For the Masses
Robert Christgau on the great collective that is rock-and-roll.
by CHRIS HERRINGTON
Grown Up All Wrong
75 Great Rock and Pop Artists From Vaudeville to Techno
By Robert Christgau
Harvard University Press, 475 pp., $29.95
first-generation rock critic who's been in the game for 30 years and is still going strong, Robert Christgau is more obscure than any of his literarily comparable contemporaries. I mean, I've been a fan since early high school and still have no idea what the man actually looks like. As the first significant collection of long-form criticism Christgau's ever published, Grown Up All Wrong is something of an event, at least among the subculture of music fans who take criticism seriously.
Christgau is probably best known for his Consumer Guide record-review column in The Village Voice, where he's been a staffer for the last 25 years. Those short pieces have been packaged into two book-length, decade-pegged collections (with, hopefully, a Nineties volume to come) that are as essential as any rock writing ever published.
Grown Up All Wrong gives a different portrait of the underappreciated Christgau. The long pieces here -- artist profiles ranging from Nat King Cole to Pavement -- downplay the ferocious wit of his capsule reviews for the serious pursuit of sustained ideas -- the kind of long-form rock criticism that is rare these days. And, like all good rock writing, it makes you want to listen. Chapters on the Mekons and Freedy Johnston in particular sent me scurrying back to my CD shelf.
Robert Christgau, not Greil Marcus or Dave Marsh or Peter Guralnick or the late Lester Bangs, is the greatest of all rock critics. Bangs may have been the only actual genius to work the beat, but he died before his gonzo style could make room for the kind of disciplined critical approach that Christgau's mastered. Guralnick is an inexhaustible researcher and solid writer, but has never been an idea man. Christgau comes up with more compelling ideas about Elvis Presley in his eight-page essay here -- 1) Elvis is now as much a literary hero as a musical one, his meaning defined as much by the texts he's inspired as the music he created, and 2) Elvis is less the first rock-and-roller than a missing link to pre-rock pop music, sharing more formally with Sinatra and Holiday than Berry or Springsteen -- than Guralnick does over the course of 1,000 pages of expertly crafted biography.
As for Marsh, always the dopiest of the major rock critics, and Marcus, whose brilliance too often is put to the service of unnecessary (but fun) myth-making, Christgau's superiority has mostly to do with longevity: Marsh has become a crank in a post-punk musical climate and Marcus is purely hit-and-miss with post-Eighties output, but Christgau remains the most prolific, engaged, and reliable working rock critic. Now pushing 60, Christgau's faves in recent months have included the twentysomething art-punk of Sleater-Kinney's The Hot Rock and the sublimely jokey hip-hop of Eminem's The Slim Shady LP.
Comfortably ensconced at The Village Voice, the granddaddy of all alternative newspapers, Christgau's work (much like Jonathan Rosenbaum's film writing for The Chicago Reader) illustrates why the alternative press is home to the finest arts criticism. Finding a middle ground between an academy still uncomfortably coping with popular culture and a mainstream press too often given to the simple-minded infotainment of rote punditry and personality journalism, Christgau has the privilege of simply telling the truth.
Unlike the academic world he wonderfully ravages in his piece on Madonna as cultural icon, a climate that too often engages democratic forms like rock-and-roll within elitist contexts, Christgau is privileged to have a private aesthetic response and communicate that response in writing that is open and engaging (e.g., "I love Lynyrd Skynyrd, a band that makes music so unpretentious it tempts me to give up subordinate clauses"). But unlike most criticism to be found in the dailies and glossies, Christgau also incorporates useful components of academic writing into popular journalism. For one thing, he openly acknowledges the politics inherent in all forms of cultural expression.
An element of Christgau's writing common to academia but sorely missing from most mainstream criticism is a concentration on audiences, a belief in the collective creation of public art. This tack is most fully explored in his 1984 piece, "Working the Crowd: Bruce Springsteen/Michael Jackson," where Christgau writes of Springsteen: "He never had time for day jobs, but he worked to escape surrounded by hundreds of friends and acquaintances who didn't believe a future free of the grind was possible, and most of them were right. In other words, he conceived his audience right in the middle of it."
Though he gets his aesthetic jollies from great records just like all of us, it's this democratic impulse in rock-and-roll that seems to draw Christgau to the form. Explaining in his introduction, lovingly titled "My Favorite Waste of Time," why he chose rock-and-roll over potential passions like jazz or the novel, he writes, "rock-and-roll not only says something about masses of people, but also says something to them."
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