Decade: Rockism Faces the World
January 2, 1990
Let’s wrap it up, OK?
The ’80s were above all a time of international corporatization, as one U.S. major after another gave it up to media moguls in Europe and Japan. These acted locally while thinking globally in re audiences/markets (will it sell in Germany? Australia? Venezuela? Indonesia now that we’ve sunk the pirates? the U.S.S.R.?) and artists/suppliers (world music, anyone?). After a feisty start, independent labels accepted farm-team status that could lead to killings with the bigs. Cross-promotional hoohah became the rule — it was the time of the soundtrack album, the sponsored tour, the golden-oldie commercial, the T-shirt franchise, the video as song ad and pay-for-play programming and commodity fetish. Rock was mere music no longer. Reconceived as intellectual property, it was a form of capital itself.
The ’80s were when stars replaced artists as bearers of significance. The ’70s yielded its honorable quota of Van Morrisons and Randy Newmans and Patti Smiths and John Prines, and all those guys were still around, as were new variants like Blood Ulmer and Laurie Anderson and the Mekons and Kid Creole. Those are only my nominees, however; yours are different. So though nobody blinked when break-even commercial nonentities like Morrison and Newman were ranked with the Stones and Stevie Wonder among the crucial rockers of the ’70s, but in the ’80s the only list that computes is pure megaplatinum — Prince and Bruce and U2 and Michael J. and Madonna, with maybe a few million-selling status symbols like Sting, Talking Heads, R.E.M., or Public Enemy (no, not Elvis Costello) tacked on for appearance’s sake. When art is intellectual property, image and aura subsume aesthetic substance, whatever exactly that is; when art is capital, sales are intrinsic to aesthetic quality.
The ’80s were when ’70s fragmentation went kerblooey. The “adult contemporary” market took out its wallet as the teen audience became more distinct than at any time since the Beatles. Even within a domestic market that counted for so much smaller a piece of the whole enchilada, enormous new subsets arose, from rap’s slouch-strutting B-boys to the affluently spiritual ex-bohemians of New Age. Tiny subsets got serviced, too — by hardcore crazies and lesbian singer-songwriters and disco recidivists and jazzbo eclectics and pigfuckers and Christians and a dozen varieties of messenger from the African diaspora. The metal and country audiences split at previously invisible seams; folk music came back. Leading the semipopular parade as it exploited an unpaid army of interns was college radio, a growth industry designed to expose hungry hopefuls from enterprising Britannia, American college dropouts with day jobs, and other marginal pros who’d made a cult for themselves. Behind every subset were small-time entrepreneurs with vision; when and if profits mounted, these visionaries were handsomely reimbursed for their foresight by somebody with better distribution. The system worked so equitably that sometimes a visionary would have money in the bank when the dealing stopped, and sometimes a subset wouldn’t get fucked in the process.
The ’80s were when rock became less and more political. After the Clash faltered, white musicians of pop mien left revolution to the Tracy Chapmans and Public Enemys to come, and there were no metaphorical musical revolutions either. But with a few dismaying exceptions (Neil Young, Paul Westerberg, Joan Jett) and a few predictable ones (Johnny Ramone, John Anderson, Duran Duran), rock and rollers had no use for the reactionary chiefs of state pollsters said their demographic supported (pollsters also discovered that clubgoers constituted America’s most electorally apathetic subculture). In the U.K. Paul Weller worked to revive Labour, in the U.S. Bruce Springsteen turned union benefactor, and from Amnesty International to the Prince’s Trust, charity/cause records/concerts/tours signified varying admixtures of rock resistance and rock responsibility. The socially conscious lyric didn’t displace the love song, but politics became a sexy pop topic; by a strange coincidence, rampant reactionaries and responsible liberals united in a censorship drive at about the same time. Dylan was big in Tiananmen Square, and even as I write, an ad hoc group of democratic socialists is singing “Imagine” or “Give Peace a Chance” somewhere in Eastern Europe.
