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 20th (or 21st) Annual Pazz & Jop Critics Poll

Playing To Win:
Pazz & Jop's Fifth (or Sixth) Year of the Woman

No use seeking hidden meanings in the 20th or 21st Pazz Jop Critics' Poll. The story is smack dab on the surface, there for the kvelling and the selling--self-evident and significant, heartening and thrilling, unprecedented and maybe even sexy. Liz Phair--the first female victor since Joni Mitchell in 1974, when the 24-person electorate consisted largely of my friends--is joined on the album chart by 11 other women, recording under their own sobriquets or fronting bands that usually include more women. With PJ Harvey scoring twice, and the Digable Planets and Yo La Tengo granted half-credits for Ladybug and Georgia Hubley, that's 13 and two halves records all told, and though in 1992 we had 10 and two halves, then women garnered a mere one (and a half) of the top 10, whereas in 1993 they scored three of the top four. On the traditionally distaff singles chart, where the gender breakdown is unremarkable, the Breeders follow Tracy Chapman in 1988 and Laurie Anderson in 1981 to the top spot. Björk's "Human Behaviour" came in second on our video ballot, following Cyndi Lauper in 1984, and "Cannonball" rode in fourth on a goofy clip codirected by better half Kim Gordon. Rap-rockers Luscious Jackson follow Lucinda Williams in 1989 as EP winners. Only on the reissue list, where Columbia's proudly feminist Janis Joplin box finished seventh in an otherwise male field, did guys still rool.

Needless to say, skepticism is always justified when journalists crow about trends. Note that as recently as 1991, the only women to place were Bonnie Raitt, Sam Phillips, and Kirsty MacColl, and note also that this is hardly Pazz & Jop's first Year of the Woman. We had one in 1992; we had one in 1988; we had one in 1981, when women put ten and three halves albums in the top 40; hell, we thought we had one in 1979, when 10th-place Donna Summer, now cited as an example of how critics only respect sexually assertive white women, led seven (and three halves) female artists onto our chart. And as was noted by many of our 309 respondents--a new high, as were the 68 female voters, their numbers swelled by Elizabeth Cady Stanton Memorial Poobah Ann Powers's affirmative-action effort and H.L. Mencken Memorial Poobah Joe Levy's insistence on declaring our deadlines a disaster area--the women on our chart are as varied as the men. (Almost, anyway--none of them is as big a creep as Dwight Yoakam, not to mention Dr. Dre.) I'll grant you that 68th-place diva Toni Braxton and 47th-place sexpot Janet Jackson deserved more respect, that icons on the order of Sinéad and what's-her-name were nowhere in evidence, and that we got no riot grrrls either (although Bikini Kill's Joan Jett-produced "Rebel Girl" was tied just below chart level with seven other singles that would have toned up an already healthily non-album-dependent list). But despite all that, we cover a lot of territory; I mean, from Sade's velvet wallpaper and Aimee Mann's power-pop singer-songwriting to Rosanne Cash's mainstream privatism and Jane Siberry's eccentric privatism to Carol van Dijk's Euroneotraditionalist lead work and Laetitia Sadier's Euroexperimental front work to Me'Shell NdegeOcello's people's poetry and Cassandra Wilson's art of improvisation seems like a lot to me. And Phair at number one, PJ Harvey at three, and the Breeders at four (plus Belly at 37) represent a sea change.

I'm not forgetting that Harvey and the all-female L7 burst upon us in a 1992 that was topped by the half-credited Arrested Development. And I'm down with the profusion of comments on the varieties of female experience. But I still think that the big story in 1993 was girls learning to play a boys' game by boys' rules, and play it to win. Sade and Mann and Siberry and Cash and Me'Shell and Wilson and van Dijk and Sadier all fit established female niches that critics appreciate. It's not impossible to imagine a poll-topping successor to Joni's Court and Spark emanating from a leader-plus-backup like van Dijk's Bettie Serveert, even from a singer-songwriter who combined Siberry's singularity with Mann's thralldom to the hook. Not impossible--just damned hard. I believe that Blondie's 1978 Parallel Lines was a more incandescent explosion than the poll-topping This Year's Model, that the McGarrigles' 1977 Dancer With Bruised Knees was a tougher statement than Never Mind the Bollocks, but I wouldn't waste time electioneering for either. I know all too well that in practice, our poll honors music that parades its mastery of meaning, and that in practice this comes down to bands, whether ad hoc creations like Paul Simon's Graceland hirelings, De La Soul's voice-and-tape fantasias, and Prince's multitracked versions of his multitalented self or old-fashioned tour-bus brawlers like the Clash, E Street, Crazy Horse, and Nirvana--whether ad hoc studio creations like Phair and friends or old-fashioned tour-bus brawlers like PJ Harvey or hybrids like Belly and the Breeders.

