Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Rise of the Corporate Single

The 11th or 12th Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll is fraught with many significances. You got capitalism rampant and alternative capitalism and maybe even alternative politics, you got 1984 come true and the light at the end of the tunnel. You got three top 10 bands from Minneapolis and try to make a "sound" out of that Mr. Bizzer; you got three top 20 albums on Black Flag's label and try to beat that Walter Yetnikoff. You got a Panamanian law-student-turned-sonero-turned-law-student and an Obie-winning musical and a British invasion that went thataway. You got three "black" albums in the top 10 and six "girls" who just want to have everything. You got a shitload of rock and rollers past 35 and more than a couple pushing 50. But for the moment let's reappropriate that line from singles-charting Deniece Williams. For the moment, let's hear it for the boys.

The boys in question aren't young turks like Minneapolis's Replacements (now at Warners in spite of themselves) or NYC's Run-D.M.C. (now running for "kings of rock") or Britain's Smiths (cut 'em off at JFK). In fact, they're boys only in the most abstract sense. As he turned 35, Bruce Springsteen put out more exuberantly than he had for almost a decade at least in part because he no longer dreams about being a teenager forever; at 26, Prince is an old pro with six LPs behind him. And between them they dominated American popular music in 1984--not as monolithically as Michael J. in 1983, of course, but jeez. They dominated commercially. And in the opinion of the electorate--to nobody's surprise, since they're old Pazz & Jop faves and had already topped several smaller polls--they dominated artistically as well.

The critics' runner-up album, Purple Rain, has sold some 10 million copies and spun off four major-to-huge singles b/w non-LP B sides, one of which, "When Doves Cry," won our poll in a walk, with its follow-up, "Let's Go Crazy"/"Erotic City," finishing sixth. The winner, Born in the U.S.A., is now quintuple platinum behind Springsteen's last-chance power drive on what was once AM radio. His three top 10 singles (bringing his career total to four) sported not just non-LP B sides but disco remixes by Arthur Baker; Baker deserves as much credit as the ur-rockabilly neoclassic "Pink Cadillac" (a B that got 17 votes on its own) for propelling "Dancing in the Dark" to number two on the singles list, though "Born in the U.S.A." made 15 on its own stark authority. Pretty good, huh? Never before have two artists finished one-two albums and one-two singles on our own charts, let alone Billboard's too. And when I compared previous polls I really got impressed with these boys. For with one exception, Born in the U.S.A. and Purple Rain are the biggest point-getters, proportionally, since Pazz & Jop went over 50 voters back in 1976--not counting This Year's Model in 1978, they're the only albums ever named on more than half the ballots (56.7 per cent apiece) and the only albums ever to earn more than seven points per respondent (7.3 and 7.0; This Year's Model averaged 8.1, with London Calling's 6.7, Imperial Bedroom's 6.6, and Thriller's 6.3 trailing).

Me, I was rooting for Bruce, who finally overcame my abiding distrust of his abiding romanticism. By enlarging his sense of humor and adding a vibrant forward edge to his music, he got tough, as the Del-Lords might say, which means refusing despair as well as nostalgia and born-to-lose mythopoeia. Despair was my problem with Springsteen's baldly antipop Nebraska, and it's also my problem with Prince's quirky, dangerous, unabashedly pop Purple Rain. For Prince, Purple Rain is ingratiatingly unsolipsistic--but that's only for Prince, aptly described by Howard Hampton as a "meta-Byronic auteur" who's "callow, insular, and arrogant in all the time-dishonored rockstar traditions." What's someone who doesn't trust Bruce's romanticism to make of romanticism that doesn't even promise to abide--that dances by apparent preference on the lip of apocalypse? As if in illustration, Minneapolis's pride accepted one of his made-for-TV American Music Awards while Alternative Poobah RJ Smith and I tallied the "When Doves Cry" mandate: "Life is death . . . ," he announced, and waited the full three beats of a born bondage-master before adding, ". . . without adventure." Whew--another close call, climaxing, typically enough, with a message marginally salutary and not exactly true. And yet there's no denying his achievement. Unabashedly pop though he may be, he's no Michael J. (or Lionel Richie, or Tina Turner). Rather, he's the first black to appropriate "rockstar traditions" and put them over since Jimi Hendrix, and you can bet your boody he won't be the last. So, especially given the rhythmic bent of the electorate--who but Arthur Baker would have figured dance stalwarts Vince Aletti and Michael Freedberg for Springsteen voters?--I predicted a handy Prince victory. And instead got Bruce by a head, a margin reflecting the more responsible artist's marginally more nutsy critical support.

