Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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It was 1986, and 23-year-old Simon Reynolds was sore afraid--afraid he'd missed "the last big rave-up." For him that meant punk, for other young Britcrits the exhilarating false spring of Culture Club et al., but overriding such details of taste was a longing for one of those magic moments when "an old musical order is dis-established but nothing stable has yet taken its place." All over the UK music press, earnest rock had been shown the door by the smart "subversions" of self-conscious pop; every week, image-wise hopefuls--soul boys black and white, trashy fops glad to be glam, showbiz bohemians, neat guitar bands with their smattering of poststructuralism and revolution-from-within--gave interviewers what for. But Reynolds wasn't buying any. Too perverse or discerning for the latest variation on songful eclecticism, scornful of retro, cut off from the exotic roots and alien authenticities of the world-music option, he'd had it with antirockism. He saw what too many young alternative types did not: most of the smart-pop folks were full of shit from the git, not just after their cover story became a dustbin liner. Even those who talked a good game couldn't put it in the grooves.

Then the miracle occurred, for the umpteenth time. Whaddaya know--rock hadn't died after all. It had merely "suffered a neglect that allowed it to breathe again." And how did its breath smell? Like wine, like ambrosia, like wacky tobaccy. "All the glorious incoherence and Dionysiac gratuitousness that Nik Cohn had first divined in pop, had somehow resurfaced in rock, with a spate of brilliant groups, of which The Young Gods, Throwing Muses and A.R. Kane were the most glaring examples." Italics mine, in case you had any doubt. Who are--or were--the saviors of rock and roll? The Young Gods, Throwing Muses, and A.R. Kane, of course. Who else? I mean, how can you not love this guy?

Reynolds recognizes the eccentricity and impermanence of his judgments. "A supernova," he calls that brief season when his faction at Melody Maker took up the cudgels for an inchoate constellation of musicians who were at a bare minimum both pretentious and irresponsible--a supernova that soon ionized, its incandescence visible months or eons too late here in the colonies, where Reynolds's Blissed Out has just been published. A collection that's almost as crazy as Lester Bangs's, almost as solid as Simon Frith's, and considerably more contradictory than either, Blissed Out is described by its author as "an argument about noise" and "an argument about bliss," but it doesn't argue the way books argue. The effect is more like newlyweds flinging the dinner set at the wall--the dinner set being the all too practical legacy of the punk that a born cultural radical like Reynolds was born too late for. He missed its fucked-up anarchy, because fucked-up anarchy doesn't endure. Commitment endures; profit endures; the productive and progressive endure. And so, 10 years after, the liberal sincerity of U2, punk's very own arena rockers, was proving indistinguishable as social program from the ironic camouflage of dozens of song bands aiming to infiltrate pop from the avowed left. Just like Paul Weller, you know--except that unlike Paul Weller, they weren't rich and famous. Yet.

Most of these bands remain unknown here for excellent reasons--I defy anyone outside college radio to name two songs by the Christians, or Danny Wilson, or Wet Wet Wet, or Hue and Cry. But Reynolds hates the talented ones most--when schemers like the Housemartins or the Pet Shop Boys actually top the charts, his sarcasm is scathing. He can't stand mature pop, pop as theory--pop should be crazes, fantasies, slavish devotion, antisocial noise, the grain of the voice, pretty boys frittering away their stipends while crooked managers conceal ill-gotten gains in Bahamian bank accounts. He opposes naturalism, logocentrism, journalism, "the merry street dance of egalitarianism," "off-the-peg self-improvement." He defends Morrissey's self-pity and doesn't bat an eye when Kristin Hersh allows as how she never liked having a body or My Bloody Valentine boast that only two of their songs mention suicide. He'll take id over ego, ego over superego, mad romance over "love as contract." He valorizes Roland Barthes's "`voluptuous infantilism' of languor," Nick Cave's neomedieval passivity in the face of horrible fate. He wants "vastness," "re-mystification," "the vertigo of rapture." He wants adolescent solipsism, psychedelic schizophrenia, an underground that never gets on the telly. He wants vision. He wants excess.

If you find these values limited or illusory, bully for you. Occasionally so does Reynolds, who at one point admits he votes Labour. He's a bit of a poser, our Simon, a poser without apology, as befits the uncampy flamboyance of his style and thought. Anyway, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. Reynolds keeps tripping over Britcrit's rock/pop distinction only because it's his unconscious plan to destroy it (in the nick of time, too). And if he's of several minds about regression, artistic growth, and the ineluctable modality of the electric guitar, that just means he's no simpleton--in rock and roll, these are complex concepts that merit complex responses. True enough, Reynolds never exactly formulates the responses--though he's worked to make the pieces flow and cohere, he's comfortable with the pomo cut-and-paste of the anthology format, and he doesn't worry too much about repetitions, contradictions, or loose ends. "We preferred the singular moment of awe to rock discourse's long-term scheme of amelioration," he says of himself and his sometime collaborators at Melody Maker. How better compliment his criticism than to say it provides precisely what it praises?

