- writing your thesis?
- working a temp job?
a member of the "creative class"?*
- a shut-in?
Have I got the time-waster for you. At robertchristgau.com, the bored Web-surfer has at her fingertips a complete archive of the music reviews, essays in cultural criticism and -- what d'ya call 'em? -- think pieces published in the long career of Greenwich Village Voice-contributor Robert Christgau. The self-appointed "Dean of American Rock Critics" is fairly often way wrong in his conclusions, but this wrongness makes him no less entertaining and no less weirdly informative. Christgau pioneered the technique of confining each review to a short, snarky blurb, whose density suggests hours devoted by the critic to deliberating over every detail of the music and lyrics, over the aesthetic and political significance of the artist and his work. Or, more likely, it suggests hours devoted to plotting sadistically ways in which the critic shall go about needling the artist for his basic weakness, that of not being Robert Christgau.
Christgau's style -- epitomized by the Consumer Guide collections that he publishes periodically (or used to, anyway) -- is imitated as widely and as hamfistedly as that of his contemporary, the late Lester Bangs. But neither Christgau nor Bangs should be blamed for the naff undergrad shit that predominates on Pitchforkmedia Dot Com. Neither is it Christgau's fault that his habit of assigning letter grades to albums has over the last few decades become standard practice in 'alternative'- and Entertainment weeklies. I'll wager that this practice of his was pretty nifty when he began writing rock criticism in the late 1960s. But of course I have no way of knowing.
Anyway, so let me share with you some of my favorites from robertchristgau.com's bottomless well of erudite snark.
An artist that Christgau has a real problem with is Tom Petty. Now, personally -- after deciding for a while that I disliked Petty for being the worst kind of pandering pseudo-populist -- I have come around (as I had initially done) to respecting tremendously Petty's talents as a craftsman of pop songs and pop records. And anyway, having a broad audience is a good thing. Plus, it turns out he's really just a pretty smart and clever guy. (Any practitioner or connoisseur of songwriting and record-making should really read Paul Zollo's 2005 book Conversations With Tom Petty.)
But here in its entirety is Christgau's reaction in 1985 to what is admittedly Petty's worst album (not that I've ever heard the entire thing), Southern Accents, a 'concept album' about the South (Petty was born in Gainesville, Fla., from which he fled in his late teens/early 20s for L.A., fame and fortune):
Petty's problem isn't that he's dumb, or even that people think he's dumb, although they have reason to. It's that he feels so sorry for himself he can't think straight. Defending the South made sense back when Ronnie Van Zant was writing "Sweet Home Alabama," but in the Sun Belt era it's just pique. The modernizations of sometime coproducer Dave Stewart mitigate the neoconservative aura somewhat, but unmitigating it right back is Petty's singing, its descent from stylization into affectation most painful on side one's concept songs. Side two is less consequential, and better. Note, however, that its show-stopper is "Spike," in which a bunch of rednecks, I mean good old boys, prepare to whup a punk. It's satire. Yeah sure. B-Ever the anti-elitist's elitist, and first and foremost a lover of hooks and back-beats, Christgau strives always to gives credit where credit is due, even if he never quite lets Petty off the hook for either his whiny rasp or for what I suppose Christgau detects to be traces of Petty's closeted, ongoing affinity for the reactionary backwardness of the part of the country from under whose thumb he was so quick to escape. Here's Christgau's blurb on Petty's 1993 release Greatest Hits:
Sometimes it's hard to remember what a breath of fresh air the gap-spanning MTV figurehead was in 1976. So revisit this automatic multiplatinum, a treasury of power pop that doesn't know its name--snappy songs! Southern beats! gee! Like Billy Joel, say, or the Police, his secret isn't that he's a natural singles artist--it's that he's too shallow to merit full concentration except when he gets it all right, and maybe not then. Petty is the formalist of the ordinary guy, taking his musical pleasure in roots, branches, commerce, art, whatever gets him going without demanding anything too fancy of his brain or his rear end. Footloose by habit and not what you'd call a ladies' man, he often feels confused or put upon, and though he wishes the world were a better place, try to take what he thinks is his and he won't back down. He has one great virtue--his total immersion in rock and roll. A-Christgau nails something in the last sentence. And he also nails the thing that makes enjoying Petty's music sometimes feel icky -- its preoccupations with ordinariness. What he doesn't seem to give its due of course is just how singular Petty's gift is. TP does, after all, create things that are sublime, even if he's fashioning these things out of the bric-à-brac of ordinary, self-centered white guy experience in consumer society. And there's nothing wrong fundamentally with doing that, nor is there anything inherently icky about the joy that accrues therefrom, even if there's something shallow and momentary about it.
