Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

Consumer Guide:
  User's Guide
  Grades 1990-
  Grades 1969-89
Books
Writings:
  CG Columns
  Rock&Roll& [new]
  Rock&Roll& [old]
  Music Essays
  Music Reviews
  Book Reviews
  Playboy
  Blender
  Rolling Stone
  Billboard
  Video Reviews
  Pazz & Jop
  Recyclables
  Newsprint
  Lists
  Miscellany
Bibliography
NPR
NAJP Blog
Web Site:
  Home
  Site Map
  What's New?
Carola Dibbell
CG Search:
Google Search:
Twitter:

The 13th (or 14th) Annual Pazz & Jop Critics Poll

Township Jive Conquers the World

Over at the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, where an accounting firm more reputable than Dean & Poobah is totting up the Grammies even as I write, the year ends October 1, to give the electoral machinery time to rumble into action. Here at the Voice, where small is still sometimes beautiful, the year begins whenever the voters tell us it did and ends the natural way, on December 31. Yet by October 1 I knew damn well who was going to win the 13th or 14th Annual Pazz & Jop Critics Poll, and though I suffered a few doubts when Peter Gabriel snuck in first in the L.A. Times, my confidence returned as I glanced over the early returns. Graceland for sure--in a small landslide, actually. And if Simon & Phiri--to let Simon's guitarist and bandleader, Ray Phiri, stand in for the black South African backing musicians whose beat is the backbone of the star's triumph--take the Grammies as well, which I predict they will, they earned it.

Many indicators fed my hunch, small competition and instant buzz prominent among them, but what convinced me was my direct experience of the music: opposed though I am to universalist humanism, this is a pretty damn universal record. Within the democratic bounds of pop accessibility, its bicultural synthesis is striking, engaging, and unprecedented--sprightly yet spunky, fresh yet friendly, so strange, so sweet, so willful, so plainly beautiful. Not that I expected the universe to agree--tastes differ, many dissent from Simon's refined literary liberalism, wimpophobes have hated his guts for years, and the electorate now includes a smattering of convinced pigfuckers who think Hüsker Dü is Julio Iglesias in disguise. Yet even sworn enemies were stopped short at least momentarily by the drive and lilt and sway of Simon's South African band, and many neutrals were won over to his Manhattan lyrics. Graceland's victory didn't approach the dimensions of Born in the U.S.A.'s, or Thriller's or London Calling's. But by Pazz & Jop as well as NARAS standards--by the standards of any respecters of critical consensus outside the Elvis Costello Fan Club--Simon had made what sounded like the album of the year. This was certifiable township jive, to use one of the Soweto beat's many overlapping nicknames. But it was cosmopolitan in a New York way.

Imagine my consternation, then, when I ransacked the ballots in search of quotable tributes to this ear food and found almost nothing but dim political disputation. Not that this was altogether surprising. The fact of apartheid is intrinsic to Graceland's aesthetic interest, especially for the P&J electorate, which leans more precipitously to the left than any comparable sampling of film or book or dance or art or (God knows) classical music reviewers. Yet at the same time rock critics are almost pathologically impatient with political orthodoxy. So maybe the recent flurry of controversy--in which Simon was blitzed by hostile questions at Howard University and criticized by the chairman of the UN's apartheid subcommittee--got their goat. Or maybe it was just Dave Marsh, who declared Simon an opponent of the South African revolution in Rock & Roll Confidential. Maybe it was even yours truly the Dean, whose more moderate censure of Simon's political performance has come under fire from universalist humanists. Still, I'd hoped for a higher level of discussion. Certainly the music that occasioned all the hot air would get its due. And just maybe the political horror that the music was too fucking transcendent to illuminate directly would gain new resonances as a result.

