Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Reasons to Bother

Finding Our Grooves in the Year the Democrats Discovered Hip-Hop

How laughable, cracked wiseacres in re the 30th or 31st Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll, for hopefuls in this nation's other flawed, fragmented democratic exercise to claim hip-hop--Howard Dean enlisting Wyclef Jean, Dennis Kucinich employing a campaign rap called "Go Go Dennis" (sounds great, huh?), and, drop the bomb, Wesley Clark quoting "Hey Ya!" before assuring young supporters that breakups needn't be permanent, just look at him and Bill. But it doesn't seem so funny to me; not much does these days. Why shouldn't they claim hip-hop, and mean it as much as they mean anything? In 2003, hip-hop became America's official pop music. If it's no surprise that John Kerry's theme remains "Born in the U.S.A." (as classic as "Hey Ya!" plus the Vietnam thing) and King George's "Wake Up Little Susie" (progressive as of 1957), well, tastes differ. Anyway, Wyclef Jean ain't Lil Jon any more than OutKast are 50 Cent.

I give you our 2003 champion, and hell ya, I'm down. As in 2000, Atlanta duo-for-life OutKast swept both our competitions, with Speakerboxxx/The Love Below's three-to-two edge matching Stankonia's, and "Hey Ya!" 's three-to-two dwarfing "Ms. Jackson" 's. There's never been a one-artist album-and-single combo like it. But though OutKast thrashed the White Stripes--aptly, given Jack White's stated belief that rap is a low form stuck in 1986--they were far from our biggest winner ever. Nirvana, Hole, Bob Dylan's "Love and Theft," and, most dominant of all, Beck's Odelay (over the Fugees' The Score, take your pick) each won by at least 1.80-1. As I hope you noticed, these are all white artists; the strongest black finish came in 1987, when Prince's Sign 'O' the Times defeated Bruce Springsteen's indelible Tunnel of Love 1.63-1. Racist? Us? Can't be. It's just that Euro-Americans make more aesthetically commanding popular music than African Americans, year in and year out. History shows that, right?

I've bewailed Pazz & Jop's institutional racism before, and except to say that I don't exempt myself I won't excavate it now; should another periodical choose to devote dead trees or living megabytes to the question, I'll sit for an interview. The numbers are always there, and in 2003 the poll put bells on them. Not that hip-hop albums finished so strong: the four in the top 15, including foreign interloper Dizzee Rascal, were tailed only by female principle Missy Elliott and white Southerner Bubba Sparxxx. Nor were the six black top-10 singles unprecedented. The difference was the commentary, where voters couldn't stop raving about "Hey Ya!" and other beat treats but rarely waxed evangelical about albums. This undercut my custom of letting respondents speak up for their fave longforms in "Top 10 Plus," where I settled for a meta-ironic Radiohead squib and had to solicit the arguments the Shins' Chutes Too Narrow and the New Pornographers' Electric Version deserved. So this year, "Plus" means singles.

As fans of the downloading wars know, this shift is poetic and hip. From utopians feeding slugs to the heavenly jukebox to suits letting the MasterCard/broadband equipped purchase music online, it is agreed that people want songs, not albums--in our archaic parlance, singles. But it's one thing to plug in the jukebox, another to select 10 among millions of selections: BMG666, TH5446, BE45789? So though some 1,461 different singles were cited by the 508 voters (out of 732, up from 2002's 695, hubba hubba) who listed singles, the consensus naturally favored songs that had gotten through gates narrower than Google's or Kazaa's. And though radio remains basic, its alternative/college/public/Internet version didn't exert much clout on our singles chart. Beyond Johnny Cash's video-driven "Hurt," a sentimental favorite that came hauling a fine death album and an outtake box, these were radio/TV hits that with only two partial exceptions going down to No. 16--focus cuts from the year's Nos. 2 and 3 albums--got goosed on the dance-club cum singles-bar circuit. This went for white artists as well as black--Junior Senior and Electric Six are groovesters, and Justin Timberlake is a wannabe no longer.

