I grew up in a time when elections still had their popcult charm, like baseball standings. Since age 10 I’ve been rooting for a presidential convention to go into extra ballots, and despite the lives at stake, the first Tuesday of November is my idea of a good night for a TV party. That’s how the Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll was conceived — as an election with only metaphors hanging in the balance, or maybe the musical equivalent of association baseball. But usually — cf. the goddamn presidency — the thrill of the contest is undercut by its more or less foreordained result. Not this year, though. As in the march of the seven dorks through spring primaries, the winner was hard to figure out precisely because the general outlines were so predictable.
I never bought Assigning Poobah Doug Simmons’s fatalistic assumption that U2 would rampage idealistically to the top of our 14th (or 15th) poll like we were Rolling Stone or the L.A. Times or the Hot 100. But since he was opening the ballots, I eventually lost my palmy certainty that The Joshua Tree couldn’t win because it just wasn’t good enough. As the countdown approached I handicapped the yearning sons of Eire just below Bruce Springsteen, the only major artist whose courage exceeded the call of duty in 1987, and Prince, the only major artist whose professionalism ditto, and a little ahead of yearning son of Indiana John Cougar Mellencamp and Pazz & Jop perennials R.E.M. and the Replacements. If I’d had to pick one horse it would have been Sign “O” [sic] the Times, but that was a guess, and I looked forward to some fun — an all-night tally down to the wire. Instead, the 226 voters gave Prince an unprecedented landslide. Prorated, only three albums this decade — London Calling in 1980, Born in the U.S.A. and Purple Rain in the donnybrook of 1984 — have run up more points, and Sign “O” the Times is easily the biggest winner in Pazz & Jop history. Its 579-point margin is 40 per cent wider than London Calling’s over The River in 1980, 60 per cent wider than Thriller’s over Murmur in 1983. If only we could expect as much of Jesse Jackson.
I voted for Prince, and given the electoral realities I was rooting for him; I couldn’t have asked for a more gratifying or newsworthy result. Sign “O” the Times established Prince as the greatest rock and roll musician of the era — as singer-guitarist-hooksmith-beatmaster, he has no peer. The set’s few lackluster cuts would shine electric anywhere else, and sides two and three never stop, piling on the crafty, eccentric, blatantly seductive pop erotica until you just can’t take no more. Between AIDS and Tipper Gore, it was a good year to stick sex in the world’s face, too, as George Michael wasn’t the only one to figure out. But I’m obliged to point out that Sign “O” the Times doesn’t right Prince’s chronic shortcomings as lyricist-icon-conceptmaster, shortcomings exemplified by the title cut, which squeaked into first in the singles category. As usual when he Makes a Statement, what it states is that he’s Making a Statement, and while I’ll take that from George Michael or even Michael Stipe these days, I expect better of a peerless musician who predicates his iconography on lyrics and concept. I prefer the runner-up, Suzanne Vega’s “Luka,” not because it invokes the tragedy of child abuse with all the expressive means at Vega’s collegiate disposal, but because it condenses a two-hour TV movie into four minutes. And I’ll take “U Got the Look,” Prince’s erotomanic collaboration with Sugarwalls Easton, over either. Fuck significance, let’s dance.
As we’ll see, significance and its discontents loom large in this year’s poll, with several thoughtful voters chalking up Prince’s concept problem as a strength. Of course, if everyone agreed, the title tune wouldn’t have outpolled “U Got the Look” two-to-one. One reason the album gathered such broad support is that it gives off enough verbal-conceptual signals to appease the average critical conscience. For every J. D. Considine tagging it (plausibly if meanly) as “half-assed, self-indulgent,” there’s another who thinks it’s all about, well, the times — and another who hears the music signifying, and another who says let’s just dance (or boogie) (or fuck), and maybe half a Chuck Eddy concluding that Prince’s very confusion makes him a true son of rock and roll. All of which is worth precisely eight points by me. So if I gave Springsteen 13, why was I rooting for Prince? Because Tunnel of Love is so subtle, so austere, that a victory would have smelled of the sobersided insularity, racial myopia, and old-boy conservatism rock critics are accused of every once in a while. Historically, smart but obvious beat music has won this poll. I wanted Bruce second, and I got him.
