Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Let's Get Busy in Hawaiian: A Hundred Years of Ragged Beats and Cheap Tunes

The decade is a dandy organizing device--a convenient construct. Generalize a little? Why sure. The most important thing to happen to pop in the '90s was a tenfold increase in the amount of music recorded. That's the factoid bandied about, anyway--I've never seen the documentation. Even if the truth is half as much, it would add up to more hours of music than there are in a year, a symbolic threshold. No one can hear it all, folks. It's out of our control. Good. Daunting, overwhelming--but good.

The millennium, on the other hand, is a chimera--an inconceivable vastness for anyone who isn't a professional historian and almost anyone who is. No wonder the idea produces false prophets and religious manias. We know quite a bit about things that will pass for popular music in the 1200s (the jongleur-troubadour continuum) and the 1600s (when the governor of Cape Town owned a slave orchestra). But to wrap this info into a thousand-year package would be a waste of time.

In between these two accidents of the decimal system falls the century, which if it happens to be the 20th means something in pop. This is due to the technological action that closed the 19th, especially the development of the phonograph. Charts going back to 1890 have been devised, but musical sound recordings really do more or less begin with the century. In Evan Eisenberg's conceit, records turn music into a thing. Of course it's also living process--often crucially unique process. Of course it will and must continue to be created in the heat of the moment by and among musicians interacting with an audience; of course (although not so unequivocally) it will and must reflect local cultures. But now and forever music will be storable, portable, reproducible. And for those reasons it will be pervasive--in all industrialized places and many that aren't, an assumed fact of the aural environment.

Anyone can produce music--you just sing. Consuming it doesn't come so easy; except at special sites like markets or churches, the consumption of music was for the privileged through most of history. But as the world urbanized, performance venues proliferated. By 1845, the minstrel circuit was organizing the young male audience that has been with pop ever since; in post-Commune France, the café-chantant drew a more self-consciously aesthetic crowd to its music hall-cabaret; and from the refined English assembly rooms to the low-life hot spots of New York's Tenderloin, public dance spaces were a fact of courtship well before 1900. Songwriting for these venues was professionalized, following neither the folk pattern, in which songs were created by local celebrities who had other jobs, nor the classical one, in which composers scribbled for the aristocracy or church. As Charles Hamm emphasizes in Yesterdays: Popular Song in America, these new professionals often took it to the stage as well--they made their livings as performers. By 1850 songwriting was also well commodified, as sheet music, the stock in trade of publishers who targeted a genteel emerging market--namely, owners of pianos, the great status symbol of the emerging petit bourgeoisie.

Recordings didn't simply overrun all this music for the people; not until after World War II could they even be said to dominate it. But along with radio they greatly intensified its dissemination. Internationally, records are everything. The Americanization of world pop is neither an imposition of capitalism nor the inevitable outgrowth of our irresistible Euro-Afro meld--without records, our cultural imperialism would have been far less monolithic. And here at the source they've always been learning tools for listeners and musicians both. To repeat: live performances and one-on-one interactions are crucial--as in the epochal blues culture of Clarksdale, Mississippi (Charley Patton, Son House, Robert Johnson, Howlin' Wolf, and more) or the Benny Goodman-Eddie Condon generation of young white jazz players that emerged in Chicago at the same time, shortly after Louis Armstrong followed King Oliver up from New Orleans. But even at this point we have pathfinders like Bix Beiderbecke and Bing Crosby studying records in the boonies. And though Billie Holiday used to attend dances just to listen to the band, it was a Victrola in a whorehouse sitting room that introduced her to Bessie and Louis.

As the century began, operetta and minstrelsy had already spawned the powerful promotional medium of musical comedy, with the very American George M. Cohan and the very European Victor Herbert pioneering beneficiaries, and the very Jewish, very American Irving Berlin just around the corner. Demographically, Broadway's melting pot was white--African Americans were present there primarily in the all too symbolic form of blackface. But as an artistic force if not people getting paid they were at the heart of what was called ragtime. Ragtime wasn't just the elegant piano style it's reduced to today. It was an addictive compulsion to syncopate the beat--to "rag" it, make it ragged--that was felt throughout pop, Broadway included. This rhythmic foregrounding had its counterpart in the sexualization of social dancing--black-derived "animal dances" (turkey trot, bunny hug, eagle rock), a tango craze, and the canny commodifications of two world-class society hustlers, Englishman Vernon Castle and his American wife Irene, who with decisive input from black bandleader James Reese Europe popularized many steps, most enduringly the fox trot.

