I gotta say, the journalistic environment isn't encouraging. In the blogosphere, where these values are pervasive, they're also usually taken for granted; their roots and rationalizations, which as a teacher is what I want to get at, are rarely if ever examined. In the paper press, meanwhile, the pop music "think piece" has all but disappeared except when disguised by some clever operative as the dreaded "trend piece." Still, three excellent and well-placed crits have the chops and freedom to write something along these lines: Jody Rosen in Slate, Sasha Frere-Jones in The New Yorker, and Pareles himself. All have the sense of context to do something with my big idea, should they happen to think it worth their while, which given their other interests and obligations there's no reason to think they do or should.

So I'm not counting on that (really, guys). But I am taking nominations. Any ideas?


By Adam on October 24, 2008 7:48 AM

If I knew a sharp from a flat . . .

Is there anything we can say about European usages, beyond their divergence from the blues, or their presumed . . . angularity? Is there a quality of the music that isn't just non-blues or, I suppose, in some modality or another? RZA, Bernard Herrmann, and the Arcade Fire seem to embrace non-Western movement, but can their diverse sounds be unified, in musicological terms? Similarly, can the progsters of the 00s be lumped together, other than that they might play a lot of notes (shrill or low) quickly, discovering new ways to get to "fast" but not necessarily to "thrilling"? Musicians will forever strive for means to convolute prior forms. Can we not consider the trend of the 00s, particularly of these last few years, as just just a move towards different convolutions that may or may not sound like twists we've heard before, just as films have the capacity to surprise, but most often do not, or do not substantially enough.

Maybe a list of ideas can be compiled here, either theoretical, or intuitively drawn. It would be nice to see these forums develop into big ol' discussions, a town hall without whatever terrible things happen at town hall meetings. That is, if we don't mind a few blind stabs mixed in with others' Pareles-like authoritativeness.

If no one's keen to write an article, we can at least get a few different voices on the matter here, for starters.

I guess I'll toss a few questions in the mix, which may be implicitly drawn by most from what you've said, Robert. I'm no researcher in the area.

Will the American sense of the authentic always rely on blues forms? I'm not American, so God knows what I hold as formative or essential. Sometimes it seems like it's something resembling the blues. Other times, it's Pavement, or Ornette Coleman (who is perhaps a poor non-blues example). Again, this isn't a matter of theory but of my guts distinguishing what is essential from what is convoluted. I did the same thing at a staff meeting last week at the school where I teach: felt certain staff members were miring themselves in needless difficulties, such as ragging on students' behaviour and performance, and not spending enough time motivated by effective teaching, which can be a simple and clear thing, not a bog. I trust someone with some musical background (perfect pitch) can do wonders with 00s indie-prog as an entity unto its own, but I would imagine anyone writing about these bands in particular is addressing their musical contraptions, aren't they? I guess a type of article that could be useful would be a compendium of these bands as regards their compositional techniques, whether purposeful (the Arcade Fire) or incidental (squalid squall-makers).

Anyone else?

By Bradley Sroka on October 24, 2008 10:12 AM

Dean Christgau,

I wish I had an article to recommend to you; I'll have to keep looking. In the meantime, I certainly have a lot of ideas about this style of music. I read a recent article unpacking Theodor Adorno's analysis of form and narrative cohesiveness in Webern's Op. 11 that is extremely relevant to bands like Battles and the Mars Volta (the article is Julian Johnson, "The Nature of Abstraction: Analysis and the Webern Myth"). Basically, like Webern in his Op. 11, these bands rely on our understanding of traditional song form (or in Webern's case, sonata form, which is a lot like contemporary song form) to "surprise" us with their tricky song structures and avoidance of conventional (musical) thematic material. I worry that without these culturally-shared musical expectations, and the surprise factor of avoiding them, that their songs don't make a whole lot of sense (esp. the Mars Volta).

In contrast, I feel that most seventies prog rock aimed to lengthen or expand traditional song structure, either with solos or just by adding more themes or sections that are related to how ideas are expressed in traditional song form (for example, Yes or Genesis). These newer prog bands, however, sound to me like they want to disfigure traditional song form, so that their commentary on traditional song forms and themes is recognizable, but the aural result is a grotesque alteration of these traditions. I guess this is meant to prove how clever they are. In Adorno's terms, they are forcing structural ideas onto their music, rather than letting the material grow out of the music itself to produce a more satisfying "truth content." (He uses Stravinsky and Schoenberg, respectively, as his examples in Philosophy of the New Music.) That's vague, I know, but there are plenty of books explaining Adorno: I'm glad I don't have to write one. (Have you read Adorno? Though he's a classical music guy through and through, you have a lot in common with him Mr. Christgau.)