The ’80s were a time of renewed racial turmoil after 10-plus years of polite re-segregation. As they began, AOR was 99 per cent white and Ray Parker Jr., who later created the decade’s preeminent kiddie anthem, couldn’t get on pop radio because he was “too r&b”; as they ended, AOR was 98 per cent white and the Beastie Boys, who earlier created the decade’s best-selling rap album, couldn’t get on “urban” radio because they had “no street credibility.” In between came the “Beat It” video, Purple Rain, Yo! MTV Raps, Professor Griff, Living Colour vs. Guns N’ Roses, and race-baiting comedians who entered to “Whipping Post” the way white-and-proud rock bands entered to “Also Sprach Zarathustra.”
Technology changed everything in the ’80s. Cable brought us MTV and the triumph of the image. Synthesizers inflected the sounds that remained. Sampling revolutionized rock and roll’s proprietary relationship to its own history. Cassettes made private music portable — and public. Compact discs inflated profitability as they faded into the background of busy lives.
The ’80s were contradictory. The ’80s were incomprehensible. The ’80s weren’t as much fun as they should have been.
Half a score years ago, I brought forth a mammoth tribute to the rock and roll of the ’70s, and I had a ball. Working from the theoretically depressing themes of fragmentation and the semipopular whilst thumbing my nose at ’60s crybabyism, I argued that the ’70s were when the music had come into its own: only in the wake of countercultural upheaval could individual musicians buck rationalization’s conformist tide to create oeuvres and one-shots of spunk and substance in the belly of the pop beast. The title of this enormous precis, “Decade,” was also the title of a three-record compilation released in 1978 by the unreconstructed weirdo I fearlessly designated Artist of the Decade: Neil Young, who beat out my equally eccentric choices for numbers two and three, Al Green and George Clinton.
Rereading now, I’m amazed by my own confidence, which I can see was bolstered by a consensus more sustaining than Monterey or Woodstock or Chicago ’68 or the Mobilization or any number of excellent Grateful Dead concerts. To affirm historical continuity and momentarily finesse the Brit “rock”-“pop” distinction, let’s resort for the millionth time to the old-fashioned term and call this consensus the rock and roll community. Its core comprised colleagues and correspondents of shared yet far-flung musical enthusiasms, its body and soul the larger cohort that materialized at any number of punk-etc. gigs. On the one hand, an inferred community of music-lovers cum discophiles; on the other, a lived-in community of music-lovers cum night people. Predicated here on a shitload of discrete sound-objects whose aesthetic was so legible you could build a canon around it, there on a burgeoningly inchoate scene that didn’t shrivel up and die when the Sex Pistols quit on us — not even in Thatcher’s London, where the hopes the Pistols engendered were so much more desperate than in New York. Predicated here on the biz, there on bohemia.
For anybody who loved punk, 1979 was an exciting time, because punk — or rather its flakstorm, christened postpunk in the twinkling of a convolution — was still raging. Just like real revolutionary movements, it was at its best before the world got it down, but that doesn’t mean its diffusion into strictly musical issues was a perversion — a view now promulgated by both passionate partisans and fellow travelers who’ve gone on to better things. However reduced our ambitions, the growing legions of postpunk fans and postpunk musicians were fighting all kinds of battles at decade’s end — for airplay, for venues, for viable business structures. Maybe John Rotten-Lydon claimed to hate rock and roll, but we didn’t — we just thought we understood it better than the keepers of the pop machine.
The promise of postpunk, however, was only half of what made 1979 an up. The other half was the pop machine, which was still belching out major music — Rust Never Sleeps and Into the Music, Chic and Donna Summer. The end of the ’70s is remembered as the time of the dinosaurs, and that was the dominant perception in the rock and roll community. But though intergenerational aesthetic comprehension (not to mention pleasure) was already eroding, the banal notion that the biz was the root of all banality was not yet an article of faith. For one thing, the biz was still where records came from. Young CBGBites may not have thought Rumours was a better album than Talking Heads 77, or Some Girls a better album than This Year’s Model, but at least they recognized all four as competing aesthetic objects — that is, accepted the terms of the comparison. So when in early 1979 I asked the gods of history for a fusion of the two great subcultural musics of the ’70s, the smart punk then establishing a commercial beachhead and the dumb disco then sopping up venture capital, my petition was regarded as misguided, but not preposterous by definition.
