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
  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:

The 21st (or 22nd) Annual Pazz & Jop Critics Poll

Hegemony Sez Who?
Does "Alternative Rock" Rule or Rool?

The shoo-in winner of the 21st or 22nd Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll is hardly a shock, except perhaps to those who've declared the nifty little pop band Green Day a sign of the zeitgeist. Most wily young alternacrits had handicapped Hole's Live Through This at No. 1 months ago, and without much to-do about her gender. One reason Liz Phair's status as our first female victor in 19 years was so momentous was that it signaled the very change in rock's sexual politics that renders Courtney Love's status as our second consecutive female victor relatively incidental. Her gender is integral to her appeal--at the core of what she says and how she says it, essential by definition to her descents into the madness of sexism. But it's no longer headline news in a milieu where female artists may finally have achieved a measure of permanent respect. Zeitgeistwise, Love signifies as a bohemian--totally identified with a subculture she scolds, consults, and gives herself up to every time she mounts a stage--before she signifies as a woman. And she also signifies as a widow before she does as a woman. Only I don't really mean widow, I mean FOK, and maybe FOK should come first.

I mean, we got Friends of Kurt all over this poll. We got his wife's breakout at number one, his group's exequy at number four, his Dutch uncle's tribute at number five; we got his new buddy Michael Stipe rediscovering the guitar at three and his replacement love object Trent Reznor superceding the guitar at nine and Seattle's Soundgarden inhabiting their groove at 11 and Seattle's Pearl Jam eyeballing his death mask at 25. We got a singles list featuring five records by the above and a video list featuring three of those. We got a bunch of Pazz & Jop-approved and -unapproved "alternative" albums going multiplatinum, never mind Hole's gold. In short, we got the Nevermind revolution, three years after Nirvana's major-label debut transformed the Amerindie aesthetic into a corporate tool. Alternative doesn't just rool, it rules; it's mass culture, mainstream, hegemonic. Leaving us with not just the eternal question "Alternative to what?" but the brand-new conundrum "Hegemonic sez who?"

On the most obvious level, Pazz & Jop '94 is the triumph of a subculture and a generation--the nationwide postpunk bohemia that has fed into our poll since the early '80s, back when everybody from R.E.M. to the Minutemen were critics' bands. That the triumph is fundamentally symbolic--limited not just to the universe of signs, but to an attempt to quantify quality there--doesn't nullify its sweep. Talk about your blitzkrieg bop. In 1994, Pazz & Jop's politely ecumenical mix of Euro and Afro, Yank and furriner, fart and turk was demolished. This was the sorriest year for black music in Pazz & Jop history: the six black artists in the top 40, one in the top 30, and zero in the top 20 are the fewest since we started counting to 40 in 1979; except for 1978, when there were zero in the top 20 but two in the top 30, they're the fewest ever. The three albums from the British Isles also represent an all-time low, reached just once before. Ambient ethno his specialty, Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure was the sole "world music" finisher as well as one of the six blacks, and he needed help from Ry Cooder, one of just three prepunk survivors to make our list. That's also a record, and at least Ry's only half a ringer: his fellow oldsters are denim-clad Neil "Forever" Young, whose postpunk affinities date to 1979, and basic-black Johnny "Hard" Cash, whose Rick Rubin-masterminded acoustic pseudocountry record impressed young death-trippers worried that a "real" gangsta might beat them up. As in the "real" world, where people buy their records, Cash's support from fans of the Mavericks, the Nashville-massaged nuevo honky-tonkers whose 35th-place ranking was an encouraging anomaly, was random at best.

