Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Any Old Way You Choose It Book Cover

A Counter in Search of a Culture

As of now, early 1973, it is clear that rock is neither the ultimate in cultural hallucinogens nor last year's rush. It is an established, pervasive social force, and it is still growing. Note that I refer not to "rock and roll," the pop-happy big beat that was disdained by nearly everyone except the kids who listened to it between 1955 and 1964, but to "rock," a term that signifies something like "all music deriving primarily from the energy and influence of the Beatles--and maybe Bob Dylan, and maybe you should stick pretensions in there someplace." Rock and roll is mine by birthright. I'm committed to it. In its self-conscious version it is still very much kicking. But rock, which subsumes rock and roll is the subject of this book. In fact, maybe what distinguishes rock from rock and roll is that you write criticism about it. Although that was not the life I'd planned for myself when I began my column for Esquire in early 1967, it seems to be what I end up doing.

My disinclination was for criticism, not for rock, or rock and roll. Except for four years of college, where the apex of my career as a high aesthete coincided with a dearth of top-forty radio, I had been a rock and roll fan ever since the sainted Alan Freed arrived in New York in 1954. In high school my own fanaticism did not center around dancing, the Brooklyn Paramount, and autographed pictures on the wall. Instead, I was crazy for the radio and the trade magazines to which an even crazier friend subscribed. In college I turned to jazz and literature, and not even in that order of preference, but when I returned to New York in 1962, Phil Spector and early Motown were waiting for me.

Once again I became a fanatic, even compiling charts, just like in high school, yet somehow I didn't make the connection between rock and roll and the meager short stories with which I justified my evasion of a graduate degree. Then, early in 1963, I walked into the Green Gallery on West 57th Street. The show was eight or ten of Tom Wesselmann's Great American Nudes--sprawling flat-pink ladies surrounded by outsized magazine-ad images, with vistas from Better Homes and Gardens pasted behind each window and the miniature Mondrians and Mona Lisas on the walls. The paintings exhilarated me, but what really turned me around was something I heard--Connie Francis singing "V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N." The music wasn't coming from a transistor Sony in the office, either. Into one of his paintings Wesselmann had built a real radio, and there in that art gallery it was tuned to WABC. What an epiphany.

Like all pop art, the Great American Nudes played with context, suggesting some kind of continuity--or even equation--between WABC and the Green Gallery, Connie Francis and Piet Mondrian. They were the beginning of my theory of pop. With help from the Beatles, whose tongue-in-cheek distance from their own celebrity recalled the characteristic light irony of pop art, my inchoate antiart prejudices, which had germinated when I first saw through the secular theology of new-critical literary analysis in college, began to mature. I certainly didn't reject all art, and I didn't exactly decide that what is called high art is bullshit--I still don't believe that. But I did come to understand that popular art was not inferior to high art, and decided that popular art achieved a vitality of both integrity and outreach that high art had unfortunately abandoned. Popular art dealt with common realities and fantasies in forms that provided immediate pleasure--it was vital aesthetically, as work. And because it moved and was moved by the great audience, it was also vital culturally, as relationship.

The pop mentality was a natural for me, and not just because I loved rock and roll. Despite my well-deserved reputation as an oddball, I'd always resisted the anti-American nay-saying of my oddball acquaintances. I felt like an American, with many of the materialistic vulgarities that implied. A passionate democrat, I identified with my own baseball-and-soda-pop past in Queens, and I liked the brand names and neologisms of American speech. But a more suspect kind of self-affirmation was also involved. I led a life most Americans would describe as bohemian--unconventional in appearance, irregular in employment, postliberal in politics, peripatetic, and arty. While I'm certain that this life-style justified itself--that its content made me happy--I also know that it was reactive--that its form made my parents unhappy. This is the usual pattern, but I took it a step further: I became an antibohemian bohemian. For me, as for most of my early co-theorists, pop was also reactive--to the insularity and elitism of radical avant-gardism. For whatever reason, my temperament is polemical. Show me an idea and I'll show you what's wrong with it, and six months later I'll show you what's wrong with my objections. I like to think that this convolutionism is balanced by my capacious enthusiasms and mitigated by my self-awareness. Looking over this book, however, I realize that one reason my analysis deals so obsessively in paradox is that it attempts to resolve my own polemic.

Pursuing my nascent theory of pop, I gave up fiction in 1964 to become a sportswriter, but it didn't work out that way. In late 1965, when I was working as a police reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger, a young woman in Clifton, New Jersey, died on the then-obscure macrobiotic diet. Suddenly, my bohemianism and my antibohemianism came together--I was outraged by the way the story was mangled in the straight press, but I was also outraged by the uselessness of the death itself. The resulting piece appeared in New York magazine and turned into a free-lance career. After working on several abortive reportage projects at Esquire, I asked to take over the dormant "Secular Music" column. My motive was partly careerist--the column was a foothold at Esquire, that citadel of the writerly new journalism to which I then aspired, and the subject could provide a base income for years to come. But it was also idealistic--I had things to say that no one else was saying, and I wanted to combat the most egregious shortcoming of the primitive rock criticism of that time, its inattention to black music.