I’ll say. Somewhat to my surprise — I always plead ignorance when asked to predict the coming trend — the fusion I posited is what happened. Yet I’m not having a ball. I hear as much good music as ever these days, but little of it is punk disco except in an impossibly broad sense. And though the average pop fan doesn’t complain much (about anything), not many veterans of the rock and roll community are feeling groovy. The various colleagues who scooped me on the decade story — notably Simon Frith in his monthly Voice thumbnail, Bill Flanagan in Musician, and a 14-headed monster at Rolling Stone — all did their best to sound chipper, but only the young people at Spin, which seized upon a readers’ poll proclaiming the Smiths the greatest group since the Beatles to point out that time was on its side, were more than bemused about it. And after all, what other decade did they have?
Writing about writers in a music piece goes against my grain, but if the poststructuralist/postmodernist blitz has established anything, it’s that the proper study of discourse is other discourse. And though I’m far from buying the postmod fallacy that that’s end-of-story, neither do I intend to describe the decade without exploiting its preeminent critical fashion, which not only holds that theory always refers to other theory, but has loads of auxiliary themes going for it — international media net, cross-promotional recontextualization, compulsive recycling, etc. The idea that rock and roll isn’t merely music is nothing new: before the invention of progressive radio, the great lost rock critic Ellen Willis was arguing that Dylan’s songs were an aspect of his persona. But over the past 10 years the aforementioned postmod hallmarks became pervasive, definitive. It’s fitting that when the upstart trade mag Hits, the ’80s’ answer to Creem, tried to steal ad bribes from indie tipsheets and leisure weeklies by expanding its “alternative rock” coverage, the new section was entitled “Post Modern.” Regrettably, the Hits nickname “PoMo” hasn’t caught on, maybe because it’s so glitzy it deflates everything in sight. Not even postmod prophets of disposable pop are ready for that.
Somehow it doesn’t seem propitious that as the ’80s ended, the freshest and most profound new insight into the aesthetics of rock was that surface was all. Yet in his quiet, complex, obliquely confident way, that was where Simon Frith — the decade’s most searching and consistent critic, an unflinching leftist who chronicled underlying patterns of corporatization with great diligence and irony — seemed to end up. His ’80s sketch zeroed in on a 19-year-old Smiths fan who’d gotten hooked on the dance music she’d been clubbing to for social reasons. She queues for “new indie tracks” more than what she once considered “pop, chart fodder, music for the mindless,” but the point is the same: she’s discarded rock that means the way the Smiths do for functional pop that fetishizes its own status as aural construct.
Though I’m sure Frith likes the new house-identified Eurodisco, I don’t see enough of his reviewing to have any feel for the pleasure he takes in it, which may be why I wonder how much of its appeal is theoretical — whether what really turns him on is the modes of consumption it makes possible. The blanker music is, the more you can project on it — the more listeners (and also professional interpreters) can bend it to their own whimsies, fantasies, needs. Hence, pop function empowers the consumer (who in Frith’s example, and don’t think he didn’t know it, happens to be female) where rock meaningfulness privileges the author (and by implication patriarchy and hierarchy). Call it revolutionary metaphor the postmodern way. For although Frith is too realistic ever to put it so baldly, a part of him believes that, ultimately, the people know enough to struggle with the pop machine, and that sometimes they win.
This vision is an end result (or way out) of the “rockism” debate that raged through the U.K. music press in the early ’80s. Near as a body could tell from here, rockism wasn’t just liking Yes and the Allman Brothers — it was liking London Calling. It was taking the music seriously, investing any belief at all not just in its self-sufficiency, which is always worth challenging, but in its capacity to change lives or express truth. Rarely was it noted how blatantly the terms of this debate favored the growing nationalism/anti-Americanism of U.K. taste. Irony, distance, and the pose have been the secret of British rock since the Beatles and the Stones, partly because that’s the European way and partly because rock wasn’t originally British music — having absorbed its usages secondhand, Brits who made too much of their authenticity generally looked like fools. This polarity was reversed briefly around 1976 — American punk was an unabashed art pose, while the British variant carried the banner of class struggle. But when the Sex Pistols failed to usher in the millennium, lifelong skeptics who’d let their guard down for a historical moment vowed that they wouldn’t get fooled again. Hence, Dave Rimmer’s unauthorized Culture Club bio, Like Punk Never Happened, a key ’80s rockbook that’s almost unknown here. Hence, “rockism” — and rock versus pop.