Where Christgau's characterization holds force is in its cognizance of the fundamental conservatism or at least quietism of the consciousness that inheres in Petty's songs. It supplies something life-affirming to millions of us, but some of us among those millions know that there is an element of pandering -- of pity and of charity, if you will -- that may help people to hold on for dear life when the times are tough, but that responds only rarely and fleetingly to the ambition to rise above. There is a stank that wafts off of much of Petty's work that is instantly recognizable as an opiate, that functions to deflect the listener's attention -- and now the soaring, memorable chorus -- away from her desire for change.
Take for example the once-ubiquitous radio smash-hit "Into the Great Wide Open": rebellion stripped of its politics, in which youthful dalliances with hedonism are tagged with familiar moral valances and lack any potential for creative growth, improved self-understanding, or emancipation from prevailing cultural and moral values. The "great wide open" that the song's male and female protagonists behold, stretching out to the horizon before them, is at all times implicated by the song's narrator as at least ironic and probably futile. A not-unsubtle message is that the freedom to make and follow your own dreams is always a chimerical kind of freedom, its pleasant 'reality' perceptible only through the lens of naïveté or in the impetuosity of youth. Finally, the determining forces by which the protagonists either sink or swim in quicksands of the San Fernando Valley desert are in the end the forces of the marketplace, of the extent of one's popularity, of one's net worth.
All of this would be fine if "Into the Great Wide Open" were specifically a cautionary tale, a critique of the status quo. Were the song an exposé of the structure of cheap myths at the hands of which the protagonists are hoodwinked, a structure whose stranglehold upon popular culture -- in whose grasp the protagonists had been seduced -- is tightened as a result of their participation in it (more grist for the mill). I don't mean a cheesy moralizing tale, but a narrative whose scope is sufficient to incorporate this particular angle. The "great wide open" is, after all, chimerical. What could be wrong with that?
But the song isn't a critique, nor is it an exposé. It is in fact a celebration of this very naïveté, of the 'exuberance of youth', in the most mainstream and cartoonish sense. Petty's narrator -- and no doubt the actual Tom Petty -- sees himself in the male protagonist (the Johnny Depp character, if you've seen the video). He locates in the protagonist Petty's own improbable escape from the reactionaryland of redneck northern Florida "into the great wide open" of sunny California and into his insanely successful career as a rock star. The irony in the song is that he, now a multi-platinum artist many times over, now knows that fame and fortune aren't all they're cracked up to be. He still has his ups and downs just like anybody else. He's grateful for his success, and satisfied with where his hard work and ambition have gotten him, but he's still searching for the right path, just as he always had. As before, his "future is wide open." 12-string guitar cadence.
So, far from deconstructing in specific terms what fallacies are inherent in the clichéd 'exuberance of youth', Petty's looking back wistfully and even nostalgically upon the vicissitudes of his own participation in this process. He's showing that he got banged up pretty good, but he made it through all right, and although things are never what you think they're going to end up to be, he's still happy to be alive, still up and at it. So don't fret.
This element of stasis, of things turning out to be all right in the end, characterizes much of Petty's work. It's a perfectly valid thing to think and talk and sing and feel about, but that doesn't change the fact that at its core is a kind of acceptance of the way things are. Petty is very sincere in what he communicates, and clearly feels love and affinity for his audience. That's not in question. The thing is that he does in effect pander to this audience, and there's no getting around it. I doubt that it's intentional, but this is why I say that Christgau is correct to detect and decry the pervasive ordinariness in Petty. His songs are imbued with a morality that is strongly felt and consistently held -- from which he "won't back down." But none of this changes the fact that it's basically shallow.