Don't let my dismay mislead you--as a matter of sheer taste, a judgment of where the musical/cultural action was and wasn't in 1994, I go along with the electoral trend. It was a great year for good new-fashioned guitar-band rock and roll. This was the first time since 1987 when I didn't put a hip hop record or two in my top 10. Ditto for Afropop. In fact, the sole black voice among my favorites was provided by dance diva Heather Small on one of the two Brit albums in my top 40. M People's Elegant Slumming came in an ill-informed 55th with the voters, lower than any other record I gave points to; the other selections in my most critically conventional top 10 in memory finished 1-2-4-10-18-20-21-27-43. The coots on my ballot are Los Lobos spinoff the Latin Playboys, who I assume are in their forties; the mom-and-pop band that is the paradoxically named Sonic Youth, who I know are in their forties; Bob Mould of Sugar, who retreated to the boho enclave of Austin at 34; and Iris DeMent, who at 33 makes a matched Pazz & Jop set with 35-year-old Victoria Williams, two chin-up Southern aunts to balance off sourpusses Young and Cash, although both are young enough to be their sisters (and my daughters). Except for Sugar, all four of these artists were Consumer Guided at an overcautious A minus only to overwhelm me with mature musical command--how rich and right they sounded as waveforms in the air. But it was under-30s like Beck and Hole and Sebadoh and Pavement and most of all Nirvana--as well as such voter favorites as Soundgarden and Green Day and to some extent Pearl Jam and the Beastie Boys--who spoke most compellingly to my sense of history. And in this respect I may well have been hearing them differently from their natural-born fans.

Not one to abjure the comfy emotions of uncledom, I've always taken an indulgent attitude toward Amerindie--ingrates might call it condescending. Over the past decade, postpunk has outproduced even such pleasure-intensive subgenres as rap and Afropop, and in addition it's held out hope for bohemia--for disssenting subcultures where new ways of doing things can be tested. But bohemias are silly and deluded places. Back when my hair was halfway down my back and my Lower East Side apartment cost $45 a month, I scoffed at hippie's insularity, self-righteousness, privilege, and half-assed analysis of the marketplace. And in the postpunk era I've been wont to ask, "Why so glum, chum?" The charges of nihilism endured by young people with nose rings and unusual hair are dumber than the young people themselves, and not just because nihilism is rarer than it's given credit for--in artistic output and personal relations both, alternakids make room for considerable kindness and enough hope, and their bleakest moments tap into a musical energy capable of reversing the negative charge. Often, however, the polarity remains unchanged, leaving only misery and rage, passivity and sloth, willful incoherence and helpless sarcasm, naive cynicism and cheap despair. And even when it does go positive--as with Nirvana above all, or Beck--it's hard for anyone who's spent 30 years watching fucked-up kids get lives not to point out that there are more direct routes from A to B. Growing up hurts. So?

By November, however, I was feeling more simpatico. Partly it was coming to terms with Kurt. Weighing in late, after the bullshit had cleared, I read several books, reimmersed in his catalogue, and got serious with MTV Unplugged, music I had earlier dismissed regretfully as a low-energy holding action turned last will and testament. But although like most live albums this one isn't without redundancies and flat moments, it goes a long way toward establishing Cobain's genius. By singing his opaque lyrics instead of howling them, he shades in his affect, and Nevermind's and In Utero's as well--thus helping well-adjusted optimists like me empathize not just with his pain but with the extravagant alienation that fed off it. And by November, it wasn't just a dead guy making me feel that way. As a left-of-McGovernik electoral skeptic, I don't believe a shift of a few percentage points among lever-pulling registered voters signals a transformation of the national character. But that doesn't mean it isn't frightening to watch editors and pundits leap slavering to that self-fulfilling analysis. It doesn't mean the real-life consequences of the Republican takeover won't be horrific for Americans who can least afford more shit. And it doesn't mean that without Tom Foley to kick around anymore, the nattering nabobs of negativity holding forth on Capitol Hill--not to mention the medium that long ago gave us rock and roll--won't now take out after more genuinely marginal types, "alternative" rock (and "alternative" newspapers) included.

So my November was as shitty as many Pazz & Joppers' April, a disjunction in timing suitable to someone who has long believed rock and roll shouldn't be a religion--that if your life is saved by rock and roll, either it would have been saved anyway or it wasn't only you don't know it yet. Kurt's suicide distressed me, but it didn't surprise me much, and it took the equally unsurprising suicide of America's corporate liberals to traumatize me into feeling it as deeply as my young friends did. Suddenly all the anarchic, discordant records I already considered 1994's best were expressing an inchoate rage that I felt. Suddenly the loopy jokes, bitter asides, and free dissociations of Beck and Cobain made perverse sense. Suddenly all that angst and confusion and cynicism and despair felt like part of my daily life.