Although I don't barhop like I ought to, this trend suits me fine if that's what it is. I always hear music differently at the hop or in da club than in my lonely room--"Get Low," hidden at the end of an album whose importance (and offensiveness) my daughter had flagged, blindsided me at a Halloween bash--and I cherish that difference. Nor is beatmastery the main reason. Our singles list is a token of sociability in a hermetic subculture, and something positive in a year when my political pessimism, which has never been deeper, has fed on my fears for the future of music, which are new--an infrastructure unlikely to strengthen in an economy based on overwork and the planned destruction of social-service jobs produced the shortest Dean's List since 1996. A year ago the bad war I'd seen coming the minute the second plane hit made the woe-are-we at the major labels seem trivial even if it was true. But as we acclimate to long-haul horror, we look around for reasons to bother, and Tower has gotten pretty depressing. Though the death of the majors won't equal the death of the record business, much less popular music, I'd rather they stay solvent, properly chastened. The singles that got the voters excited sounded rich-and-famous. And with Naderites, Chomskyites, and Strokes fans alike ready to vote for any ambitious glad-hander the Democratics deem electable, let me mention this--the profiteering vulgarians who run record companies are rarely Republicans.

As usual, our album chart could care less. Independent labels bankrolled some 15 of our top 40, maintaining the high level of recent years, and an unprecedented four of our top 10. But that doesn't mean the quality album is now an indie specialty. In a revived farm-team model, the top-five White Stripes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs cracked the poll indie and then panned for gold; the Drive-By Truckers mixed it up, putting their DIY Southern Rock Opera on consignment at Universal's Lost Highway Quilt Shoppe before bolting to Austin upstart New West for Decoration Day. But beyond Warren Zevon we register no exodus of superannuated status symbols following Tom Waits to Anti- and such. And of course, our charts aren't Billboard's, or even CMJ's. Less so than ever.

Precisely two of our rock finishers went platinum. One of them, duh, is Led Zeppelin. But the other, hey, is the White Stripes, who garnered not only sales but notoriety--Jack insulted rappers, courted movie directors, and punched no-talents just like that other Detroit White. Two more broke their labels' venal little hearts by stoppingat gold: the Strokes, whose low-affect-high-IQ TRL run was clearly a misunderstanding, and Radiohead, whose hot-ticket tour failed to generate the sales levels of Kid A. If anyone might save Pazz & Jop's prognosticating license with a late surge, it's third-place Fountains of Wayne, who once "Stacy's Mom" proved Collingwood & Schlesinger pop as well as "pop" were ready to surpass 1999's 19th-place Utopia Parkway. They were up for two Grammys--including, NARAS does love a joke, best new artist--and though they got shut out, let's hope the EMI mafia follow the sly "Mexican Wine" down the road to "Hackensack" and "Fire Island." This is conceivable because, as our voters want to tell the world, Welcome Interstate Managers is through-crafted, one bittersweet tune after another as humane and unsappy as the rest of its vision of premarital suburbia. But FOW's "single" was a teen novelty that downloaded up there with OutKast and Beyoncé‚ and their album never broke 115 Billboard.

Chart peaks aren't sales totals, and by now Fountains of Wayne have surely moved more units than Grandaddy, Belle & Sebastian, or the Shins, all of whom, remarkably, did break 100 in Billboard. But with Radiohead less meaningful than rumoured, the Strokes not worth the covers they're plastered on, Liz Phair a disgraced hussy among Adult Top 40 Recurrents, and the White Stripes getting on people's nerves, it would help me feel better about next month if not next year were this deserving critics' record to transcend its fluke renown and make a bunch of bizzers a load of loot. Because though 2003 was hip-hop's year in many ways, not least how many partisans believe it's fallen into enemy hands, I'd appreciate a market-based correlative to another story evident in comments and results, one sure to bore futurists even more than hip-hop: rock and roll revival.