After that, to be honest, I didn’t much give a shit. My more recondite personal choices finished higher than I’d hoped: Sonny Rollins’s hottest record in a quarter-century at 60, New Order’s definitive 12-inch compilation at 56, Jimi Hendrix’s definitive live album tied at 45, and, in a startling surge, Sly and Robbie’s Laswellized art-funk statement at 25, with the official U.S. debut of Culture’s roots-reggae classic Two Sevens Clash tied for eighth among reissues. All of which made me feel righteous. But when R.E.M.’s Document and John Cougar Mellencamp’s Lonesome Jubilee didn’t turn into the contenders my enthusiasm fooled me into expecting, I just figured these personal discoveries were blips.
Because 1987 was the year of the blip. In the collective mind and ear, no fewer than five of the top 10 albums were almost as unexciting as they were unexceptionable, with individual preferences among them adding up to nothing more than a bunch of individual preferences. I liked R.E.M. and Mellencamp, others liked Los Lobos and Hüsker Dü, big deal. The Replacements do drum up more passion, and rightly so — Paul Westerberg is the Prince of critics’ rock. But all these bands articulate well-turned variants on the song-oriented Amerindie guitar-band dialect that has dominated this poll all decade, and if their professionalism is a lot more meaningful, pleasurable, and unpecuniary than Whitesnake’s or (Jesus) David Bowie’s, professionalism is nonetheless what it is. They make a living at it — in some cases a damn good one. In 1987, Mellencamp led his multiplatinum following deeper into roots while R.E.M. sold a million and Los Lobos scored a number-one single (third with the critics) and soundtrack (two mentions). Can the Replacements be far behind? Not with Westerberg engrossed by the contradictions of maturity they can’t.
One result of this professionalism is a logjam that disorients critics addicted like no others to the shock of the new. Except for 1982, when there were six, exactly five newcomers had entered the Pazz & Jop top 10 every year since 1979. In 1987, that figure plummeted to two: old P&J hands XTC with the 1986 holdover Skylarking, and old P&J also-ran John Hiatt, now alcohol-free and on his fourth major label in a career dating back to 1974. Deprived of their dose of new-thing, the critics dispersed their support into an ever-widening field of mutually exclusive cult artists as their general enthusiasm waned. Both responses were reflected in point totals that dip below ’86 and ’85 levels right after Hiatt’s depressingly impressive finish and never recover. Not since 1979 has anybody snuck into our top 40 with under 100 points the way abstemious Tom Verlaine and alcohol-free Warren Zevon did — and need I mention that we’ve seen these deserving coots around here before?
In the end, however, criticism more than statistics was what convinced me that my mood of good-but-not-good-enough wasn’t a blip. Last time, determined to bring forth a more democratic forum, I published testimonials to the top 10 from the professional and semiprofessional writers who voted them in. But this year I came up almost dry once past U2, who also elicited all the contumely due a dubious frontrunner. Not a word on XTC beyond a complaint that “Dear God” spoiled Skylarking’s concept. A single compliment for Mellencamp’s music — leading into a surly assault on all the “people” (not even “critics”) who’ve “spread ’em” (male bias? us?) for his “populist bilge” (and this from a fan of A Very Special Christmas). “No scams, no star-struck looks, and no hook-oriented lyrics” was as not-bad as it got for Los Lobos; “His singing has never been more soulful and his lyrics have never been more witty and intelligent” was as much-worse as it got for John Hiatt. I name no names because it’s not my desire to put colleagues down, but if they couldn’t rise to the occasion of their own preferences, I felt no need to cut their faves any slack.
By now, faithful readers may be wondering whether something’s changed. After years of pooh-poohing the pessimism of the electorate, am I finally buying in? Well, yeah, in a way. If in 1986 I saw progress turning into a problematic concept for rock and roll, now I get the sense something’s ending. That doesn’t mean nothing’s beginning, though. Amid the usual aye-and-nay (and more nay) — pedestrian complaints about radio and A&R, pedestrian demurrals, criticism criticism, appreciations, gibes at this or that bête noire, dull desperation, crazed desperation — there were defiant glimmers of pleasure and elation, often from respondents who don’t strike me as dopes or pollyannas, or even especially happy people.
As usual — strangely enough, it’s how I make my living — I have the beginnings of a theory about all this. Keepers of the flame may well regard this theory as treasonous; those who’ve gotten burned, meanwhile, will wonder what took me so long. I suppose the catalyst was the rockcrit (not rock and roll) event of the year, Lester Bangs’s Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, which sent admirers and epigones ruminating off in a hundred directions, as you can see from the comments that begin that long section entitled “Rock and Roll as Literature, Literature as Rock and Roll.” As far as I’m concerned (he ruminated), Lester’s relentless attack on significance, right reason, rock-is-art, the whole baggage of validation and domestication that’s an all but inevitable consequence of criticism no matter how wild and wooly it sets out to be, was always salutory and never the whole enchilada, not even in his own mind. Still, I was struck by what Bart Becker had to say about Lester’s elevation to “literature” on his own dust jacket. The term is sharp marketing, useful propaganda, and an all but inevitable consequence of writing as well as Lester wanted to and did, but I have to admit that it lays a dead hand on a tremendously vital life-enterprise. And I’m not so sure the same concept isn’t vitiating rock and roll itself.
