Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Carola Dibbell
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Jesus, Jews, and the Jackass Theory

Unchic, fresh-faced, impossible to read classwise beyond student/boho/B-boy, the fans who greeted the '90s in the dank Avenue C grandeur of the World were as racially integrated as any rock audience I've ever seen--50-50 black-white plus a few Latinos and more Asians, with interracial groups and couples common. The date-night crowd broke down 50-50 male-female too, and made just enough New Year's whoopee to generate an infectious bonhomie. Whenever an anonymous voice would interrupt the dance records nobody was dancing to to try to stoke the PE fever already in effect, there'd be mild cheers followed by more patient joshing around. As 12:30 inched toward 1:30 and then 2, however, some traditional rock restiveness surfaced. "BULLSHIT, BULLSHIT," "SHUT THE FUCK UP," "WE WANT PUB-LIC N-M-E," a few (mostly white) fans chanted. But when Flavor Flav yelled "Happy motherfuckin' New Year," any lingering fears inspired by the group's abortive PBS/South Africa benefit disappeared. Public Enemy lives. It's even possible, as they insisted more than once, that they are family.

Live rap often risks consumer fraud, but PE has some moves--check Chuck D.'s prophetic rage and Flav's perpetual motion on the smartly gimmicked Fight the Power Live video. And though they hadn't gigged since the summer, what kept them from tearing the roof off the World was speeches, 20 or 25 minutes worth in an 80-minute set, plus maybe the late start--rockstar power-tripping for a crowd that wasn't buying any. The music per se was hype, def; it rocked. "Black Steel," "Baseheads," "Bring the Noise," and "Don't Believe the Hype" were riveting aural overkill in hectic motion, with Chuck racing cross-country with the beat like Jim Brown pursued by the Great Satan, a pace that didn't daunt the (mostly black) fans who followed him word for word from the moment he lit up the just-released 12-inch "Welcome to the Terrordome." But "Terrordome" was the only preview of Fear of a Black Planet, now promised for late February. So the sense of historical urgency that must always underpin Public Enemy's musical urgency was left to the oratory.

A keyword was "controversy," the band's (especially Flav's) favored euphemism for the shitstorm they've inhabited since last May, when Minister of Information Professor Griff spewed anti-Semitic canards into the tape recorder of black Washington Times reporter David Mills. For weeks Griff's status and the group's very existence were day-to-day. New Year's Eve, Griff--who, dressed with the rectitude of a Muslim at the mosque, allowed as how he wasn't the "partyin' type"--opened the festivities. He announced another album due in February, from the misogynist free-speech advocates at Miami's Luke Skyywalker Records: Pawns in the Game, by Professor Griff and the Last Asiatic Disciples. After warning that "the U.S. government got some shit comin' for both black people and white people"--an AIDS plot, apparently--and pointing a finger at "the superrich," he told the whites in the audience: "Griff is not your enemy." And he responded to the angry scrutiny "Terrordome" has excited in the New York press: "You weigh and judge it for yourself. Deal with the lyrics yourself. You think for your goddamn self."

Media devil that I am, I will of course deal with the lyrics myself. But first I'll sneak in something about the music, which would have made "Terrordome" an item even if Chuck had had the decency to cut it four lines. Not since Hank Shocklee and friends redefined rap with the thick allusions and police-siren sonics of "Bring the Noise" has the group achieved anything so striking, and the big advance belongs to Chuck, whose agile phrasing--he shifts angles three times in the 12 words of "What I got better get some get on up/Hustler of culture"--tempers the PE hardbeats with almost jazzy fluidity. Where the sloganeering "Fight the Power" goes on for a mere three-and-a-half minutes before breaking into its James Brown coda, "Terrordome" lasts a dense, unrepetitive 5:27, over a hundred lines of personal mythologizing. Chuck has claimed the Griff crisis energized him artistically, and for once he wasn't bullshitting.

