Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The 10th (or 11th) Annual Pazz & Jop Critics Poll

Who Else? A Goddamn Critics' Band, That's Who Else

Only rock critics will understand how such a thing could be, but for a while there it looked as if R.E.M.'s Murmur--known jocularly among skeptics as Mumble--might actually outdistance Michael Jackson's Thriller in the 10th or 11th annual Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll. This dire possibility reflected the ambivalence with which the most happening year in American pop since whenever filled those who make their livings (or at least cover their expenses) writing about rock and roll. Quintuple platinum or no quintuple platinum, rock critics found 1983 an overwhelming year in all the wrong ways. To quote Chuck Eddy, the West Bloomfield, Michigan, free-lancer whose 11-page ballot gave me the idea of sharing my essay with the voters this year: "There are only a couple of 1983 records that really matter to me (have become part of me, have changed me, have taught me important things about life or love or Woody Guthrie or food or baseball, have reminded me of stuff I already knew but forgot, you know what I mean)."

I know exactly what he means. Since the passion for music-that-matters defines rock criticism, every year voters worry that it's becoming extinct. And since "matter" is as subjective a concept as "boring," for some of them it does become extinct, whereupon they either start faking it or find a more remunerative vocation and play their old records a lot. But never before has the nay-saying reached such a pitch, and never before have I been so disinclined to explain it away. For years I've cited the continuing abundance of excellent albums, which many nay-sayers now readily acknowledge, as a healthy alternative to any perceived dearth of--how shall we say it?--intense significance. But while the flow in no way abated in 1983, I noticed an unwelcome new pattern in my listening--it was rare that I played any album for pleasure once I'd reviewed it, and even rarer that such pleasure went deeper than the aural surface. In fact, if I'd followed Lester Bangs's dictum and arranged my list in strict order of turntable time, my top 10 would have comprised tuneful groove albums from Gilberto Gil to Neil Young. More specific modes of signification just didn't sing to me.

I still believe that if more voters had more access to more music they might feel better about things. No doubt narrow-minded trend-hopping pseudointellectual sloth--epidemic among rock critics, as any empty-headed out-of-it antiintellectual good-for-nothing could tell you--contributes to this problem. But have a heart--so do time and money. Most critics are now semiprofessionals who buy or if they're lucky trade for many of the records they hear, while those who remain on the mailing lists often work in offices where any noise louder than the muffled clickety of word processors is frowned upon. I was struck by the experience of Utility Poobah Steve Anderson, who got to know two of his top 10, Womack & Womack's Love Wars and the Local Boyos' Moments of Madness, only because I slipped him my extra copies. How was he to figure out on his own that he'd take to those and not to the Blasters' Non Fiction or Hilary's Kinetic, which I also gave him? Worse still, how is he to guess which of a confusing, ill-reviewed bin of reggae or hardcore or funk or Brit-hit records to take a flier on? Full appreciation of democracy's pluralistic bounty requires a pluralistic affluence which most rock critics are too marginal to enjoy.

And marginality gives rise to ambivalence like nobody's business--cultural marginality even more than economic marginality. Early rock journalism was a subsistence living at best, but at least in the '60s it was on the inside of a collective experience which combined pop reach and profitability with defiance of the so-called mainstream. The broad thrust of rock criticism ever since has been to sustain that paradoxical synthesis as popular rock and roll became the mainstream--hence what I like to call semipopular music. But it's been so long since pop reach and profitability seemed a natural part of rock and roll that for many younger critics (and musicians) the whole idea of, to choose a telling instance, vital top 40 radio seems like an insupportable contradiction. And these days it probably is. Yet ponder this mixed message. Not surprisingly in the absence of albums-that-matter, Pazz & Jop's oft-heard singles-are-better-than-albums plaint swelled this year into a deafening unison chorus. And not very surprisingly, given the shape of the year, the singles list was dominated by biracial top 40 smashes rather than the customary indies and imports and new wave airplay hits and black dance records. What does seem strange is that for the first time more than half of the top 25 also appeared on the top 40 albums--the ones that don't matter. In other words, the classic pop process in which music is tested by massive exposure and validated by public pleasure didn't end up making our voters feel good. It didn't install in them that sense of pop community which rock criticism was invented to analyze and celebrate.