In short, what we have here is the consummation a lot of male critics said they were waiting for--not women who could play their axes or anything stupid like that, just women who knew how to come on strong. This is basically the musical bias the Brits call rockism, a promethean schema that valorizes the artist as creative actor. From Van Morrison at 55 to Mick Jagger at 110, from Donald Fagen at 43 to John Cougar Mellencamp at 93, from Elvis Costello at 57 to Sting at 65--hell, from John Hiatt at 38 to Billy Joe Shaver at 38 (hell and tarnation, from Kate Bush at 65 to Rickie Lee Jones at 106)--old-timers of all ages still strive proudly to fufill this ideal. But it's no longer the fine strapping hegemony it used to be, and not just among fad-hopping U.K. pomo-poppers. What does it mean, for instance, that three of our most aged white male finishers--Jimmie Dale Gilmore (seventh), Willie Nelson (22nd), and Bob Dylan (23rd)--devoted themselves to other people's songs? Or that after years of traditionalist resistance, the Pet Shop Boys--whose three previous entries finished 22nd, 32nd, and 35th--should leapfrog to fifth on their poorest-selling disc? Above all, what does it mean that after years of posing atop Mount Caucasus, torch aloft and eagle at liver, U2 should finish ninth with a damn Eno album?

For good reason, the rockist vision is often attacked as Euro, male chauvinist, and so forth--as an aestheticization of the will to dominance. Yet oddly enough, while rockism continues to define metal and fuels many of the new male country singers, two of its bulwarks these days are rap (pardon me, hip hop) and the former Amerindie subculture still sometimes labeled alternative, both of which reject or redefine virtuosity while championing their own modes of rugged mastery. As so often happens in countercultures, it's like hippie all over again: in order to combat the ruling class, the media, the powers that be, the establishment, the man, both rappers and alternative rockers lay claim to an individualistic ethos they believe has been homogenized out of existence. Big on authenticity and creative control, they carry the rockist flag. But not without misgivings. Reluctant to cross over yet desperate to get paid, reliving African trickster and griot traditions as they act out against absent fathers, forced by the forces of censure and censorship to front about how literal they are, rappers suffer ugly doubts about their own autonomy. And the indie guys, who reject rockist ideology while embodying its aesthetic, don't have it so simple either. They'd be confused about gender privilege even if their girlfriends didn't hock them about it.

When Nevermind overwhelmed Billboard first and Pazz & Jop later in 1991, we all knew "alternative" was in for weird times, but except for some feminist critics, notably the Seattle-born Powers, few considered gender consequences in the year of Raitt-Phillips-MacColl. Who would have figured? Yet here we are. Say there are 12 Amerindie bands in our top 40, and nine in our top 20: Dinosaur Jr., Belly, Uncle Tupelo, Yo La Tengo, American Music Club, the Afghan Whigs, Urge Overkill, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, the Breeders, Nirvana, and Liz Phair. Since not one of these bands records for a fully independent label, this list is deeply debatable; maybe it's wrong to exclude long-ago Twin/Tone stalwart Paul Westerberg, and I count Pearl Jam only because . . . I forgot. Still, bear with me. Seven of the 12 are first-time album finishers, but not one of the four male newcomers--Uncle Tupelo, the Afghan Whigs, Urge Overkill, and Smashing Pumpkins--scored with a debut album. All came up in the indie farm system, where all recorded at least two albums/EPs. A version of the Breeders that included Belly's (then Throwing Muses') Tanya Donelly released a Rough Trade album in 1990 and a 4AD/Elektra EP in 1992. But Liz Phair and Belly charted true debut records, which added to Digable Planets, Me'Shell, and Netherindies Bettie Serveert makes five, all showcasing women, on a chart that averages around eight--with Exile in Guyville, which predated the Atlantic deal critic-bashing former Pazz & Jopper Gerard Cosloy cut for his poll-vaulting Matador label, our only genuine Amerindie album.