Controversy aside, however, none of this makes "Terrordome" a better record than "Fight the Power"; its more obscure references smell of rockstar insularity, a cross between "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and "Almost Cut My Hair." Because it's clearer, even "Don't Believe the Hype" is a more effective transformation of self-promotion into PE's black-youth-as-public-enemy social metaphor. A lot of "Terrordome"'s verbiage connects--Chuck is at least as gifted a poet as, to pick a name out of this hat here, Clash-era Joe Strummer--but too much of it is incomprehensible except to insiders, and the big man's most generous moments, which he needs for mental health, are his simplest: "My home is your home," "Move as a team, never move alone," or, most effective, "God bless your soul and keep livin'." He's right to argue that the song is far more critical of blacks than of whites or Jews or even the hated media. But the first black criticized would appear to be David Mills, and to go from Mills's whistle-blowing to Malcolm X's assassination is rank, self-pitying bullshit. However mixed Mills's motives, he caught Griff in slanders that were intolerable--slanders Chuck himself has labeled "offensive" and even "racist" (though never "anti-Semitic") in his more measured moments.

And now, however much the tortuous moralism of the "Terrordome" controversy overstates the case and exacerbates underlying problems, Chuck has been caught in a comparable if less grave offense. Not with "Told the rab get off the rag," not unless you're so up in arms you think "rab" is an ethnic slur--by locating the rabbi in question at the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, Newsday's Wayne Robins inadvertently establishes that the line is not directed at a group. But "Crucifixion ain't no fiction/So-called chosen frozen/Apologies made to whoever pleases/Still they got me like Jesus" wins the prize--even if Chuck believes the media crucified him and thinks "chosen" disses the Nation of Islam too and knows the Romans killed Jesus, even if the poor ignorant mother is only dimly aware that for more than a millennium anti-Semites have whipped up fear and loathing by charging Jews with the death of Christ. The syntax leaves him some outs, but the brute juxtaposition does all the damage that's necessary, forever associating Jews with deicide in the mind of every fan who knows his lyrics by heart. And if, as I suspect, Chuck wrote the lines without much thought and stuck by them mainly because he'd been told he couldn't--as one associate observed, "Essentially it boils down to a macho thing with him"--that just makes the offense worse. When you set yourself up as a political icon, you assume responsibility for the consequences of your actions. If, as Chuck said about Griff last June, "You can't talk about attacking racism and be racist," you obviously can't defame and endanger a whole class of people to prove you're a big man, either.

But the hard question isn't whether "Terrordome" is anti-Semitic--it's whether that's the end of the story. I know both blacks and Jews who pooh-pooh the controversy largely (I think) because they believe overt anti-Semitism in Public Enemy's art per se has to be the last straw, and for many of the group's erstwhile sympathizers it clearly is. So now, having alienated readers who believe (reasonably) that the attacks on Public Enemy are inspired more by fear of a radicalized black youth and planet than by any impartial commitment to justice or (much less reasonably) that anti-Semitism gets too much press, I will alienate those who believe (reasonably) that neither leftists nor blacks take anti-Semitism seriously enough or (much less reasonably) that leftists will let blacks get away with anything. First by emphasizing that Chuck's offense is indeed indirect, allusive--he may be spreading anti-Semitism, but he's not advocating it; "Terrordome" is nowhere near as virulent as Guns N' Roses' "One in a Million," which even now has attracted far less opprobrium. And second by stating the painfully obvious: for any American leftist--not least a white male goyische leftist with immense debts to both blacks and Jews (and that means every one of us)--there is no contradiction more frustrating and tragic than black anti-Semitism. Of course, the only reason Jewish racism doesn't seem equally frustrating and tragic from a left perspective is that most Jewish racists have moved permanently outside any conceivable left consensus (though unlike the rest of white racism, Jewish racism at least counts as a contradiction--that's how much Jews mean to the American left). And even worse, one of the most frustrating and tragic aspects of black anti-Semitism is that it's understandable--not in any way justifiable, but understandable.