The under-35 Amerindie natives who now constitute our largest voting bloc rarely fret so about personal identification. Although some alternacrits look back wistfully to when they could fairly be characterized as under-30, even under-25, for them--and for most of today's rock criticism audience, even in this historically hyperconscious, culturally catholic periodical--discordant-to-anarchic guitars are the world. Many respondents delightedly or defiantly or dutifully or desperately broaden their aural perspectives, and only a few are so ignorant or intolerant that they never venture out of the compound. But whatever smorgasbord of hip hop and funk and jazz and r&b and classical and pop and blues and country and dance and trance and African and Hispanic and Asian (and lounge?) they sample, guitar bands of a certain scruffiness remain their staple diet. For 10 or 15 years these critics' lives have revolved around clubs, shops, and radio stations that specialize in such bands, and far from finding the musical language limited, they suspect, more as a habit of thought than a tenet of faith, that it can be adapted to any meaning worth expressing, any need worth satisfying--at least any meaning or need that interests them.

I don't want to overstate how narrow this world is. Many alternative-identified voters--although too separated from each other (and probably their faculties) to comprise any counterconsensus--would find our top 40 hopelessly pop, slick, unindie, etc. Anyway, discordance is a dinosaur-era tradition--cf. Neil Young, cf. Soundgarden, cf. even pomo scam artist Jon Spencer--that remains discreet in such new singer-songwriters as Liz Phair and Kristin Hersh and to a lesser extent the postmodern folkie Beck and to a greater extent the premodern folkie Johnny Cash and to any extent you care to calibrate the eternal folkie Jeff Buckley, and just about inaudible in such alternative-by-association singer-songwriters as Freedy Johnston and Victoria Williams. Moreover, while such finishers as industrialist Nine Inch Nails and rap-derived Beastie Boys and demo-hawking Magnetic Fields and pop-ambient Portishead and fiddler-engineer Lisa Germano and music therapist K. McCarty and gosh-jazzlike Soul Coughing all utilize guitar sounds, not one made a true guitar-band record. So there's variety aplenty on our list. Even if Nine Inch Nails and Portishead are both technoid, one's as assaultive as Archie Shepp, the other as soothing as the MJQ. Even if Pavement and Pearl Jam are both guitar-driven, one's as cool as Sade, the other as corny as Mariah Carey. And even if Michael Stipe and Courtney Love are both politically outspoken FOKs, one will settle for a cup of coffee while the other wants the most cake.

So, OK, I'm being fair, right? And remember, I said this was a great year for loud guitar bands, got off on most of the faves myself. Yet seven of our top 12--Hole, Pavement, R.E.M., (the admittedly unplugged) Nirvana, Guided by Voices, Soundgarden, and Green Day, with Young and Beck and Nine Inch Nails this close sonically and lucky sophomore Liz Phair not all that far away (which in case you've lost count leaves Uncle Johnny standing alone with his unwhine and his hand-powered axe)--somehow seems too uniform. It's exclusionary, myopic; it can't last, it won't last, and even though it vindicates all of us (not just Amerindie natives but their older supporters) who've been fending off rock-is-dead rumors for as long as we can remember (would you believe 1969?), I don't want it to last. Gratified though I am by how my favorites placed, that's all the more reason for me to suspect that this year my dissents from the consensus aren't just nitpicks, judgment calls, and specialized pleasures.