Nor is it just the numbers that tell me women are now the prime hope of a onetime youth culture whose length of tooth is measured by the 1986 and 1988 debuts of Overkill and the Whigs. It's my ears. Although I didn't resist Exile in Guyville, I did find it hard to hear through the word-of-mouth, just as Nirvana's number-two In Utero was hard to hear through the media clamor (in my defense I'll say that two decades ago it took me just as long to penetrate Exile on Main Street, which I promise not to mention again). When I gave myself the Christmas present of relistening in depth, however, the voters' choices ended up my favorite new music of 1993, and Guyville started sounding like a full-fledged classic.

If you wanted to get wise, you could grouse that Guyville shares all too much with Court and Spark, but you'd be jiving. Where Joni's winner was a produced, listener-friendly variation on the audaciously arty For the Roses, Phair's recalls the more tentative Clouds--except that it's realized and Clouds isn't, proof positive that minimalism lives. Phair milks drummer-coproducer Brad Wood (who kicks things off with a perfect Bill Wyman bass hook) and multitracks with Princely panache, adding simple, self-taught, alternative guitar noises--strums and riffs rather than Nirvana/Sonic Youth noise-a-rama--where he-who-cannot-be-named would lay in a beatwise panoply. By the time I'd heard the 18 songs 18 times, I was hooked right down to the perverse slow ones--like "Canary," which follows a minute of halting piano with a sad ditty whose mix of domestic detail and attempts at cooperative cohabitation climaxes quietly with a house on fire. Clearly, Phair wanted to prove she could do it with a band and prove she could do it without one; substitute "guy" for "band" and you'll know why. Not only does she have another album in her, she has a career in her, one she's canny enough to stay on top of. But at the same time she's alternative-rockist enough to look askance at careers undertaken exclusively from behind closed doors. So her next step is to get out of the studio and start a band. Since this leader-plus-backup is unlikely to bog down in participatory democracy, I just hope Phair figures out how to generate the requisite synergy anyway, and noting that the four musicians credited on her record are fulltime citizens of Guyville, submit that a female player might shake up the dynamics.

For I also note that of the three other women's bands, PJ Harvey, which consists of Polly Harvey and two guys from Somerset who knew a genius when they saw one, is at once the most accomplished and the most conventional--a blues-based power trio who, like Nirvana, hired critic-bashing former Pazz & Jopper, alternative ideologue, and sexist dweeb Steve Albini to guarantee the hard-edged power-as-integrity they demanded in a followup. Albini's input was pitiless and extreme, and although the device of turning some levels so low that listeners have to choose between not hearing the record or playing it loud is what insiders call a "stupid gimmick," I go along with the consensus that Rid of Me is realer than the 35th-place 4-Track Demos. I prefer it to Belly's Star and the Breeders' Last Splash, too, and not just for its passion--hybrids who recorded before they played out, Belly and the Breeders aren't all there yet musically. Yet live, Star's mystofemmes are postmacho masters of their own pre-Amerindie pastiche, while Last Splash is simply the most outlandish record ever to make our top five. Take as a metaphor the tumble-bumble number-one single "Cannonball," which is either alternative's "Horse With No Name" or the revenge of the shambolic--proof the garage lives creatively, commercially, and in all the erogenous zones in between. Unlike the Pixies or PJ Harvey, the Deal twins don't equate guitars with virtuosity or expressive display, and if they're too messy by me, the voters took their loose ends as proof of a righteous impulse worth loving and rewarding.

