Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Carola Dibbell
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Trying to Be Nice

Every fall I teach a course called Non-Fiction Writing at NYU, and although I'd prefer to force these kids to engage with the outside world, many find this prospect so daunting that instead they end up describing what they know best--their own lives. And almost always the men are stupider about the opposite sex than the women--with stupid often a polite word for cruel. In general, the men have unreasonable expectations and the women don't; the men take their disappointments out on the women and the women cope until they can't stand it anymore. At times I just want to shake some putatively cocky and/or sincere young fool until he gets real: "Sure, you're just looking for the right girl. Of course, it's what's under the surface that counts. Right, they never give you a straight answer. Got any more?" And never mind how at age 20 I broke up with the love of my life on grounds of insufficient resemblance to Jeanne Moreau.

What got me thinking about this was "Too Jung," by an obscure English group called the Popinjays. The refrain reads "Too jung stupid and shy," and maybe the misspelling is a pun about archetypes, just as the album title, Flying Down to Mono Valley (Epic/One Little Indian), could be a pun about monogamy, especially given the inset photo of the graying anniversary-cake couple with two tots soaring over their heads in toy aeroplanes. It's hard to say, though; except for the lyrics, the booklet reveals almost nothing, including who's in the band, which I know from the bio is led by singer-lyricist-spokesperson Wendy Robinson and guitarist-cowriter Polly Hancock. From the bio I assume there are guys on the record too: "Before there were three girls in the band, and we kind of got labeled as this fluffy, pink girly-pop, lightweight throwaway stuff, and that made us really angry, because we're not airheads." But this is England, where artifice rools, so in a sense the dearth of facts speaks for itself. What we have here is a pop group with a capital P, as in Popinjays. Read into them what you will.

I love that quote, starting with Robinson's unselfconscious (or so it would seem) use of girls, a word I took pains to avoid in the first graf. We go through this every term in my course; a guy calls a woman a girl, and I ask for a show of hands from the female students, and some object and some don't. Several years it's even turned out that most of the women prefer girl in their own work. Which just goes to show the limited reach of feminist propriety, at least among the second-generation upwardly mobiles who dominate NYU--and who also dominate the gradually burgeoning ranks of female creators in indie/alternative rock and roll. Though one would expect increased political awareness in a bohemian enclave, rock and rollers have never shown much inclination to toe that line--not with riot grrrls the music's indigenous feminist vanguard. And the Popinjays suggest how extreme the riot grrrls are. Even in rock and roll, most women still try to be nice, and since most of them are heterosexual, that means trying to be nice to men. Which ain't easy.

It isn't just the Popinjays, of course. For every angry woman, for every L7 or PJ Harvey, there seem to be half a dozen bands/artists like, to list a few I've been bearing down on (while leaving out ambiguous cases like Liz Phair and Fastbacks and the Cranes and His Name Is Alive), the Sundays or the Darling Buds or Belly or the Breeders or Lois or Juliana Hatfield or Bettie Serveert or Tiger Trap or Madder Rose or Velocity Girl. Although most of these names are familiar enough as alternative goes, don't get nervous if you have trouble placing them--there are more important things in life. The first two are British, the first four are on majors; more than half work the old frontwoman-plus-backup-guys format, all pursue distinct visions regardless, all but a few are at least OK. And not even the most clearly talented--Belly, a dynamite live band fighting earth-mother undertow, and alternative love-slave Hatfield, who hasn't approached the confident focus of Sunburn since she left the Blake Babies--say as much as the Popinjays about how hard it is to be nice.

The one exception, if the Safari EP is a foretaste rather than a shot in the dark, might be Kim Deal's Breeders, and wouldn't you know it--in both the Popinjays and the Breeders, women have it over backup guys. But what puts the Popinjays over is their commitment to artifice. At a moment when making nice music that doesn't sound escapist is as impossible as making interesting music about a happy marriage, a little extra form comes in handy. In the Popinjays' case, the form is trad, almost back-to-mono. Sometimes rockin', sometimes dreamy, their vocals and arrangements are clear and bright and forceful, with touches of choral gloss and roller-coaster keyb; where a wan song band like the Sundays covers Jagger-Richards's "Wild Horses," they choose Mann-Weil's "It's Getting Better." Funny thing is, no matter how fluffy and pink they sound, the old song is the only time things work out. Otherwise they specialize in tales of everyday betrayal--of being manipulated, saying the wrong thing, somehow falling short. "If the world could bring me you now/(So good)/I'll be you and you be me now/(No good)." "Please stop me from speaking/Before I spoil it again." "Too transparent foolish me/I showed you more than you could see." And most tellingly, "She was a woman like all other women,/She married a man just the same./Then they had children like all other children/And soon it rained all day."