Some will scoff. Revival is so 2001--neoclassicist Strokes/Stripes guff, swept away by the DOR swank of Interpol and the Rapture. The latter surrounded their epochal 10-word single with a literally sensational 2003 album joined on our chart by all manner of consumer electronics: the jolly Danes of Junior Senior, the tame tunes of converted selbstaendigrockers the Notwist, the multilayered, multireferential pop-funk-soul-techno post-house of Basement Jaxx, the eccentric retrotech of Four Tet, and--speaking of through-crafted--what-him-emo Ben Gibbard topping his 34th-place Death Cab for Cutie album with the Postal Service's sweet synth-pop one-off, which floated out of the ether to finish 17th. That makes six--are you impressed yet?

These are estimable records, Europeans notwistanding; Rapture-good Interpol-bad, Basement Jaxx and Postal Service highly kraftwerked, and I'll take "post-rock" Four Tet over not just Sigur Rós but My Morning Jacket, the Mars Volta, Kings of Leon, and--right now, as of this possibly anomalous and certainly slight record--the bulk of the indie-rock boys-boys-boys elbowing onto our chart. But no matter what the now people dig in Ibiza and Indonesia, P&J's self-made aesthetes still favor aggregations of misfits making physical contact with guitars. It's a Yank thing--with a boost from Britain, home of my two favorite young bands: punk-as-a-drunk-junkie Libertines, a solid 23rd, and beat-shrieking femme-fronted Kaito, riffle-riffle- riffle, here we are, page eight, tied for 252nd. Call them pop, call them slop, call them behind the times. But from Grandaddy to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, they're all rock and roll and you know it. And you also know they're not going away.

Is Pazz & Jop the world? The nation? Rock criticism? Of course not. Hell, maybe we're part of the problem by now. Maybe we're the American arrogance that bombed Iraq, or the alt myopia that frustrates managers into mandating a makeover and leaves my paper looking like Britney Spears on her wedding night. I plead innocent, but I can see why some might make such cheap charges. Obviously the poll's imperfect. We never get out the hip-hop press. Our rolls are larded with part-timers who buy many records and miss many more. And they're joined annually by newbies who learned to write from literary theorists and honed their opinionizing skills in the dog-eat-dog cenacles of college radio. These latter tend to festoon their ballots with arcane faves--mostly negligible song-crafters or art bands, or so I infer from artist-title-label, hearsay, and their more familiar choices. But most voters still like songs, obscurities rarely rise to the top, and with a partial exception or three--say Postal Service, Rapture, Broken Social Scene--a decent smattering of over-40s supported even our freshest-faced finishers. Furthermore, though the boundary between rumor and fashion is never what it should be, unlikely records like Four Tet's Rounds do emerge from the depths. No songs on that one--just instruments or their simulacra clashing and converging playfully and prettily as they shuffle tune and beat. Without Pazz & Jop, I wouldn't have given it a chance.

If I've strayed from loose talk about rock and roll to articulated ambivalence about indie-rock, well, the two are obviously connected. But they aren't identical. Not all or most indie records are indie-rock records, and some that are barely achieve the synergy/energy that for rock and rollers is manna and chocolate-chip ice cream. The synergy half is crucial, and tricky. Broken Social Scene, for instance, are a collective held together by a bass player, not a band--only that isn't such a bad definition of a band, and you can hear how their cohesion-in-disarray might be a paradigm for a post-youth bohemia where friends are always screwing around and moving away. More typical are Belle & Sebastian, always static on principle, but with a flow, only this time Trevor Horn revved them up and they rocked even less. Similarly, Cat Power's chart debut is merely the most interactive of Chan Marshall's misleadingly labeled singer-with-backup albums, and Death Cab wear their origins as a solo project on their arrangements. And then there are the Pernice Brothers, who are just slow. None of these moderns rocked with nearly the commitment of putative singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams, who translated roadhouse raunch from metaphor into music, or Warren Zevon, who recorded his cancer-fueled farewell in his living room so he could save what life he had left for the important things, like getting the guitar solo of the year out of Bruce Springsteen.