The distinction is obviously imprecise, and over a quarter-century of commerce hybrids and exceptions have proliferated, but make no mistake: even today, American rock really is more sincere. Or to add a little precision, American rockers act more sincere — they’re so uncomfortable with the performer’s role that they strive to minimize it. Often their modus operandi is a conscious, and rather joyless, fakery. But sometimes they end up inhabiting amazing simulations of their real selves, whatever exactly those are. The early ’80s proved an especially rich time for this aesthetic, especially in L.A., where singer-songwriter sincerity had been perfected a decade before. Roots-conscious postpunk Amerindies X, Los Lobos, and the Blasters, together with two Twin Cities bands, the virtuosically posthardcore Hüsker Dü and the roots/junk-inflected quasihardcore Replacements, spearheaded a U.S. rockism revival just as the New Pop was dwarfing a U.K. indie scene symbolized by Joy Division-styled gloom merchants. The Amerindies didn’t sell much, of course, but among observers with any use for white American rock at all, only a few daily critics and the more-sincere-than-thou Rock & Roll Confidential crew doubted their artistic standing. In the U.K., on the other hand, three new, cannily differentiated slicks — first Smash Hits, then The Face, then Q — provided a field of anti-rockist discourse where the new pop (as well as dance music from the Caribbean or the South Bronx or Africa or Paris or Chicago or Miami or even England) gained panache under intelligent scrutiny. By the time the Amerindies finally achieved some credibility over there, mostly with the shrinking readership of the older music tabloids, Boy George and Annie Lennox had shared the cover of Newsweek.
Trendhounds announced a second British Invasion — bigger than the first, some said. Well, whatever — five years later it had evaporated. It was hard to see how Boy George or Annie Lennox could reconquer the charts without picking up pointers from Elton John and Phil Collins, who in the end were the biggest British hitmakers of the ’80s as well as the most boring. A later New Pop idol, George Michael, has sold almost as many copies of Faith stateside as Culture Club did of its entire album catalogue, and looks to have staying power, too. But in 1989 the nearest thing to New Pop on the U.S. charts was the Fine Young Cannibals, who were British, Milli Vanilli, who were German if anything, and Paula Abdul, a California girl whose video-powered ascendancy mimicked the British model, and it seems significant that none of the three was white, although calling them black would be more misleading than usual — their café au lait images were intrinsic to their half-sincere appeal. And then there was the strange success of Depeche Mode and the Cure, two English bands who were more or less pop in their native land but snuck into U.S. arenas via college radio, and the even stranger success of New Order né Joy Division, who took the high road from indieland to the disco — all more durable and profitable, though certainly not more starlike, than any New Pop brand name except George Michael and maybe Duran Duran, whose December 1989 compilation sported a droll title: Decade.
Please don’t mistake kidding for contempt — drastic shifts of fashion are to be expected when you valorize disposability, and whatever the contradictions of postmod pop theory, I meant it when I said there was nothing better out there. Just try on the competing discourses if you don’t believe me. Flanagan’s “The Age of Excess” in Musician, which has assumed Rolling Stone’s responsible-progressive music-mag mantle on an economic base of equipment ads, is responsible and progressive. Although I’d quibble with a few details (in the great Rolling Stone tradition he doesn’t know shit about dance music), his facts are solid and his analysis is judicious. But scratch the objectivity of a responsible progressive and you’ll discover somebody with turf to protect: there are evasions and moments of queasiness all too predictable in responsible progressivism for would-be rock and roll professionals. “West End Girls” by the Pet Shop Boys — whose melodically accessible, rhythmically hip, machine-generated gold albums represent a postmod ideal, confounding safe distinctions between surface and substance (and also, postmods, between “performance” and “authenticity”) — is listed among the “Top 25 One-Hit Wonders of the 1980s,” ha ha ha. And neither Flanagan nor Jock Baird’s accompanying MIDI-focused tech wrapup has anything to say about sampling and the copyright wars, which aren’t what you’d call musician-friendly developments.