Dreaming is a motif, only don't tell Dr. Jung that the dream is always denied, by the man on the other side of the song or the cold light of day--usually on this record the woman loses, which you can call defeatist and I prefer to regard as realism. She may lose, but she's far from a pure victim, because she has her music to lay open the rules of the game. And a few times she comes out ahead. In one kind of victory, she's "safely on [her] way" to a place where "I don't have to wonder why/I wonder why." In another she asks indignantly: "Did you really think that you could get what you wanted/with that smile and a frown?" And in the blithe "Too Jung," she consults an expert, not merely another man but a friend of his, who agrees with her analysis: "You like to win the game/and if you lose then that will be the end of me." The denouement? "I need something new/and your friend seems like a good place to start./He says he feels the same as me/and we laughed at how upset you'd be." I know she'd be better off discovering sisterhood, but how do you know she hasn't? It's a wicked little ditty--you have to concentrate to hear beneath the pink, pop, trad surface. Girls, women, chicks--they never give you a straight answer. Heh heh.

But in fact Wendy Robinson doesn't know what a crooked answer is--not compared to Saint Etienne. All they would seem to share with the Popinjays is that both are English studio concoctions with a woman up front. Big deal if they profess fealty to Phil Spector--not even Saint Phil, who favored singers with rather more oomph than Sarah Cracknell, buried his tunes this deep. Saint Etienne's roots in the 98-bpm pretechno dance movement means their pop is strictly futuristic, classic English not-rock, and their debut album, Foxbase Alpha, remains a hodgepodge of vaguely interesting ideas with pretensions to not being pretentious. Nevertheless, the first song on So Tough (Warner Bros.) sucked me in. This sweet, slow, flute-and-violin-accompanied electrodance track, set "Tuesday morning 10 a.m." in a Kentish Town cafe, turns out to be a deeply affectionate evocation of a female pop fan's world: "Everyone's dreaming of all they've got to live for/Joking around still digging that sound." When the second cut reminded me of nothing so much as Brian Eno's "Sky Saw," I decided the album might be worth sticking with, and after a while the textures and their hidden tunes got me.

Music is foregrounded here, and almost all of it comes from two male pop intellectuals languidly manipulating synths and samplers. Cracknell's quiet lyricism is just part of the mix. But one of the two compositions she had a hand in has the nakedest melody on the album as well as one of the few lyrics to address a boy-girl theme. "You're in a Bad Way" doesn't just try to be nice. It's the most abject offer of succor since Dusty Springfield's "Breakfast in Bed": "Just dial my number/I've got some plans for you/You're in a bad way/And I can help you through." The difference, and it's a big one, is that Cracknell isn't out to catch a rebound--she means to deliver her lost-in-London beau ideal from anomie and a bad fashion sense, not the depredations of another woman. But though the fact that his "hair's all wrong" gives a glimmer of hope for this relationship, that "help you through" bespeaks a nice girl who's been down this sad road before. Unless, of course, she doesn't want a "relationship" at all--unless she has not the slightest intention of being a woman like all other women and marrying a man just the same.

I'd be a rockist fool to pretend to pin down a group like Saint Etienne, for whom obliqueness is all. Unlike Wendy Robinson, Cracknell projects no persona; she's a chameleon, a willing mouthpiece, an aural presence whispering, "Close your eyes/Kiss the future/Junk the morgue." But the way her all-purpose pomo receptivity melds into the impressionistic pastiche leaves her open to infinite interpretation, and I prefer to hear her as a somewhat more privileged Wendy Robinson evolved along a different path. Robinson's music is trad because she hasn't given up on, or can't escape the pull of, trad's romantic dreams; Cracknell's is futuristic because she's left that behind. A fan full of hope at the start, by the end she's remixing a single called "Join Our Club." It's about a fan club, but not one she belongs to--it's Saint Etienne's.

For too-nice-with-teeth Wendy Robinson, pop is a means of provisional empowerment. For nicer-from-a-distance Sarah Cracknell, it's a solution. But there's a problem with that--in the cold light of day, pop is never a solution.

Village Voice, June 15, 1993