No way. You can bet the outnumbered naysayers proved somewhat smarter than Simon's aggressively defensive champions, but you can also bet that a bilious "beneath contempt" isn't going to get us much further than a blithe "Simon's intentions seem to have been noble": if it's true that nobility is too rare a thing to waste on intentions, it's also true that you can't get much lower than some people's contempt. What I missed on both sides was some rudimentary grasp of the South African reality Graceland is supposed to trivialize and exploit or extend and enrich. Musically, the old bridge-between-cultures line is supported by the 10th-place finish of what has now been my own favorite current record for about a year, the Earthworks-via-Shanachie mbaqanga compilation The Indestructible Beat of Soweto. In 1985, with Graceland yet unborn, Indestructible was showing up on UK critics polls, and it would certainly have placed here as well, but without Simon's album--and the accompanying press coverage, a phenomenon in itself--it sure wouldn't have gone neck-and-neck to the finish line with R.E.M. and Peter Gabriel. (Only with the last ballot did Blood and Chocolate sneak into a virtual tie with Indestructible--and Springsteen overtake Run-D.M.C. Craig Zeller has broken my heart before. He may not vote next year unless he changes his name to Muhammad Ali.)

Nevertheless, I'd be more inclined to see in the pleasing anomaly of Indestructible's showing irrefutable evidence of the universal language in action, of a link to black South Africa stronger than mere analysis could ever achieve, if just one of the indignant defenses of Paul Simon's virtue had indicated that apartheid isn't just the Afrikaans word for segregation. It's a system, damn it, a political system; like the bicultural music that nobody pro or con described very satisfactorily, either (though once again the cons made their points more cleverly), it has specific attributes. Its strategy is to reserve for whites the economic and psychological advantages of segregation while fobbing itself off with a rhetoric of racial equality and cooperation. As far as Pretoria is concerned, Graceland is for the most part quite consonant with such rhetoric. Which is why, Bruce McClelland, it's naïve at best to claim that "Graceland is inherently political and inherently anti-apartheid." Right now, nobody can know that--not me, not you, not Botha, not Simon. God don't love no ignorant, boy.

Okay, I'll stop. I'm writing about a poll, and though Simon is emblematic enough to warrant all this attention and more, it's context time. Perhaps I've procrastinated because 1986 didn't seem to add much news value to the critics' by now traditional dour view of popular music's immediate past and uncharted future. Wrap-up pieces made much of the nostalgia factor in a year when MTV engineered a Monkees revival, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame hosted a reissue boom, and numerous same old songs returned to the hit parade, most spectacularly "Stand by Me," back among the living in Ben E. King's quarter-century-old version. In fact, several respondents thought it amusing to point out the aptness of the late-night typo in which I neglected to change the "1985" of our previous letter of invitation to the "1986" of this year's model. But both poll and biz showed 365 days worth of historical movement by me, and while the nostalgia thesis has the look of a desperate stab at a headline--it's a rare year when the pop merchants aren't systematically sentimentalizing the past--it might be adapted to our purposes.

Lefty that I am, I often focus these ruminations on how the pop of the present relates to past and future, and in general my conclusions are fairly clear-cut: future good, past bad. Thus I've always been suspicious (right, Rob Tannenbaum, with exceptions) of roots moves and critical (also with exceptions) of rock conservatism from Springsteen to Fogerty and Stones to Smithereens. Middle-aged professional that I am, I'm also a respecter of history--I love the old stuff going back way before 1955, and believe absolutely that aging (and even young) rockers can do exciting work in styles that are no longer modish or commercial. But in general I've reserved my sharpest enthusiasms for music that breaks new ground within the aforementioned bounds of democratic accessibility, a parameter I interpret more liberally than the most progressive bizzer and nowhere near radically enough to suit your average pigfucker. And what strikes me as I ponder both my list and the critics' choices is that such distinctions seem to be falling apart. In fact, I descry only four unequivocally "progressive" artists in the P&J top 40, three of whom I don't like much. There's old prog Peter Gabriel, who broke pop with an Otis Redding rip, young progs Throwing Muses, whose singularity is indistinguishable from their awfulness, and two artists whose explorations are rhythmic, as so many of the most significant rock and roll explorations always have been: Janet Jackson a/k/a Janet Jam-Lewis (whom I'm developing a taste for, actually) and young reliables Run-D.M.C.

