Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Classic Rock

book cover

Note: This was a point-counterpoint with Julian Dibbell. Christgau's piece was the counter and carried this note: "Village Voice senior editor Robert Christgau, forty-nine [in 1991], has been a rock critic since 1967. He is Julian Dibbell's uncle."

No no no, you've got it all wrong. Kids today, jeez. It's like we used to say--never trust anyone under 30. (Wasn't that it?)

I know classic rock isn't the issue, exactly. In its orthodox form, classic rock is for people who aren't quite as cool as Joe and Jo College--people who may go to college, but who don't go away to college, if you catch my drift. Yet somehow classic rock seems like the key concept here: art that's stood the test of time, as my professors used to put it. And although it would be foolish to claim that critics created this concept--the buying audience has never taken us that seriously--we certainly collaborated in establishing the canon. For if the early rock critics were more enamored of Chuck Berry than the typical progressive jock, and also more receptive to punk than any population group this side of SoHo, we did play the game of vaunting our "generation"'s "artistic achievement." We celebrated pop flux, insisting--despite our distaste for if-it-feels-good-do-it, love-the-one-you're-with, hope-I-die-before-I-get-old banality--that music, like life itself, was best experienced in the present. But we couldn't resist valorizing it in the historicist terminology of the academy.

I'm not sure we had an alternative, either. As is obvious now, somebody was gonna do the canonizing, and I guarantee you it wasn't us who enshrined paragons of excess Jim Morrison and Led Zeppelin--Genuine Artists though both may have been--so near the top of the heap. So we put our two cents in, plumping for Van Morrison, say, or Randy Newman--figures of relatively minor renown who needed all the help they could get--as well as validating Hendrix and the Beatles and the Stones. We did our damnedest to absorb the shock of the new, and almost invariably caught on to future icons quicker than radio or retail. We got hip to our own history, listening beyond the hits of our youth till we got to know parallel geniuses (George Jones, Thelonious Monk), major minor artists (Wanda Jackson, the Five Royales), and loads of great predecessors (Hank Williams, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Franz Liszt). And if none of this turned out as we would have wished, from shooting-star-of-the-week on the cover of you-name-it to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, well, who ever said we ruled the world? Not us. So it seems like a good time to point out some stuff.

First of all, though we might be accused of extravagant hero worship--and for many poor souls, an audience with a rock star was a brush with the divine--there was actually another reason we hung on John Lennon's every word and scrutinized the jacket of John Wesley Harding until we finally discerned with our own eyes the tiny heads concealed in the leaves of that literal-looking black-and-white tree. To put it plainly, we believed these men spoke for us. That means we felt there was an us for them to speak for, and it also means their power didn't reside solely in their personal charisma. Their power derived not just from their audience, though in these starstruck days that self-evident observation flirts with heresy, but from the imminent worldwide movement supposedly prefigured by that audience. We paid close attention to their pronouncements to find out how history was going, and sometimes to find out whether our public spokesmen were still on the bus.

Though classic rock draws its inspiration and most of its heroes from the '60s, it is, of course, a construction of the '70s. It was invented by prepunk/predisco radio programmers who knew that before they could totally commodify '60s culture they'd have to rework it--that is, selectively distort it till it threatened no one. Three crucial elements got shortchanged in the process: black people, politics, and Pop-with-a-capital-P, Pop in the Andy Warhol sense. Not that rock's chronic inability to come to terms with any of the three didn't make the betrayals easier. Even when Motown and Stax-Volt were getting respect, the soul artist was an exoticized Other, and in the wake of Black Power and James Brown's "Mother Popcorn," any African-American who didn't fly his or her freak flag high got frozen out of "progressive" radio. The understandable tendency of musicians to believe that music is the most important thing in the world was elevated into pseudo-political, antipolitical ideology--the aforementioned imminent worldwide movement was expected to effect its transformations not just peacefully but naturally, spontaneously, without tactics or strategy. As for Pop--well, '60s rock was a Californian faith, especially in America. It had little use for Pop irony, for its hard edges or primary colors; at its most pretentious it never fully absorbed that it was part of the entertainment business. Too bad--though the sellout would probably have been every bit as gross had it been informed by Pop's sane and distanced self-consciounsess, it wouldn't have been quite as grotesque. Even if you don't much like Mick Jagger, you have to admit his sense of irony rendered him a more attractive bigshot than David Crosby or Grace Slick.

