Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Rah! Rah! Sis-Boom-Bah!: The Secret Relationship Between College Rock and the Communist Party

I found the rubric of Rock, Rituals and Rights so broad and so vaguely irritating that for a couple of weeks I could barely think about it. I'm sure I've seen as many rock shows as anybody in this room, yet I haven't participated in a "ritual" I'd care to identify as such since I stopped taking communion 30 years ago. And I regard "rights" as a concept that either precedes or exists parallel to the kinds of satisfaction I associate with the music I've devoted my life to. That leaves "rock." One morning about a week ago I woke up worrying about this and all of a sudden it dawned on me. Oh right--rock! You know, Bob--white people, especially white males. The '60s. Remember?

So I'll start with a few definitions. I call myself a rock critic because language isn't always logical and I'm normally not one for worrying terminology--I leave that to people with tenure, who get paid for it. But just by way of analogy, let me call your attention to garbage men for a moment. Despite the best efforts of mealy-mouthed bureaucrats on both sides of the management line--bosses who know words are cheap and union politicians who pretend respect can be conferred by fiat--it appears unlikely that the term sanitation worker will get out of the newspapers until our sanitation departments achieve as yet unimagined levels of sexual integration. The person who does that work is almost always male, and in America, or at least the American northeast, he's called a garbage man. Yet the bulk of his work has nothing to do with garbage, which my dictionary defines as "discarded animal and vegetable matter." What garbage men spend their working lives coping with is mostly trash.

But I digress--or do I? Garbage man, rock critic, what do they have in common? Well, I'm a rock critic, but I prefer to call the music I've devoted my life to rock and roll. Metal--it's rock and roll. Mbaqanga--it's rock and roll. Leonard Cohen chansons--rock and roll. Disco--rock and roll. I've devised various explanations for this over the years, but they all boil down to the same thing. Rock is a term that took hold in the '60s and makes the '60s the focus of the story it implies, whereas rock and roll is rooted in the '50s, which just happens to be when I got interested in popular music. By insisting on a '50s paradigm, I'm first of all positing popular music's Great Schism--which is one reason I'd no more use the Brit term for what I call rock and roll, which is pop, than I'd call a garbage can a dustbin. Pop in 1950 was very different from pop in 1960; as I recently described it in an appreciation of Nat King Cole: "In the beginning, we believe, there was pop: leftover big-band singers crooning moon-June-spoon 'neath a cloud of violins. And then Elvis--or Chuck Berry, or Bill Haley, or if you want to get fancy Jackie Brenston's `Rocket 88' or something--moved upon the face of the waters, and all was changed in what was suddenly an us-versus-them world. It was rock and rollers against grown-ups for control of the hit parade."

But I'm also insisting that the music I care about isn't the exclusive preserve of white people. In an effort to dispel a cultural-political nostalgia I don't think many people actually cherish, Larry Grossberg has attributed the integration of the pop charts in the '50s to "the limited repertoire of available music and the organization of the economics of production and distribution" [p 146]. There may be something to that--the success of the Beastie Boys and Vanilla Ice and Marky Mark and the (East) German pheenom J. have made clear once again that competent white imitations or extensions of black styles reach some white fans more readily than the music they ape, modify, or elaborate. But this is to ignore the very real if extremely one-dimensional Romance of the Negro that ensued, at least in the North, both from the widely attractive stylistic innovations of postwar r&b and from Brown v. Brown in 1954. And it's also to ignore the unity of purpose that continued to animate the rock and roll mainstream, such as it was, well into the '60s--for in fact, the most frequently cited (and musically remarkable) black '50s rock and roll icons, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, sold nowhere near as many records as the Shirelles, who spearheaded the equally black girl-group style, which had its heyday in the early '60s, and Motown, which continued to claim that it was "The Music of Young America" long after the Beatles had awakened this nation's dormant Anglophilia and begun a British invasion that waxes and wanes but never seems to vanish altogether.

Nevertheless, it's obviously the Beatles who signal if not occasion the racial break, especially as they evolve from rock and roll cover band to songwriting powerhouse to cultural avatars. It's at some time in the middle '60s that rock and roll proves such an unavoidable subject of discourse that the contraction "rock" becomes an inevitable convenience, and then quickly accrues meanings that "rock and roll" never had. Quite literally, "rock" is rock and roll made conscious of itself, burdened with every vague association and responsibility that the era's ad hoc self-analysis could pile on. To me it seems likely in retrospect, though I certainly didn't notice at the time, that the development of the term itself contributed to the de facto resegregation of popular music, which I think is primarily attributable not to backlash or market manipulation but to the diverging needs of the white and black artists and audiences.