In general, though, indie-rock happens in bars, and bargoers are noisy. So unless you're Chan Marshall telling Kurt he was right to cut and run because nobody understood him, you try and drown them out--even if you're Fountains of Wayne or the Shins, although maybe not Grandaddy. And once we get to the soi-disant pop of the New Pornographers, or the soi-disant dance music of the Rapture, we're boogieing, one might say. Though one record is fulla songs and the other fulla synth, both bands put their backs into forward motion. Of course, so do several finishers I have doubts or worse about, from floor-dragging My Morning Jacket to leaping Ted Leo to molten Fiery Furnaces, although not certifiably Latino Mars Volta, so enamored of melodrama and its shifting rhythmic accoutrements that they could have learned clave from Kansas.

Me, I found 2003 longer on intricately propulsive song than fiercely clamorous beat: Fountains of Wayne tightening up, Yo La Tengo slacking off, Shins bearing in, Drive-By Truckers hiring Jason Isbell as if Patterson Hood warn't writer enough, and Wrens fusing heart, soul, tune, harmony, and artificially massed guitars in a Sisyphean labor whose near miss is poetry. (41-50, viewable online along with 1,952 other albums: endlessly circling Jayhawks, dull Thrills, refulgent Wrens, NAACP Image Award nominee R. Kelly, born vocalist Lyrics Born, Can't-Catch-a-Break Timberlake, Joe Strummer R.I.W., Irish folksingers Ryan Adams and Damien Rice, and Electric Six, who do not exist in real life, thank God.) But born-againers aren't raving about songs (much less singers, who beyond Rufus Wainwright and an ailing Johnny Cash got shut out). They're raving about grooves, half a dozen strong: White Stripes and Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Libertines, Kings of Leon and the Darkness. Without these bands' variously formalist, fecund, facile, clever, and stuck-in-the-mud songwriting, their grooves would go nowhere fast, and sometimes they do anyway; sometimes that's the idea. Sometimes, too, they boogie only conceptually--they're not friendly enough. But within a recognizable rubric that isn't hip-hop, each moves in a distinct way that moves its crowd. Call them old-fashioned, but try to pin down exactly which punk or blues-rock or metal they echo and you'll end up claiming the Strokes are Television.

For these bands, irony is a bigger nonissue than emo, which despite its three albums in Spin's preemptive top 40 topped out at 130 Pazz & Jop (Thursday, who deeply regret to inform themselves that politics is anguish), unless you count the outrageous nu-hair-metal of the Darkness, the funniest thing-yet-not-the-thing since the Pet Shop Boys (but remember, it is the thing), or believe the Strokes are lying about their insincerity (which they never would). All these bands seem to feel whatever it is they feel, and though as with emo it's often painful, instead of wallowing they do their best to run it over--usually, strange to tell, without benefit of much musicianship, and in two cases with-out a bassist. Virtuosity comes with the Darkness's concept, and after that the best band-qua-band here is the Strokes. If the Libertines have a model it's the Heartbreakers not the Ramones, if Kings of Leon have a forerunner it's the Uniques not the Stones, and though Brian Chase plays a lot more drums than Meg White, the groove of each band is left to a protean guitarist--plus such old reliables as speed, swagger, abandon, and shards of noise indicating that you just don't give a fuck. For the Stripes and Strokes to take such a groove pop is a tribute to Jack White's talent and the Strokes' good looks. I doubt the Yeah Yeah Yeahs will follow, and I'm certain the Libertines won't. The Darkness are huge in England and making their stateside move as I write. Which leaves Kings of Leon, a band so ordinary I tried to ignore them.

Kings of Leon excite fans of the Southern, the primitive, the trad, the blues-based, and their backstory, in which the home-schooled sons of an itinerant Pentecostal preacher are saved from a life of virtue by rock and roll. This is rock's starter myth, irresistible for anyone oppressed firsthand by the culture of rectitude. But a thousand bad bands with their dicks in their hands have made millions turning it into organized irreligion, and Kings of Leon didn't reinvent its clichés. Even early on the Drive-By Truckers delved so much further into Southern low life, and rocked harder too. Yet what hurts in a year when Pazz & Jop takes a backseat to another democratic exercise (if by some miracle the big one goes well, the music business can take care of itself) is that I need what Kings of Leon represent: the South, some effective portion of its rectitude-ridden, home-schooled-or-worse, class-consciously anti-intellectual masses-yearning- to-be-free. If they don't speak to me, hell, I don't speak to them either. Yet we have to get together somehow. That's one reason John Edwards has been my glad-hander of choice.