This close finish suggests that Springsteen's victory isn't any more a vindication of what he personally stands for (compassion as agape, maybe agape as conscience) than Prince's would have been (eros flirting with compassion). It's more instructive to see both as the stars of this year's big story: an art-commerce overlay unparalleled since the poll began. The onset of hegemony makes critics even more nervous than marginality-their-old-friend always has, and their ambivalence is drastically apparent in the results. On the one hand, we're not just talking gold albums: about 10 or so selections will eventually achieve that distinction, which is par at best. We're talking one multiplatinum blockbuster after another, a formidable chunk of the biz's 1984 profits, well-made albums by such artists as Tina Turner (album at 5, singles at 3 and 24), Cyndi Lauper (album at 11, two singles at 10, video at 2), Van Halen (album at 25, single at 5, videos at 3 and 6), ZZ Top (album at 32, video at 7), and even Huey Lewis and the News (whose Sports finished a creditable 49th, between Lindsey Buckingham and John Lennon/Yoko Ono; 41 through 47, by the way, went The Black Uhuru, Eurythmics, XTC, Van Dyke Parks, That's the Way I Feel Now). And on the other hand, we're talking unkempt indies rising: Los Lobos, Replacements, Hüsker Dü, and Run-D.M.C. in the top 10 with Minutemen and Meat Puppets right behind (previous top 20 high was four, including Island/Mango's Sunny Ade as an equivalent of Warner/Slash's Los Lobos, in the big indie year of 1982). And amid a record 14 Corporate-Hits-for-Radio and a complement of airplay pleasures and damn few straight dance records come two all but unprogrammable Amerindie smashes, both spawned if not made in Minneapolis: the Replacements' "I Will Dare" tied for 17th and Hüsker Dü's outrageous "Eight Miles High" an amazing fourth.

There's no factionalism to speak of here, no rad-lib or boho-bourgie split. Forget Los Lobos and the Replacements with their Warners connection and Run-D.M.C. with their (that's right) gold album and stick to Pazz & Jop's rawest indies, the three SST finishers: of the 23 voters who listed two of them, 15 supported Bruce or Prince (or both) as well, just as a random sample might have. The common thread? Ho-hum Tim Sommer (who says he likes both albums) may have tripped over an actual idea when he labeled Zen Arcade and Double Nickels on the Dime "coffee table hardcore," but not because they flaunt their chops and certainly not because they're slick or well-made. It's because their double-LP size proclaims their ambitions in recognizable terms while obscuring their limitations--which are by no means crippling but which a lot of critics listen right through. Which is understandable. You look around at America and conclude that it needs yowling nay-sayers even more than it did in the yowling nay-sayers' heyday, back around '77 or '80 or '82 or whenever. You're aware that these are articulate yowling nay-sayers, with big ideas. And if you're like a third of the voting critics, they're where you make your stand.

I don't want to be reductive--tastes differ. Me, I like to have my raw and cook it too. I love the Dolls and the Clash (and the early Beatles) because they yowl tunefully, which is also why I prefer Let It Be to Zen Arcade and Double Nickels (and Hüsker Dü's Metal Circus to the Replacements Hootenanny). On strictly aesthetic grounds, others may well find this disposition a touch genteel; they may simply get more of a charge out of Hüsker Dü's dense rush or the Minutemen's jerky beats. But even the strictest aesthetic grounds are usually informed by or productive of general beliefs, and it's those beliefs I'm trying to pin down. I'm a fan of the SST albums myself--"Turn on the News," the enraged never-a-single that leads off side four of Zen Arcade, gets my nomination for song of the year. On strictly aesthetic grounds, I ranked the perhaps pop but definitely fucked-up Let It Be, a more precise and impassioned piece of half-a-boy-and-half-a-manhood than Bruce ever pulled off, just a shade below Born in the U.S.A. And I'm also high on Los Lobos, whose powerful third-place showing was the poll's most gratifying surprise (and an even bigger one than the soft finish of third-handicapped Cyndi Lauper). Let me emphasize too that the critical resurgence of the indie album reflects serious drawbacks in the way popular music is now produced. But for all that, I thought 1984's real action--its excitement, believe it or not--was in corporate rock.