Perhaps most revealingly, Michael Jackson makes Flanagan twitch: “his enormous fame seemed to have less to do with his music than with his recreating himself as the perfect product for a decade when surface was trumpeted over substance and the media feasted on soundbites.” Like any thoughtful person, you probably have your own reservations about imagemongering in general and poor loony Michael J. in particular, but please, reflect on the middlebrow seriousness of a passage that epitomizes why postmods have no use for authenticity: its interlocking commonplaces, its hand-wringing smugness, its automatic assumption that music is what matters. Doesn’t there have to be a more enlightened way to understand the rock-pop conundrum, or dilemma, or crisis?
Not that responsible progressivism can’t help. It’s the way of inadequate working assumptions to reveal their own truths, and I’d still rather read Musician than Q, or even Hits, though not Spin, because however undefinitive the musician’s point of view may be, it’s always essential. Mark Rowland’s endpaper tribute made Madonna the mag’s unmusicianly choice for Artist of the Decade (recalling the long-ago when he and she belonged to the same “semi-seedy health club,” he concludes that Madonna “is the winner” because “she worked the hardest, or at least she worked out the hardest”). And give Flanagan credit for thinking socially rather than reducing his decade story to art and artists: “In fact, the lesson of the ’80s may be that musical trends are now shaped more by delivery systems than by any act. The next Elvis or Beatles may be a technology.” Smart, even if Frith among others has been saying something similar for years. A lot smarter than (haul that dead reptile in here now, willya?) Rolling Stone.
Inspired by the newsstand sales of similarly ridiculous issues and its well-established distaste for thought, the old apatosaurus lumbered up to 1990 with a typical piece of product: “The 100 Greatest Albums of the 80’s.” Naturally the display was preceded by a brief apology for the decade’s failure to provide a rock “revolution, or true revolutionaries,” and naturally it didn’t mention that come the revolution, Stone is always on the other side of the barricade with assault rifles, tear gas, sticks and stones, anything (and by the way, if Bowie and “punk and New Wave” count in the ’70s, why don’t Prince and rap count in the ’80s?). But there’s no point quibbling with a nonexistent argument. In fact, there’s no point quibbling with individual choices, either — the list is presentable enough, raising the unthinkable possibility that Stone‘s editor and publisher left the selection to his 14 critics, who have their deaf spots but know their trade. There’s no point quibbling at all. The problem’s not substance and it’s not surface. The problem is formal, and total. For as somebody who’s reviewed six or seven thousand rock-etc. albums over the past 23 years, I have no doubts: the ’80s is not a decade that can be understood in terms of its albums. It’s the decade when the Great Album died.
I know, I know — that’s putting it ass-backwards. Write about what happened, not what didn’t happen. And forget Rolling Stone — the idea that the album defines anything is a known dinosaur itself. The past 10 years have been terrible for singles sales — the vinyl 45 is outta here, and despite a possible cassingle boom the RIAA has halved the gold certification threshold to 500,000. But structurally the single has been coming on. It’s once again an all but essential sales device — only in metal, new age, and street rap (and rarely there) do albums go platinum without a boost from a “hit.” Not counting dance DJs — who’ve kept the single alive with 12-inches but will groove to anything, the odd LP track included — the album’s only significant new outlet is college radio. MTV is a singles medium, as is the hottest (warmest?) new radio strategy God help us, “adult contemporary”; even AOR devotes the contemporary portion of its programming to putative singles. And from traditionalists to postmods, singles fans are on a critical roll. “Singles are the essence of rock and roll,” declares Dave Marsh’s 1989 release, The Heart of Rock & Soul, which details “the 1001 greatest singles ever made,” and if he certifies fewer than 100 of them from the ’80s (highest: “Little Red Corvette” at 45), well, there’s no accounting for traditionalism. Across the way Newsday‘s John Leland, the best American postmod critic (the best new American rock critic period), found his voice as Spin‘s singles columnist. In Minneapolis’s City Pages recently, he cited a factlet from Q that sums up postmod critical wisdom: the average American album buyer, he noted, played his purchase one-and-a-half times.