Everywhere else, either the past is a live issue or the future a quiescent one. Among the half dozen or so artists doing strong work in established personal styles (including Elvis C., Hüsker Dü, Ornette, the Smiths, Robyn Hitchcock), only the Minutemen's album holds out any vivid promise of significant future movement, and they're now gone forever. Anyway, Elvis C. scored higher with a roots move, and in addition he produced the Pogues, the most coruscating of an unprecedented explosion of folkies--at least two of whom, Billy Bragg and Timbuk 3, chafe conspicuously at folk's musical limitations. In addition we have a new wave band going folkloric (and downhill) (Talking Heads), a nuevo folk-rock band going pop (R.E.M.), and a new wave band going nuevo folk-rock (the Feelies). We have the biggest and best blues album in the history of the poll. We have mbaqanga, a folk-based style, and mbaqanga-rock, a roots move in cunning progressive disguise. We have two or three country neotraditionalists. We have unabashed homages to torch singing (Anita Baker), Sgt. Pepper (XTC), Sgt. Pepper plus Sly Stone (Prince), metal (Bad Brains), AOR (David & David), Spector/Ramones (Jesus and Mary), roots-era Clash (Screaming Blue Messiahs), and Bruce Springsteen (Bruce Springsteen). We have an overrated record by a New Zealander from El Lay and a sloppy record by some North Country anarchists who love American music and not America. We have the impressively eclectic unestablished punk-rock of That Petrol Emotion (barely beating out the avant-gone-neoclassicist Ellington homage of the World Saxophone Quartet). We have debuts by the nuevo retro Bodeans and the nuevo retro Smithereens. And we have debuts by Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys.

I trust you understand that I'm having fun with these swift characterizations--a few of the artists I've summed up so cavalierly, like Simon and Prince and Bad Brains, are recombining at such a furious clip that their homages qualify as syntheses if not something altogether new, and many of the others are self-starters perfectly capable of counting their winnings and moving on. Nevertheless, only Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys, both spawned around the corner from Dean & Poobah on the Lower East Side, would seem blatant exceptions to the prevailing future's-so-dull-I-gotta-look-back mood--and in typical blatant fashion, both spit in the eye of any such historical or personal consistency. I'm accused of mistreating Sonic Youth, the old farts of pigfuckerdom, who made their surprisingly belated (and at 29, modest) P&J debut with a third (fifth?) album that certainly deserved to finish higher than True Stories or Peter Case, while overpraising the sixth-ranked Beasties, the white motherfuckers of metal-rap, as rock and roll future. Actually, I don't see where the Beasties can go from here and do see that Sonic Youth could wind up almost anywhere. But what I'm almost certain of is this--that any future progress either achieves will partake of that annoying Lower East Side sensibility known as postmodernism.

Like you, I hope, I've made a principle of resisting this hotsy-totsy and all but meaningless term, only recently settling on a definition that tickles my rock and roll chauvinism. My postmodern has not much use for the decrepit modernist edifice that is high art, but that goes without saying. What's crucial is the way it simultaneously undercuts its own seriousness and reconstitutes history by taking as primary material every piece of pop junk that ever existed. This tactic will recall for rock and rollers of a certain age the pop irony we perceived in the way the Beatles dragged "Please Mr. Postman" through the guitars until it hollered uncle, as well as the multifarious recontextualizations of the New York Dolls or the Ramones' and Blondie's congruent visual and aural images. My postmodern is the same only more so, often too much more so--too campy, too junky, too pop. Like rock and roll three decades on, it finds history inescapable, so inescapable that its only recourse is to seize and twist it into some shape that can pass for "new." When Sonic/Ciccone Youth tops "Papa Don't Preach" et al. on our singles chart by sampling bits of the Madonna "original" right onto "Into the Groovey," when the Beasties and Rick Rubin (especially Rick Rubin) hook up their def-forever electrobeats with literal Jimmy Page and Angus Wilson licks as well as a line stolen from sucker-ass Schoolly-D, ordinary notions of retro and progressive and their reassuring Hegelian synthesis, historically conscious, seem, well, dated. If these two bands represent the wave of whatever usable future the 1986 poll points to, most likely as precursors, roots will presently shrivel up and history start stretching back from when it had oughter, about 15 minutes ago. And that can't be all bad, can it?