The canard that rock critics only care about the words has a history so long that there was once a smidgen of truth to it — around the dawning of James Taylor, when Lester was coming up. But the most genteel songpoetry shill always knew he or she was in it for the song, not poetry, though the terminology to evoke or analyze the song may have been lacking. Anyway, that was long ago. These days critics no less than songwriters are acutely aware of music and especially musicians. Most exemplary are the de facto singer-songwriters — Westerberg, Mellencamp, Holsapple, Merchant, imminent apostate Morrissey — who actively embrace the expressive discipline (and limitations) of a band. If anything, critics are even stricter about this than bandleaders, who do have ego conflicts and little dollar signs in front of their eyes to distract them from the path of righteousness. And the bands critics like best generate their own unmistakable sounds: except for studio-bound quick-change artists XTC and Pet Shop Boys and the R.E.M.-influenced 10,000 Maniacs (plus perhaps the proudly folklorico Los Lobos), there isn’t one in the top 40 who couldn’t be ID’d without vocals inside of eight bars.
Yet nobody would be interested in these bands without vocals — not just because the vocalists are essential and usually dominate musically, but because the lyrics the vocalists articulate (or slur) are what make the music mean. They specify it, sharpen its bite. And at whatever level of change-your-life, cognitive dissonance, sound example, comforting half-truth, or craven banality, meaning — or anyway, the show of meaning — is something audiences expect from music. So from the pop factories to the garages, from Debbie Gibson to Big Black, we’re inundated with well-made songs — well-made not because they revitalize the European concert tradition with harmonic aperçus, as polite little well-made songs are supposed to, but because they yoke sense and/or nonsense to sound and/or noise. This sense/nonsense is literary in a fairly narrow way — with due consideration for the peculiarities of the genre, which often include gauche blank patches and a rather unliterary colloquial logic, but no more than in drama or epic. Most critics have little trouble, really, finding songs if not albums that meet their literary standards. But one reason good is no longer good enough is that songwriters are having trouble eluding the dead hand that pushed more than one critic into rock and roll to begin with: the relative rapidity with which words lose their power to surprise, especially when they’re competing with countless other words of similar form and quality if not import. In a crisis of overproduction, another peculiarity of the genre eludes us: stuff that gets us off, as rude little rock and roll songs are supposed to.
I don’t trust theories of formal exhaustion. They’re too tautological; they don’t explain enough. The right artist in the right place at the right time can make them look ridiculous — Rosanne Cash’s Nashville branch of the El Lay School of Rock is so well-endowed it’s a wonder John Hiatt dropped out. And there are obviously personal exceptions beyond number. Nobody’s gonna tell me that R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” isn’t a sign of the times, or that Mellencamp’s “The Real Life” is any kind of bilge, and there’s evidence that my failure to fully connect with Pleased To Meet Me shouldn’t be blamed on Bob Stinson’s gone guitar or Paul Westerberg’s broken contract with the devil — that it’s a dysfunction related to my advanced years. There are loads of blips out there without a doubt, and I’m ready to believe that blips are what make life worth living. It’s even possible the year itself was a blip. Years do differ, after all — only 15 of the 1986 top 40 even released albums in 1987, which is about normal, and among the missing were song-oriented neofolkies Bragg and Burnett and Pogues and Timbuk 3, two of whom have already posted contenders for the 1988 list. Or maybe as they break pop the great critics’ groups will go into cultural overdrive. But I suspect not. Speaking generally, collectively, historically, an aesthetic seems to have lost its charge. Words aren’t making rock and roll mean the way they have ever since I took this job.
As I said, some dare call this treason. There are critics out there who’ll die believing Robbie Robertson is cutting-edge because he gave his imprimatur to Bono Vox; if I’m not mistaken, some of them are dead already. But as I also said, others dare call it too fucking late, and them I take seriously. One way or another, consciously or instinctively, many of the most demanding younger critics have been pushing ill-made antisong for years. They look to immerse in sound that destroys or supercedes the sense/nonsense continuum: posthardcore, industrial noise, skronk, grunge, shit-rock, records that deteriorate before your very ears. Most of it sounds dead end, is dead end, but a new dead end is at least a change, and out of the wreckage of feuding cults and stupid experiments has emerged the one Amerindie band to show significant upward musical and electoral movement in recent years: Sonic Youth, who finished 12th and deserved better with a noisy album whose songs never call attention to how they’re made and connect more powerfully for it.