What happens is this. Black artists take r&b, which first developed into an all-purpose party music and was then aimed at a newly defined youth market, and both African-Americanize it--harmonically-melodically, with the church chords and full-throated melismas of gospel-derived soul--and Africanize it--rhythmically, with the New Orleans-derived syncopations that James Brown came to realize could form the basis of an entire genre. The development is stylistic at first, but as the civil rights movement and black-power theory evolve, it soon becomes ideological as well--black artists and audiences become increasingly suspicious of the myth of integration, so that insular impulses begin to animate music that had at first striven to be ingratiating.

In theory, young whites are sympathetic to these developments, but in fact, they're intimidated by them. To an extent their response is simply the uneasiness white Americans always feel when black people act for themselves, but in general the intimidation is more stylistic than ideological. Soul they can appreciate, but funk they can't, and they also look askance when black artists try to meld in the developments going on in white music. Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix, both certifiable geniuses, make the cut (though Sly loses status well before his music dries up), but Norman Whitfield and the Isley Brothers, who may not be geniuses but for damn sure have more going for them than Vanilla Fudge and Chicago, are dismissed as "commercial." Why do Vanilla Fudge and Chicago get respect? Not simply because they're white, though of course that helps, but because their whiteness enhances an illusion that to an extent they're taken in by themselves--that they are the '60s, that they embody the spirit of the counterculture, an almost entirely white mass bohemian movement, which if it inheres in any one phenomenon inheres in what is by then called rock.

So it's clearly in the '60s that such hifalutin concepts as ritual and rights start accruing to popular music. I wish I could claim that rights are paramount, because my childhood experience with the sexual mores of evangelical Christianity left me with small thirst for religious emotion, and I'm of a basically literalistic cast of mind, which is why I've always been attracted to the popular as an aesthetic category--I value its ordinariness, something all too few rock and rollers care about. For all these reasons, the part of my consciousness that was raised in the '60s was the political part. But ritual is clearly foremost. Like the counterculture itself, rock conceives itself as spiritual first. The paradigmatic '60s experience isn't the demo, it's the rock concert--or the demolike festival megaconcerts that start with Woodstock in late 1969. It's in the concert that bands develop the expansive musical usages that distinguish rock from rock and roll--new instrumentation, looser song forms, solo space. But perhaps more important, it's also in the concert that these usages acquire the visual correlative that comes to define them in the audience's mind--the artist, who is always male, hunched priestlike in simultaneous communion with his instrument, his audience, and his soul, and the audience itself responding in ecstatic abandon.

Suggesting art, meaning, religion, and (subsuming them all) seriousness, this image is far removed from a rock and roll that no matter how momentous was always fun. Rights are merely a subset of this seriousness. The rock of the '60s is supposed to be a very political music, but in fact what distinguishes it lyrically is an unprecedented weakness for personal obscurantism. Until the very end of the decade even the best-remembered explicitly political songs--Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth," the Beatles' "Revolution," the Rolling Stones' "Street Fighting Man"--are ambiguous in an amazingly studied and deliberate way, not just to get them on the radio but because the artists are in fact ambivalent about politics. As Stephen Stills put it, "Something is happening here/What it is ain't exactly clear."

It's worth noting that historically, the entry of explicit politics into American popular music has very little to do with rock or rock and roll. It results from a cultural strategy conceived by members of the Communist Party in the '30s, in which the "folk music" that up till then was defined primarily by academic eccentrics--affiliated with, of all things, the MLA--is bent to the assumptions of left populism. There's a direct line from John Lomax, a politically conservative banker, academic hustler, and song collector, to Alan Lomax, his leftist son, to Pete Seeger, a young associate of Lomax's who is himself the son of a leftist composer-musicologist, to the Almanac Singers, who for all practical purposes constitute a CP front, to the Weavers, Seeger's canny attempt to polish the Almanacs for actual popular consumption. It's the Weavers more than anyone else who sow the seeds of the folk music movement that develops on a smaller scale parallel to rock and roll as the civil rights and ban-the-bomb movements slowly evolve into the new left. And the folk music movement breeds a good many of the early American rock musicians, many of whom turn to rock at least partly to get away from the political correctness of folkiedom but who retain varying degrees of political idealism anyway.

I've spent most of my career making fun of folkies, whose failure to comprehend ordinary pleasure has always exerted crippling limitations on both their political and their artistic acumen. But in this context I want to give them their due. Because if I'm not mistaken--and I live my life far enough from academia that I must be missing a nuance or two--the style of academic thought that not only predominates here but makes a conference of this sort possible is unduly critical of its own political relevance. It romanticizes the inchoate political impulse as a means of reconceiving left populism at a higher level of theoretical sophistication. Yet as I hope at least a few of you started muttering when I went off on the Weavers, this academic sensibility itself derives in part from the other isolable outside force that worked to politicize rock--that constellation of attitudes which in this context, for argument's and convenience's sake, we can call situationism. The extent of situationism's literal effect and for that matter literal existence is debatable, but without doubt something in its legendary penchants for deconstruction and provocation takes musical form with punk, a far more explicitly political rock movement than psychedelia ever was--one that defines itself as antihippie at least partly because it believes the hippies betrayed their own promise.