Perhaps Radiohead's use of form and thematic content relates to both the seventies and the new millennial categories of prog rock, perhaps with OK Computer and In Rainbows, respectively. (I would argue that Kid A uses song form that comes out of the musical material, and is thus more successful.) I'd have to listen back to all of this to see if I'm on to something, but at least this may start a conversation somewhere. In the meantime, I'll listen to the new Randy Newman or maybe Los Campesinos! instead, who actually create new song forms to organize their original thematic material that doesn't sound forced or exhibitionist. (Oh, and Jaguar Love--thanks for that one Dean.) I have to add that Newman's alteration of blues form in the song "Harps and Angels" is just completely masterful.

As for the Arcade Fire, at least on Neon Bible, they use extremely simple song form and traditional thematic material underneath their orchestral arrangements. The orchestral textures may sound complex, but they are just decoration over a thoroughly conventional harmonic and melodic framework. Perhaps that's why it's so cohesive and powerful. I can't sit through Funeral, so I can only vouch for Neon Bible. I hope this throws some ideas out there for someone who is not procrastinating their school work due this afternoon, and can take up the baton and run with it. Any takers?

By Jim on October 24, 2008 2:41 PM


For your class, you should check out Scott Miller (Loud Family and Game Theory)'s year by year review of songs -- what happened?

By Hugh on October 24, 2008 3:41 PM

There is certainly a tendency towards a more 'compositional' style -- progressive, but stopping short of prog. Musicians with such aspirations will naturally be itching to liberate themselves from the three chords imposed by blues, or the handful found in most pop, and the change in instrumentation seems to be an extension of this, moving from the earthy guitar of the blues towards the arrangement-heavy, very 'compositional' realm of classical music, perhaps finding refuge in European art music along the way. From the inside, this is no doubt accompanied by notions of 'artistic growth', or a sort of musical maturation, and it has played out to varying degrees in many an ambitious band. Sometimes fiddling around with the form, or being 'fed up' with the form and seeking subversion, is simply more 'arty'. (In fact, the 'arty' impulse is probably the chief culprit at present.)

I don't think this is a late development, per se -- maybe it's more of a scourge nowadays. I can think of numerous examples by The Beatles alone, if I may hazard the mention, who in addition to exhibiting an increasing level of musical craft drew specifically on European forms, and this same tendency affected The Beach Boys, Love, Zappa et al. The present generation of indie-rockers invariably draw on this period, and, with the luxury of over-ambition and easy recording, add experiments of their own, whether through restless creativity/musicianship, boredom or mere pretentiousness. As long as it doesn't spill over into full-blown prog, I think we should count our blessings.

By Gary Mairs on October 25, 2008 9:40 AM

Metal seems to play into this as well -- since early Sabbath, the form has largely ignored blues based melodic ideas in favor of "European" modes. Robert Walser's Running with the Devil is an excellent overview of the incorporation of classical technique and ideas into metal. (I also think you've pinned down why I find so much recent indy so unsympathetic . . . it's all just prog to me.)

By Carl Meier on November 23, 2008 12:52 PM

Some great posts!

In The New Yorker, October, 2007, Sasha Frere-Jones did publish 'How Indie Rock Lost Its Soul,' taking on Arcade Fire among others. On his web site there's also a link to 'The Trouble With Indie Rock,' a post from Carl Wilson. While Frere-Jones does not express things in Robert's terms explicitly, I'd suspect a similar diagnosis if he had. In his article he traces what he thinks is a decline in musical miscegenation -- from academia's emerging doctrine of political correctness to the at least co-equal status of 'black musicians . . . as visible and as influential as white ones.' (How is it that the jazz musicians -- as distinct from their audience -- seem as mixed as ever?). Wilson attributes things to the upper middle-class 'college town' environment of the musicians making the music these days.

All this invites Adam's question: will American authenticity always depend on the blues? But as he himself hinted, the authentic is a tricky proposition; musically, at least, the growth should be organic, not contrived, a topic that Brad tackles quite well, I think, despite his disclaimers, and about which he is right. Not one to understate things, Wilson writes, "Rather than body-centered, (the music) is bookish and nerdy; rather than being instrumentally or vocally virtuosic, it shows off its chops via its range of allusions and high concepts with the kind of fluency both postmodern pop culture and higher education teach its listeners to admire."