Still, the wreckage is there. Beyond this year’s top 10 (plus dB’s and Blasters and 42nd-place X hanging on and Del-Lords ready to emerge from limbo), our recent LP and EP lists have touted too many imminent obscurities. The roll call begins with tragedy and fast degenerates into small-time professionalism, earned anonymity, and pathetic self-indulgence: Minutemen, Mission of Burma, Minor Threat, Fleshtones, Lyres, Rank and File, Bongos, Love Tractor, Let’s Active, Salem 66, Violent Femmes, Neats, Lifeboat, Flipper, Butthole Surfers, Dream Syndicate, Del Fuegos. Of the 17 Amerindie bands to place 41–100 last year, seven made new albums, one of which placed 41–100 this year. (That would be Big Black’s Songs About Fucking, tied for 77th with supergriot Salif Keita’s Soro, which is my idea of poetic justice. FYI, the Leaving Trains’ Fuck got shut out.) If any of the six American ill-mades to place 41–100 this year — Red Kross, Dinosaur Jr., Firehose, Big Black, Chain Gang, Negativland — ever finish as high again, I’ll be astonished. And also, probably, pleased. It’s not as if I don’t hope the Amerindies shock me into recognition again — I want to mention that the best songs of the 70th-place Silos beat Mellencamp’s by me, albeit without Kenny Aronoff to kick them home, and wonder what Negativland think of the Pet Shop Boys. Even among enthusiasts, though, enthusiasm is flagging palpably.
With this in mind, I decided we should finally 86 the EP tally, instituted in 1981 as an Amerindie showcase, though from the start it proved a refuge for major-label odd lots as well. In the early years, the list did serve a predictive function, but not lately. Simmons readily assented to the change, and after some consideration we decided EPs would compete with albums (where Feedtime’s Shovel — which some claim is an EP, although I’ve never laid eyes on the thing — finished 63rd and Pussy Galore’s Pussy Gold 5000 118th, nine points ahead of the overpraised Right Now!). We weren’t surprised when Amerindie partisans howled; what surprised us is that they changed our minds. The EP ballot will return next year by semisemipopular demand, replacing videos, where only a third of the voters exercised their franchise this year, with the Chief Poobah among the missing. Maybe the victory will give the partisans a taste for the rewards of consensus, but I doubt it, because what was most striking about the ad hoc EP lists scattershot our way was their dearth of agreement — or duplication, I guess you could say. Having grown up in a time when elections had their popcult charm, I value consensus — even (or especially) oddball consensus. The partisans value self-expression, self-interest, self-anything, in bands and criticism both. At this juncture the American “underground” isn’t just factionalized — it’s atomized, a minority of minorities of one.
Other minorities proved more coherent — and also, as should surprise no one, more suggestive. We paid special attention this year to demographics — not regional, where the usual distribution prevailed (29 states plus D.C. and Ontario, with 84 metro-NY voters; qualified boondockers please apply), but racial, sexual, and generational. After appending a brief plea for black and female participation to our first mailing, where we also asked critics how old they were, we followed up by sending an affirmative-action statement and second ballot-and-SASE to black invitees. None of which worked. Black participation rose from an embarrassing 13 to an embarrassing 16, about half of them Voicers; female participation fell from 30 to 29; and well under 100 voters revealed their ages. But we had to do what we had to do, not just because we’re always looking for new ways to wear our hearts on our sleeves, but because as devotees of what’s supposedly a novelty-obsessed youth music we combat stasis by any means necessary. After all, in a year when the top 10 was almost uniformly white, uniformly male, and depressing by nonacclamation, maybe those perennially short-changed in the Pazz & Jop (and rock and roll) consensus might offer useful input. Bob the Nonethnic Mack may think the secret is revitalizing ’70s art-rock — guitar solos welcome, neatness counts. But after you agree that the Edge’s Zeppisms do more for The Joshua Tree than Bono’s bluesisms, read Gina Arnold on Eric Clapton in the section headed “Demography in Action.” For her — and, unless she’s deceiving herself, most young women — guitar solos are the enemy. Like it or not, minority musical needs and proclivities really do differ from those of rock criticism’s white boys, a jocular heh-heh term from our invitation that was thrown jocularly heh-heh back in our teeth by a number of respondents — “I’m a white boy,” “28-year-old white-boy rock critic,” “35 years old, white, male (of course!)”