I accept in part the common sense explanation for this statistical oddity--that with singles where the action is, the best we can expect is half-assed albums with great singles on them. Indeed, lots of nay-sayers apply this analysis to Thriller itself. Of course, like incorrigible art-rocker Michael Bloom ("If I never hear 'Beat It' again it'll be too soon"), some voters aren't fans at all; about a quarter of the 207 P&J respondents weren't sufficiently impressed with the biggest pop phenomenon since the Beatles to list him in albums, singles, or videos, all of which he topped. And while a 75 percent response is phenomenal anyway--only "The Message" has ever equaled it--one doesn't expect that the biggest pop phenomenon since Elvis would have encountered even that much resistance at the time of, say, Rubber Soul. By now the natural orneriness of rock and rollers has been all but institutionalized in predictable patterns of reaction and polarization--Boston Rocker readers recently ranked Michael just below Quiet Riot and Duran Duran on their go-away list. I think Jackson's achievement holds up so well critically that I wonder whether some of the scrupulously well-reasoned debunking to which he's being subjected doesn't have a lot of kneejerk in it--if it doesn't signal a willful refusal of any pop community at all.

Not that I'd claim Thriller as the best LP of 1983 myself--it's uneven enough that I suspect its biggest supporters of trying to bolster their dreams of pop community by ballot-stuffing. In fact, I ranked it 30 in 1982, and then exercised my option of upping it to 6 as a "late-breaking" 1983 album. (Thriller might have won even bigger if our rule--which allows any record receiving at least half its previous year's total to carry that total over, with the earlier points subtracted when the same critic lists a record two years running--had been clearer.) For me and the voters, something similar happened in 1980 after MJ broke five singles off 1979's Off the Wall, though back-to-back comparisons with Thriller quickly destroyed my attraction to the fashionable minority theory that Off the Wall is the superior album. I do truly hope Michael isn't planning to wed Brooke Shields on MTV in an all-out chart push for "The Lady in My Life." But for me every Thriller hit except "P.Y.T." has thrived on massive exposure and public pleasure, including "The Girl Is Mine" (which I'll take over "Michelle," Rubber Soul fans) and "Thriller" itself. In fact, "Thriller" is a rare song that's improved by its video, which fleshes out the not-quite-a-joke scariness of showbiz power for Michael (and his fans) and the not-quite-a-joke scariness of "the funk of 40,000 years" for (Michael and) his (white) fans.

One sign of how lukewarm Pazz & Joppers felt about albums this year is how few points they alotted the ones they liked--a mean of 10.6 (and a median of 10.0) in the top 15, as compared to 11.3 in 1982 (when the scarcity of albums-that-matter also occasioned much gnashing of teeth) and 10.9 in the two previous years. But Jackson averaged 13.1, and R.E.M. was right behind at 12.8, a remarkable index of collective enthusiasm in albums with so many mentions. For some critics, in other words, Murmur was a semipop event the way Thriller was a pop event. And significantly, only 29 named both albums.

While willing to grant that my failure to make a deep connection with R.E.M. may be generational (see Managing Poobah Tom Carson's explication de texte), I'm with the Jacksonites--choosing Murmur as a Pick Hit over the Blasters' amazingly durable Non Fiction was my personal miscall of the year, and as I relisten dutifully all that happens is that Murmur slips further down my list. A "consistent and enjoyable" record, sure, steeped in pop usages ripe for rehab from its hooks to its guitars, from Mitch Easter's deceptively offhand textures to Michael Stipe's deceptively inarticulate soul. but what it has to say (assuming Carson's not explicating through his hat) defines it irrevocably as a critics' record, not just in the know-nothing way that term is used to dismiss disquieting innovations, but in its central preoccupations. That is, Murmur's subject is the dilemma of cultural displacement to which the broad thrust of rock criticism addresses itself, and while I take this dilemma seriously, I go back far enough to crave pop outreach nevertheless--even when the central preoccupation of the music involved is the glamour and danger of the star system, which is in a sense the dilemma's obverse and in a sense its cause.

Which brings us, yes it does, to video. I didn't spend much time pondering my decision to substitute a video poll for last year's rather inconclusive compilations competition; I just wanted to give traditionalists and retro-rockers a full franchise by opening the album vote to reissues. (The 16th-place, 19.8-points-per-mention finish of Jerry Lee Lewis's import-only 12-disc Sun Sessions box, virtually unavailable as a promo, was some show of strength; The Jackie Wilson Story came in 68th, The Best of Slim Harpo 74th, and Big Maybelle's Okeh Sessions 95th.) But the voters gave the video option a lot of thought, as their quoted outpourings only begin to suggest, and a full one-third declined to participate for reasons ranging from regretful ignorance to indignant avowals of the ineluctable modality of the audible. This negative fervor seems fishy to me; beyond all the sociopolitical analyses and perception theories, many of which I go along with, I smell turf war. I've already stated my own objections to videos in general and MTV in particular, but I like some and even learn from a few. Anyway, if displaced adpeople are going to use rock and roll to power their shitty little movies, I want to provide the most demanding rock and rollers with a chance to give them what for.