For starters, there's the critics' hype and fantasy of the year, Guided by Voices: nerd concocts obscure hookfests in basement, transmutes magically into Michael J. Fox onstage. And hey, he's almost old besides, just barely under-35, plus he has a real job. (Let me here give thanks that my fourth-grader is taught by someone who loves her job rather than Robert Pollard, who has bigger dreams. At least Courtney limits her ministrations to her own kid.) Then there are the mainstream hypes: Big Jawn, who'll capitalize by collaborating with the Dust Brothers on the vinyl-prereleased Outlaw Rap, and Ms. Liz, lavishly forgiven for producing a barely adequate follow-up instead of an unmistakable sophomore stiff. There's the future presaged by the least enthusiastic EP list in poll history--the 1994 album by the Pizzicato Five, who with 15 EP mentions would have been fifth in 1993, finished below 140. There's a 41-50 list where "alternative" continues to wield an iron hand: Veruca Salt, American Music Club, Sonic Youth, L7, Pretenders, Richard Thompson, Jack Logan, Seal, Seefeel, Wu-Tang Clan. There's the disgraceful shortfall of the noisebringers of 1987, Sonic Youth (43rd) and Public Enemy (60th), perennials who elaborated their innovations with something very much like wisdom in 1994 and were counted old and in the way by voters whose tradition of the new makes them semiofficial biz interns, chain-gang volunteers shoveling bands into buzz bins. And there's the collective point inflation of Phair, Kristin Hersh, Luscious Jackson, Lisa Germano, and the less female-identified K. McCarty, which suggests to my obviously nonfemale ears an electorate that considers gender solidarity (by men as well as women) a suitable substitute for full-service politics.

I do more or less exempt Hole from this charge. Live Through This's punk song sense, screechy lyricism, and all-around voracity would have taken it top five if Kurt had given up music to become a narcotics agent. Still, I note that Courtney could be the second straight winner to make girls who don't know any better think twice about the perils of feminism. Liz Phair didn't "sell out," children, but she sure did "freak out," as we used to say, so you have to wonder when the far crazier Courtney's far more stressful bout of fame will simply waste her, to the relief of the fools who find her bad personality and lust for attention distasteful when in fact they're her skillfully orchestrated aesthetic ground. I'm not asking Courtney over for dinner, but I am rooting for her, because I think she's smart (and lustful) enough to make a great record, not just a fortuitously timed very good one--a record that bounced around the bottom of my top 12 along with five other guitar albums, landing higher than it probably deserved. Which is to admit that I don't entirely exempt Hole from suspicions of special-interest support. But it's OK, really--since one proof of Nirvana's greatness was the spontaneous antisexism of its ordinary-joe apotheosis, it's only natural that girls in Nirvana's wake should get extra credit for being girls. Unfortunately, this doesn't help me hear their records. With Hersh especially the disconnection may be personal--I've never gotten Laura Nyro, but I grant others their response to her emotionalism. With Luscious Jackson, however, I'm positive there's not much there, because I wish it was, and so feel certain they're being rewarded for their (theoretically) funky agape as Veruca Salt are passed over for their cynicism or calculation or something--which I find inaudible, and isn't it the stuff you can hear that matters in the end?

Given my feelings in the Veruca Salt matter, which inspired water-balloon attacks and even food fights in a community you'd think had more important things to argue about, I'm relieved the critics had enough fun in them to select "Seether" their No. 2 single, behind the song of the year, Beck's "Loser." And there were plenty of titles not on top-40 albums in the lower reaches of that list, which is always a sign of health--of voters actively enjoying records with a life of their own. Seven of the top 10, however, were from top-40 albums, the most since 1986. Worse still for pluralists, six of these came from "alternative" albums in the top 15 and only two didn't score as videos. Worse than that, the five rap singles were the fewest since 1987, and only one of what might loosely be called the three dance records, Crystal Waters's "100% Pure Love," could also be called a club record.

I assume these patterns aren't permanent, but they worry me. In the techno era, dance music has become such a DJ's medium that hits no longer cross over automatically--you have to seek them out, which can seem like one of the seven labors of Lester Bangs in a market predicated on mastermixing, exoticism, and disposability. As for what any critic worth his or her baseball cap now calls hip hop, Touré's unapology (headed "Skills, Son") speaks for itself. I'm enough of an East Coast chauvinist to give props to several of his designated aesthetic milestones; at his behest I'm reconsidering Wu-Tang, and nonspecialist though I be, I could always hear the art in Jeru and Nas (with the proviso that Nas's music is in his rhyming/rapping). But the questions Touré barely thinks to ask are precisely those so many more-alternative-than-thous consider beneath them. Why should anyone outside the hip hop community care? And isn't the failure to induce outsiders to care an artistic flaw in itself? In a culture of overproduction, skills aren't all that hard to come by.