Leland allows as how this statistic may not be too well-documented; I’ve yet to find an informed source who believes it. But it’s got poetic resonance for damn sure, meshing cunningly with a countervailing trend I’ve left discreetly unmentioned: the rise of the CD. After all, since everyone knows those pricey little pieces of eternity have saved the biz from perdition, how can the single be coming on? The usual answer is demographic. The CD is thought to suit what Frith calls “casual adult consumption” — past-30 yuppies in search of atmosphere and/or the pleasures of their youth, as opposed to kids buying music because it shapes their lives. Me, I’m not so sure. The CD has generated so much catalogue action — not young people discovering rock history, but older ones repurchasing their faves in “permanent” form — that its profits could flatten fast (whereupon the biz will discover that aluminum erodes and reresell the same music in “indestructible” DAT). But the claim that it’s purchased more “casually” than other configurations — even singles, which as we’ve seen aren’t much purchased anyway — seems tendentious. Really, who knows?
Nevertheless, there’s something about CDs that’s always bothered me — a peculiarity that dovetails with both the casual-consumption and Great Album ideas. It’s that they only have one side. Because listeners don’t program their CD players — because it’s standard to insert the thing and press play — they now consume a whole album at once. This may be the way God planned it, but it’s inhuman: except in the flush of rapt concentration or first acquaintance (or when enjoying an illicit C-90), the typical vinyl or cassette owner uses an album one 17-to-23 minute, four-to-six-song side at a time, usually developing a preference for one side over the other (after passing the one-and-a-half-play threshold, of course). Crucial perceptual habits have grown up around this timeframe, which is based partly on vinyl’s physical limits (it dims when loaded with more than 25 minutes of music) and partly, I suspect, on an attention span bound up in the mysteries of the industrialized sensorium. Even classical compositions, which are knit together far more intricately than any song collection, honor a similar parameter. Most concertos and sonatas run under 30 minutes; symphonies crept up to 45 under the influence of Beethoven and went into decline after Mahler and Bruckner pumped them over an hour.
Almost unnoticed, albums are headed in the same general direction. Song lengths over five minutes and album lengths over 50 are now common, with many albums close to an hour and a few over, and the reasons are manifold — because rock professionals love the age of excess, because CDs cost 12 bucks on sale, because 50 minutes won’t fit on one side of a C-90, because it’s there. In any case, there’s nothing tendentious in the assumption that people don’t listen hard to CDs. Who has the time? So even if they’re not purchased more casually than vinyl, CDs are almost certainly heard more casually, the technological counterpart to the luscious languors of new age. The only question is whether a more concentrated listening pattern is desirable.
The myth of the Great Album makes both assumptions. You’d hit up Layla or The Clash or Court and Spark or What’s Going On or The Dark Side of the Moon for the 20th time, and once its familiar pleasures had spirited you to new depths and heights and patches of shadow, you’d go out into the world enriched and refreshed, your weltanschauung altered yet again. But though as an aesthetic ideal this myth clearly has its origins in the age of pot — no albums were ever examined more minutely than late-’60s Beatles-Dylan-Stones — as an image it reeks of the post-’60s ’70s. When art has this kind of aura, it’s possible to imagine that your great work of choice — Never Mind the Bollocks, Tonight’s the Night, maybe even Sex Machine — can straddle a musical era. Do the folks at Stone really claim the same for London Calling or Purple Rain or The Joshua Tree? I certainly don’t for Wild Gift or Of Human Feelings or my beloved Indestructible Beat of Soweto. If it’s reasonable to name a compilation in a foreign language the most meaningful, organic, and enduring album of an era, something has changed.
For Frith, an inveterate singles booster himself, this change has an economic correlative. Envisioning a world where consumers dial music up from a central computer, he sees both crosspromotional hoohah and simplified electronic piracy transforming records into “bundles of rights,” with secondary income (permission fees for movies or commercials or videos or Personics-style cassettes) soon outstripping primary (software sales). This is a double-whammy theory, privileging the song (as carrier of secondary rights) over the album and 86ing the reactionary concept of the heroic artist whose unique expressive works transcend social determinations. The futurist part (like Frith’s parallel notion that the remix robs songs themselves of definitive status) strikes me as vastly overstated if not just silly — the bizzers I talk to think album sales will be their bottom line for many years to come. The anti-Romantic part, on the other hand, is why I take postmod so seriously. Supporter of Eastern European self-determination though I am, I want my collectivist music metaphors. Anything that pumps the audience and disses genius is jake with me.