Needless to say, this somewhat narrow and abstract speculation won't add much glow to most voters' memories of 1986, and I understand why--I found the year depressing myself. The barrenness of the ordinary flush fall release climaxed a series of alarming flops from old hands and young hopefuls alike. Get Close was 82nd, and while Chrissie Hynde has come back from follow-up jinx before, this time I have more faith in Cyndi Lauper, who made just one ballot after finishing 11th in 1984. George Clinton was 121st, and neither Tina Turner, fifth in 1984, nor Aretha Franklin, ninth last year, garnered a mention. Astonishingly, neither did John Fogerty, though I suspect Eye of the Zombie would have done respectably if 1985's 10th-place Centerfield hadn't already taken the edge off the cosmic Creedence craving. After three straight albums in the top 10, Lou Reed was fortunate to place 106th, while Iggy Pop's Bowie-produced "comeback" finished an even more generous 102nd. The Golden Palominos got five mentions, Jason and the Scorchers four, Lone Justice two, Let's Active one. Sade added five points to the 56th-place 1985 finish of her late-release follow-up Promise.

And though by now my trusty A/A minus total has risen comfortably above 1985's bare 49, I did have to sweat my top 10 once infatuations with King of America and Psychocandy flagged. Last year like most years I would have been happy to give some points to my number 13, Linton Kwesi Johnson's live double (a December release that topped 1986 reggae albums at 51); this year 10th-ranked New Order (relegated to a fickle 92nd by their doom and/or novelty-hooked support group) would have been more at home around 13. But in the end the self-censorship movement--the warning stickers, interviews lauding "subtlety" that sounded like farina, and craven, faux-hip condemnations of psychotropic indulgences that faux-hip lifestyles had once cravenly endorsed--sharpened my hunger for the deliberately offensive, preferably within the aforementioned parameters and especially after those three jerks from Stuyvesant rubbed my face in it. Thus I found that the Rolling Stones' hardass farewell, which earned notes of censure from PMRC bluenoses and finished a fickle 52nd with the voters, and Motorhead's 55th-place return to the front, in which Bill Laswell added craft and speed to the old Edward Shils nightmare of "brutal culture," hung tougher as a countdown approached. I can live with my final selection, and I will.

Many voters complained of top-10 dearth, but then, some always do, and the statistics were ambiguous. Prorated, the top 10's cumulative point support was slightly stronger than in 1985. And when I let my calculator do the walking down to Timbuk 3 at 34, where the pattern reverses, I find points running almost 10 percent ahead of 1985. Now, this could indicate intense critical enthusiasm for the top records. But it could also indicate that down below 34 the voters found bubkes, at least bubkes in common, and that's how the also-rans make it look. After WSQ Plays Duke, 42-50 went Big Black (young farts of pigfuckerdom), Madonna (whose frontlash failed to materialize), Phil Alvin, Bangles, Christmas, Van Morrison, the Woodentops' Giant, the 3 Johns' The World by Storm (Live in Chicago was 92nd), and Marti Jones--which I'd break down as three pros (Bangles included), two biz hopefuls (Alvin included), two marginal Brits, two Amerindies, and one jazz. After that Brits fade and Amerindies come on for a 41st to 100th place total that goes something like: pros 14, hopefuls 9, marginal Brits 6, jazz 3, black 3, country 1, miscellaneous 3 (LKJ, John Zorn, and Astor Piazzola), Australindies 3, and Amerindies--get this--19.

That's right--about a third of the also-rans were by American bands on independent labels (Georgia Satellites and Rainmakers counted as hopefuls): Big Black, Christmas, Bottle Caps, Leaving Trains, Violent Femmes (on Warner/Slash, but they operate like an indie and four of their five votes came from Wisconsin), Lyres, Camper Van Beethoven (II and III), Cramps, Camper Van again, Dumptruck (30 points from co-leader Seth Tiven's cheaty big brother Jon), Soul Asylum (Made to Be Broken), R&B Cadets, Swans, Golden Palominos, Fire Town (14 points from co-leader Phil Davis's proud alter ego Phil Davis), Mofungo, Moving Targets, Butthole Surfers, Die Kreuzen. Now, this is a varied bunch of records; four made my top 58, several more please me, and others could yet do either. But while Robert Palmer and your nearby college-radio PD may see our result as some sort of consummation, I see it as localism and special interest out of control. In 1985, there was a healthier breakdown: pros and hopefuls about the same, Amerindies down to 13, Brits up to 10, and black--meaning anything from Kid Creole to Whitney Houston--way up to 11.