Pursuing this line of thought, I ignored the unreliability of our tiny samples and totted up women- and blacks-only top 15s. Not surprisingly in a music that has yet to generate an unseparate-but-equal female tradition, the women’s list begins not unlike the big one, but with fewer points (read: less enthusiasm) for the identical top four than 29 randomly selected voters would have assigned. Other high-finishing albums did poorly (Hüsker Dü, Coleman, and Sonic Youth featuring Kim Gordon got four mentions total), while women put Kate-Bush-with-teeth Sinéad O’Connor into the top 40 and 10,000 Maniacs featuring Natalie Merchant into the top 30. Presumably, women play this boys’ game for the same conflicted reasons they play so many others — partly because their options are limited, partly because they share the boys’ values (freely or otherwise), and partly because the game has its intrinsic attractions. Taken as a group, they decline several of its usages, notably romantic-individualist virtuosity from Coleman to Clapton (though mad poet O’Connor half-fits the mold) and the objectification of gurls/wimmin to which all boys are prone and some more prone than others. When they choose role models (or sex objects), they prefer the emotion and atmosphere of O’Connor and Merchant (or U2 and, it pains me to report, Robbie Robertson) to Kim Gordon’s defiant porn-queen fantasies (or John Hiatt’s mitigated sexism).
Partly because they can’t change it much, the few women critics are grudgingly accepted into rock’s journalistic consensus. Black critics, who are in a position to really wreck the thing, are stuck someplace else altogether. Now more than ever, they decisively prefer their own half-separate tradition, which some people claim is the source of Elvis, the Beatles, and the Sex Pistols. Collectively, our 16 black critics voted for black artists, with the Replacements edging onto their list at 15; about half of them voted for no white albums, compared to the fifth of white critics who voted for no black albums and the seventh who voted only for Prince. Of course, black critics aren’t exactly encouraged to cross over. Excluding the close to a dozen blacks who now write about rock and roll at least occasionally for the Voice, I know of precisely seven nationwide with ready access to the general interest press. (Let me name them: Cary Darling, Pablo Guzman, Marty Hughley, Dennis Hunt, Belma Johnson, Connie Johnson, Ron Wynn. I must be missing some — mustn’t I? — and would love to know who they are.) The rest are confined to black-targeted consumer publications, dance and radio tipsheets, and trade journals. Opportunities to discuss Hüsker Dü in such venues are limited, and so are opportunities for real criticism — only rarely can they write negatively except by omission, and only rarely can they delve much deeper than simple function analysis. Especially given the slavishness of much white music writing, from dailies puffing the stars to you-send-it we’ll-like-it fanzines and leisure weeklies, this doesn’t bother me much. But though we solicit ballots from many such writers, few respond. Which is doubly unfortunate in a year when significance-free function analysis isn’t far removed from what some of our most disaffected respondents think we need.
At least temporarily, you see, function analysis might serve as an alternative to quasiliterary criticism. “Radio is a good, weird machine,” Greil Marcus insisted last year, and this year the theme was reflected in the singles lists of many critics who’ve never met — for instance, Frank Kogan, Rob Tannenbaum, Chuck Eddy, and Ted Cox. All were Amerindie partisans five years ago, and to an extent they still are, with Cox and Tannenbaum in the Lobos-to-Hüskers tributary and Eddy and Kogan down with noise bands like White Zombie and Pussy Galore. But for singles they listen to the radio and get off on getting manipulated. Cox and Tannenbaum go for pop-to-schlock, Fleetwood Mac or Eddie Money, while Eddy and Kogan list a lot of street-rap. But all fell for diva/girl dance records that five years ago they almost certainly would have dismissed as, dare I say it, disco: Whitney Houston, Deborah Allen, Company B, Exposé.
None of this is reflected on a singles list that doesn’t call for much rumination. Note the anti-backlash for Michael Jackson at his most professional (Bad was 49th), the big finish of M/A/R/R/S’s state-of-the-microchip multiple-climax dance smash, the second-generation soul of LeVert, and the outpouring of sentiment for American beauties from two supposedly opposed generations, X and the Dead. Also note the sole nonhit, Public Enemy’s “Bring the Noise,” which was merely the greatest piece of rock and roll released in 1987. Then note that in general the chart is dominated even more than usual by the second-half releases from top 40 albums that are a chronic distortion of our consensus.