Yet for all the mistrust and bitterness that's ensued, the '60s were when the black people who are America's greatest musical (not to say cultural) asset were accepted (more than in theory, if less than in fact) as equals--when the national commitment to social integration was finally (I hope) established. We're only beginning to learn what that means, but where once rock 'n' roll was in the forefront of the educational process, now it struggles to keep up--because in the official rock pantheon the Doors and Led Zeppelin are Great Artists while Chuck Berry and Little Richard are Primitive Forefathers and James Brown and Sly Stone are Something Else. Hippiedom and rockdom were never as radical as cliché has it, but before the '60s were over the Vietnam War was anathema throughout youth culture, and the idea of this country throwing its moral weight around had zero credibility. In case you hadn't noticed, that kind of skepticism is now again utterly marginalized, so that a war in which 100,000 human beings die is considered bloodless because not much of the blood was ours--so that the black station in my town kept playing Sean Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance" while the AOR outlets moved on to "The Star-Spangled Banner." Meanwhile, out in Theoryland, Pop has spawned postmodernism, cough cough. And while pomo's trivial pursuits can stand to bump up against a canon now and then, for college students' pop-music aesthetic to wallow instead in AOR's dumb, received Victorian romanticism is not the kind of irony Andy had in mind.

In short, race and Pop and politics are the other half of sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll. They're half of what the '60s were about--what made the '60s dangerous, and what made them a good time to be alive. And since they're the "serious" half, to leave them out of your myth of rock as art-that-stands-the-test-of-time is to render it totally fatuous. But let me add that to attribute the transmogrification solely to the machinations of media manipulators is also fatuous. It had, as we rads like to say, a material base. All of this risk-taking cultural outreach proceeded from the two decades-plus of real prosperity that followed World War II. It would never have occurred if your average student longhair had grown up with the radical economic insecurity of parents who'd survived the Depression. Nor would it have occurred if the kid had grown up with the gnawing sense of socioeconomic contraction that was soon to afflict his or her younger siblings and offspring (including you, gentle reader). By the early '70s a whole mess of chilling effects--some material, some perceptual--were impinging on the collective confidence of my generation and everybody else's, especially as our values and aspirations were picked up and found wanting by the unluckier kids crammed toward the lower end of America's broken-runged class ladder. Not for nothing did classic rock crown the Doors' mystagogic middlebrow escapism and Led Zep's chest-thumping megalomaniac grandeur. Rhetorical self-aggrandizement that made no demands on everyday life was exactly what the times called for.

It's hard to think about the future when you're young, and for all our forward-looking idealism, even the most political among us did a lousy job of figuring out how our vaunted culture was going to keep renewing itself. We really weren't much better than that tie-dyed fool John Sebastian, whose "Younger Generation" is not a song that's stood the test of time in Radioland, though I still find it touching in a Pop-ironic way. "Can I put a droplet of this new stuff on my tongue?" Sebastian imagines his unborn child (a son, of course) asking, inspiring Dad to formulate some verities: "And then I'll know that all I've learned my kid assumes/And all my deepest worries must be his cartoons." Progress along a line to infinity, the permanent cultural revolution: spontaneous, natural, automatic. How sad that it didn't turn out that way--sadder for you than for me, whether you know it or not.

I'm not naive enough to think there's much to be gained by do-gooder appeals to conscience or idealism, though in case there's a stray bleeding heart reading this, I don't mind mentioning how politically retrograde the classic-rock mind-set is. The really sick thing is that as heartily as I disapprove of the establishment con that the permanent cultural revolution turned into, it does me no more good than it does all the lost young people who are buying it retail. After all, how better guarantee that boomers remain in control? I almost said us boomers, only it's been a long time since I've made common cause with David Crosby--better Johnny Rotten, who didn't turn out so great either. But even so there's a sense in which my generation remains a cultural entity while John Sebastian Jr.'s younger generation doesn't. No wonder the old stars rule so omnipotently for their 15 years or eons--it's been forever since the young audience they ought to be responsible to had any sense of itself as a collectivity, as opposed to a put-upon consumer group. This absence of collective consciousness is insured by the progressive fragmentation of rock marketing. The imaginative young listeners who might assume some sort of leadership role are stricken with contempt for anybody who doesn't share their taste (for indie rock, or rap, or dance music, or film, or theory, or whatever). But you'd think some smart person would grab this dilemma by the tail and twist it till it cries uncle. After all, fragmentation is itself a shared experience, a paradoxical common bond worthy of ironic exploitation.

Good luck, kids. If you (or your younger siblings) manage the trick, I have no doubt I'm sure I'll be confused by the details--by what's honored and what's rejected. But for damn sure it'll beat being appalled by the smugness of my contemporaries and the banality of their children. And let me warn you--until it happens, I get to write more articles like this one. Only you can stop me.

Details, July, 1991