Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Articles [NAJP]


So here it is more than a week after the last EMP Pop Conference presentation I described in "EMP I" and I thought I should at least augment my notes with my fading memories and record some of what I heard and observed. To start I want to emphasize that if there's an event of this sort in any other arts field I'd like to know about it. This year marked the first presentation by my sister, Georgia Christgau--a journalist turned high school English teacher who wrote rock criticism while earning her keep as a typesetter at Creem and The Soho Weekly News, as the Village Voice's night editor, editing at an ecology mag and a union newspaper and High Fidelity, then finally with the Board of Ed. Rock criticism is that kind of calling, which is one reason I'm proud of it. Two similar pals of mine also presented: my old friend Tom Smucker, who combined a decade-plus of occasional writing for the Voice with a job at the phone company, where he ended up editing a union newspaper too, and my young friend Jesse Fuchs, a game designer who tutors for a living. (Both killed in PowerPoint.) But the point of this preemptive digression is that my sister dragged my lawyer-by-day, trumpeter-by-night brother-in-law along. Like my wife and daughter before him, he arrived with a head full of Seattle tourist opportunities and just about never left the EMP building where the conference was held. There was just too much interesting stuff going on.

After the Christian ethnomusicology talk I described in "EMP I" came "Ballads for Americans"--my own talk on John Mayer's "Waiting on the World to Change," musician-songwriter-journalist-philosophy prof Franklin Bruno on Paul Robeson's "Ballad for Americans," UCSB ethnomusicologist Katherine Meizel on Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA." Bruno is classic EMP material--as I see him (he might disagree), someone whose passion is music and whose day job is philosophy. But Meizel is too, because like most of the academics who come to the conference she makes an effort not to write like one--she's discovered that it's possible to make substantive arguments without couching them in jargon. Neither of these presentations was a knockout by me, but both were excellent even so--entertaining, too. Bruno fleshed out his point about how Robeson's reading of Earl Robinson's Popular Front cantata undermined "sentimental pluralism" with an amazing film clip in which Bing Crosby led a WWII diversity rally at Mount Rushmore, and Meizel brought her history of Greenwood's jingoistic perpetual hit, which has its roots in the pre-Iraq Mideast crisis of Beirut 1982, into the present, as represented by her great ethnomusicological passion, American Idol.

Typically, every lecture I saw for the rest of Friday was at least as good: my sister on the rock-critical legacy of the late Ellen Willis (she'd been so anxious, and she nailed it), Princeton's Daphne Brooks taking Amy Winehouse down in her non-English prof hat, journalist-bandleader Greg Tate delivering one of the three disquisitions on "blackies who rock" he'd spewed out in the previous--24? 12? 4? with Tate you never know--hours, successive papers on the recruiting music of the US Army and the Iraqi militias and then one about US soldiers' iPods in which powerful content rendered stiff presentation irrelevant. But one struck me hardest, especially in an NAJP context, not because it was the best, but because of who it came from and what it covered.

If the name Regina Arnold seems familiar to NAJP-ers, that may be because Gina Arnold was once an NAJP fellow. Based in California--mostly in the Bay Area, with a stint at the LA Times--Arnold was one of our most dedicated chroniclers of American alt-rock in the '80s and '90s; I've taught the R.E.M. chapter of her Route 666: On the Road to Nirvana in both journalism and music history courses. It didn't help that she outlived the bohemia of her heart, but it also didn't help that the alt weeklies where Arnold wrote dried and tightened up. Anyway, now she's Regina, teaching and pursuing a Ph.D. in Modern Thought and Literature at Stanford. Her topic were two competing rock festivals that took place in San Jose in May of 1969. Arnold's aim here is to undercut the peace-and-love myth of Woodstock by looking at these slightly earlier events; by an odd coincidence, she could look back at journalistic accounts of Woodstock by both Ellen Willis and Tom Smucker and find that the myth had its naysayers at the time. Nevertheless, I was fascinated by Arnold's account of these forgotten events--one official festival, one free counter-festival.

For one thing, it's strange to look back four decades in your own life and realize that you've lived through history that requires and in fact resists research--I wasn't at these events, but I attended others now just as obscure. But I was also struck by where Arnold had to start--with a newspaper account (a daily, I believe), which was apparently written by a stringer who also worked for the commercial festival. What was missed amid the peace-and-love kvelling and weird-freak color? A racial dynamic in which, as Arnold points out, African-Americans performed but didn't attend. Also, according to later reports, how well substantiated I don't know: seven assaults, four stabbings, 15 rape attempts, and one gang rape (by festival workers in a tepee). Arnold didn't mention the critical aspects of the coverage, which was presumably risible. As a believer in criticism, I wish she had. But clearly some reporting would have been a good idea as well. In 1969, the editors in question didn't do much to guarantee either. Due in part to the myth of Woodstock, they'd presumably do better today. But how much better? And for how much longer?

Of course, there'd certainly be bloggers, and that's certainly be better than nothing. But in most situations, it's useful to test such accounts against news media--paper, digital, who cares--with an investment in the myth of objectivity.


By James Baldwin on April 19, 2008 7:13 PM

Woodstock 1969 may not have been the lovefest everybody thought it was but, at least one star from that era still brings peace and love our way.

It's Melanie, a light that still shines brightly. Please help her

Thanks for the read. I enjoyed it much.

James Baldwin

By Joe Levy on April 21, 2008 3:08 PM

Realizing that I'm asking you to expand on your expansion--curious, could you tell us more about this? "Princeton's Daphne Brooks taking Amy Winehouse down in her non-English prof hat."

Articles, Apr. 19, 2008

Shock! Horror! Narcocorrido! EMP III