Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Our Love Is the Cl--!!

Anyone who still believes the emotion has been drained out of pop music by techno, premillennial postmodernism, and the sad demise of grunge hasn't been listening to much pop music lately. I mean pop music, the upper reaches of Billboard's Hot 100 Singles--in other words, Top 40. Because the consensus the term implies has been niche-marketed halfway to nowhere, it may seem nostalgic. But according to Sean Ross of Billboard's Airplay Monitor, we're easing into one of those eras of good feeling when the same pusillanimous program director can countenance LeAnn Rimes, Elton John, Chumbawamba, and the Notorious B.I.G.--as long as it's "Mo Money Mo Problems" rather than "Somebody's Gotta Die" or the notorious "#!*@ [that's how he renders "Fuckin'," eavesdroppers] You Tonight." Which latter is (hey, Arsenio! you too, Richard G.!) a parody, like "Cop Killer," and as such provides a key to pop's renewed ecumenicism--not because it's so nasty, a distinction it shares with dozens of hot tracks, but because it's where the macho-identified Biggie-Puffy team ruefully, risibly, anti-emotionally, and (despite it all) sexily acknowledge how bleeping many male singers, copping r&b sound and attitude whether they're black or white, are now bonding in groups and devoting their art to vows of romantic bliss.

For as long as there's been pop radio, Top 40 has been fueled primarily by hooks. Yet though every hit still comes equipped, these are somewhat recessive at the moment--beyond Puffy's grand thefts and the new wave novelties bizzers designate alternative, they've lost brilliance, at least temporarily. And in has gushed a great river of the emotion that has always been pop's other driving force. Or maybe it's the other way around. Maybe an increased demand for emotion has rejected the more energetic forms of hookiness as extraneous, distracting, somehow trivializing--perhaps even, well, boy.

Although sexual revolution on the charts has been a truism ever since Alanis and Gwen and Celine went mega (with Fiona and Jewel to follow), singles, ceded in theory to female adolescents ever since AOR slotted young males into album consumption, have never been more girl-directed than in 1997. Today's female hitmakers include such sisterly paragons as Sarah McLachlan and Shawn Colvin; even guy-friendly strokes like Missy Elliott's "Sock It to Me" and Mary J. Blige's "Everything" and prefab Euroqueens like the Spice Girls and Robyn pack obvious girl appeal. With their self-images thus bolstered, girlfans are ready for sincere male sexuality at a level of carnality and sheer confidence that boyfans can relate to as well.

This kind of r&b smarm may seem old to cynics who never wanted to know the difference, if any, between Shai and Silk, Keith Sweat and Johnny Gill. And indeed, you could trace it to the Chi-Lites and Blue Magic and the O'Jays, even doowop. But never before has so much of the stuff charted at one time. Six months ago the principals were Babyface, Keith Sweat, Montell Jordan, Mark Morrison, Dru Hill, Az Yet, and more, and now there are more than that, almost all in groups, about a dozen in the current Top 40. And as unprecedented as the numbers is an appeal that is both direct and positive--old-fashioned soul supplicants are pretty much out of sight. The sweet-macking production team Somethin' for the People talk shhh with an equally concupiscent femme chorus; juicy young Usher almost busts his fly trying to resist the girl he thought was only a friend; songwriter turned singer Brian McKnight aims a Mase rap and a Puffyized JB sample at some other guy's girl's pants and/or life; LSG put their body on her body; and the sexperts of H-Town instruct the fellas about how "They"--that is, women--"Like It Slow," addressing each and every one of "them" in the process. Only three of these hits are in bereft mode, and although that does include two of the biggest and all of the whitest, the prevailing mood is prowoman male strength--perhaps, if I may conjecture without implying unqualified approval, a strength that encourages a broader sexual, racial, and generational consensus than Pearl Jam, Green Day, or Raekwon, none of whom crashed so many programmers' gates.

In terms of apparent agency, these acts descend from careerist bandwagoneers H-Town and LSG (G is for Gill, S for Sweat again, L for Gerald Levert, son of head O'Jay Eddie L. among other things) to star-struck backstagers McKnight and Somethin' for the People to successes Boyz II Men and Dru Hill to hopefuls Next and Milestone to teen puppets Usher and the Backstreet Boys and 98. Some will be memories before most people have ever heard of them, and some who are destined for better things--notably the the Backstreet Boys, the Orlando-born Europrinces who have supposedly sold 5 million copies of their album worldwide without taking it Top 10 stateside--are probably destined for worse shortly thereafter. Hardly a target of this music, and not that big an emotion fan anyway, I'm not going to tell you I enjoy any of these records as much as "Mo Money Mo Problems" or "#!*@ You Tonight." But I will report that they wield surprising individual authority and tremendous collective weight. From LSG's soul-man muscle and Somethin' for the People's postfunk falsetto to the sapling croons of Usher and the Backstreet Boys, they reaffirm r&b vocal tradition at the precise moment when the death of church and the rise of rap were supposed to have starved it out completely. And lies though they may be, placed all in a row they stretch halfway to the truth.

Exhibit A is the repentant boot-knockas of H-Town, who credit "a calling from God through Jesus Christ" for Ladies Edition, "one of the greatest albums to come in history." Certainly it's one of the strangest, softcore porn like the mack-daddy/do-me-feminist single about how "it feels so wet when I give my slow motion right back" cheek by jowl with outspoken wife-abuse protests, a defense of a "Jezebel," and a list of "natural women" leading up to Selena and "Nicole Brown." The back lists 20 rape, violence, and AIDS hotlines. They performed at the Million Woman March, yes they did.

And over here is Exhibit B, Next's Rated Next, keyed to the unapologetic "Butta Love," which advances the burgeoning salaciousness of radio-powered language--"wet" and "hard," "booty" to "butt" to plain old yummy "ass," "freak" and "flex" and "sex" as verbs that equal "fuck," the routinization of the electronic fig leaf that enables Somethin' for the People to entitle their sly smash "My Love Is the Shhh!" Next's great coup for colloquial English is to transform a phrase that first appears as "that bomb shit" ("that bomb shhh" on the CD-single, which leads with the uncensored version) into the precedent-setting "that bomb clit" (the single fades out right at the "cl"). So they know what it's called--do they know how to find it? The answer we're vouchsafed is "Taste So Good": "I wanna go to the valley/I wanna taste your lips," they vow, an electronic slurp adding a grace beat. Between a vile interjection from Naughty by Nature's KayGee and the unimaginative "Phone Sex," a couple of good tolerant relationship songs get undercut. But most of the sexy stuff on this sex album is great.

If Next runs on sex, their shows of heart do add invaluable sweetness and strength. And since Top 40 is running on emotion, I bet they pass by the cute young-hardon song "Too Close" ("Feel a little poke comin' through," the girl chorus coos) to go love-man on the follow, with the progressive "Represent Me" or the mawkish "I Still Love You." It's OK, too, if neither sounds as heartfelt as Milestone's Babyface-supplied "I Care 'Bout You" or even H-Town's testifying I'm-sorry mantra "Woman's Anthem"--"Apologizing for unequal rights/Apologizing for d-o-g's." Because all of these men gather credibility from each other, and from whatever concatenation of market forces, moral reaction, and formal imperative induces them to respect the women they hope to manipulate or please God maybe just touch. It's always bad logic to assume that any pop moment is a pop trend, much less a cultural formation. But this is an encouraging one.

Village Voice, Nov. 18, 1997