U.S.-versus-UK-wise, I think the critics have fallen into lazy habits--Amerindie boosterism is as rife now as Anglophilia was as the decade began. Counting the Go-Betweens as Australian, I put three Brits on my 1985 list. This year I have 11, not just world-citizen Stones and mid-Atlantic Elvis C. and old pro Motorhead, but marginals and eccentrics from Jon Langford's two best bands (with a third on my EP list) to the leftish punk of New Model Army to the lefty pop of the Housemartins to the studio pop of XTC to the studio miscellaneous of the Art of Noise. And while it would be overexcitable to read a trend into every blip, I think this apparently anomalous upswing makes sense.

With all exceptions and amalgams granted, let's divide the Amerindies into subgroups labeled pop, roots, and pigfucker. Now, I'm not sure why the best roots band extant hails from Leeds, England, rather than the good old U.S.A., though geographical distance--good for a measure of (shall we call it?) postmodernist irony, and thus covering the inevitable chops shortfall just as it did in the Beatles' day--isn't hurting one bit. The pigfuckers could wind up mucking about anywhere, and they're welcome to their wallow as long as they don't blame the universe for not joining in. But if you're going to truck with pop values--which often means no longer modish/commercial biz values, with many roots types and by now some pigfuckers feeling the urge--you're better off doing it right. Because commercial corruption was the great Brit disease a few years ago, its biz is now generating marginalia by the carload. It's also providing a context in which young bands can cop a little attitude from garagelands on both sides of the Atlantic, then bring it into the studio for the processing increasingly refined musical concepts demand.

In its sorry way the EP situation illustrates the Amerindie dilemma. For the second straight year, Alex Chilton strode like a colossus over this godforsaken category, which was infiltrated as usual by album artists on holiday and major-label turkeys--Echoless Bunnyman, crumbled colossus Tommy Keene. (Keene's debut album got two mentions. He gained undisputed possession of 10th place--breaking a glorious tie with Live Skull, Sonic Youth, Wire, and the Mekons--after receiving the sole EP vote of Craig Zeller, who claimed the catchy title number made him "deliriously happy after 101 consecutive spins.") As a source of Amerindie bands, which was how the competition was conceived back when that was still a worthy cause, the list is stronger than 1985's: Uzi dead, but Scruffy the Cat (Dollsy Boston pop) and Balancing Act (artful L.A. folk-rock) have evident talent, and pigfuckersymps insist I'll understand Das Damen when I catch their act. Perked up by Brits once again (though the Shop Assistants' debut album is already out in the hall), I'm actively enthusiastic about my own list as well. The tough verve of Land of Sugar's white Dayton funk almost equals that of DFX2's Emotion, one of my most played records of the '80s--by San Diego Stonesers you never heard of who were never heard from again, possibly because they deserved no better. Which is the problem with EPs--they're marginal by nature. Who outside of northwest Pennsylvania will make anything of the New Dylans' copious if callow songwriting skills? Is Mimi Schneider's Iowa folk trio the Stouthearted going to interest a general audience in rural displacement? Does the world want Berkeley's Fearless Iranians From Hell to scrawl another Khomeini cartoon? These days, Amerindie bands of potential cut albums when the B-sides of their singles still suck. EPs are sports and hybrids, signs of surprising life rarely capable of procreation.