Anyone expecting me to claim that our Georgia-based winners resolve this dilemma should get serious. But the metaphors are there. My hot year in hip-hop wasn't like the critics' because it was more critical. Only four of the 13 hip-hop albums on the Dean's List are mainstream, and though both of my undie-rap top-10s are by nonblacks, all but two of the others are African American--unlike most undie-rap fans, and also unlike most name undie-rappers. Give it up to Britbeat original Dizzee Rascal, but to me it's pathetic that voters should pump 50 Cent and Jay-Z here and Ted Leo and Grandaddy there, yet ignore the indie-rock resourcefulness of the differingly devout Lifesavas and Brother Ali, or at least bohos for life Mr. Lif and Jean Grae. It's inconvenient for my argument that I can't add North Carolina's 80th-place Little Brother, Native Tongues surrogates with a bad case of Arrested Development. But I'll shore up my pretensions to objectivity by noting that Jean Grae was the only New York rapper her homeboy A-listed this year. S. Carter took an album's worth of guest shots (just wait) and killed with most, but compare the casual vanity of his Beyoncé to the casual avuncularity of his Missy and the casual geopolitics of his Panjabi MC and you'll hear why the mulitplatinum Black Album seemed puffed up to me. As for the multiplatinum F. Cent, he could slur the most infectious Drebeats this side of M. Mathers and I'd still wish crime did not play. Same goes for Neptunebeats--but maybe not Timbobeats. I leave it conditional because Timbaland didn't altogether convert me to Bubba Sparxxx, who for all his class-conscious good-heartedness declines personal responsibility for the post-racist future he's clearly committed to--in that fatalistic Southern way, he just declares it inevitable. I don't hold it against him, an American di-lemma is an American dilemma, but his people better be talking to Russell Simmons's people.

Timbaland was also the genius of two of my mainstream rap picks. But he was the auteur of only one, as Missy Elliott abandoned dreams of a singles threepeat to through-craft the first true album of her hitcentric career--a show of confidence whose eccentricities were so decent professional insomniacs slept on them. But though OutKast's beats were less thrilling, which isn't to say Prince and P-Funk won't grace any inaugural ball I DJ, their eccentricities were impossible to miss, and sleeping on them proved impractical. OutKast's Janus move is uneven, as I'd figured. What I didn't figure was that Big Boi's Clintonisms would flag a bit while Andre 3000's skits and falsetto showpieces jawed at me all night. With all flaws and flat spots assumed, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below means to prophesy structurally: Big Boi is the self-created positivity of the gangsta culture both rappers long ago moved beyond, Andre the national aspirations they make so much more of than Eminem, Dr. Dre, and 50 Cent. They're defiant yet reliable, rooted yet progressive, male yet female they wish, hip-hop yet pop yet something like indie-rock, for God's sake.

As music, as good as we could have hoped, human error included. Nevertheless, what it portends about the immediate future of the South, new or dirty or pivotal or yearning to be free, isn't what we'd wish. Lil Jon with his blindsiding single, he's Atlanta, all the way to the back of the strip joint. OutKast are black consciousness, with prevailing influences from Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Plainfield, New Jersey--the black consciousness that almost every American institution still underrepresents, yet that itself addresses only a subset of the war on the nonrich now being waged in King George's name by both Condoleezza Rice and Dick Cheney. They're a reason to bother, the best music could hold out the promise of in 2003. All I can say to anyone who was hoping for more of a happy ending than that is that I'm hoping for one too.

Village Voice, Feb. 17, 2004


2002 Critics Poll | Dean's List 2004