Of course, principles about which Christgau and I agree generally tell you nothing about whether or not we agree on a case-by-case basis (and that's part of the fun). For example, this is the totality of Christgau's review of 1991's Into The Great Wide Open, on which the eponymous track under discussion appears:
grant [sic] him this--he's a hooky sumbitch ("Into the Great Wide Open," "Two Gunslingers) *Oh, and the asterisk means 'honorable mention'. These items are rated on a scale of *, **, or ***, instead of receiving the letter grades that are reserved more worthwhile fare. So, it's a positive review, as far as that goes, just a not a very important record. Christgau does, however, assign a letter grade to Petty's Rick Rubin-produced Wildflowers (1994), an album that I and a near-consensus of everybody else everywhere consider without question to be Petty's chef d'oeuvre:
If he were a flower, he'd be wilted, but since he's really more a dick, call him torpid. That Rick Rubin, what a laid-back guy. B-All right, that's enough CG on TP.
Moving on to another ultra-mainstream -- in fact, even ultra-mainstreamer -- act: the mega-hyped, chart-topping, globe-trotting, longevity-having, sartorially phase-shifting, rich-as-shit u2, beloved by ordinary punters and despotic heads-of-state alike. And, of course, don't forget The Children. Christgau on their first offering, 1980's Boy:
Their youth, their serious air, and their guitar sound are setting a small world on fire, and I fear the worst. No matter where they're starting off--not as big as Zep, maybe, but not exactly on the grunge circuit either--their echoey vocals already teeter on the edge (in-joke) of grandiosity, so how are they going to sound by the time they reach the Garden? What kind of Christian idealists lift their best riff from PIL (or from anywhere at all)? As bubble-headed as the teen-telos lyrics at best. As dumb as Uriah Heep at worst. C+Note his recognition that U2's The Edge nicked the riff of "I Will Follow" from Keith Levene's incendiary performance on PiL's "Public Image," the latter a vastly superior song in every respect imaginable. That wins Our Critic some brownie points, awarded by Our Blogger. By 1987, which saw the release of the, erm..., let's face it, seminal LP The Joshua Tree, Christgau -- recognizing that the conquering of the world was at this point not only inevitable but within the Irish foursome's grasp -- has a lot more time for l'antics de Bono and his Band of Nominally Christian Soldiers:
Let it build and ebb and wash and thunder in the background and you'll hear something special--mournful and passionate, stately and involved. Read the lyrics and you won't wince. Tune in Bono's vocals and you'll encounter one of the worst cases of significance ever to afflict a deserving candidate for superstardom. BAlthough he seems already to be sharpening his fangs in preparation for the band's eventual Wrong Turn, Christgau hands out an even higher letter-grade for U2's shrilly political and hysterically earnest 'four newly-jet-setter-level rich Irishmen return to their American roots' extravaganza, 1988's Rattle And Hum (and, if you didn't already, now you know what eux means):
Pretentious? Eux? Naturellement, mais that ain't all. Over the years they've melded Americana into their Old World riffs, and while Bono's "Play the blues, Edge" overstates this accomplishment, their groove is some kind of rock and roll wrinkle. This partly live double-LP is looser and faster than anything they've recorded since their first live mini-LP, with the remakes of "Pride" and "Silver and Gold" and "Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" improved by both practice and negligence. A good half of the new stuff could knock over unsuspecting skeptics, the B.B./Hendrix/Dylan cameos are surprising and generous, and as a token of self-knowledge Bono concludes a lecture on South Africa with a magisterially sarcastic "I don't wanna bug ya." Yet as usual things don't get any better when you decide to find out exactly what he's waxing so meaningful about. B+It's funny, because a lot of other critics and ordinary schmoes felt that with Rattle And Hum itself, U2 was ripe for backlash. For all of the reasons that Christgau lays out, no less. This is part of what's so fun about sifting through his reviews. Despite being poised to move in for the kill, he suddenly changes tack. This is an example of his occasional tendency to tip his hat and let 'em run a victory lap, perhaps in a compensatory gesture his failure to laud sufficiently the artist's previous masterstroke.