I reached this conclusion listening to the radio--specifically, CHR, which is bizese for Contemporary Hit Radio. In January, April, and August three blatant white-male CHR commodities zapped right through my defenses and diddled my synapses directly , as the biz intends. Such a trend can't show up clearly on the Pazz & Jop charts because it's not about peaks of top 25 magnitude; it requires an array of essentially arbitrary stimuli kicking off the desired consumer responses in a much vaster array of individual record-buyers. For me the taste treats were John Waite's "Missing You" (the most unequivocal such commodity to chart, though the loathsome "Like a Virgin" came damn close) and the Romantics' "Talking in Your Sleep" and especially the Thompson Twins' "Hold Me Now," while for Greil Marcus they were .38 Special's "If I'd Been the One" and Barry Gibb's "Boys Do Fall in Love" and the Cars' "You Might Think," and for James Hunter (long a proud addict of this particular media-fuck) Foreigner's "I Wanna Know What Love Is" and Elton John's "Sad Songs Say So Much" and Steve Perry's "Oh Sherrie." Once again I don't mean to be reductive; it's not as if the manipulation I'm describing doesn't interact with meaning, in critics and normal people both. In fact, such meaning-mongers as Bruce and Prince and Tina and Cyndi (and Van Halen and ZZ Top and Huey Lewis?) engage in musical practices much like those of "Missing You" and its soul siblings. It's just that at their best they put the same surefire elements--which these days boil down to multiplex hookcraft, resonant production, and a sense of caged energy and/or weathered emotion--to richer epistemological uses.

Manipulative pop is always around, but in 1984 it was more plentiful and more meaningful--better--than at any time since the early '70s, or maybe even the halcyon mid-'60s, whose pre-prog radio most critics started pining for back when punk reminded them about fast three-minute songs. Because the accumulated craft of Generation '77 and its pop-rock allies finally had somewhere to go, you could hear a winning professional elation in artists as diverse and ultimately insignificant as Billy Ocean and Bananarama and the Pointer Sisters and Duran Duran and Talk Talk and John Cougar Mellencamp. Say what you will about CHR, you have to admit it plays pop hits even diehard rock and rollers can love. So we got what we wanted, more or less: stations that both registered on the Arbitron scale and didn't make us barf. And now, since we're rock and rollers, we're wondering whether we lost what we had. For some critics, of course, this isn't a question; the guys and gals who use rock and roll first and foremost to one-up all their stupid co-humans are in no way assuaged by the blandishments of CHR. But even hidebound populists who love CHR remember one big advantage of their recent marginality: music whose formal-expressive potential isn't limited or leveled by marketing considerations, including the perfectly honorable need to communicate. All the Born in the U.S.A. in the world isn't going to make us give up United States Live or "World Destruction," as long as they're still out there. Which we want to make sure they are. Keep your fingers crossed.

It would be unfair to brand the CHR-oriented multiplatinum blockbuster a conservative force--not even Bruce and Prince, and certainly not Tina and Cyndi, were established singles artists before this year. But the new dispensation sure does have its downside. So far, at least, though programmers may get more cautions about burnout potential, it's created a singles logjam, because once an album yields a couple of smashes radio demands more of the same, pushing the current star in preference to some lesser-known corporate knight-errant with an equally obscene independent promotion budget. And while it may be an accident of timing--I do remember the Beatles, really--I note with dismay that blockbuster artists tend to be marketed as individuals. While Purple Rain makes one of its Biggest Statements by (gasp!) billing Prince's band, I dare you to tell me who's in it, and while you're scratching your head swear you don't picture David Lee Roth when you try to remember what Eddie Van Halen looks like; if it isn't quite enough to make you send letter bombs to MTV and People, you still have to wonder whether Susanna Hoffs (she's a Bangle) or Paul Westerberg (the irreplaceable Replacement) will prove suitable for framing. Finally, CHR induces artists and especially producers to forget the album as a whole and concentrate on three or four (we hope) singles. That's why I first figured Private Dancer for a B plus and kept She's So Unusual out of my top 10--wonderful though the best parts of both records may be, their filler sounds more like filler than need be.

Which leaves the indies precisely who-knows-where. Five years ago their chief use was singles and EPs, but now they may have inherited the album (and group?) aesthetic the way the Labour Party inherited the British railways after World War II. Since they're largely populated by artists who are in it for love, all that keeps them from coming up with good albums-as-albums is budget (the dire strait of Zen Arcade) and talent (their most songful bands do show a taste for upward mobility). Ignoring imports and disqualifying Warners-supported Los Lobos, the seven indie albums the voters selected are way up from 1983's three and 1981's two but not as impressive as 1982's nine, so we shall see; on my personal list, much shorter than it's been for the past few years, the 24 indies constitute an all-time high. In any case, I believe the indies will continue to get by economically on scuffling distribution, u-drive-it tours, alternative disc jockeys, and let us not forget press support (bet there are more Pazz & Joppers on SST's list than on CBS's). Plus, certainly, the occasional bonanza of a major-label buyout or coop deal.