I failed at the latter, I think. The black-white theme runs through this book, but I have never managed to bring it together, and my writing about black music aimed at the black audience, music I hold dear, seems partial, contradictory, sometimes racist. But the things that no one else was saying proved subject enough. Who could have predicted that pop would become so complicated? In my first column I assumed my customary stance: Rock and roll was good, and art, while not necessarily bad, was dangerous. Hooray Little Richard, boo Jefferson Airplane. And then Esquire sent me to the Monterey Pop Festival.

I was no stranger to hippies--I lived in Manhattan's Lower East Side. Yet as an antibohemian bohemian I found it difficult to take them seriously--all this macrobiotics, and astrology, and dope. So in a sense I learned about hippies from Newsweek and The Village Voice and Tom Wolfe's first Kesey articles, just like everyone else. Gradually, influenced by the persuasive utopianism of my then-partner, Ellen Willis, and the music (which is to say, the art) of what I thought of as the first hippie groups--the Mamas & the Papas, the Lovin' Spoonful, the Doors, and yes, Jefferson Airplane--I softened up. Monterey was so entrancing that it almost made me believe in the efficacy of love and flowers. I wrote about the love crowd as an observer, but in fact I was part of it. I was turned on by the hippies, too.

I conceived of hippies as pop bohemians. Their bright visual style had more to do with mod than with the traditional boho earth-tones. They tended to be younger than, say, the beats of eight or ten years before, and more committed to youth as an ideal. They were into the pleasure of flash immediacy. They were not antimachine or antimedia. And most important, they liked mass culture: What by then was called rock--popular culture created by the counterculture--embodied my own personal contradictions.

As it turned out, this formulation was only one-half or one-third true at best, and it disintegrated as the counterculture became larger and more embattled. But I found that whether or not the new bohemians had come over to my way of thinking, I identified with them. In my gadfly polemicist sort of way, I felt committed to the life-style we shared and was ready to stick up for it. Pop no longer seemed like an all-purpose answer.

My pop impulse and my bohemian impulse united in my politics. Both impulses were pragmatic, suggesting complementary modes of self-preservation. Pop is really a system for beating the system, both perceptually, by aesthetic reinterpretation, and physically, by selective consumption. And bohemianism had always sought to shed the system's outworn, wasteful usages and uncover the true self. What bothered me about the bohemian concept of selfhood was the way it renounced healthy acculturation as it sloughed off destructive habits and values; maybe alienation was an unavoidable side effect of mass society, but it seemed perverse to elevate it into a world-view. As I've said, the pop mentality countered this tendency, but gradually I realized that it engendered a similar insularity. Not only did it proceed from a level of affluence that was still a myth for much of this country and most of the rest of the world, but it implied its own kind of snobbery, directed not just at the high aesthetes who missed the point but at the yahoos who didn't apprehend the ironies of their own culture consumption. Meanwhile, self-preservation was becoming more problematic with every race riot and fragmentation bomb. Since the massive inhumanity of America's ruling class made politics a necessity, I developed my own. Rejecting the elitism built into both modes of self-preservation, I melded the communitarian rhetoric of the counterculture and the populist possibilities of pop into a sort of improvised democratic radicalism that functioned more as a sensibility than a theory. It evolves so continually that I'd still be hard-pressed to define it, but it is at the core of my response to all art, and it always has been, even before I'd pinned it down. Let me make clear that this does not mean I perceive art politically. I do not pass art through some ideological sieve before declaring it fit for human consumption. On the contrary, I have always attempted (semiconsciously, through my sensibility) to restore to the aesthetic response the sort of cultural wholeness aesthetic historians assure us it once had--before the evil mass society broke in and ruined everything with its rude demands.

I always resisted the term "criticism" to describe secular music--I preferred "amateur sociology," or "journalism," or just "writing"--because the idea of criticism had been deracinated for me in college. As practiced by academics, it leeched life from works that had to survive, if they were to survive at all, not in some isolated specimen bottle but out in the commerce of the world, and it separated the critic--or anyway, the critic's student--from the pleasure that has always been the secret of art. What most surprised me about all the books I read after graduation was how much I enjoyed them.

But as the term "rock critic" became commonplace, I acceded. What the hell--I was a rock critic. I seemed to be writing about music all the time anyway, or at least that's what I thought I was doing. Since my strictly musical analysis tended to be brief and nontechnical and my discussion of lyrics not much fuller, there were those who disagreed. But my understanding was that criticism should invoke total aesthetic response. Academics pretended that the work or body of work was an absolute that existed in a vacuum for purposes of examination. I liked to emphasize that art was contingent. Ontological analysis had its place, but the richest and most useful kind of criticism respected the work as it was actually perceived, by people in general. My criticism bordered on journalism and sociology because I wrote about everything people responded to when they heard music--lyric and melody and rhythm and timbre first, of course, but also the context in which they heard it and whatever they knew about the artist's life and however they understood the artist's business associates to shape his/her career and whoever they expected his/her fans might be. My criticism was opinionated because that was the way everyday culture consumers responded to music--they didn't simply evaluate, they liked it or disliked it. Any critic who wrote about music as if he/she were no longer a fan--or who was no longer a fan--was shirking all the fun.

