Harvard University Press ($29.95)
by Brian Beatty
These days, everybody fancies himself a critic. The dangerous among the legion subscribe to the "rock & roll nigger" aesthetic—perhaps best personified by the late, oft-sainted Lester Bangs. Writing as if hunkered in the trenches alongside their subjects, fighting a culture war vs. a brutal, apathetic society, these would-be-if-they-could-be's want to believe their work means something. Others, who realize there's no converting the unwilling masses, usually turn into culpable academics—sometimes within classroom confines, sometimes just pretending (i.e., Greil Marcus). Their strategy is to thrust intellectualism upon pop music, perhaps to justify the adolescent endeavor of taking the subject seriously at all. These writers are often found attending university conferences, swapping Dylan and Zappa bootlegs in the public toilets.
Could tenacious fanzine ranters really democratize an imploding billion-dollar retail market in the name of art? Is Greil Marcus slumming among today's riot grrls in hopes of copping a feel, or is he a true fan? Eternal questions.
No doubt Village Voice music editor Robert Christgau's a fan—not to mention a tempered leftist and a joker. But besides these things, he's a consummate music critic: "I'm driven by a continuing quest for music that will serve some function or other in my life and yours—inspire, amuse, enlighten, calm, excite...know beauty and feel truth." While it may seem blasphemous to approach your art with such candor, it's an aesthetic question in the end.
In the voice of blackface minstrel Emmett Miller, the gender-fuck lust of alterna-diva P J Harvey, or the corporate sell-out of indie stalwarts Sonic Youth, Christgau searches out beauty and truth. What he discovers is up for argument. "What's easiest to describe about Miller's singing is what's weirdest about it—his signature yodel," Christgau writes. "No Swiss or African model suggests its sound, and his imitators Rodgers and Williams don't come close to duplicating it." Few critics would be so quick to dismiss country music legends Jimmie Rodgers or Hank Williams. But Christgau is a contrarian whose evaluations aren't rooted in absolutes, but in the music he's heard and thinks we should hear (or not) for ourselves.
Occaionally Christgau even changes his mind (which is the fun of flipping through his album guides for the '70s and '80s). The longer pieces collected here afford Christgau a better articulated perspective than his short-graded reviews: "I haven't heard [Sonic Youth] live since before Bad Moon Rising—early on I thought (correctly) that they sucked, after which they discouraged my attendance by calling for my assassination at gigs . . . All I know is that the CD version of Goo peals and clangs with the clearest recorded version to date of a guitar sound that has always been their reason for living and their excuse for telling the world about it."
Grown Up All Wrong is Robert Christgau's high-fidelity reason for living inside the pop music aesthetic. This compendium of his profiles and features should be required reading for anyone attempting a career, or even a sideline hobby, in putting words to paper on the subject of popular music.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 1999 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999