Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Staying Alive

book cover

Eons ago, in the strange time when punks and stoners disagreed about everything except whether disco sucked, rockist sages would complain bitterly about all the ways dance music wasn't alive. It was prefabricated, they charged--mechanical beats and studio thrills stripped of human error, with producers exerting such complete control that the so-called artists were little more than names on a label. More ecumenical souls wanted to deny these insults outright, but unfortunately, there was truth to them. The proof came whenever the latest flash made her or his pitiable attempt to cash in with a personal appearance. These were almost always solo--without label subsidies and concerted image buildup, backing bands were literally insupportable. The norm was a brief set in a club designed for dancing during which the name on the bill attached itself to a body and emoted the words over tracks blasted from a cruddy PA. Soul has-beens and never-wases did what they could to invest this format with whatever audience skills they'd accrued on the usual hodgepodge of small stages. With the younger hitmakers, fans were grateful to be spared actual lip-synching.

Once the smarter punks sussed that disco wasn't about to take over the world, they made their peace with dance music. In some cases, in fact, they tried it themselves, and just exactly who was coopting who remains debatable. As the most insatiable rock and rollers of the time, the children of 1977 wanted it all and got plenty, so that if it was fair to say that Boy George was "like punk never happened," it was just as fair to retort that punk made glam dance-pop possible. This connection was predominantly Brit, epitomized by Scritti Politti's migration from noise-punk to treacle-funk and Joy Division's rebirth as New Order. The American variant, briefly dubbed dance-oriented rock or DOR, never surpassed the B-52's, who started it.

The more significant postpunk development Stateside was a club circuit that turned human error into a consumer fetish and electric guitars into a way of life. In the Nirvana era, however, this proving ground has revealed its limits as a school for stagecraft, a concept it never much encouraged anyway. Many renowned "alternative" acts--think Pavement, Liz Phair, Guided by Voices, Magnetic Fields--are studio rats disinclined to look people's ears in the eye; others--think American Music Club, Jayhawks, Sebadoh--are song bands of the sort whose performances have never been all that kinesthetic, and whose human errors are usually artistic flubs as well. My worst suspicion is that "alternative"'s muddled ambivalence about success has produced a generation of art wonks emotionally and intellectually incapable of putting out for an audience--for every Belly or Green Day showing me how to hear their records there's a Spinanes or Auteurs convincing me to forget theirs.

And so one of my favorite shows of a nightclubbing year was a March date at the Academy by the declasse song band Veruca Salt. They could have been more unerring and kinesthetic, but I loved Nina and Louise's wisecracking, fondly skeptical familiarity with the assembled "Seether" fans. Accidental queens of MTV, they had half-intentionally attracted a bridge-and-tunnel crowd they weren't always sure they liked, yet they were committed to dealing with it, which was a tremendous up. Not that the scene-soaked Soul Coughing (and the unsigned Cake Like) weren't just as inspirational agitating the downtown converted at Wetlands in January. But Veruca Salt renewed my faith in the rewards of audience-mixing--my belief that, ideally, what happens at a gig should be social and popular-cultural as well as musical and subcultural. And over a recent two-week stretch, that faith was lifted heavenwards by, of all things, three dance acts.

Tricky, Moby, and M People are so dissimilar that to stick them in the same genre is mainly to illustrate the genre's elasticity--only insofar as it insists on its own functionality is "dance" any narrower a category than "alternative," and nowadays its functions have been expanded to include trance, repose, and, it sometimes seems, total unconsciousness. In fact, maybe what unites them is their will to deliver dance music from pure use value without undercutting its pleasure potential. In their very different ways, all three insist that their music doesn't just do something, it means something. Since unlike most creators in the dance world, which goes about its business by sucking up rivers of singles and remixes, all three apply themselves to the craft of album construction--M People's Elegant Slumming won Britain's Mercury Prize in 1994, and Moby's Everything Is Wrong and Tricky's Maxinquaye have been ecstatically reviewed--maybe it shouldn't have been a surprise that they also put so much into that other staple of full-fledged stardom, the tour. But surprise certainly boosted their charge. This was disco, right? So what were those bands doing up there?