But just as folk music isn't good enough for a more sophisticated if not cynical generation of leftists, punk isn't good enough either--like hippie before it, it waffles, it indulges itself, it says dumb things. The only true rock politics, some come to believe, arise more or less spontaneously from the oppressed themselves. If artists are gonna be dumb, let their dumbness be unmediated--let them create texts so transparent (or is it opaque?) that we smart people can infer meanings from them, meanings we will always attribute to them even if in fact we made them up ourselves. Thus we have the romance of metal, which almost 25 years after the fact has proven itself the most faithful and unspoiled inheritor of the counterculture's "rock" tradition. It's in metal that the seriousness and ritualism of psychedelia continue to evolve and grow, surviving all manner of ridiculous sellouts and disguises to turn its inchoate quasinihilism to the service of both something approaching reasonable politics and something approaching apocalyptic (or perhaps cathartic) nihilism, as well as absorbing crucial influences such as punk itself. And also, of course, rap, which in addition is the subject of a romance of its own, defined by rockists who find themselves unaccountably attracted to these highly verbal males as the music of a politicized other that isn't often called an underclass because that's become an unfashionable term, but is often thought of with all the exoticism and condescension such a term implies. And then there's the romance of disco, variously identified with the female principle, the destruction of gender, the subversiveness of pleasure, the nobility of the functional, the rhythms of the world, and the music of the spheres.

For a rock and roller like myself, of course, rap is just one more rock and roll sect exfoliating from the schism--because it's more fun and has a better beat, I much prefer it to metal, which is rock. About dance music I'm more neutral. Functional music is best suited to people who encounter it regularly in the environment where it functions, and since I'm not interested enough or young enough to spend much time in dance clubs, I usually limit my enthusiasms to the irresistible pop flukes that have made the very best dance music some of the very best rock and roll from "Do You Wanna Dance" to "Pump Up the Jam." But there's another subgenre, another sect, that's been strangely underplayed at this conference. Sometimes it's called postpunk, or "alternative," and I spend a lot of time making fun of it as well. But here I'd like to call it by its most shameful name, college rock--bands formed by a never-ending stream of moderately well-educated young quasibohemians. And I'd like to give it its due. That's first of all because on my personal pleasure meter it ranks more or less equally with Afropop and rap and the musical musings of various over-40s and occasional over-70s who still feel the rock and roll spirit or one of the spirits that went into it. But it's also because its politics really aren't bad.

If you wanted to generalize about the politics of rock in the '60s sense, you could say that they reflect the way the rock mythos privileges ritual over rights--they're general, utopian and/or apocalyptic. And one of the things that assumes is a certain scale--the impulse most of these bands feel to convert their generation, and the commercial possibility of at least reaching it. You can talk about early British punk gigs having the force of ritual, and of course rituals in preurban cultures rarely involve more than a few hundred people. But rock ritual is massive, as are its political fantasies. Metal concerts still have that kind of scale, and as Sarah Thornton explained yesterday, so do certain dance events. But what happens with college rock is that it loses this fantasy of scale. Stigmatizing the "commercial," which we've heard brandished as a scareword several times here, and failing to gather all that many fans, they begin to conceive their subcultural subsistence-audience status as a virtue.

This can be very irritating, snobbish, elitist, collegiate, especially in a band that seems to you to be of small consequence, which due to their very profusion means most of them. But it has its political advantages. There's still plenty of personal obscurantism in this music, and plenty of that old staple romantic love, though sometimes at a higher level of theoretical sophistication. But at the same time, the social and political subject takes on the weight of convention--it becomes inevitable, natural, in a strange way unmediated, rather than forced. As with folk music, college-rock politics can seem sentimental, programmatic, pro forma, on the surface, and so forth. But also as with folk music, there's now a gratifying outpouring of what can best be designated protest songs--protest songs that tend to be more musically and emotionally rooted and compelling than even the sharpest of the preaching-to-the-converted ditties of the '60s and the Popular Front era. There's no way to be certain how much good they do. But it's my perhaps literalistic belief that a music that includes Mofungo's "El Salvador" and Y Pants' "That's the Way Boys Are" and the Ramones' "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg" and and Hüsker Dü's "Turn On the News" and Thelonious Monster's "Property Values" and Carmaig de Forest's "Crack's No Worse Than the Fascist Threat" and the Chills' "Submarine Bells" and the Mekons' "Funeral" and L7's "Wargasm" and Sonic Youth's "Youth Against Fascism" and the collected works of the Minutemen is more useful politically than one that doesn't contain such songs. For damn sure it's more fun.

Lecture at conference on Youth Music and Youth Culture
Princeton University
, Nov. 1992