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.


Return to Christgau's Rock&Roll& column

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