For the most part, though, majors and indies seem destined to function almost as parallel industries. The blockbuster system has shown a welcome appetite for salable oddities, but also a deplorable readiness to spit out the unsalable ones real fast. A recent casualty is 30th-ranked King Sunny Ade, who after failing to break beyond a U.S. audience of 50,000 or so (nice bucks for an indie, red ink for a major) has split with Island; assuming he has nothing multinational up his capacious sleeve, he will no doubt be encouraged to put out his Nigerian records on Shanachie or Rounder or some such, but who knows when he'll invest time and money in a powerful Afro-American fusion like Aura again. Nor are oddities who sing in English exempt. In a worst-case scenario, the likes of R.E.M. and X could quickly be forced to reveal just how much love they're in it for as the once-fashionable Ms. Lauper burns out in the general direction of the floundering Culture Club, the underemployed Men at Work, or even the disbanded Stray Cats. That would leave the indies free to earn ever more decent returns from off the unblockbusting markets they serve, though the artists' crimped dreams and audiences' crimped demands would eventually leach excitement (and after that profits) from their music. In a best-case scenario, the Replacements or Los Lobos or X or R.E.M. or the Bangles (or even--ick--Let's Active or the Del Fuegos) could turn into the next megaplatinum oddity. Whereupon indies would start farming out potential bonanzas--I can see it now, Hüsker Dü in the studio with Liam Sternberg for Geffen--and tending new ones, who might or might not grow both sturdy and odd. Certainly the EP list, which ended up showcasing a San Francisco comedienne, a Nashville mother-and-daughter act, and a callow Captain Beefheart (two of whom I voted for myself), bodes poorly. In past years Los Lobos, R.E.M., the Bangles, the Minutemen, the Meat Puppets, Let's Active, and the Lyres have all made their Pazz & Jop debuts on EP, with the Replacements and Hüsker Dü barely missing. This year only Jason evinces major potential, though Tommy Keene might turn into a less gooey Let's Active and the Butthole Surfers could conceivably bubble up from below.

New blood might also come from abroad, of course. But as a matter of local loyalty and revealed truth Pazz & Joppers have favored American artists throughout the '80s, and I don't see that changing in the short term. Anglophilia did make a comeback with the voters in the wake of the widely rumored British Invasion of 1983. Yet though every winning act except for the Police and Malcolm McLaren (whose 23rd-ranked single didn't spin off an album until mid-December) was back on the racks in 1984, only U2 (who aren't English and fell from sixth to 29th) repeated, joined by romantic tyros the Smiths and artists of colour Special AKA and Linton Kwesi Johnson. (If the Pretenders are British, Tina Turner's white.) Of the others, the Eurythmics (tied for 43rd), Elvis Costello (70th!--lowest previous finish 11), and Big Country (also not English and down from 15 to 92) made top 100. Richard Thompson and Culture Club were lower, Aztec Camera was much lower, and David Bowie justified my steadfast faith in rock criticism by garnering not a single mention. Other Brit bands were heard from, of course--watch out for Bronski Beat, the Waterboys, perhaps Sade, perhaps the The--and a few young Americans also got their comeuppance (Violent Femmes 85th heh heh, Dream Syndicate 94th). But on the (American) trade charts and the (American) critical charts both, this was an American year.

I'll try not to prattle on too much about how rock and roll nationalism connects up with the easy-going monster who sits atop the American hegemony to end all American hegemonies. But I will surmise that the affection of the American record-buyer for Bruce and Prince (and Madonna and Motley Crue) has something in common with the affection of the American voter for Ronald Reagan, that the common element may not be all bad, and that as always those who crave progressive change might well pay closer attention. If Americans are to change, they'll do so as Americans, not universal humans, and their music is an encouraging index of what Americans might become if not how they might become it. Read what you will into the burlesque escapism of "Ghostbusters" or the pathological deceit of "Like a Virgin (or the pulp-fascist sadism of Shout at the Devil) I trust that most Voice readers, if not most New Republic readers, still prefer rock and roll's hegemony to the president's. And if you want to believe that critics sense trends first, as they often do, then maybe rock and roll portends something better than world destruction.