But if Eddie Money and Spoonie Gee are blips, they’re blips that add up to something. Cox and Tannenbaum move from meaningful, sonically distinct Amerindie songcraft to pragmatic, factory-tooled songcraft to physically manipulative (but liberating) dance-pop; Eddy and Kogan move from desperate, sonically enraged Amerindie noise to streetwise, beatwise noise to physically liberating (if manipulative) dance-pop. All respond to rhythm as meaning — or at least as a component of rock and roll’s musical vocabulary that the various unmistakable Amerindie sounds fail to account for. And all confront rock and roll’s significance-deadening crisis of overproduction by moving beyond mere critical consensus to the pop consensus at its most democratic, anonymous, and perhaps even arbitrary. Being critics, they may well get into the lyrics of their favorite disco songs as well, although not as spontaneously as Brian Chin gets into “You Used To Hold Me.” But it’s fair to say that the elation they feel is the elation of escape — not just from their troubles, as Cox believes, but from a critical dead end.
As someone who’s always believed the stupid pleasures of mass culture deserve more respect than they get from intellectuals of any political stripe, I’m very sympathetic to this tendency. I suspect it’s prophetic, too, which doesn’t necessarily mean it will ever be fully reflected in the Pazz & Jop consensus. But it does partake of a certain voluptuous beat-me beat-me passivity that I find suspicious as the reign of Reagan drags to its enervating close. And insofar as it represents a programmatic rejection of the quasi-literary song aesthetic (as it does for Eddy), I’m not ready to go along. Just in case it seems I’ve been saying there are no more good songs any more, let me emphasize: I’ve been saying there are more than we know what to do with. Maybe, just maybe, we can solve this cognitive problem, and we definitely shouldn’t give up on it yet. I mean, every day I hear songs that not only mean something but get me off. That effect rarely endures the way it’s supposed to, sometimes because the song (words and/or music) wears out, sometimes because it’s rendered moot by the competence and worse of the LP where it appears. The thing is, why should it endure? As a peculiarity of a novelty-obsessed youth genre, the belief that rock and roll should get you off forever — that is, change your life on an approximately semiannual basis — has essential uses and attractions. But it’s also a romantic delusion. As Randy Newman put it: “Everybody dies.”
And so we find ourselves up against the third demographic. Since generational splits within rock criticism deepen every year, let’s get one thing straight. The idea that rock and roll is the eternal province of teenagers flies in the face of so much evidence by now that it’s too kind to call it a delusion — try distortion, or lie. Not only isn’t the music created primarily by teenagers, it isn’t consumed primarily by teenagers, and to claim the contrary is ’50s nostalgia as rank as the new Sun Rhythm Section album. Originally, rock and roll was indeed keyed to high-school spending cash, and teenagers have exerted innovative pressure on it ever since — without them we would never have had hip hop, hardcore, English punk, P-Funk, etc., Motown, or Beatlemania (to say nothing of MTV, heavy metal, English art-rock, and the Partridge Family). But in their total concentration on teenagers, the ’50s were an anomaly. Throughout its history, popular music has been the domain not of teenagers but of young adults whose mean age fell somewhere in the midtwenties, just as it does now — of people who lost touch with the soundtrack of their courtship years gradually if at all once they turned into grownups. In the rock and roll era, young adults have nurtured soul, disco, guitar-strummers good and bad, the best jazz-rock, the entire country-music tradition, CBGB punk/new wave, reggae, etc., black pop, and Randy Newman. I say we need them as much as we need the kids.
Of course, I don’t speak as a young adult. Call me the dean heh-heh, a 45-year-old whose fondness for his work bewilders benighted baby boomers. Except to observe that lengthy interactions with a Sesame Street fan do cut into one’s listening time, a precious resource in a crisis of overproduction, I admit to no diminution of interest or hardening of the sensibilities, but that doesn’t mean my agenda is independent of my age. And it doesn’t mean every veteran in this white boys’ game shares my enthusiasm. There’s a logjam in rock criticism not unlike that in the music itself — a logjam comprising a few lucky souls whose writing lives on, numerous pros who do an honest night’s work, plenty of hacks who should hang it up, and too many subcompetents who should never have taken it off the rack. The resentments that build are often dumb: knowledge does count for more now than it did back when there wasn’t much to be had, and between the pay and the mythos there’s plenty of turnover, so that young talents find their niches pretty fast. But the young semitalents who chafe most bitterly have a point: their half-assed ideas might well prove more provocative and productive than the solidly grounded opinions of the hacks and professionals in front of them.