And sure enough, the Dean of American Rock Critics once more catches his unsuspecting readership unawares by thumbing his nose at what everyone else deems to be U2's remarkable Second Moment of Triumph, if not the band's true watershed moment in and of itself. Here is what Christgau offers on 1991's Achtung Baby:
This is Christgau's way of saying that it's "A Dud," which he further explains "is a bad record whose details rarely merit further thought. At the upper level it may merely be overrated, disappointing, or dull. Down below it may be contemptible."
As is often the case when Christgau decides that a record is somewhere between overrated and contemptible, we have to wait a couple of years or more for his explanation, when and only if he feels that the band in question once again merits his attention. His review of 1993's Zooropa adheres to this pattern, and it's opening line is vintage Christgau:
I've never seen the point of hating U2. Their sound was their own from the git, and for a very famous person, Bono has always seemed thoughtful and good-hearted. I liked what I read about their pop irony, too. Problem was, I couldn't hear it--after many, many tries, Achtung Baby still sounded like a damnably diffuse U2 album to me, and I put it in the hall unable to describe a single song. But having processed this blatant cool move, I'm ready to wax theoretical. Achtung Baby was produced by Daniel Lanois, and Daniel Lanois isn't Brian Eno--he's Eno's pet romantic, too soft to undercut U2's grandiosity, although I admittedly enjoy a few of its anthems-in-disguise now. Zooropa, on the other hand, is half an Eno album the way Low and "Heroes" were. The difference is that Bowie and Eno were fresher in 1977 than Bono and Eno are today. Each must have hoped that the other's strength would patch over his own weakness--that Eno's oft-wearisome affectlessness would be mitigated by Bono's oft-wearisome expressionism and vice versa. But tics ain't strengths, and although these pomo paradoxes have their moments, when I'm feeling snippy the whole project seems a disastrously affected pastiche of relinquished principle. B-Does Christau ever come around to just dole out some unqualified props for the band that he doesn't see the point of hating? Well, no. But he comes awfully close at yet another unlikely moment. Most critics declared 2002's All That You Can't Leave Behind to be U2's 'return to form' -- with all of the good and bad that this implies. Christgau applauds the album as the group's finest record to date:
I know they're with a new label if not corporation, but the transformation I imagine was simpler. They woke up one day, glanced around a marketplace where art wasn't mega anymore, and figured that since they'd been calling themselves pop for half of their two-decade run, maybe they'd better sit down and write some catchy songs. So they did. The feat's offhandedness is its most salient charm and nagging limitation. If I know anything, which with this band I never have, their best. A-Lest, however, we miscast Christgau as a contrarian for contrarianism's sake, The Dean's high regard for the now-defunct band Pavement -- whom critics venerate pretty much unanimously -- is generous and laudable, if not exactly magnanimous. Now, obviously, he and everyone else is absolutely 100% correct to praise Malkmus & Co. to the high heavens and beyond.
As far as I've seen, no other artist comes close to a track record this consistently good in Christgau's oeuvre, and nor should she. (Even the good name of his beloved Velvet Underground was tarnished in its last years by charlatans who stood where Lou Reed was supposed to be.) Here's a listing of Pavement's LP's, each accompanied by the letter grade Christgau awarded it:
Slanted and Enchanted [Matador, 1992] AThe last one is a bit of a gift, methinks. It probably deserves a C+. That's love for ya, and we all know that "love is blindness." Anyway. For now, I leave you with Christgau's review of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, for my money, a brilliant -- or anyway, right-headed -- piece of writing:
Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain [Matador, 1994] A
Wowee Zowee [Matador, 1995] A
Brighten the Corners [Matador, 1997] A
Terror Twilight [Matador, 1999] A-
Whether the tunes come out and smack you in the kisser or rise from the clatter like a forgotten promise, this is a tour de force melodywise, which is not to get dewy-eyed about its market potential. They'll never truly sell out until they take voice lessons--as alternarockers from Stipe to Cobain know full well, soulful strength is the pop audience's bottom line. Me, I find their eternally pubescent croaks and whinnies exceedingly apt, and though in theory I always prefer songs that aren't about music, any bunch of obscurantist jokers who can inject the words "Stone Temple Pilots they're elegant bachelors" into my hum matrix have got a right to sing the rocks. A
* Breaking news: Turns out there's no such fucking thing.