A few pollyannas may discern smashed sexism in the record-breaking six top 20 albums by women. But especially since there are only two or three more in the next 30, I'll just applaud the return to "normal" 1979-1982 levels, hope Private Dancer proves less flukish than 1979's 10th-ranked Bad Girls, pray Cyndi and the Bangles don't go the way of the underrated 53rd-place Go-Go's, and give thanks that neither Madonna album snuck into the top 100. I'm more encouraged by the 10 black albums in the top 40 (three on the staying power of 1983 product by one Clinton and two Womacks) in a bad year for funk and traditional black pop. Whatever it portends, there is a renewed integrationist mood in the music marketplace, and with major misgivings about who does and doesn't share the wealth I have to call it healthy. Even Ron Wynn, whose late ballot included his annual anti-crossover sermon, has half-succumbed: surrounding 97th-ranked Solomon Burke among his 15-point albums were Private Dancer, which utilizes white musicians almost exclusively, Purple Rain, which flaunts a flamboyantly integrated band, and Run-D.M.C., by a group with every intention and some chance of cracking the heavy metal market (and don't be sure you'll like it--or hate it--when it happens). We also had our first salsa finisher, Ruben Blades, who's reportedly preparing an all-synth followup. Given the wide (and even) age spread, generational consciousness seemed at once more acute and less hostile--not many kids blaming their pain on their elders or elders condescending back (though Chrissie Hynde's nasty "I've got a kid I'm 33" was one of the year's great moments). Which may be because rock and rollers are figuring out who their enemies are--our easygoing monster definitely has them thinking. The usual cultural subversion and pleas for peace were augmented this year by lots of music that's explicitly political rather than just objectively progressive or socially conscious: from the relative subtlety of Laurie Anderson and Clinton and Springsteen and Hüsker Dü and the Del-Lords and the born-again Ramones, all of whom make the agitpop of the movement '60s seem pretty tame, to the militance of the Minutemen and the Special AKA and Ruben Blades and Linton Kwesi Johnson, possibly the greatest artist in the history of Trotskyism.

On the whole, then, I find myself cheered by Pazz & Jop '84, and surprised. Although congenitally unpessimistic except when rattled, I've spent the past six months grousing about the worst year for albums since 1975, and now I realize I was wrong. With my Dean's List at 50 and climbing--which seemed impossible even as RJ and I tallied in late January--I've looked back and discovered that not until 1978 did I get above 49 without best-ofs; in 1980, I didn't get above 49 with them. Counting only compilations drawn from recent history, I can add five guaranteed A's to my list (John Anderson, George Jones, Marley, Parliament, Scott-Heron), with half a dozen more looking good. Of course, my 1982 and 1983 lists did go up to 70 without best-ofs, and the slippage still makes me nervous--in the absence of cultural upheaval there was some satisfaction in settling for broad-based energy and skill. But as I might have figured in the year of the major-label single--a year when the quaint notion of the album as "artistic unit" lost its last vestiges of bizwise usefulness--most of the decline was in major-label albums, down from 42 to 26. So what else is new? I'll take anything I can get from the big corporations, but I consider it correct to expect as little as possible, and my dismay at the dip in first-rate LPs was more than offset by an unexpected bonus of consensus: although as always I smell some ringers in this year's poll, from the Smiths and Let's Active to the eternal Rickie Lee Jones, every album in the voters' top 20 was at least an A minus by me. They've--we've--arrived at a balance of shared pleasure and informed rage that I think fits the real limits and possibilities of the music we all love.

To prophets and fools this will seem not just small comfort but closet (if that) liberalism, a self-informed fellowship of rowdy dissent that can in no way mitigate the present and future political/cultural disaster. And as far as I'm concerned they should yowl all they want about cooptation and War is Peace and counter-hegemony feeding on hegemony and true oppression caught in the gears, because they're sure to be telling some of it true. Congenital nonpessimist that I am, though, I just don't believe they see the whole picture. I'm very aware that there are all kinds of ways for me to be wrong, but I don't believe the world as we know it is coming to an end. And in my own little sphere I'm delighted to see coworkers closing ranks in response to the unequivocal social crisis that one way or another underlies various ambiguous musical developments. I have even less idea what the future holds than I usually do. But I am pretty sure that insofar as music can help us through--and maybe what distinguishes me from prophets and fools is that I no longer think that's very far--we still have the stuff.

Village Voice, Feb. 19, 1985


1983 Critics Poll | Dean's List 1985