In fine, Reynolds is the upstart this old fart has been waiting for--at last someone to explain all the formally recalcitrant weirdness I knew couldn't be as stupid or arbitrary as it sounded, someone to renew my faith in human progress by proving that not everyone who swears by the Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine is a faddist or a fool. As Reynolds acknowledges, the stunned, dreamlike intoxication he celebrates makes more sense for whiteboys "trained to be aspirational and competitive" than for "those excluded from status and opportunity (blacks, women, gays etc)." And it's pretty much youth-specific--hard on going to work in the morning, hell on parenting. But where so many young critics, especially the ubiquitous fanzine and tipsheet reviewers, just stamp their feet and state their druthers, Reynolds writes in a context. Even though he defines the music he likes as "a local culture rather than any doomed attempt at a global overhauling," he's possessed by its philosophical and political relevance, and well-read enough to explicate it. A postyippie propagandist surrounded by antiyuppie defeatists, he manages to combine the inspired willfulness of a Gerard Cosloy or Frank Owen with the reasoned overview of an Ann Powers or Rob Tannenbaum, partly by keeping his distance from the rock discourse that underpins most rock overviews. Going along with the critical wisdom more than he lets on (although his historical command is spotty), he nevertheless suspends belief in its truth value.

Unfortunately for him, or at least for his pride, rock discourse is dripping with truth value, and infinitely absorbent too. Needless to say, Reynolds and his posse were determined to escape co-optation, and they had their pathetic rhetorical strategies--the refusal to dictate taste, "writing that fervently seeks out its own limits," and so forth. And insofar as they failed to convert the world, I suppose they succeeded. But four years after, as he watches callow Britcrit imitators regurgitate the litany without partaking of the sacrament (an ancient complaint, of course), Blissed Out assures that Reynolds's truths will join the discourse. There are words for Throwing Muses' "places there are no words for," as the act of criticism so often demonstrates in spite of itself, and Kristin Hersh's teenaged angst revelled too luxuriously in its arty misery to touch simple Smiths fans or complicated rockwriters. But here's betting that the Young Gods, a Swiss sampling band I'd filed as anonymous industrial Eurodisco, will grow in stature as Ministry-style metal machine music achieves its place in the panoply. And A.R. Kane, tipped by Greg Tate in these pages, damn near live up to Reynolds's impossible description of "The Sun Falls Into the Sea": "a mermaid lullabye not so much `accompanied' as almost drowned out by a sound like an immense quartz harp the size of a whale's ribcage, from which harmonies disperse and scatter as haywire as sunlight refracting under the ocean's surface."

Is it really that good? Well, not quite--a little too textural, as you might imagine. I prefer the beatier "Spermwhale Trip Over," which precedes it on 1988's Sixty Nine (Rough Trade). But something's happening there for sure. Anybody who's listened to an "alternative rock" DJ segue songful guitar bands and felt stuck in some folk club with stale draft in the sawdust--not so much aurally, praise Thomas Edison and Leo Fender, as in the smug reverence accorded a subgenre on life-support--will perhaps notice that in both the Young Gods and A.R. Kane the guitars sound like synthesizers and the songs sound like . . . call them tracks. Slightly more rock and roll are, of all people, My Bloody Valentine, whose suicide song on 1988's Isn't Anything (Relativity/Creation) is unlikely to be construed as an incitement to same and wouldn't necessarily be bad if it was. If you think the Jesus and Mary Chain have nothing more to tell us, you're probably right. If you think they're a dead end, as I always have, My Bloody Valentine would like to get in your earhole. A terrific album, and I missed it--but now, contextualized by Reynolds, it goes on my current shelf, right near Interiors.

Rosanne Cash is on my mind because I saw her at the Bottom Line while writing this and wondered what Reynolds, who's currently balancing love-as-contract and mad romance by shuttling between a job in London and a girlfriend in New York, would make of her. Not much, probably, but chances are he'll get someplace similar eventually--all mockery of Good Songs notwithstanding, Cash can tell a body more about relationships than Updike or Angela Carter, not to mention Bataille or Kristeva or the rest of the pomo highbrows who inform Reynolds's cool. My own taste in cultural theory still runs to Raymond Williams, who if pressed would call Cash "residual" and My Bloody Valentine "emergent" and share Reynolds's skepticism about any possible "co-incidence between desire and responsibility, ecstasy and concern"--from the opposite direction. And it's that coincidence that rock discourse keeps searching for nevertheless. Transcendence equals oblivion, we know that. But if you don't risk oblivion you soon end up nowhere. Pass the arkana.

Village Voice, Dec. 11, 1990