The voters did just that, selecting not songs but audiovisual artifacts--the top five were also top-25 singles, but in radically scrambled order, while only one of the remaining selections even finished among the top 40. What's more, MTV's effect on the rest of the poll was negligible--the only artists the critics might have underplayed without it are the Eurythmics (oh well), Eddy Grant (lose some, win some), and (mustn't forget him) Michael Jackson. Basically, that's a plus--I go through all this because I believe that people who convert their musical perceptions into written discourse have a special role in keeping the music honest. But there's also a sense in which it's a minus--just one more example of how unremarkable the results were. I mean, Men at Work's Cargo surely deserved a mention or two.

In the end, I don't blame the poll's conservative drift on the voters so much as on the year. With three of eight albums repeating from 1982, it was the worst year for black artists since 1978, which given the singles list should signal Stevie Wonder to get hopping and George Clinton to move his release schedule up to October or so. It was also a terrible year for women, with Exene Cervenka, Annie Lennox, and the recrudescent Linda Ronstadt (come back, Ol' Blue Eyes, all is forgiven) the only finishers, though Chrissie Hynde, Christine McVie, and Yoko Ono are already righting that for 1984. Blacks and women would have done better if the list had gone down to 50 thusly: UB40's 1980-83, Divinyls, Moses, Culture Club's Kissing, Jett, Midnight Oil, Ramones, ZZ Top, Green, Plimsouls. Offsetting the strongest finish in almost a decade by Mr. Bob Dylan, who admittedly made his strongest album in almost a decade but still hasn't made me like it, was the heartening shortfall of expedient work by David Bowie and the Rolling Stones and overpraised work by the Police.

Of somewhat more concern is the relative paucity of rookies--not first-time old-timers like Tom Waits and Paul Simon, but fresh blood. I count maybe seven up-and-comers, the fewest in many years, with Aztec Camera, Culture Club, and the Replacements the only ones that inspire much hope in me; this is what happens when young avant-gardists hang in there, I suppose, but it portends hardening of arteries nevertheless. Even more distressing is what happened to independent labels. Except for Twin/Tone--home of Minneapolis-St. Paul's irrepressible Replacements, the biggest and most gratifying surprise of the poll--and Richard Thompson's Hannibal operation, only the reissue specialists at Charly/Sun and the gloom merchants at Factory/Factus fully qualify. The continuing semi-independence of Mango (where the marginal finish of 1982's fourth-ranked Sunny Adé, whose Ajoo also finished 90th, makes the juju king look more like a critical novelty than is flattering to him or the critics) and Slash (where the Violent Femmes, though maybe not the Blasters, would have done just as well without Warners) is better than nothing, I guess, but I'm worried about what the latest pop explosion could mean for the visibility of the alternative capitalists who provided me with more than two dozen of my favorite 1983 albums. Trickle-down theory has never held much appeal for me.

Independent labels from the Brill Building manqué of New York dance music did gain one on the singles list, weathering the contemporary-hits blitz just as the Lyres' good little Ace of Hearts garage-band simulacrum did. And aided by a time rule designed to favor rookies and indies (which disqualified well-supported "mini-LPs" by the Style Council, Roxy Music, and U2), both categories made big noise on the EP list, with Los Lobos and Let's Active the T-Bones and R.E.M.s of the year and the powerful outreach of Jason and the Nashville Scorchers (whose record has been picked up and improved by EMI America) a promise of Flying Burritos to come. Since the EP is speedrock's natural medium, I'm also pleased that this year two hardcore-identified items finished in the symbolic money.

I could go on, believe me, but I'd only be objectifying my own feelings, which more than usual are in no special harmony with those of the electorate. This is only appropriate. My pet metaphor for P&J '83 takes its cue from the surprising showings of Reed and Richman and Thompson and Dylan and Newman and Parker and Waits and Simon, not to mention X's John Doe and Aztec Camera's Roddy Frame and the Blasters' Dave/Phil Alvin. Every one of these artists has the lineaments of what in 1969 or so began to be called a singer-songwriter; since it's known by now that songwriters (and singers) are most effective when they conceive music as well as melodies (and words), they work closely with bands, but they're still basically expressing themselves, giving private responses a form that's musical before it's either collective or public. I wouldn't sign off before offering up my own hard-earned lists--longer than ever this year to underline my continuing faith in pluralism. But I want to leave as much space as possible for other voters to give their private responses public (and in total context even collective) form. It won't keep the music honest by itself, but maybe it'll help a little.

Village Voice, Feb. 28, 1984


1982 Critics Poll | Dean's List 1984