Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

Consumer Guide:
  User's Guide
  Grades 1990-
  Grades 1969-89
  And It Don't Stop
  Book Reports
  Is It Still Good to Ya?
  Going Into the City
  Consumer Guide: 90s
  Grown Up All Wrong
  Consumer Guide: 80s
  Consumer Guide: 70s
  Any Old Way You Choose It
  Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough
Xgau Sez
  And It Don't Stop
  CG Columns
  Rock&Roll& [new]
  Rock&Roll& [old]
  Music Essays
  Music Reviews
  Book Reviews
  NAJP Blog
  Rolling Stone
  Video Reviews
  Pazz & Jop
Web Site:
  Site Map
  What's New?
Carola Dibbell:
  Carola's Website
CG Search:
Google Search:

Opening Remarks at the CMJ Panel Discussion

On September 12, everybody said the world would never be the same. Since then, many have tried to take that back. One movie mogul went so far as to explain to the Times that anything anyone said that week couldn't be taken literally, we were all too wrought up, and that therefore he'd be releasing his regularly scheduled violent piffle. Even the urgings of our elected leaders that Americans get back to living their lives can fall into this category. Sometimes such advisories seem like plain good sense; other times they seem like feel-good rah-rah. I'm not sure what it's like in the rest of the country, although I suspect the trauma's a little more abstract there. But here in New York most people I know feel torn both ways. Parties where acquaintances haven't seen each other for a while only break out of where-were-you-when mode after the second round of drinks. A journalist who has just spent a focused hour sharing her long professional experience with college students interrupts some postpanel gossip about the hip hop wars: "I really only want to think about Afghanistan." A bandleader who hasn't said or sung a word as he negotiates his difficult guitar pieces tells the sparse crowd, "Let's hear it for New York," and after the yells and whistles announces, "This one's called 'Just Plain Scared.'"

This is called contradiction, and Americans have never had much taste for it. But there it is. We know that if we don't get back somehow, those who conspired to take the lives of so many of our fellow humans on September 11 have achieved their larger goal--which is taking part of each of our lives as well. But we also know that the world those lives occur in isn't the place we thought it was. The most drastic change, once again experienced most intensely in New York, is that for the first time since 1814 or at best 1865 each American knows he or she is vulnerable to acts of war, so that sometimes we're just plain scared. But for most Americans who think as much as the people in this room--which is to say, not all that much maybe, but some--there's also the uncomfortable sense that national policies we never much liked are suddenly impinging all too fucking directly on our lives. Even if we'd never heard of the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan, for instance, we knew the Taliban were bad guys. Remember the Buddhist statues they blew up? But we figured, Well, what can we do about it? Now that question is our question. And in a more general way, scenarios of poverty and oppression in the Middle East and elsewhere, actions and policies that we may well have deplored in principle, are now running up to bite us in the ass whether we deplored them or not.

So then. As our panel topic asks, what is the role of entertainment in times of national tragedy? Or as I prefer to think of it, what happens to music after the fall? We're obviously not going to answer that question here today. But before our panelists tell you about their concrete plans and share their ideas and their hopes and fears, I'd like to try to break it down a little, into three subtopics: the economic, the political, and the artistic.

Economically, there's an overwhelming specific. At every level, the music industry depends on transportation--not just of goods, but of people. This CMJ wasn't smaller just because it was scheduled to begin September 12, making it one of thousands of New York businesses done serious damage by the WTC attack. It was also smaller because people are reluctant to fly--in part because they're nervous about hijacking, but perhaps more importantly, and more lastingly, because air travel has suddenly become far less efficient. It just takes longer, and maybe those extra two or three hours render specific trips cost-ineffective. For the vanning bands this may not matter much, although when I saw the Handsome Family a few weeks ago they'd just spent three hours on the other side of the Lincoln Tunnel. But for acts successful enough to afford to leapfrog a little, touring is going to become more problematic, straining the national club network that has meant so much to the grassroots development of independent music. And for acts from outside America, it will be even worse, just at a time when internationalization is crucial.

On top of that, of course, there's the question of how this particular war effort, in which home security will impose new distractions and demand new cautions, is going to impact an economy that wasn't exactly thriving before it began. Not positively, most agree. At the major labels, where the cost-cutters are always waiting with their red ink, a new round of downsizing seems quite possible. And the midlevel where so much of the artistic action has moved, and where most of those who attend this conference set their sights, has always lived on the margins and in the interstices--always kept itself going on the discretionary income of the young. What happens if that dries up a little? What happens if fewer clubgoers can afford the fare, fewer indie shops make their nut?

Politically, there's also an overwhelming specific--civil liberties. A culture of unity stifles dissent by its very nature, without necessarily prohibiting expression. Take the Clear Channel flap, with its list of banned songs that may not actually have been banned but certainly got everyone thinking about what was "appropriate" and what wasn't. Make no mistake--more than any other branch of popular culture, music is committed to expressing the impolite, the irreverent, the forbidden. Will this decrease? Increase? Are we prepared to fight back if new curbs are imposed by corporations or the government? Are we sure that in every case it will be right to fight back?

In addition, if those who don't concur will please pardon what I know is an oversimplification, music is on the side of what I'll call the peace party. That doesn't mean we always oppose military action--for the record, I don't in this case. But we do keep a close eye on it. We remain very aware of dangers, costs, moral conundrums. Usually, most of us try to be oblique about this. Having concluded that protest music rarely effects many conversions, that however much we hate and fear imperialism and exploitation preaching about it is very hard to do right, we follow a program of free your ass and your mind will follow. Should that change, and how?

That brings us to the artistic and more broadly the spiritual. Except for Lorraine, who has a very different take from mine, everyone else on this panel is a doer. They make music, set policy. As a critic, I'm basically a responder, still quite an excitable one after all these years, and I find that my ears have been slow to right themselves. I still can't listen to new albums by the Strokes or Macy Gray, both of which I was looking forward to sinking my teeth into--they feel too ego-driven, rooted in some other reality. But I haven't soured on them, not yet--I still hope there's a time in the not too distant future when that will change.

I don't know what will happen--except everything, as usual. There'll be escape music, and there'll be reality music, and the escape music will sell better than the reality music, and that's OK, because the edge and spirit of the reality music feeds off the confidence and abandon of the escape music. Or maybe some hero or movement will come along or grow a quantum and put it all together. That's a hope, almost a utopian hope. I'd trade it in on those two rectangular obelisks I never much liked looking at in a millisecond. But that's not a choice any of us have.

Village Voice, Oct. 30, 2001