Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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14 Million Served

Hootie & the Blowfish have nowhere to go but down. Only two years before they took the stage at Ohio's Blossom Music Center on July 18, few outside their Southeast stomping ground had even heard of them. But in the intervening 104 weeks, Cracked Rear View, which still ranked 63rd in the Billboard Hot 100 that night, had racked up 14 million U.S sales, supplanting Guns 'N Roses' Appetite for Destruction behind Boston in the all-time debut sweepstakes. In contrast, the premature followup Fairweather Johnson was out of the top 10 and had yet to go triple platinum, which was all anybody in Hootie's camp had been so rash as to publicly anticipate when it was launched in early April.

Darius Rucker and friends are road animals, and their two-and-a-half month American swing, barely a week old that Thursday night, should ram the new album over the goal line eventually. Maybe it'll even go quadruple platinum. But perceptually, a million more or less isn't the point. Ever since Michael Jackson was crazed enough to tell the world he wanted Bad to surpass Thriller, assuring that its seven million U.S. sales would be remembered as a flop, having nowhere to go but down is the known fate of acts that peak way high. In the music business no less than in sports or politics, finessing inflated expectations is now an accepted nicety of spin control. So the unorthodox strategy of releasing Fairweather Johnson before Cracked Rear View had relinquished its hold on the American record buyer was in part a feint, a way of deflecting attention from its inevitable shortfall. But the new album was also designed to help Hootie retain their musical sanity. They'll play Cracked Rear View, sure--they're big on what they owe their fans. But as they'll tell anyone who asks, they've been performing it live for six years in the touring game, and they've had enough.

Blossom is a lushly landscaped 18,781-capacity shed-and-lawn near Akron that comes complete with 45 minutes of traffic jam at sold-out events, which are rare. The only ones this year have been Jimmy Buffett and a promotional, radio-aided 14-baby-band showcase (Dash Rip Rock, Tragically Hip, Patti Rothberg, worse), but where Bowie/NIN attracted 12,700 and H.O.R.D.E. weighed in at around 12, Hootie has approached capacity two years running. Thus it was an ideal place to rub shoulders with the Middle American record buyer, rather than the megalopolitan hellspawn I'd last encountered disrespecting PJ Harvey at Jones Beach, where Hootie's tour will touch down August 4 after hitting the Garden July 30 and 31. This was as wholesome-looking a crowd as has ever washed in the blood of an electric guitar. The brew-chugging, male-bonded postcollegiates of what scant Hootie myth there is were swallowed up in a sea of couples that ranged evenly from dating teens to parents with kids in tow. The dozen or two African Americans infinitely outnumbered identifiable gays and lesbians, and the $155 open-container summonses weren't the only thing discouraging public drunkenness--the legal beer lines were shorter than the souvenir lines, where new tour T's were the big item and "'cause they don't look like you" shirts sold steadily.

One reason nobody expects Fairweather Johnson to move half of 14 million is that Hootie's demographic sweep insures an amorphous, casual, passive audience. When Hole played a Hartford shed-and-lawn at Lollapalooza '96, for instance, the alternakids were on their feet longer than Courtney was, whereas Hootie's Blossom fans sat once they got hello out of their systems. But these folks had paid for a good time, and midway through, when the band finally reverted to the numbers they knew by heart, at least 10,000 consumers were up swaying, singing, and kidding around--especially out on the grass, where the mean age was lower. My favorites were two knots of four teenaged girls. The first joined voices on every "I only wanna be with you." And during "Drowning," the sparkplug of the second group twice suspended her horseplay to mime Rucker's double-time: "You don't walk like me/You don't talk like me/Sayin' go back to Africa/I just don't understand."

In a 99.44 per cent white crowd dotted with "'cause they don't look like me" T-shirts, this apparent paradox was only slightly mind-boggling. As guitarist Mark Bryan put it in Entertainment Weekly, Hootie's fame is widely and sensibly construed as "the revenge of the normal." But in fact pop audiences prefer even their normality touched with strange, which for this proudly unchallenging band, this band that reduces scandalmongers to desperate claims that their album titles adduce butt cleavage and meteorological genitalia, obviously comes down to race. As a black son of the civil rights movement whose "Tucker's Town" is his second hit about racism, making two more than Tupac or Dre has bothered with, Darius Rucker is all too aware that he's damned if he does and damned if he doesn't, and all too normal not to resent it. He knows he's not a "sellout." He knows he's just being himself, one of the countless Southern blacks who love country music and one of the smaller contingent of assimilated blacks who dig the guitar-band gestalt some think equals "rock." It's not his fault that in the era of O.J. and gin-and-juice he's come to embody what many whites hope is the Regular Black Guy--conscious, mad sometimes, but neither militant nor embittered, and hence holding out a hint of a possibility that somehow this problem that makes them feel bad will fade to gray. It's not his fault that by not only accepting but mastering a white-identified cultural style he revalidates it as the Gin Blossoms, say, never could.

Crucial though the racial fillip is, it's subsidiary to the mastery--a mastery good for neither the instant ear candy flacks swear is there nor the generic dross indicated by the routine inspections of rock and roll quality controllers. It would be gauche for the melodic contours of this stalwartly ordinary band to manifest themselves immediately--better they should sink in and hold, the bedrock of a sound that is more original, or at least unprecedented, than anyone notices at first. Bands given to blunt popcraft and elementary guitars, even those that split the difference between jangle and boogie the way Hootie does, generally favor singers up toward the whiny end of the dramatic spectrum. Rucker's gruff grit, a soul derivative that owes more to whites emulating what they hear as "black" singing than to any African American I can think of, adds an extra layer of substance to a music already deeply comforting in its formal certainties, rendering the old standbys some now trumpet as Hootie's "dark" heartbreak themes even more significant, which is the prize the band's fans crave. What most offends quality controllers isn't the music's supposed anonymity, which is really its embrace of the normal--it's Rucker's determination to overemote. Personally, I'd say he indulges himself more enjoyably than Bryan Adams, less than Garth Brooks--about on a par with Eddie Vedder.

Flying to the rust-belt heartland to immerse in the normal, I was plainly seeking some exotic-in-reverse. But I would never have set out if I hadn't caught myself admiring the way Fairweather Johnson deployed its hooks, first on the elegant love-song-to-a-baby "She Crawls Away" and soon elsewhere. I knew that Peter Holsapple, half the compositional smarts of New York's (and North Carolina's) hyperelegant dB's, was augmenting Hootie on what Rucker described at Blossom as "all the instruments we can't play," and figured he'd been teaching them some tricks offstage, where I'm told he regularly jams with Mark Bryan. And as I sat and then stood watching, I began ticking off all the formally similar "alternative" acts I liked much less: Gin Blossoms, Better Than Ezra, their buddy Nanci Griffith, the lachrymose Son Volt, and more. I decided the problem with Cracked Rear View was that Rucker swept past all its verse-chorus distinctions on waves of feeling. But the next morning I woke up humming "Hold My Hand" and "Drowning" and "I Only Wanna Be With You." I hadn't had enough. Just like at least 13 million other passive pleasure seekers, I'd been hooked by exposure in the end.

Village Voice, Aug. 6, 1996