If I can accuse the voters of stroking the Amerindies, though, I can't accuse them of unfairness to that catchall called black. Pace Ron Wynn as usual, it was a terrible year for black popular music. Granted, my critical perspective, despite what a few pophead and pigfucker ignorami believe--biases this judgment. Granted too that Pazz & Jop's black turnout--13 out of a carefully updated invite of 34 (approximately, since I haven't color-coded all of our 380 names)--was the most embarrassing of the decade. As Nelson George tells me, this must in part reflect the alienation of black music writers from the Pazz & Jop consensus--rock critics' weakness for the rough, grotesque, and outrageous offends many of them. But George himself returned to 1985 for Sade and L.L. Cool J, and not a single voter strolled out to left field with him to shake hands with Alexander O'Neal, Paul Laurence, or Full Force. I mean, what would the black caucus have settled on? James Brown's Dan Hartman job, catapulted to 89th by Jeffrey Morgan's 30 points? Irma Thomas's folk-indie Gladys Knight homage, which got the same points and two more mentions? Doug E. Fresh, tied for 100th with the third-place rap album? Bobby Womack, Steve Arrington, the misguided youth of Fishbone, all also-rans last year?

I don't think this is a blip, either. Sure Stevie Wonder and Al Green and (let us not forget) Michael Jackson will get their share of votes next time they show their voices. Sure the electorate hears black artists even more passively and trendily than it does white artists (if five voters go for Iggy Pop, the sorely underrated Tina Turner merits equal consideration). And sure crossover will continue to throw up the occasional divertissement. But for all their overstatement, Wynn's annual anti-crossover diatribes did come true this year, with great lover Whitney Houston leading the not-here-nor-there-nor-anywhere LaBelle-Khan-Osborne-DeBarge parade (which totalled one mention, LaBelle's). Only thing is, Wynn's roots futurism isn't the solution--it's not hostile enough to the past, encouraging the kind of up-to-date tip of the hat to the verities that has turned the respectable AOR of Stevie Winwood and Eric Clapton into a morass. I prefer the more radical thesis of the Black Rock Coalition, which includes old P&J hand Greg Tate and multithreat newcomer Vernon Reid (the first voter since Lenny Kaye to have played on a charting album, Ronald Shannon Jackson's Mandance in 1982). I also agree that with crossover's somewhat exaggerated critical disrepute having no effect on its profitability, bankrolling some mix of Clinton, Hendrix, Ornette, and the Clash isn't going to be easy--especially if it's rough, grotesque, or outrageous.

What can it mean, do you think, that the one place black artists made out was in the newly instituted reissue category? This was the love child of Assigning Poobah Doug Simmons, and I warned him it would be a mess, favoring the majors-come-lately who've discovered a cheap way to feel virtuous over the importers and indies who have kept archival music alive, pitting the Police best-of against review-copies-by-written-request-if-you're-lucky anthologies against music that comes shrink-wrapped by the carton instead of the disc. We sandbagged best-ofs by specifying a pre-1970 cutoff date, which given the defiant support for Gumbo and The Modern Lovers and Terminal Tower--not one a best-of--probably wasn't fair. But indeed, the 14-disc Atlantic r&b box came in third, and I suppose it would have won if the average rock critic could afford to buy the sucker. Only two indies placed, one with a box by the romantically dead Nick Drake, the sole white finisher. And I like the results anyway.

I like the way the indie Nevilles beat out RCA's overdue, well-publicized, and slightly disappointing Sam Cooke set. I like the beginner's guide to MCA's daunting Chess reissue. I like seeing Duke Ellington's name somewhere on our charts even though my personal rule against straight jazz records prevented me from placing Money Jungle right behind It Will Stand. I like knowing that PolyGram's complete Hank Williams series would have come in second if we'd added the votes for all four extant volumes together. And maybe most of all I like James Brown up there at number four, where he can remind a few popheads and pigfuckers that obituaries for black music are invariably premature. No comparable electorate would have acknowledged the existence of Brown's dance groove in 1970. So if some equivalent happened in 1986, it's still waiting for the critics to find it.