It says something about the secondary importance of recordings before World War I that composers like Cohan and Berlin remain legendary while the era's hit artists--uptempo ballad specialist Billy Murray, barbershop harmonizers the Peerless Quartet, blackface singer-comedian Arthur Collins--are forgotten. Crucially, it was only in the '20s that record companies thought to single out the "race" and "hillbilly" markets. Besides providing access to America's most original musicians, most of whom were Negroes, this development belatedly recognized pop's rural strain, which in a drama of modernization and accommodation with worldwide parallels has been infiltrating our urban-suburban culture ever since. Combine a booming economy, an impatience with the morality of repression, some youth culture, and a few dollops of postwar alienation and it was the perfect time for blues and jazz to come into their own.

It cannot be reiterated too often that "rural" doesn't get us to the naive, untutored, not-for-profit "folk." Everywhere but church, rural music had a commercial purpose, and its creators were knowledgeable and ambitious. Old-timey icon Uncle Dave Macon, for instance, went into music professionally after his transport business failed and learned many of his songs at the Nashville hotel his family owned. And the blues--well. The blues are a lot more certainly 20th-century than, for instance, jazz. There were plenty of black marching bands and songsters after the Civil War, but nothing like a bluesman existed before the 1890s. Primitive though the 12-bar form may appear, it was brand new, and the individualism of the blues within that form's stretched and reimagined constraints constituted an existential leap for the unreconstructed black people who played them. That individualism is intrinsic to the blues's enduring attraction. But just as intrinsic, Peter van der Merwe argues in his fascinating Origins of the Popular Style, has been the blues's appetite for melody--not rhythm, as is always said and also true, but melody, melody that encourages variation and hence both individual expression and the generation of "tune families," which van der Merwe believes often suggest a common ancient origin for African and Celtic music.

Blues and country are still cordoned off commercially in the '20s. Sustained by rubes without money, they'll make their move 20 years later. But "race music" also signified "jazz," which as a loosely defined genre soon lent its deracinated name to the "age," and closely coexisted with a Tin Pan Alley then starting to peak with the harmonically ambitious pantheon composers of so-called classic American popular song. Since even today it's commonplace for literate ignoramuses to claim a monopoly on artistic worth for the Berlin-Gershwin-Porter-Rodgers axis, there's a temptation to ac-cent-chu-ate the negative about musical comedy song, as do van der Merwe and Hamm. But from "Always" to "Body and Soul" to "Hello Dolly" to "Send in the Clowns" (would you believe maybe "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina"?), it stands as a titanic cultural achievement by hundreds of composers and lyricists whose great songs number in the thousands. And however overrated the legerdemain of pop changes, they are a precondition of bebop and hence all postwar jazz.

Defying sociological determinism as riders of formal upsurges so often do, Berlin-Gershwin-Porter-Rodgers-etc. just kept on writing songs and shows during the Great Depression. The Jazz Age, on the other hand, took a nosedive, and the record business very nearly died; its tiny country blues branch, in fact, did die. By 1935, however, jazz had staged a comeback and pulled the biz back up with it, with Benny Goodman, a student of black dance bands who hired Fletcher Henderson to do his arrangements, leading the charge. The swing era quickly morphed into the big-band era and was essentially over by 1940, but it occasioned a connoisseurship barely approached in previous pop. This was the first time black singers and players attracted anything like a mass audience, and the only time in America that a predominantly instrumental music did, although fans of rock improvisers from Jimi Hendrix to Sonic Youth come close enough. In its capacity for abstract development by and for an in group, swing was a subcultural dance music that presaged disco, funk, and techno. It was the first pop to inspire serious critical dialogue. Its hipper admirers evolved into the jazz aesthetes who assure the real if parlous viability of jazz as both an avant-garde and an institutionalized art music. It was only a moment, but a tremendously pregnant one.

