Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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This was originally published as free content, in Robert Christgau's And It Don't Stop newsletter. You can have Christgau's posts delivered to your mailbox if you subscribe.

The Book of Books, Rockcrit and Musicology Division

Eric Weisbard, Songbooks: The Literature of American Popular Music (2021, 530 pp)

Yours truly leads the paragraph in the acknowledgments here where Eric Weisbard deals as he must with the many colleagues he counts as friends: "Notably, Robert Christgau shaped my basic taste, helped bring me into the Village Voice, has avidly supported the Pop Conference since he co-keynoted the first one, and oh yeah, co-officiated at my wedding." And in the introduction he calls my Book Reports, published like Songbooks by Duke, "a reminder that many entries here started with him [i.e. me] dipping into a writer who gave the big question, how pop music made us rethink culture, a new take or tone." Which I hope suffices in the full disclosure department. Absolutely Eric is one of my best friends, albeit a long-distance one since he and his wife, Ann Powers, left NYC in 2001 to reside in Seattle, Los Angeles, Tuscaloosa, and Nashville as Ann turned NPR stalwart and Eric earned Ph.D and tenure. I'm friendly with several authors I've reviewed here: the Sublettes, Michael Matos, Dave Hickey, Carola Dibbell. There'll be more I'm sure. But Eric will remain a special case, because the takeaway here is that Songbooks, which accommodates a wealth of compact essays that critique an uncountable array of music books, is itself one of the best books about music I've ever read.

Could you perchance use an overview of everything that's been thought in the 50-plus years since rock critics turned popular music journalism into an intellectually and for a while economically viable enterprise? Songbooks is it, only it goes back a lot further--two and a half centuries, to William Billings's 1770 The New-England Psalm-Singer. In 160 year-by-year chapters spanning only 445 pages, less than three per entry, Weisbard not only summarizes and analyzes the book with its author-title-date trailing a header like "Paging Through Books to Make History" (Dena Epstein's Sinful Tunes and Spirituals, 1977) or "Drool Data and Stained Panties From a Critical Noise Boy" (Nick Tosches's Country: The Biggest Music in America, also 1977), but summarizes, mentions, or just puts behind him a bunch of related books, generally five or more, for a phrase, a clause, a sentence, a paragraph, occasionally an exegesis. A bibliography comprising some 1700 "works cited" fills 67 small-type pages.

Luckily yet quite possibly also by design, the sequential organization frees Weisbard from the impossible job of assembling a coherent argument from his surprisingly coherent individual fragments. What's there instead is the broad outline of a strain of cultural analysis that did in fact crystallize with the rock criticism of the late '60s and early '70s rather than the jazz criticism that preceded it, its master in my mind the Martin Williams whose The Jazz Tradition gets a clause in the entry afforded Gary Giddins's Vision of Jazz and whose Where's the Melody? isn't mentioned at all. Yet two constants have a story to tell: the shifting dialectic of vernacular and sentimental and the flowering and wilting of music journalism as a profession.

Intellectually, the first tension is key--"vernacular" is by now both keyword and shibboleth. Curious, I searched my site and found that although I'd used the word dozens of times, none preceded 1980 (which renders Carola Dibbell's 1979 Harvey Pekar piece its earliest hit). But recalling how Billboard had wanted to change the highbrow "demotic" to the more vernacular "vernacular" in my Chuck Berry obit, then relented when I said I'd rather not, another search indicated that I was using "demotic" earlier than "vernacular." Unlike "vernacular," which per Webster's means "using a language or dialect native to a region or country rather than a literary, cultured, or foreign language," the second and crucial definition of "demotic" reads simply: "POPULAR, COMMON (~idiom)." Both "common" and "popular" pack serious weight in this context, "common" because it's more leftish than "native to a region or country," "popular" because it suggests why rock criticism, with its insistence that a bestselling art form packed aesthetic significance its sizable audience wanted to read about, became for a while the kind of viable career path that "literary, cultured" jazz criticism could not.

This path narrowed drastically not because the rock demographic dried up commercially but because journalism as a whole was squeezed so brutally by internet economics. But that's not to say that what's labeled "rockism" wasn't losing mojo as hip-hop stormed the singles charts and girlpop rose again. This shift was typified but not defined by the assertively femme-friendly term "poptimism" mapping a path blazed by Mariah Carey and Janet Jackson, Xtina and Britney, as well as the Backstreet Boys and N'Sync: an anti-rockist mindset that might be called "pro-soft," favoring not just sweeter voices and catchier tunes but less aggressively foursquare beats. In Songbooks, its pro-woman academic counterpart includes Stacy Wolf on "butch Ethel Merman, femme Julie Andrews, gay-identified Barbra Streisand, and lesbian fan accounts of Sound of Music," Tia DeNora's "late 1990s Music in Everyday Life ethnographies," Marc Anthony Neal's "black male feminism," and Diane Pecknold's sales-conscious feminist take on country music.