Thus, two more minipolls: of critics 36-and-over and 29-and-under. The panels comprised 36 graybeards including five women (grayhairs?) and one black, 43 whippersnappers including five women and five blacks; ages provided were augmented by my personal knowledge (no guesses) to enlarge the samples. Alert for conservatism and hegemony on the one hand and rebellion and next-big-thing on the other, I got hearteningly ambiguous results. Seven of 1987’s top 10 albums finished in the graybeard top 15, which dropped those ill-behaved Replacements to 11th and made a top four out of the rest of the Pazz & Jop top five, but with much stronger than random support for under-30s Prince and U2 and only average points for near-contemporaries Springsteen and Hiatt. And they reserved their greatest enthusiasm not for steadfast Van Morrison or gaseous Robbie Robertson but for Ornette Coleman and especially Marianne Faithfull, two over-40s who stretched rock and roll in 1987 by ignoring everything about it but its attitude — by raging against the dying of the light. The whippersnappers, meanwhile, put the entire Pazz & Jop top 10 in their top 15, but with marked enthusiasm only for XTC and Hüsker Dü and marked unenthusiasm for Springsteen, Los Lobos, Mellencamp, and R.E.M. With several notable exceptions (including Sonic Youth, who also did fine among the graybeards, and the Smiths, whose two entries got nary a mention), it’s almost as if they couldn’t come up with anything better — not collectively. They couldn’t agree. Call it fragmentation, or option overload, or the shape of things to come. Maybe call it all three.
As their sneak preview the whippersnappers selected Dinosaur Jr., whose achievement outstripped their potential by me, something the whippersnappers can obviously relate to. Fan Frank Kogan would say Dinosaur Jr. acknowledge how fucked they are, and they’re certainly better at it than most, but seekers after future hep will be safer with 10,000 Maniacs or Sinéad O’Connor, or with any of the four count-’em four Pazz & Jop debuts more genuine than Hiatt’s in the graybeards’ top 15. Most curious are Brit teendreams George Michael and the Pet Shop Boys, which latter received a full two-thirds of their support from our 36-and-overs and only two mentions from 29-and-unders. Pass this off as our weakness for pop muzik if you like; I say for us graybeards all youth music partakes of sociology and the field report. By now our eternal attraction to the theme is so disinterested that Paul Westerberg’s passionately fucked edge-pop and Neil Tennant’s disaffected consumerism seem equally true, equally representative, while young crits are so imbued with the guitar-crazed Amerindie ethos that they regard Tennant as the enemy. May the best boy win, I say — assuming they don’t find some way to agree.
The graybeards also went for more black music than the voters at large — not just Ornette, but crossover pheenom Alexander O’Neal and great hope Terence Trent D’Arby. Hearsay’s auteurs are pop-disco princes Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, but O’Neal has a good voice and a good head on his shoulders, undercutting emotionalism with a constricted timbre I associate with the marketable funk of Slave and Con Funk Shun. He certainly updates soul more smartly than veteran up-and-comer Hiatt, who equates deep feeling with overstatement like so many alcohol-prone white people before him, a fallacy that also puts me on Bob Mack’s side of the Edge-Bono question and induced me to pass over the powerful instrument and utterly tortured spirit of 1987 reissue champ James Carr. D’Arby isn’t immune to this fallacy, but in his virtuosic neotraditionalism he gets away with it, and if his lyrics recall Dinosaur Jr.’s achievement-potential gap, he’ll stick around on ego alone. Our 36 graybeards gave the young man nearly half his support. The whippersnappers vouchsafed him one mention.
Not that the whippersnappers ignored black music — only old stuff. They championed rap, the most defiantly youth-targeted black music ever, almost as militantly as black voters — the teen-metal crossover of L.L. Cool J. more than the JB redux of Eric B. & Rakim, the year’s hands-down superthreat debut more than Hüsker Dü or Sonic Youth. Public Enemy’s Yo! Bum Rush the Show did receive 55 of its 29-and-under points from black voters (Cool J got five), but if these middle-class midtwenties from the margins of NYC don’t qualify as sonic youths of the year, I’m giving up graph paper. After I got on Chuck D.’s hit list by assailing the album’s achievement-potential gap (have to introduce him to Lou Reed — and Sonic Youth), the December single “Bring the Noise” convinced me inside of 30 seconds that his claque wasn’t whistling dixie. This is postminimal rap refracted through Blood Ulmer and On the Corner, as gripping as it is abrasive, and the black militant dialogue-as-diatribe that goes with it is almost as scary as “Stones in My Passway” or “Holiday in the Sun.” I’m ashamed to reveal that I’m the only graybeard who voted for it. And as an amateur statistician, I must insist that the failure of a single 36-and-over to mention Yo! Bum Rush the Show was more than a blip. Old folks really don’t like loud noises much — or black militance either.