The swift demise of swing, which saw formerly peripheral singers become bigger stars than Goodman or Miller, is blamed on many things, including the musicians union and the decimation of the male youth audience by World War II, but in retrospect it was inevitable. Swing was too hard. Pop connoisseurs habitually insist on the agency, expressiveness, originality, aesthetic acuity, and progressive political thrust of the music we treasure, and we should. But chugging alongside all the effort and invention we honor has been crap we really could do without. More should be made of the supposedly bad things pop also is, and of the right of its audience to revel in them until such time as leisure is wrested from ordinary people by implacable capital or an angry God. To name names, pop is easy and it is escapist, often at its best and almost invariably at its least momentous. There's nothing so mysterious about cheap tunes. People love them because they're a stroll in the park--scenic, diverting, even surprising, without ever tempting anyone to get lost on the way home. Vernon and Irene Castle are credited with dispatching the parlor ballad by pushing songs with a beat, but all they really did was to speed it up a little. Sentimental slow ones never go away, and sometimes they take over, especially after virtuosic energy has one of its runs; we should be thankful that their '40s comeback gave us Frank Sinatra and, less directly, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole.

By 1940, music was everywhere and runaway variety was pop's most salient and democratic virtue. Encouraged by a radio smitten with the economies of canned music as it maneuvered through publishing feuds too sordid to go into, the record industry once again marketed the rural musics of the '20s--as "country and western," which had never fully disappeared, and "rhythm and blues," an easy, escapist, exclusively African American alternative to big-band dance music that instead of emulating the machine via arrangement exploited it via amplification. Jazzy Western swing and jump blues notwithstanding, country and r&b mined folkish sounds. In country, a constructed traditionalism--Bill Monroe inventing bluegrass in a cowboy hat, say--did battle with sinful honky tonk impulses; r&b swallowed every blues trick to hit the big city and was secularizing gospel's vocal calisthenics and ecstatic beats before soul knew its name. True, Nashville became Tin Pan Alley soon enough. But if Hamm is right to believe that pop belongs to the performer, not the composer, then the triumph of the twin roots genres was a fulfillment of history rather than the betrayal of civilized standards fogeys have whined about ever since.

Enter rock and roll, which has now prevailed in its many guises for nearly half a century. The standard oversimplification, which declares rock the bastard child of blues and country, ignores the pop savvy of its overseers and exaggerates the whiteness of its roots, but does serve to emphasize its proud dependence on the modal melodies and small-group dynamics that drove country and r&b. In addition to these essential attractions, rock privileged three elements that had been knocking on pop's door since 1900: youth, race, and rhythm. Pop music had always been youth music, never more than in the '30s, but '50s teendom--enjoying an explosion of spending cash as it resisted a resurgent nuclear-family ideology out of step with too many other realities--was far more sure of itself than earlier youth cultures. And though American music has always been crossbred and American culture has never stopped being racist, the integration of pop in the '50s was far more drastic than anything suggested by the Mills Brothers on the hit parade. Of course whites maintained economic control and configured dozens of rock subgenres to their preferences and expectations--often to excellent effect, too. It's even conceivable that all of rock's radical racial metaphors were epiphenomena of the civil rights struggle. But it's crude reductionism to charge, for instance, that hip hop's pop reach is blackface all over again. African American musicians exert a status and power that was beyond them 50 years ago.

To prove it, there's rhythm. Since minstrelsy at the latest, the basic story of American and then world popular music had been cheap tunes getting their beats ragged. But the tunes, arguably part African themselves, remained paramount. With rock the balance shifted--Elvis and Chuck Berry, who had nothing on Jerry Lee Lewis and Bo Diddley, stressed and isolated the beat as even Count Basie's riff-heavy rhythm kings had not. And it was only 10 years after Elvis that James Brown upped the ante with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," which established polyrhythm as the nexus of pop musicality and jump-started a funk that motorvated not just George Clinton but Stevie Wonder, Miles Davis, Prince, disco, a rainbow of Latin tinges, and the entire techno movement, not to mention the hip hop fad. Still moving on up after two decades, that fad--a model of international phonographic cross-fertilization, with roots in the Caribbean as well as the South Bronx--has kicked as much ass as rock and roll itself. Before it's over, in some century or other, it threatens to stick unmitigated beatmastery and electronic sonics in the privileged place where melody and harmony have reigned since Bach.

Yet though African rhythm clearly deserves pride of place, rock and roll has been so much more. You don't find folk in the country because folk is an urban idea about the primitive--an idea that's been sneaking around with the vulgarities of rock and roll since before James Brown found his bag. It's folkies, whether they call themselves that or not, who are forever revitalizing outmoded musical resources they discover on old records. And bigger than that, folkies turn out to care a lot about words. Bob Dylan sold out faster than swing, and trailing behind him came a multitude of troubadours manque who turned out their own thousands of great songs--sometimes with bridges and changes attached, sometimes strophic versifying, sometimes three-chord rants, laments, or anthems. The urbane wit and commonplace succinctness prized by classic pop never died out, but rock's vernacular was more all-embracing--slangy or raunchy or obscene, earnest or enraged, confessional or hortatory, poetic or dissociative or obscure or totally meaningless. Some lyricist is recombining a personalized selection of those qualities as you read this sentence.