And at least Last Splash made the Dean's List--down in the 50s, stranded in a vast expanse of nonfinishers. Where before world-beat and college radio my lists often anticipated the consensus, recently their correspondence to the general wisdom has been random--my first would be the voters' 87th, my fourth their 32nd, my ninth their eighth, my 38th their fourth. This year, however, the pattern was different. Rarely have I concurred so thoroughly on the cream--four of the voters' top eight are in my top seven, nine of their top 17 in my top 18. But not one of the 23 records below that--and only two of a typically varied 41-50 that goes Spinanes, Henry Threadgill, Donald Fagen, Counting Crows, Björk, Mekons, Janet Jackson, Pharcyde, Suede, Velvet Underground--made my year-end A list. Most of the voters' choices were solid and smart, worthy of honor or at least mention; from Dwight Yoakam to Cassandra Wilson, I might have missed a few altogether without the P&J seal of approval. But they're almost all by Yanks. And while the chauvinism wasn't as unremitting as in 1992, when PJ Harvey and Morrissey were the only aliens on our chart, I find the census discouraging: the only non-Americans are Harvey, perennials U2/Sade/Pet Shop Boys, major-label freshpersons Stereolab, and Amsterdam Anglophones Bettie Serveert.

Although under the sexual circumstances I cherished hopes for 62nd-place Zap Mama, this is not a plea for "world music"--most of my African and Caribbean (and Central Asian) finds were strikingly archival. So forget Third World outreach--I would have settled for Anglophilia. Because in this particular year of the woman, I found the oblique genderfucks of the Popinjays and Saint Etienne and the self-contained dream-pop of Ireland's Cranberries and Michigan Anglomorphs His Name Is Alive more pregnant with meaning than the arty variations on womanist expressionism served up by Mann, Siberry, and Me'Shell. When expressionism works it's the shit. Mud-wrestling with chaos, cutting their rage with conscious grotesquery and indignant self-deprecation, Kurt Cobain, Polly Harvey, and Greg Dulli give irony the arm without denying themselves its out. In contrast, crooner-poemwriter concrète Mark Eitzel, one-trick guitar god J Mascis, Music Row status symbol John Hiatt, recovering outlaw Billy Joe Shaver, Oprah volunteer Eddie Vedder, and Prince surrogate Terence Trent D'Arby all express too much, methinks. Yet though their moments rarely become minutes and their minutes never become hours, all have parlayed identifiable styles, discernible smarts, and reliable personas into serious Stateside reps. Meanwhile, a straight U.K. band's gay-identified U.K. record affects a pathos so flamboyant that reasonable people can't stand it--until the songs climb into bed with them. In Britain, Suede wins a Mercury Music Prize. In Rolling Stone, it's "Hype of the Year." And in Pazz & Jop, it finishes 49th--better than it might have, worse than it deserved, and at least it deflected repressed homophobia from the Pet Shop Boys.

Although the shortfall may be random, to me Suede's showing seems emblematic of Amerindie provincialism. With its naturalization of fashion, hype, indirection, androgyny, and Jacques Brel, Brit music culture is now so far removed from America's alternative mindset that the poor guys might as well be performing Bulgarian folk songs. But provincialism begins at home. Were I to kvetch that of the 16 votes for Suede, nine came from New York and California and only two from Middle America, Midwesterners could respond that of the 18 votes for St. Louis fiddle-and-steel band Uncle Tupelo, nine came from Middle America and only four from New York and California. So as with Suede, I'd listen a lot and get it eventually. There's something smartly posthomespun there, though not enough--I'd like more lyrics on the order of "Name me a song that everybody knows/I bet you it belongs to Acuff-Rose." On the other hand, I'm not always so sure what Suede's songs mean either, and if a Minnesotan were to claim that our differences came down to dialect--that camp and falsetto are indigenous to one place, banjo and drawl to another--I'd have trouble mounting a convincing counterargument. As discrete monads segregate themselves into subsubcultures determined by geography and sensibility, battening down the hatches from Compton to Croatia, the fine old liberal myth about music dissolving boundaries is showing its bullshit quotient.

