Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Call the Doctor

In the beginning, what made Chrissie Hynde stand out was that she brought punk attitude to pop aesthetics. Here was a woman who'd seen the Dolls with Malcolm McLaren, yet her first hit and her first daughter were both sired by Ray Davies. But after 1984's Learning To Crawl--whence came "My City Was Gone," a farewell to the thriving Akron of her youth so bang-bang that it eventually became Rush Limbaugh's theme song the way "Born in the U.S.A." became Ronald Reagan's--the Pretenders got by on pop attitude. With just enough exceptions to keep them on the radio a little, and those often as tepid as 1994's "I'll Stand by You," the songs on the albums between then and the new Viva El Amor! emulated the concision and riff-riding lyricism of "Brass in Pocket" while doing without the passion and focus that made it so fiercely erotic, so vivacious and fuck-you, so independent, so special. They felt pop, felt tuneful and shaped and legibly emotional. But even when they had hooks, they were ultimately atmospheric.

On Viva El Amor!, the writing is sharp again. The riffs have an edge, the lyrics bite. And wouldn't you know, the album begins by dissing the competition, a lurking possibility ever since 1986's ugly Michael Jackson putdown "How Much Did You Get for Your Soul?" But "Popstar" has a different kind of chip on its shoulder, the kind that inspired Hynde to cap "I'm not the cat I used to be/I've got a kid I'm 33" with a gurgling cat-fight meow-r-r-r. She's not a kid for sure--she's 48. But that doesn't stop her from hooking her vitriol to the "Hang On Sloopy" motif as if she thought of it yesterday. "Your baby wants to be a popstar/Probably just to spite me," she intuits. "I can see just where she's headin'/She's as predictable as Armageddon." Not privy to autobiographical details, if any, and preferring to believe her young Colombian-sculptor husband isn't fooling around, I pretend Hynde conceived the song for an old flame's floozy, then adjusted it so she could sharpshoot Courtney and Madonna. You'd think animal-rightser Hynde might kvell when her rival gives up red meat after she's turned by her therapist into a Buddhist (other rhymes: Minogue/Vogue and, er, meritocracy/aristocracy). But Hynde doesn't pigeonhole so easy: raised Lutheran and proud, she makes her kids say their prayers and believes in "a personal God." So Buddhism feh, like feminism feh before it. Her grudge is a joy to her; it's why she can ride that riff with such gusto. Refrain: "They don't make 'em like they used to."

Chrissie Hynde has always seemed admirably comfortable with medium-level stardom, totally uninterested in iconicity of either the Madonna-Courtney or the Patti-Iggy sort. She speaks her mind, follows her druthers, and conducts her career; no recluse, she's nevertheless very private in her unspectacular London home, concealing the very names of the two kids she's spent her thirties and forties raising. In someone who's as class-conscious as Bruce Springsteen without getting pious about it (pious and worse she saves for PETA), someone so blatantly emotional in pop form and pop content, the unobtrusiveness with which she plights her blighted troth with Jim Kerr or conducts a memorial service for Linda McCartney is an essential piece of image maintenance. That isn't to suggest it's undertaken as such. But when Chrissie Hynde says they don't make 'em like they used to, she's allowed to mean they don't make 'em like me--an authentic, unreconstructed original.

Which she proceeds to prove not by continuing in the obvious rock 'n' roll mama vein of "Popstar," but by racking up two consecutive radio readymades (she and we hope) about long-term love: the midtempo debut single "Human," with a plangent chorus that begins, "Well there's blood and there's veins/And I cry when in pain/I'm only human on the inside," and the slower "From the Heart Down," a harder sell because it's more explicitly domestic and more explicitly sexual (hook: "Love me from the heart down"). And while track four, "Nails in the Road," may not be a sure-shot, how can you not root for a song that begins: "If this is public transportation/What are you doing here"? All classics, I'm positive, and the quality doesn't let up much after that: some strong Janis Joplin soul, a pretty ballad in Spanish I bet her husband understands, a closer with the ridiculously in-character refrain "You bring the biker out in me," a line that goes "It's only baby's breath" in your head long after it's over. But something must be noted about all this revitalized work: at its best, it isn't strictly Chrissie Hynde's.

Ever notice the name Billy Steinberg? He's a songwriter who doubles as what bizzers call a song doctor--a lyric honer, a tune twister, a hook finder. Hynde first consulted him on 1994's Last of the Independents, and you can see why she might. It's because Steinberg--usually in partnership with Tom Kelly--has a specialization in women: Linda Ronstadt's "How Do I Make You" and Cyndi Lauper's "True Colors" and Heart's "Alone," the title tune of Celine Dion's Falling Into You and songs on five different Pat Benatar albums, Bette Midler and Whitney Houston and Tina Turner and Belinda Carlisle and the Corrs and the Bangles and Kim Wilde and Meredith Brooks and Chynna Phillips and Samantha Cole. Most remarkably, Steinberg and Kelly cowrote both Madonna's "Like a Virgin" and (with Christina Amphlett and Mark McEntee) the Divinyls' rather dissimilar "I Touch Myself." Three of Viva El Amor!'s most memorable songs--"From the Heart Down," "Nails in the Road," and "Baby's Breath"--are credited Hynde-Steinberg-Kelly. Moreover, Hynde didn't write "Human" either--that was 1997 Grammy nominee Shelly Peiken ("Bitch," with Meredith Brooks) and ex-Divinyl (also ex-Air Supply) Mark McEntee.

Anyone who thinks this renders Chrissie Hynde a poseur should get the lowdown on Hank Williams's closed-door sessions with Fred Rose, then recall that Ol' Hank didn't have even his name on "Lovesick Blues." Instead, believe the credits and assume Hynde came first, as boss and auteur. When she wanted an "I'll Stand by You," because she was feeling soppy or meretricious or just plain weak, she went to none other than Steinberg-Kelly and perfected "I'll Stand by You." Now--and for fun let's give props to her 1996 marriage, to a guy she says inspired her to kick a six-spliffs-a-night ganja habit--she's determined to breach the radio with two less self-abnegating and idealistic close-ups of the love bond. Would you have known she hadn't accomplished this alone if you hadn't had access to a scorecard? Not likely.

Maybe, though, we should ponder "Popstar" one more time. After all, when Hynde says they don't make 'em like they used to, the "they" isn't supposed to signify Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly, nor the "'em" Linda Ronstadt and Pat Benatar and Cyndi Lauper yet also Meredith Brooks and Chynna Phillips and Samantha Coles. And even if we consider such flights of defiant rhetoric essential to Hynde's musical health--we don't pay her to be right, we pay her to be vivacious and fuck-you--let us note the plight of a younger band led by a strong, blatantly emotional woman. Remember the Cranberries? Like Hynde's nemesis, they set about selling a million units of their dream-pop just to prove they could and proceeded forthwith to Armageddon. On their second album they averaged 30 seconds longer per song, expending this bloat on portentous intros that went nowhere, and on their third they discovered politics without ever approaching a "My City Was Gone." They got big-headed. They did fashion spreads. They almost broke up. They became a joke. So I'm here to report that on the phoenixlike Bury the Hatchet they've regained most of their form--13 songs in 47 minutes, tunes included. The lyrics could be dreamier, though; a few of the constructions could use a new bridge. Wouldn't it be a nice gesture for Hynde to ring up Dolores O'Riordan and give her Dr. Steinberg's phone number?

While he's overseas, he could look up Elastica too.

Village Voice, June 6, 1999