Granted, M People sometimes used backing tracks and Moby depended on them. In the kingdom of the keyb, how could it be otherwise? What was astonishing was that Tricky--whose album is the darkest, dourest, and deepest of the three--tried to reproduce his disjunct, claustrophobic studio escape-ism with guitar-keyb-bass-drums. Not reproduce, actually--that would be impossible and Tricky knows it. Say render, in a soundscape long on rock guitar, with Tricky himself more forthcoming and Martine inspiring the sick fear that she may want to be Des'ree when she grows up. Tricky's show was the least successful of the three, somewhat less compelling in the packed confines of the Bank, where he headlined for an ultrahip house of dance scenesters, than preceding PJ Harvey at the Academy, where his diffident opener's cool meshed with the plusher surroundings to recall the record's mood while the rock gestalt reinforced his live sound. But either way it was smarter and more engaged than the last Pavement and Sebadoh gigs I caught, ace recording artists though both may be.

Tricky is a depressive with attitude, a complicated malcontent whose cynicism can't quash his capacity for euphoria or rebellion. Beatwise yet determinedly Lo-NRG, his live shtick translates dance-music-by-association into rock-by-association. Playing Irving Plaza before Tricky came to town, Moby was something else: a rabid pessimist of the mind and politics and a raving optimist of the spirit and music who leads a revival where rock and roll, "dance," and, oh yeah, "classical" become interchangeable gateways to ecstasy. Live, the hardcore punk turned techno whiz proved the rare rock shaman who makes good on his pretensions. A blond ascetic wearing earplugs and accompanied by one white trap drummer and one white percussionist, he screamed his own lyrics and mimed those of the black divas and toasters he hires and samples. Usually he jumped around or beat drums organic and electronic, but in the middle he donned a guitar for one furious punk song and one subsatanic metal number, playing the straighter beats of both for the joyous release that was his purpose throughout. To climax he stood shirtless through a long electronic chord-crescendo as a light show played over his slight body. Martyr, messiah, universal man--religious Godstruck humility as human exaltation as superstar ego. His crowd was more "alternative"-looking than Tricky's, which may just mean it's getting harder to tell the ravers from the rockers, and although I never trust self-appointed saviors, the faith he manifested looked to me like an antidote to the scene's terminal irony. I just hope his presentation gets as multiculti as that of Tricky, a black male auteur who foregrounds a black female singer and fronts a white band. As political pessimists should always remember, multiculti needs all the help it can get.

Multiculturalism wasn't the only reason the most retro show of all was my favorite, but it definitely helped. The U.S. Elegant Slumming, baited with extra hits from the U.K. Northern Soul, is a perfect disco album, an unending succession of hooky-beaty concoctions flavoring Heather Small's deep, robust, confident shout. But DJ-turned-conceptmaster Michael Pickering and musical helpmate Paul Heard seemed such studio mavens that a naive Yank would never have suspected that they and Small and their percussionist buddy Shovell had spent two years touring Europe with a full band, which on their new Bizarre Fruit would replace the session musicians they'd made their name with. There's a musical cost--Bizarre Fruit isn't mechanical enough. But there's also a live payback. Although I can't attest that the well-rehearsed biracial nine-piece--two drummers, three saxophonists, four keyb players (one of whom provided only bass, two of whom were also among the saxophonists), male-female backup duo--provided that spontaneous spark humanity buffs go on about, watching them be into it sure was fun. And if Small's enthusiastic vogue-pose and bump-and-grind moves were elementary (she should try holding the mike in her left hand sometime), I admired how she played her sexy body--navel barely exposed under a full top that revealed no cleavage, legs clad in a pedal-pusher skort. More important was the infectious everyday-people congeniality she projected. This was not a glam outfit--Pickering's sweaty midneck locks could be the worst haircut in English rock--and that was a crucial element of their charm.

Better still was the crowd--somewhere under half gay guys, many of them jammed up near the pit, augmented by loads of het couples, many unusually stable-looking. This was probably because the median age was over 30, with the gays a little older than the straights. The sense you got from the grizzled out-alones who knew all the lyrics and the dressed-up dames dancing around their handbags was that M People serve the same function for old and/or loyal disco denizens as the Ramones, to choose a clear if extreme example, once did for rock and rollers--they reconfirm old verities by intensifying them. Not only does disco live (a vitality that has special resonance, of course, for the style's gay fans), but it's alive in precisely the way rock puritans used to claim it wasn't, and M People get profundity points just for proving it. Pickering and Heard like to say that their songs are getting more soulful and meaningful, but the deepest meaning they have to offer is bound up in their formal commitment to what's most frivolous in classic disco--the fun positivity of Saturday night fever. That positivity provides the emotional ground on which Tricky and Moby build their more complex but not necessarily more valid meanings. And these days, rockist sages have plenty to learn from it.

Village Voice, June 27, 1995