Where in classic pop the piano signified respectability and sold sheet music, in rock the guitar signified revolt and sold records. And where in classic pop Europe pursued pale imitations of American models alongside its own song traditions--which in the case of English and French music hall were far less fussy than, say, Europhile Jerome Kern--in rock it was Brits who grasped the possibilities. Not only did the Beatles et al. show American folkies a way out of their own gentility, they took for granted the music's countercultural thrust, which was self-evident on a continent that envied and disdained Yanks more than ever. From the day they hit Hamburg, the Beatles were destined to redefine youth culture as bohemian. Nothing is ever that one-dimensional, as waves of prefab teenpop and sclerotic balladry have been proving ever since. But consider for a moment the iconography and aesthetic pretensions of that lowbrow epitome, metal. Consider the reckless hedonism, the monastic immersion in virtuosity, the long hair, the antisocial stomp, the us-against-them rhetoric. This is something unprecedented, and like hip hop it shows no signs of going away.

The Beatles' native counterculture is long gone, of course, and with it, many old hippies would claim, rock's glory days. This smug lie was already taking shape 25 years ago, when it helped trigger the supposedly nihilistic but in fact stubbornly life-affirming love-hate of punk. Embracing marginality in a vacuum of imposed scarcity rather than the security of a boom, punk was the starting point for the revolving-door rock subculture called sometimes indie, sometimes alternative, sometimes late for chow. This subculture is the most articulate locus of a connoisseurship that is now a condition of pop life--although audiences have always been more discerning than professional discerners give them credit for, the self-conscious artiness and multimedia overkill surrounding genres both subterranean and nationwide informs shades of aesthetic discrimination it's reasonable to regard as a bit much. Alt's fling with the marketplace now officially flung, it endures much palaver about its own glory days, but shows no signs of going away either--the mean age of Sonic Youth is 42. As long as young people contradistinguish themselves from society and/or their elders by gathering in bars--or now also, to who knows what effect on the "local," on the Internet--it's a safe bet that there'll be music in the vicinity.

Pure populists will grouse that the musics of this subculture--these subcultures, really: some trad and some avant, some guitar and some synth, some shoegazing and some internationalist, some white and some multiculti and some black-identified and some black, some gay and some het and many feminist, some tethered to their record collections and some eager slaves of the disco round, with all combinations and possibilities left unmentioned also valid--are barely pop at all. And cultists who can be distracted from their Discmen may well agree. But they can't escape their debt to pop's history and assumptions. They are all children of the ragged beat, all acolytes of the easy and escapist no matter how abstract they get about it. It's pop at its massest that permeates--not even top-15 radio pap, but advertising jingles and soundtracks and the Microsoft fanfare and the stuff they make you listen to on hold. But what's propelled pop out of anyone's control is the heedless productivity of listeners turned musicmakers, of countless individuals, coteries, and congregations putting sounds in the air and on tape. We're often told that this has been the most horrific of centuries, and in some respects that's undeniable--technology and capital are inhumane by definition. But it's not as if there haven't been paybacks--or that many aren't happy to settle for the quid pro quo. Fact is, all this music has transformed culture and even bent power relations a little. And one reason it's succeeded is that that's not what it's for. It's not a way of changing the world, but of living in the world--sometimes by getting away from the world.

So let's do it. Let's get this party started quickly. Let's get physical. Let's get it on. Let's get together. Let's stick together. Let's work together. Let's dress up like cops, think of what we could do. Let's talk dirty in Hawaiian. Let's do the Freddie. Let's call the whole thing off. Let's go get stoned. Let's get lost. Let's take the long way home. Let's take a walk around the block. Let's have another cup of coffee. Let's have a tiddley at the milk bar. Let's put out the lights and go to sleep. Let's live for today. Let's fall in love. Let's spend the night together. Let's wait awhile. Let's do it again. Let's go, let's go, let's go everybody. Let's all sing like the birdies sing. Let's face the music and dance.

Village Voice, Jan. 11, 2000