Given academia's tendency to annex rhetorical territory opened up by civilians, it's inevitable that the books Weisbard chooses, whose pub dates end in 2010 in deference to his sanity (though later books do poke their heads in), get more academic as the years progress. Yet the very first such is already the 47th of the 160, GI-turned-Ph.D Américo Paredes's 1958 "With His Pistol in His Hand": A Border Ballad and Its Hero. Before that, a bunch of unaccredited scholars including several librarians map crucial territory: slave songs, mountain songs, cowboy songs, Omaha Indian songs, Child ballads. Even such seminal popular culture critics as Gilbert Seldes and Constance Rourke--represented by 1923's The 7 Lively Arts (which in a 1957 note Seldes admits was "'square'" on the Paul Whiteman "jazz" then "so desperately feared, so violently attacked as the enemy of music") and 1931's American Humor: A Study of the National Character (where Rourke conflated blackface minstrelsy with Negritude and was OK by Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray nonetheless)--made their livings primarily at writing. But no more. Not counting a few artists--Madonna, Dylan, Jay-Z, novelists Jonathan Lethem and Jennifer Egan--the preponderance of the 43 post-1991 selections come from publish-or-perish academics, and even the few authors who'd identify as journalists often make the rent with teaching jobs.

Yes Weisbard passed on books I truly miss here--just for starters, Peter van der Merwe's altogether unmentioned exploration of the ancient links between British and African song Origins of the Popular Style, Henry Pleasants's pre-rockish The Great American Popular Singers, Dave Marsh's rock and roll The Heart of Rock and Soul, and Rob Sheffield's alt-rock Love Is a Mix Tape, plus Ned Sublette's definitive-till-1952 Cuba and Its Music, which is praised unstintingly but all too briefly in an entry headed up by Alejo Carpentier's verifiably Hispanic Music in Cuba (instead read Carpentier's magnificent novel Reasons of State). But except for Jacques Attali's passe Noise there's nothing here I'm sure I'd cut. And though Weisbard's efficient trick of ushering in crucial figures by highlighting the first books about them impels him to downplay or altogether ignore excellent biographies of Stephen Collins Foster by Ken Emerson, Louis Armstrong by Terry Teachout, and Woody Guthrie by both Joe Klein and Ed Cray, you can't blame him for failing to locate definitive yet manageable biographies I doubt exist--of Bert Williams, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra.

Yet out of this chronological concatenation emerges an inspiring, provocative vision of the many ways popular music matters--how caring writers have addressed its meanings, pleasures, mysteries, racism, sexism, populism, democratic vistas, conflicts of interest, angles of entry, leaps of faith, tricks of fate, joking around, stormy Mondays, mother fuyers, weary blues from waiting, reasons to be cheerful, simple twists of fate, sexy bits, and did I mention racism? And if it's true enough that this vision is somewhat piecemeal, that at least leaves me open to close piecemeal as well by savoring three especially tasty pieces.

For me the juiciest traces the roots and branches of On the Road, which I wrote off musically in Going Into the City for its spontaneous bop caricature of "life, joy, kicks, darkness, music" in "the Denver colored section"--but which I also, right, slipped into my memoir, because the thing was so seminal, in my case sparking a 15,000-mile hitchhiking trek that transported me into my life of anti-bohemian bohemianism. "The counterculture's founding novel," Weisbard begins before fashioning a paragraph's worth of sentences headed "Bop," "Scene," "Whiteness," "Aesthetics," "Art appreciation," "Therapeutic ideals," "Jokes," "Goals," "Purged homosexuality left on the typed scroll published fifty years later." Then it's onward to "Howl," Burroughs, and ex-lover tell-alls that blossom into a phenomenally compact two-page history-celebration-critique, "a beat-bop American studies overview" of the pre-counterculture time's bohemias that folds in more than 50 literary, musical, and indeed rock-critical names as well as 10 books I've read all of and more I haven't--including Leerom Medovoi's Rebels, which I bought on Eric's say-so and escaped with my life at page 134.

One never knows, but I expect no such dire consequences when my copy of Susan Douglas's 1994 Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female With the Mass Media arrives in the mail unless it fails to include her "Why the Shirelles Matter," which would break my heart a little; as a guy who thanked that vocal group in his inaugural Esquire column and last heard them Saturday, I can't believe no one told me about it at the time. Douglas is the kind of academic I feel I can trust, because she publishes not just books that aren't theory-heavy but raw journalism, the long-running In These Times media column "Back Talk" in particular. Keeping all balls in the air as usual, Weisbard notes that younger women have taken "the academic intersection of media studies farther." But I'll start with Douglas and see where she leads.

And then there's "Musicology's Greatest Tune Chronicler": Charles Hamm (1925-2011), whose Yesterdays: Popular Song in America maps out an incontrovertibly multicultural lineage for American popular music that seems to leave the awesomely well-read Weisbard slightly awestruck. I felt that way myself when I first read Yesterdays. I met Hamm once on a visit to my Dartmouth alma mater, and although American music was his passion, it was he who introduced me to mbaqanga giants the Soul Brothers. A little of what Weisbard has to say about him will stand as a proper farewell to an endeavor that has no end: "The song, which could skim opera and ragtime with equal dispassion, was the perfect vehicle; commercial viability the only true measure; the sheet music ditties and recordings that resulted simple but ingenious. Hamm listened, researched, and illustrated."

And It Don't Stop, May 26, 2021