Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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A New (Rock) Polarity

Gender, Rebellion and Rock 'n' Roll
By Simon Reynolds and Joy Press
Harvard University Press

Most histories of rock and roll are organized around one or several familiar polarities: art and commerce, rebel and establishment, young and old, black and white. The Sex Revolts doesn't claim to be definitive, but it often feels like a history of rock and roll organized solely around male and female. For Reynolds, a New York-based Briton, and Press, his American wife, rock plainly belongs to the avant-garde rather than the pop tradition. So it's not surprising that they have plenty to say about the human longing for infancy and nothing about the paradoxical involvement of full-grown adults in what was originally conceived as teen music. And despite a barely examined assumption that "for decades" this music was "based on . . . an emulation of black machismo, flamboyance, passion and self-aggrandizement," black artists are all but ignored--however brilliantly Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, and Al Green, to name just three, configured gender, they're "soul," not "rock."

Nevertheless, both as an account of bohemian sexism and an exploration of how sexual identity inflects musical form, The Sex Revolts is thorough yet highly (if sometimes irritatingly) idiosyncratic. Unabashed fans of four-on-the-floor male chauvinists from Jim Morrison to Australian cult favorite Nick Cave, Reynolds and Press are also eloquent in their praise of a more womanly "oceanic" aesthetic they discern in figures as diverse as the German avant-gardists Can, punk poet Patti Smith, and Joni Mitchell's far-flung heiresses. Let's hope that theirs is not the last cross-disciplinary work that owes its ambitions to the cultural studies movement while refusing to succumb to academic provincialism and jargon.

New York Times Book Review, 1995