Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Let's wrap it up, OK?

The '80s were above all a time of international corporatization, as one major after another gave it up to media moguls in Europe and Japan. By 1990, only two of the six dominant American record companies were headquartered in the U.S. Bizzers acted locally while thinking globally in re audiences/markets (will it sell in Germany? Australia? Venezuela? Indonesia now that we've sunk the pirates? the U.S.S.R.?) and artists/suppliers (world music was a concept whose geoeconomic time had come). After a feisty start, independent labels accepted farm-team status that could lead to killings with the bigs. Cross-promotional hoohah became the rule--the soundtrack album, the sponsored tour, the golden-oldie commercial, the T-shirt franchise, the video as song ad and pay-for-play programming and commodity fetish. Record executives became less impresarios than arbitragers, speculating in abstract bundles of rights whose physical characteristics meant little or nothing to them. Rock was mere music no longer. It was reconceived as intellectual property, as a form of capital itself.

The '80s were when stars replaced artists as bearers of significance. The '70s had yielded their honorable quota of Van Morrisons and Randy Newmans and Patti Smiths and John Prines, all of whom were still around, as were new variants like Blood Ulmer and Laurie Anderson and the Mekons and Kid Creole. Those are only my nominees, however; yours are different. Nobody blinked when break-even commercial nonentities like Morrison and and Newman were ranked with the Stones and Stevie Wonder among the crucial rockers of the '70s. But in the '80s the only list that computed was pure megaplatinum--Prince and Bruce and U2 and Michael Jackson and Madonna, with maybe a few million-selling status symbols like Sting, Talking Heads, R.E.M., or Public Enemy (sorry, not Elvis Costello) tacked on for appearance's sake. When art is intellectual property, image and aura subsume aesthetic substance, whatever exactly that is. When art is capital, sales interface with aesthetic quality--Thriller's numbers are part of its experience.

The '80s were when '70s fragmentation became a way of life. The "adult contemporary" market flashed its charge cards as the teen audience became more distinct than at any time since the Beatles. Even within a domestic market that counted for so much smaller a piece of the whole burrito, enormous new subsets arose, from rap's slouch-strutting B-boys to the affluently spiritual ex-bohemians of new age. Tiny subsets got serviced too--by hardcore crazies and lesbian singer-songwriters and disco recidivists and jazzbo eclectics and shit-rockers and Christians and a dozen varieties of messenger from the African diaspora. The metal and country audiences split at previously invisible seams; folk music came back. Leading the semipopular parade as it exploited an unpaid army of interns was college radio, a growth industry designed to expose American college dropouts with day jobs, hungry hopefuls from enterprising Britannia, and other marginal pros who'd made a cult for themselves. Behind every subset were small-time entrepreneurs with vision; when and if profits mounted, these visionaries were reimbursed for their foresight by somebody with better distribution. The system worked so equitably that sometimes a subset would end up with some sense of itself, and sometimes a visionary would have money in the bank when the dealing stopped.

The '80s were when rock became less and more political. After the Clash faltered, white musicians who considered popularity a good thing left revolution to the Tracy Chapmans and Public Enemys to come. But with a few dismaying exceptions (Neil Young, Paul Westerberg, Joan Jett) and a few predictable ones (Johnny Ramone, John Anderson, Duran Duran), rock-and-rollers had no use for the reactionary chiefs of state pollsters said their demographic supported (pollsters also discovered that clubgoers constituted America's most electorally apathetic subculture). In the U.K. Paul Weller worked to revive Labour, in the U.S. Bruce Springsteen turned union benefactor, and from Amnesty International to the Prince's Trust, charity/cause records/concerts/tours signified varying admixtures of rock resistance and rock responsibility. The socially conscious lyric didn't displace the love song, but politics became a sexy pop topic; by a strange coincidence, rampant reactionaries and responsible liberals united in a censorship drive at around the same time. Dylan was big in Tiananmen Square. Ad hoc groups of democratic socialists (and secret reactionaries, just like in the '60s) sang "Imagine" and "Give Peace a Chance" all over Eastern Europe.

The '80s took rock sexuality and rock sexism over the top. Where Bono and Springsteen epitomized sensitive macho--not primarily sex symbols, they were free to flaunt their heterosexual normality--Prince and Michael Jackson were gender-unspecific and proud. One kinky, the other neuter, they did less than nothing to ease the suspicion that straight, potent black males remained unacceptable fantasy figures in mainstream America. Not that kink could go all the way--it was fashionably unshaven George Michael, not drag queen Boy George, who packed lasting squeal appeal, and it was a Prince song about Nikki jacking off that inspired Mrs. Sen. Gore to found the PMRC. Soon glam-metal studs with hair down to here were taking pseudoblues woman-bashing to ugly new extremes of backlash, and presumably straight, presumably potent rappers were rendering their instinctive radicalism half-useless with street misogyny that made Blackie Lawless sound like a game-show host. As a historical corrective, the late '80s ushered in the folkie postmadonna--often punky or dykey, always autonomous, sometimes even funny. The '80s were also good to women with axes, hard-rock bimbos, and sexually assertive females who called their own shots. Cyndi Lauper got away with a song about Cyndi jacking off. Madonna got into trouble giving head to a saint.

The '80s were a time of renewed racial turmoil after ten-plus years of polite resegregation. As they began, AOR was 99 percent white, and Ray Parker Jr., who later created the decade's preeminent kiddie anthem, couldn't get on pop radio because he was "too r&b"; as they ended, AOR was 98 percent white, and the Beastie Boys, who earlier created the decade's best-selling rap album, couldn't get on "urban" radio because they had "no street credibility." In between came the "Beat It" video, Purple Rain, Yo! MTV Raps, Professor Griff, Living Colour vs. Guns N' Roses, and race-baiting comedians who entered to "Whipping Post" the way white-and-proud rock bands entered to "Also Sprach Zarathustra."

Technology changed everything in the '80s. Cable brought us MTV and the triumph of the image. Synthesizers inflected the sounds that remained. Sampling revolutionized rock and roll's proprietary relationship to its own history. Cassettes made private music portable--and public. Compact discs inflated profitability as they faded into the background of busy lives.

The '80s were contradictory. The '80s were incomprehensible. The '80s weren't as much fun as they should have been.

Christgau's Record Guide: The '80s, 1990

Acknowledgments Music Processing