It's true that the core audience for albums like Illmatic and The Sun Rises in the East seems economically self-sustaining, and it's undeniable that hip hoppers are historically justified in paying small mind to outsiders--if not the large number of African American music lovers with no interest in Jeru's subtly disquieting beats, certainly white pleasure-seekers. As the American apartheid rap prophets ranted about becomes a malignancy so virulent I won't waste space on the exceptions, racial separatism--deliberate or de facto, power play or default position--becomes ever more inescapable in hip hop. Not to respect the impulse is to give too much slack to the racism it reacts against. But it has to trouble integrationists--because we don't like being left out, sure, but also because it seems short-sighted. It's not just that uncommitted fans who are given an, er, alternative will probably pass on spare purist beats yoked to in-crowd rhymes--hip hop that rejects pop music and pop imagery. It's that there's no guarantee the larger black audience will provide sustenance once somebody comes up with a more reassuring and legible option. One thing that can be said for Pazz & Jop's alternarockers, including the dubious ones, is that as heirs of the dominant culture they know how to make themselves legible. A hip hopper or anyone else could be forgiven for confusing K. McCarty and Lisa Germano at a distance, but in sound and sense, the distinctions between them are still broader than the quite real distinctions that differentiate Nas and Jeru.

What's more, this counts for something. Pazz & Jop rewards legibility--pop hooks, pop success--and that's as it should be. Of course it's about aesthetics, about the enduring satisfaction experienced listeners find in their records. And right, surface meanings don't endure as reliably as the stuff you can hear. But one way or another this is still pop music, and for most of us, sharing its outreach validates and enriches its satisfactions. The belated Nirvana revolution produced broad-based sales on a scale that was only a projection in 1991. It sweeps into prominence one- (or two-) hit platinum (or multiplatinum) wonders like Weezer and Offspring (two album mentions each) as well as non-Billboard 200 critics' choices like Sebadoh and Guided by Voices. And if it's a trifle giddy in its self-regard, its landslide here was assured as much by generalists swept away by a cresting subgenre as by the Amerindie bloc. Even at that, had our electorate been approximately 15 per cent African American, as were our invitees, rather than 8 per cent, which is what we got back, we would have gotten a more useful overview of the nation's hip hop succés d'estimes. My guess: baby gangsta Warren G still on top, Wu-Tang a finisher, Biggie Smalls well up from 68, Public Enemy and the Digables (and Jeru) holding if they're lucky.

Generalizing about blocs is tricky--most African American critics, for instance, are not hip hop specialists (and many who are don't credit our vote any more than the government's). Still, I'm struck by the third-place reissue--Bar/None's Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music, by '60s Mexican pop-mewzick orchestrator Esquivel. Esquivel is a wild-eared kitschmeister whose vogue is generational--over-40s won't give him try two because he reminds them of the hi-fi pap their parents used to drive them out of the rec room with. But beyond pomo's weakness for anticanonical nose-tweaking, his demographic edge was Bar/None's mailing list, which reaches lots of youngsters who may not see a free reissue all year. No matter how shrewd you are at the used-CD store, you can only vote for records you hear; a slab of world-historical genius like the Louis Armstrong box made 34 ballots instead of 150 because no more than (a wild guess) 60 respondents were serviced with it. And that isn't just because publicists are chintzy with big-ticket packages--it's because many voters receive only "alternative" product, if that, from the major labels. As rock history expands in every direction, it's damn near impossible to become a young generalist, and the majors, for whom 'zines and local weeklies are an adjunct of the boutique marketing that now complements all blockbuster strategies, don't care if they make things worse--specialists are ideal chain-gang fodder. For somebody so balmy as to still believe in criticism, this is tragic. I'd like to think that, given the chance, many young crits would find Slim Gaillard (eight votes, not bad considering) pretty anticanonical. Unlike Esquivel, he means to be funny.