Not that I'm about to lead you there. You'd never suspect black music was in trouble to look at the first three singles on our list, crossover moves so daring and astute that without a hint of wimp-out they obliterated the competition both commercially and critically. "Walk This Way" broke Run-D.M.C. CHR (though not AOR, further proof that the format refuses to challenge its market's presumed racism). "Word Up" was the most undeniable funk single ever, and "Kiss" reestablished Prince's repute as a powerhouse innovator--at year's end it was one of two gold singles released in 1986. But after that we have Janet Jam-Lewis, James Brown-Hartman, and a rap novelty by a now broken group. And though I was rooting for Gwen Guthrie (early-year releases are always forgotten by some voters) and recommend Mixmaster Gee's metal manipulation, I can't claim to have heard tell of much else--go go went went, house is a local disco revival, and while I've written down the titles of some word-of-mouth rap obscurities, the great ones rarely remain that obscure.

By acclamation and any normal standard, the oft-maligned (and oft-wrong) Chuck Eddy was on the one when he charged in November that CHR had deliquesced into pap, mulch, and worse. My own singles choices are partial because it's been years since I had ear time for radio and I no longer club much. I would have been delighted to vote for Motorhead's "Deaf Forever," Simply Red's "Money'$ Too Tight (To Mention)," Paul Simon's "The Boy in the Bubble," or God knows Jessie Hill's "Ooh Poo Pah Doo," each of which meant more to me than anything below "Word Up" on my list, if I'd experienced them as singles. I doubt radio would have been much help, though--I discovered both AC/DC and Karen Finley in 45 'tween-set minutes at the Beasties' Ritz show, but in three weeks of vacation came across nothing more compelling on my car radio than Jermaine Stewart and "On My Own," the year's other gold single. Which remarkable statistic may point to what's wrong, so let me emphasize: nobody buys singles anymore. Just because albums are now designed to contain two or more CHR-compatible hits, those hits aren't singles as we've traditionally understood the concept. They're not objects to be consumed, aural fetishes we can cherish into the ground and then call back to life in a day or a decade. They're promotional devices, not all that different from, well, videos.

Our poll is intended to resist such promotional function, and in both categories the critics did their bit. Gabriel & Johnson earned their video landslide, and though I dislike the song so much I could never get properly worked up about the ad for it, the aural "Sledgehammer" did well enough to indicate no inconsistency. The voters generously acknowledged Madonna's overarching cinematic métier and David Byrne's only cinematic gift. And the political foretexts that become permissible as Reaganism's media clout deteriorates are hailed with Bruce's shamelessly (and instructively didactic) "War," and, more tellingly, with the nasty anti-Reaganism of a band mentioned on one album and zero singles ballots--Genesis, whose all-powerful leader took a vague "protest" and turned it into near slander and deliberate offense. The singles chart, meanwhile, singles out misleading promotional devices. In addition to Madonna and the Pretenders, beware of Stevie Winwood (eighth, album 57th), P.I.L. (ninth, album tied for 87th), two CHR-compatible Bangles tunes they didn't write, the most tossed-off and convincing thing Talking Heads did all year, and de facto one-offs by the Pet Shop Boys (who deserve better), the Robert Palmer who sings (who deserves worse), and Bruce Hornsby (who's just deserving enough).

In the comments headed "Alternative Formats," you'll find a dissenting and indeed abnormal standard applied to these issues--that of rock criticism's great dissenter, proud crank, and undeconstructed postmodernist Greil Marcus. My friend in California and I disagree more than we agree, at least about music, and I somehow doubt that his daily dose of kilohertz would convert me to his philosophy of art--if I spent that much time in my car I'd install a tape deck. But where my slightly kooky and definitely doomed attempt to give every halfway promising record a fair hearing submits to the modernist assumption that music is created and perceived by individuals, Marcus's dial-spinning honors music as social fact, and especially given his elitist tendencies I admire how persistently he subjects himself to other people's musical will. It's one more variation on a theme of his criticism, which often focuses on moments when intense individual expression is so difficult to distinguish from random outpouring that it comes across as the world calling--that is, when what some call the bourgeois subject approaches the verge of realization and/or disintegration.