The Dean started things off for me with his lead essay in 2006's Pazz & Jop poll, only there he called it Anglo ethnic music, following writer Bruce Sterling. As he listed the artists, I tried to check out some of them out. But anytime I heard bands with 'European based' tropes, I translated out of rock and roll. While I have a soft spot for Sufjan Stevens, I couldn't process most of the rest. Either they had the same effect as Il Divo or Josh Groban -- classical crossover, only coming from the opposite direction, or they sounded like were in it for the concept, as Brad points out, and it didn't sound good, suggesting that most of them haven't done their time. You want to fool with classical, it takes time.

Still we raised no similar flags with the consciously 'arty' bands coming out of La Monte Young or Glenn Branca, "Eleanor Rigby" is chamber music that almost works that way, as Hugh points out, and Lightning Bolt, a band mentioned by Pareles, is the kind of arty metal band that should make Walser proud. Even the Dean has given them high marks. Are these 'arty' but not so explicitly 'European based?' (But 'Eleanor Rigby' is 'European based.') Or less forced, more in tune with their 'roots,' and so more 'organic'?

In this vein I can't think of anything I'd like better than a treatment of this whole topic, especially from someone who knows classical music too. So I'd be fine with a Frere-Jones redo so long as he got his colleague Alex Ross, the classical music writer for the New Yorker, to chime in. How about getting Greg Sandow, who has written knowledgably about both classical and pop, to do a post on his blog? How about enlisting the Dean's old colleague at the Voice, Kyle Gann, who knows the culture and is just the opposite of a classical music snob? Paroles might work, but he's almost never polemical.

Or is it just that I'm missing something, and that these artists already had a lot of musical training as kids, like Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, and are just using rock forms as the best way to get a gig? In that case the Dean just ought to open things up for discussion right there in his class. And put the tape recorder on. They know why and how they got into it: they can write the paper as they speak, especially since I hear that their editor is someone who will be pretty fierce about making things concise as he put it together. Then the paper will be ready to be passed out next semester.

By Fergal McD on December 30, 2008 5:57 AM

Isn't it interesting that Radiohead's "formally trained" Jonny Greenwood is an exciting, aggressive, surprising, spontaneous and fundamentally primal guitar player?

He has more than a few tricks up his sleeve and treads a fine line.

I always found Yes too often infatuated with classical music's structural formalities and thus produced a sound that was essentially artless and lacking much emotional depth.

King Crimson on the other hand often managed to imbue their music with a profundity that conveyed, for example menace (The climax of Starless).

Is it the difference between Bach and Bartok as an influence?

I would be interested to know if Mr. Christgau has read Ian MacDonald's "Revolution in The Head"?

By Johnny on January 1, 2009 12:58 AM

I don't really think prog, or some perceived prog resurgence, has anything to do with the mainstream shift towards "European" styles. (By the way, RC, if it's bluesy, it's a minor scale, if it's more upbeat or "happy" sounding, it's a major. You may already know this and i don't mean to sound condescending. It's just that as a musician I've always found that the easiest way to explain it.)

Prog has been, and is, a fringe phenomenon in pop. It's listened to by the same people who play it: impressed with technicality and skill, and of the mindset that "the more stuff it holds, the more I think, and therefore, it is more intelligent". I don't agree with this mindset; to me the White Stripes were always more intelligent than Coheed and Cambria.

This past year has seen an interesting turn of events in the pop-tarty realm of MTV: they're starting to pick up on the whole "indie" thing. The shift in indie music recently has split into two camps: the Beach Boys influenced hoppy beats and,here you go, major scales in melody and vocal harmonies especially (see Animal Collective and The Shins), and the other camp of dance music (see MGMT, of Montreal). Dance music and Major scaled harmonies, of which many indie bands feature both, are very accessible to pop-heads.

So they dance. They sing. They remember because the songs are easy to remember. They don't invoke bad feelings like the 90s melancholy. They're not too "intelligent" sounding like Sonic Youth. There's not too much you have to pick apart, or if there is those parts are easily ignorable by those who just want to dance.

We hear MIA and Santogold doing collaborations with mainstream rap artists. We hear Daft Punk introduced to the layman via Kanye. And strike me down with lightning if I didn't hear the same bassy synth tone in Beyonce's "Single Ladies" that I heard in Animal Collective's "Winter Wonderland." MTV ran indie artist concert footage with footage from their various upcoming teen dramasodes in their commercials this past summer.

Is indie selling out, or is pop getting more intelligent. I hope the latter. Not to say half those indie guys didn't get into the game to make a few bucks.

And a final word against prog: Brevity is the soul of wit. Get a sense of humor. Pop's not evil.

Articles, Oct. 24, 2008

Postliveblogging the Debate Late Registration