This is the first year in Pazz & Jop history when black debut albums outnumbered white, and even if you don’t expect much of Eric B.’s formalism you can’t deny that Public Enemy’s message-rap and D’Arby’s black-is-beautiful soul-revisited are ideas whose time has been too long coming — now that their commercial viability is manifest, there’ll be plenty of variations. But before you get set for one of my black-to-the-future sermons, expand your horizons. No matter how far these two ideas go, they’ll do so in the well-made songs I just claimed were wearing out, though rap does fuck with the aesthetic as effectively as any more self-conscious attack on the sense/nonsense continuum. They’ll be part of the future, depend on it; so will Brits and Amerindies. But my personal projection is more in line with the postsubcultural antijingoism espoused by graybeards Ron Wynn, Michael Freedberg, and John F. Szwed, and not just because I happen to be a reggae loyalist and Africana fan. The way I see it, internationalism has gathered an aura of historical inevitability — if the pop music I insist on calling rock and roll does progress, where else can I go?
As Szwed indicates, this is an old man’s kind of wisdom, dripping with the accrued tolerance of the years, and the flood of utter bullshit it presages is horrifying to contemplate — Europop, world-beat, white reggae, Zaireans cleaning up their acts in Paris, the romanticization of the primitive, the denial that there’s any such thing as the primitive, Indian movie music, Japanese metal, Kitaro, Little Steven, arrghhh. Rather than a quest for international understanding, think of it as a lover’s leap off the tower of babble — or as the nonpassive, postmasscultural alternative to getting off on random disco songs (though they also figure in the future, of course). In a crisis of overproduction, the solution isn’t necessarily to await a hero or movement that renders all else irrelevant. Just as likely, the solution is to go all the way with it. Overwhelmed by significance we can’t quite make sense of, we could do worse than take meaninglessness by the horns.
With U.K. Earthworks and Globestyle distributed Stateside as of 1988 by Virgin and Shanachie, the raw material will obviously get spread around, but as a critical-perceptual project this one could take decades to bear its own fruit — that is, genuinely international rock and roll. Which as far as I’m concerned is a guarantee that things will stay interesting. I’m talking more music than anybody can handle physically much less conceptually — so much more that no amount of preweeding can make the task manageable. I’m talking songs whose workmanship can’t fully register until you figure out what the words are, and good luck. I’m talking function analysis of living cultural artifacts that exist only on plastic for 95 per cent of the would-be analysts. I’m talking more shock of the new than any human being can possibly absorb, more room for disagreement than any consensus can possibly quantify. I’m talking the end of the world as we know it. And I feel fine.
Top 10 Albums of 1987
1. Prince: Sign “O” the Times (Paisley Park)
2. Bruce Springsteen: Tunnel of Love (Columbia)
3. The Replacements: Pleased To Meet Me (Sire)
4. U2: The Joshua Tree (Island)
5. John Hiatt: Bring the Family (A&M)
6. Los Lobos: By the Light of the Moon (Slash)
7. John Cougar Mellencamp: The Lonesome Jubilee (Mercury)
8. R.E.M.: Document (I.R.S.)
9. XTC: Skylarking (Geffen)
10. Hüsker Dü: Warehouse: Songs & Stories (Warner Bros.)
Top 10 Singles of 1987
1. Prince: “Sign ‘O’ the Times” (Paisley Park)
2. Suzanne Vega: “Luka” (A&M)
3. Los Lobos: “La Bamba” (Slash)
4. Prince: “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man”/”Hot Thing” (Paisley Park)
5. M/A/R/R/S: “Pump Up the Volume” (4th & B’way)
6. (Tie) Grateful Dead: “Touch of Grey” (Arista)
Bruce Springsteen: “Brilliant Disguise”/”Lucky Man” (Columbia)
R.E.M.: “The One I Love” (I.R.S.)
9. Prince: “U Got the Look”/”Housequake” (Paisley Park)
10. (Tie) Bruce Springsteen: “Tunnel of Love” (Columbia)
X: “Fourth of July”/”Positively Fourth Street” (Elektra)
—From the March 1, 1988, issue
Pazz & Jop essays and results can also be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published last year.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 15, 2019