One complication of this almost willfully inexact kind of criticism was that it functioned as popular culture itself. As a journalist, I had to abide by my own theories. One of these had to do with the way an artist chose his/her audience. For reasons I've never entirely understood--though I'm informed they had something to do with my failure to detach myself from my subject--my tour at Esquire was ending. As soon as I suspected the worst, I discovered that I still wanted to write rock criticism, a lot, and plotted shamelessly for a place on The Village Voice, the one outlet that would permit me comparable literacy and freedom. It was only when I was already ensconced in my new column, "Rock & Roll &," that I realized how decisively I had narrowed my audience. Unlike the upper-middle-class collegiates who presumably read Esquire, Voice readers--a good many of them--shared my basic personal and political values. The purely pop phase of my critical career was over.

Viewed from one perspective, my Esquire writing seems dangerously artificial and stylized. Because I was interested in the column as a popular form, I tried painstakingly to balance each one. Because of the long lead time, I was always on the lookout for the fancy angle. Because I felt Esquire's readers and editors equated credibility with a certain ironic "objectivity," I strove for the epigram, the paradox, the wise-ass remark. I did this partly because it jibed with my own notion of pop flash, but partly because I couldn't feign the more substantial kind of objectivity, and in that sense my Esquire writing wasn't artificial at all. For despite all my skepticism, it was true--I was not detached from my subject. In the beginning, rock seemed to unfurl in front of me like some magic tapestry or endless circus poster, and sometimes all I could do was marvel. In addition, Esquire made me feel like a spokesman for my own subculture, which whatever its deficiencies was obviously superior to a subculture of shirt ads and Caribbean vacations. "Hooray for longhairs," I wrote in what proved to be my last column, and I meant it.

But once I got to the Voice, my polemical temperament asserted itself. Although it was safe to assume that both sets of readers shared certain soft-headed snob ideas about art, which meant I could continue my defiant celebration of AM radio and its attendant commercial strictures, it was no longer functional for me to defend hip culture. So at the same time I was implicitly conceding my rapprochement with my own people, I began to find fault with them in print--especially with movement people, whose concerns were closest to my own. In addition, the Voice's tradition of personal journalism forced me into new kinds of self-criticism. Encouraged to indulge my own fannishness, I had to acknowledge the inevitable differences between a paying fan and a paid one. Granted analytical latitude, I began to investigate the aesthetic assumptions that I, like every other worker in my traditionless discipline, had been obliged to hammer out for myself at the beginning. Some of them were confirmed and elaborated, others deemed defective and scrapped or rebuilt.

The creative freedom at the Voice was very good for me, because it enabled me to find my own voice. Not that the sharply honed critical shorthand of my Esquire writing wasn't me--just that it wasn't all of me. And since I believe that criticism that circumvents its own subjectivity also tends to circumvent its obligation to be useful--ultimately, after all, it's rationalized opinion, and the reader has to be able to compare his prejudices against those of the critic--the development of a vivid persona seemed critical to my effectiveness. The same obligation to be useful also inspired the "Consumer Guide," a brief, letter-graded description of recent album product, which in tandem with my more indirect and abstruse think pieces epitomized my attitude toward the music--I thought that rock should both provide subtle stimulation and give 'em what they paid for.

I had been at the Voice almost three years when Newsday, the daily newspaper of Long Island, offered me a good-paying full-time job as a music critic. In many ways I was dubious--could I say what I had to say? could I write as much as a newspaperman is paid to write?--but I also sensed that I was due for a change. Money was part of it, for by then I was supporting myself not as a writer but as--oh, irony of ironies!--a college teacher. More important, though, were my doubts about the continued healthfulness of the Voice gig itself. The problem with creative freedom, as I have often pointed out, is that it tempts the creator to wallow in it, and I wondered periodically whether my comfortable relationship with my audience was good for my writing. By that time--the end of 1971--most of the movement sector of the counterculture had come to agree with my old complaints about its insularity. At movement meetings I had always been struck by the unnatural vehemence with which the very idea of the suburbs was greeted. Writing for suburbanites, I thought, might be just the challenge I needed.

After almost a year at Newsday I'm not satisfied that I've really reached my new audience, and I'm not always positive I want to --it can be frustrating. But newspaper work has revitalized my writing. Ideas I was once too lazy to explore have been forced out by deadline pressure, and a lot of cream has come off the top of my head. My proclivity for the involuted sentence and the logy paragraph has been partly corrected--my writing is more direct now than it's ever been, and more concise. My editor, Joe Koenenn, permits me remarkable latitude, but inevitably I score at least as many misses as I do hits, and a certain intellectual density disappears from my writing, as I deplete my store of unwritten pieces. Sometimes I think I'll quit or work out some kind of half-year deal--I want to do other things in the world than write rock criticism. But rock isn't dying, and neither am I, and I know I'll always come back to say my piece once more.

Any Old Way You Choose It, 1973

Introduction Secular Music