As you might have guessed, it is with rap that segregation becomes most problematic, although this time it may be less characteristic of consumers than critics, with formerly tolerant white worrywarts on one side and populists and rap specialists on the other. Dr. Dre didn't get near the victory some scaredy-cats predicted was his for the drive-by. But having fretted that gangstas were cordoning off their own market niche like the heavy metal kids of yore, I obviously never imagined that The Chronic, a late-'92 album that picked up all of 10 points last year, would finish a triple-platinum sixth in our 1993 poll. Still, Dre's triple-platinum partner in profit Snoop Doggy Dogg was only 52nd, and the tenor of the few progangsta comments suggested considerable support in the fact-of-nature, sound-of-the-streets, and guilty-pleasure categories. And though the tough-talking Latinos of Cypress Hill were 29th, voters generally preferred the alternative: De La Soul, Digable Planets, A Tribe Called Quest, and Me'Shell, all whom explored jazzy beats that signified bohemia as much as they did great black music. I don't exempt myself from this tendency--after a year of prayer and meditation, I've learned to loathe The Chronic. But I much prefer De La's dislocated funk and the Digables' hard-bop hooks to the cocktail-flavored groove of 82nd-place Guru, Me'Shell, even Quest, and would single out for praise the alternative/metal-rap of the 60th-place Judgment Night soundtrack, which attempts to suture cultural lacerations more patient-appropriately.

Dave Marsh leads off the "Gangsta Bitching" section with a typically passionate outburst that's also typically, shall we say, overstated. The facts are these. Between 1988, when It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back announced hip hop's rockist agenda, and 1992, when 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of . . . became our third rap winner in five years, we've averaged two black albums a year in the top five, three in the top 10, and 10 in the top 40. But by "black," I mean "featuring an artist of African descent." This makes sense to me; anyone who doesn't think Vernon Reid or Tracy Chapman is "really" black should try and imagine saying so to their faces. Others might counter, however, that a black album can only be one that attracts a substantial black audience, which also makes sense. Then our black numbers go down, although not that much--unless you want to argue that the black audience for Prince and P.M. Dawn and Arrested Development isn't "black enough." These calculations do get tricky--and risk unseemly racial presumption in the bargain.

We can safely say this much, however: 1993 is the first year that there hasn't been a black album in the top five since 1985, when Artists United Against Apartheid earned only a half. And if we can also project that this will prove an exception rather than a trend, we can nevertheless see why Marsh is so upset. Because make no mistake, bohemia is a trend, from Digable Planets and Me'Shell NdegeOcello to Smashing Pumpkins and Liz Phair. Bohemia is a function of class, a concept that in this context encompasses cultural style as much as gross income; it's hostile to the merely popular in ways both stupid and smart. Marsh, who voted for Pearl Jam as well as Dr. Dre and has always trumpeted working-class taste and rockist expressionism over collegiate exclusivity and pomo irony, hates bohemians for reasons he would argue are fundamentally political, and even those who would beg to differ will grant that politics is hardly a specialty of this year's boho crop. Where in 1992 we heard nonstop propaganda from John Trudell and the Disposable Heroes and heavy protest from Arrested Development, Neneh Cherry, even Sonic Youth and Leonard Cohen, 1993 never gets more ideological than Me'Shell, Digable Planets, and, jeeze, the Pet Shop Boys. For some, this leaves Dr. Dre in the symbolic position of embodying our inarticulate collective rage. I say he's not good enough for the job. In fact, I say he's not angry enough.

Yet however much our women pussyfoot around the four-syllable F-word, however heavy they come down on the inward, they do represent a power shift, and power shifts are what politics is about. It's my (male) belief that the progress this shift will effect is unlikely to nudge, much less dislodge, the entrenched economic interests exploiting gangsta pathology, although it might palliate some symptoms. Nor do I expect international sisterhood to cut into an America-firstism that could get real tedious real soon. And let me note that as a longtime bohemian hanger-on, I'm appalled to witness in one year the returns of Tim Buckley (in the voice of his EP-charting son) and El Topo (a dreadful fillum revived as the dumbest video ever to top our poll). But none of the above is to suggest that Liz Phair represents anything less than a long overdue and exceptionally happy development in an exercise that teaches me something new every year. Male critics said they were waiting for it, and they were. Now they get to find out how much they like the consequences.

Village Voice, Mar. 1, 1994


1992 Critics Poll | Dean's List 1994