Oh God. It feels shitty sitting here, moralizing tortuously, exacerbating underlying problems, knowing that no even-handed analysis is possible in the minds of either side. Not as shitty as living a life hemmed in by prejudice, I'm sure, but shitty enough. How can I expect to explain why I think black anti-Semitism is understandable (affluence, the myth of the media, landlords, Zionism and the Arabs, Israel and South Africa, competing holocausts, but every topic demands paragraphs, essays, books) in what's supposed to be a music piece? All I can do is throw up my hands against the inevitable crossfire and return to my review. Because if you'll remember there was a concert in progress. And though I had already reached my verdict on "Welcome to the Terrordome," I wanted to know what was going to happen next--not because I was on assignment but because Public Enemy still mattered to me. And why shouldn't they? Not only are they the most innovative popular musicians in America if not the world, they're the most politically ambitious. Not even in the heyday of the aforementioned Clash has any group come so close to the elusive and perhaps ridiculous '60s rock ideal of raising political consciousness with music. However mixed their motives, they have actually instigated a species of leftish Afrocentrism among kids who three years ago thought gold chains were dope.

And so I listened to Chuck's speeches--each preceded by the claim that he didn't want to give a lot of speeches--and was not surprised to find much of what he said simplistic and some of it a little scary. This was a man who thought it cool to try and be more unpopular than Jesus now. Of course he dissed the schools (what could we expect of institutions founded to help "WASP landowners' sons" consolidate their power?) and journalism ("the media collectively is a devil") and Elvis (has Chuck ever indicated on what evidence beyond that of "redneck" origins he bases "Straight-out racist the sucker was simple and plain"?) and the American flag (as a white fan burned one, Flav drunkenly intoned, "I pledge allegiance to my dick, and to the pussy for which it stands"). But the scary stuff was the talk about being "first-world" rather than "third-world," later fleshed out with the phony statistic that only 8 per cent of the Earth's population is white--anybody who takes anti-Semitism seriously knows enough to fear majoritarianism in any form. But it's always reassuring to hear "capitalism" used as a dirty word. And toward the end there was something called the Jackass Theory--"Just Acting Caucasian Kills a Simple Solution"--that Peter Watrous got all wrong in his Times review. Chuck's pronunciamento wasn't about "blacks who `act white'"--it was his promise that the day whites look at themselves as human beings, rather than as whites, was "the day we'll let a little bit of our black nationalist pride slip." This I found unthreatening and well-put, because like Chuck, I believe that "white world cultural supremacy is not good." Guess I'll let blacks get away with anything.

Right--me and all those fresh-faced students/bohos who'd been chanting "BULLSHIT BULLSHIT" two hours before. Because somehow, there I was in the same old rock-dream time-warp, taking in a talented egomaniac's radical rhetoric with an audience I liked more than I liked him. Rap shows at the World are notorious for drawing an element, to use a term making a fishy comeback. But though five different people of three different races were curious as to why I was taking notes, the only hint of racial hostility I experienced, observed, or heard tell of was a baleful glance when I heckled Griff. Past disappointments teach us not to feel much confidence that what happened in the concert hall will have permanent ramifications in the real world, and Chuck is certainly more an icon than a politician--entertainment is what he was born for. But the Public Enemy controversy is obviously the Jesse Jackson controversy in miniature, reflecting all the anxiety that accrues when leadership in what miserable tatters remain of a viable American left passes out of the hands of well-meaning white people. I don't think "Hymietown" was a meaningless slip of the tongue any more than "so-called chosen frozen." Nor do I think Jesse has altogether transcended it. Does that mean his story ends there?

With a bare modicum of wisdom or consistency all you can expect of politicians, it's a loser's game to put your world-historical hopes in entertainer-icons. All you can do is pray they offer some sustaining possibility or pleasure. To cop the title of Jack Thompson's Swellsville screed on Griff, Frith, and the postpomo dilemma, don't go looking for the perfect Public Enemy. "Terrordome" as a totality and the audience gathered to greet it convince me that Chuck D. does more good than that. So as a well-meaning white person who can't (and wouldn't) be anything else, I continue to extend my vigilantly critical support. I don't like that phrase either--it's too stuffy, too tortuous. But in a world we never made, bullshit is something none of us can avoid.

Village Voice, Jan. 16, 1990