I'm aware that such talk strikes many as bullshit; it often strikes me as bullshit, too. But only orthodox know-nothings think it's completely off the wall, and I bring it up partly to remind everyone that there are far more abstruse and radical ways to conceive rock and roll than anything hinted at in this year-in-review. The fun I had with postmodernism, for instance, was an easy way out of a thorny, multifaceted problem, one rock and rollers are stuck with as surely as legit artistic types--what to do with your tradition of the new when it gets old. In fact, Simon Frith, who chooses his words quietly and with care, described none other than Paul Simon as "a lonely, rich American in the fragmented world of postmodernity" just a few months ago in these pages. And while that may make our pollwinner sound a little hipper than he is, it's accurate. In fact, substitute "loquacious, embittered Englishman" and "urbane black neotraditionalist" and you'd be describing our two runners-up, each of whom confronts the paradoxes of progress at least as stalwartly as the champ.

Each pulled off a coup as big as a landslide, too. After years of humdrum domination and a slight slip, Elvis Costello fell right off the chart with the aptly titled Goodbye Cruel World in 1984, so his double return to the top 10 (with more total points than Graceland) turns a comeback into a triumph. And Robert Cray's Strong Persuader is the poll's all-time sleeper. I mean, blues is for aging hippies who drink too much, right? Yet despite Chuck Eddy's paternalistic surmise that Cray is a "white-man-in-disguise," he attracted half our black critics as well as 48 of our white boys (though only four of our 30 women) to pile up just two fewer mentions than King of America and nine more than Springsteen. Talk about exciting work in supposedly outmoded styles--this record had to knock down a lot of preconceptions to break through so huge.

Of course, the preconceptions weren't formal--that is, what the critics already knew prepared them for Cray's steady beat and terse eloquence. With Costello abandoning his band for the T-Bone Crew on the bigger of his two entries (which in the end I find softer, a chronic weakness of roots moves), they're as different as two Costello records can be, but both also fall comfortably within those old pop parameters. And yet Costello--who ranks with the Mekons, John Rotten-Lydon, Lora Logic, and Rosanne Cash in Marcus's postpunk pantheon--has always strained at assumed limits. His wordplay is so obsessive that Costello-the-subject disappears into it, and the juggled readymades of his music--Blood and Chocolate makes "Subterranean Homesick Blues" sound as primal as "Honky Tonk"--work the same kind of nasty deconstructive pranks on linear notions of history. Personally, I pay him back for his cold cool by remaining an admiring nonfan, but there's no question that he confounds past and future and expressed and found as defiantly as any pigfucker. Cray doesn't deal consciously with such issues, but within soul-blues's parameters he achieves a cool so unprecedented it's beyond modern--which isn't to say he ain't hot. I was dismayed at first to learn that Dave Marsh dismissed his album as not-blues and Ron Wynn preferred Anita Baker and James Brown-Hartman, but upon reflection I'm encouraged that Cray makes conservatives uneasy--in a world where the young can do exciting work in unmodish forms, I wouldn't want to except postmodern blues.

No matter what he or she thinks of hotsy-totsy terminology, anyone who reads rock criticism lives "in the fragmented world of postmodernity." Compulsively novel yet yoked to its roots, rock and roll is a good match for this world, and in their useful if ultimately unsatisfying ways, Elvis C. and Robert Cray and Sonic Youth and the Beastie Boys (and Janet Jan-Lewis and the Pogues, but not, I'll warrant, Steve Winwood or the Smithereens) try to help us live in that world. What attracted me to Graceland from the start was that in its details and its defining bifurcation and its significant groove it tackled this problem in a rock and roll way. As Dave Marsh has pointed out, Graceland's limitations are summed up in its final line, "That's why we must learn to live alone"--because there's no must about it. Simon has said that one reason Graceland never confronts politics directly is that political art doesn't last. Putting aside the always dubious equation of durability and quality, that's a hoary modernist myth, proof of modernism's submission to what some call the bourgeois subject. However dim their analysis, the way our critics intersperse the personal and the political in their annual choices reflects not trendiness but an inevitable evolution of sensibility, because the truth of this myth is drying up before our collective ears. Although ultimate satisfaction may be a dying myth itself and is certainly too much to expect of this fragmented world, today's partial solutions are promises. They leave room to hope that the divisions Graceland adduces and arouses and fails to address can someday be part of our past--but not that the transcendent power of music alone can make them history.

Village Voice, Mar. 3, 1987


1985 Critics Poll | Dean's List 1987