Of course, that's assuming young alternacrits want to become generalists. In fact, most of them can't be bothered, especially when it comes to contemporary pop, defined by purists as what happens when a record on Matador is distributed by Atlantic and by triumphalists as the shallow stuff dumb people buy instead of Guided by Voices, Johnny Cash, Tall Dwarfs, or Anal Cunt. And to me insularity on this scale looks suspiciously like a species of, well, suicide. Hegemonic sez who? In the world where people buy their records, our assembled tastemakers' landslide is merely a thriving pop-music taste culture. My hope is that--like alternacheerleader Renée Crist (see "Fun Matters"), who's probably too openhearted to be typical--alternacrits and the subculture they represent are intelligent enough to put out a few feelers when the truism that it can't last hits home as truth. My fear is that a taste of power will put the kibosh on whatever chance the alternarock bohemia had of not ending up yet another self-contained enclave in a balkanized Amerikkka where one citizen in eight now pays a community association to police the streets.

The strangest thing about our national-election commentary this year is that with a few notable exceptions there wasn't any--especially from alternacrits, who had plenty to say about Courtney's flawed feminism, who's really punk, and whether Minty Fresh is a Geffen front. The mood I sense is that Washington is them, alternarock is us, and let's hope the twain never meet, because we've now got a big enough piece of the pie to feed us in perpetuity. Not the whole pie, even in music-biz terms, not actual hegemony, but we're not greedy. As indicated, I think this is deluded. Since the right-wing agenda is as much cultural as economic, a reaction to everything "the '60s" are thought to have done to this happy land, direct attacks on weirdos correctly perceived as modern hippies are inevitable once hippie sellouts like Bill'n'Hill are out of the way--that is, yesterday. If alternarock should prove more a fad than seems likely, our piece of pie will shrink pronto. And while alternarock had developed a solid infrastructure well before the big boys started throwing money at it, key components of that infrastructure are now in peril--left-of-the-dial radio, college loans, relatively humane public-service jobs, and the whole edifice of middle-class leisure on which slackerdom is based. But why fool around? The main reason alternarock separatism bothers me is that I think it's wrong. It isn't just intellectually bankrupt for critics to ignore or dismiss music that doesn't fall into their laps--by which I mean not yet more indie obscurities but hip hop, dance music, straight pop, and, increasingly, a canon that ought to be understood before it's rejected or reconfigured. It's also morally weak. So there.

I say this in full confidence that some will ponder and others jeer, and I'm Dutch uncle enough to believe both responses are healthy. We always need young jerks pumping obscurities no matter how useless 95 per cent of them are. For years I've been grousing about the ideology now dubbed lo-fi--the notion that poorly engineered records are aesthetically and spiritually superior to ones where you can hear separate instruments and make out some of the words. One of my problems with Live Through This, in fact, is that I suspect it shortchanges Hole's guitar sound--Courtney's singing is lo-fi enough on its own. And one reason I love MTV Unplugged in New York is that I can hear Kurt's every creak. But as it turns out, my three favorite 1994 albums deploy the lo-fi idea instead of falling for it. Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star cuts the modest gloss of Dirty and Goo with a textured evocation of where Sonic Youth are going and where they've been. Mellow Gold uses sounds of vastly disparate purity to create a convincing neorealist environment for Beck's best-recorded and best recorded songs. And the Latin Playboys--David Hidalgo, Louie Pérez, Mitchell Froom, and Tchad Blake, whose big statements on Kiko I found sententious, cautious, and, well, overproduced--construct dream music that reveals ambient techno for the cerebrum trip it is. Without considering content or zeitgeist, I made Latin Playboys my No. 1 because it was the most beautiful record I'd heard in years. But in a separatist year when this nation's ample xenophobia has come down hardest of all on California's Hispanics, maybe it has more to teach than I thought. Sure reaching out and touching somebody is a corporate hype. But like "alternative rock," that ain't all it is.

Village Voice, Feb. 28, 1995


1993 Critics Poll | Dean's List 1995