Insofar as it’s rooted in a viable rock and roll community, fragmentation works against the Great Album — Purple Rain and London Calling may still be competing aesthetic objects, but the world where the same can be said of Thriller and Madonna and Wild Gift and Of Human Feelings has shrunk as the audience for the first two has exploded. Insofar as it’s culturally bound, internationalization works against it — rock is hegemonic, but that doesn’t mean a kid in Japan (much less Poland, or Senegal) loves the same Joshua Tree a kid in California does. Insofar as it’s human, the primacy of technology works against it. Insofar as it’s artistic, the primacy of capital works against it — as does, above all, the rise of the star as bearer of significance.
I know, I know — you still have your reservations about imagemongering, soundbites, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, and people who don’t play their own instruments. In an Age of Reagan that hasn’t quit, so do I. But as somebody who was cheering wildly from the sidelines back when Ellen Willis was telling Commentary that Dylan was more Andy Warhol than Robert Burns, I’m not especially disturbed by the spectacle of artists recreating their (“real”) selves as products. That this is as much a Romantic phenomenon as a postmodern one — there’s a sense in which the first art star was Lord Byron, whose persona has more impact than his work to this day, and if you think that’s an anomaly, tell me you remember Valentino and Monroe for their movies — is just a good joke on the postmods.
Back in the early ’80s people used to ask me who’d be the next Elvis (“or Johnny Rotten”), and after providing the usual product warning about my crystal ball, I’d ponder the lines of historical force and say nobody — and that if I was wrong the new hero would be black or a woman. Then I would add: “Not Prince.” I was right — there wasn’t one. But if there was, he was black (Prince, of course — about that I was wrong) or she was a woman. Madonna, of course, and not because she worked hardest — a true formal innovator, she showed profound understanding of Andy Warhol. From Dave Marsh to Sonic Youth to Mark Rowland to Sandra Bernhard, she has broad support for rock hero of the ’80s (runnerup in Marsh’s case), her attraction and problem being that she’s so plastic (“capable of being molded or receiving form”) she doesn’t have all that Much To Say. Andy would approve; I, well, understand. What I’m not postmod enough to sit still for — and I say this with “Open Your Heart” one of my top 10 singles of the decade — is the “reassessment” of her musical achievement that’s sure to come. Because though it’s easy to overlook, rock evolved tremendously as mere music over the past 10 years, and Madonna for one barely kept pace. No way has that evolution been self-sufficient, but it’s certainly been essential. It may even have changed rock and roll utterly.
First there’s the synthesizer, which as quasi-organ keyb has transformed the timbral identity of a music that’s always been about sound more than notes, and in its even more crucial sampler form undermined rock’s reduction to capital, set traditionalism on its head, and gave James Brown something positive to shout about whether or not he ever admitted it. And the synthesizer wasn’t even the big story, because the ’80s was a rhythm decade like no decade since the ’50s. Albums didn’t matter. Drummers and drum programmers, funk grooves motorvating the most piddly PoMo and New Pop and CHR, B-boys and -girls who talked more musically than their churchified counterparts sang, disco over the edge, Tommy Ramone, Charlie Watts, Africa, James Brown — all that stuff mattered. Maybe attitude was the secret of punk, maybe not; the secret of postpunk was rhythm, young drummers coming out of nowhere by the hundreds. Only it turned out they weren’t good enough, for if anything was killing indie rock by decade’s end (and something sure was), it was the death-rattle of solid four and its fancier variants — or else the inability of its practitioners to come up with a message, attitude, chord change, or whatever as interesting as a decent dancebeat. So if I had to choose a rock hero of the decade, I’d go with Prince, a synth maven who’s great at rhythm, solid four included.
But if you don’t mind I’d just as soon not choose. I love sex, but I said “Not Prince” because I don’t consider loving sex a worldview, and damned if I think he has Anything Else To Say. That is, I still look to rock and roll to Say Something, and not just musically, not just formally or structurally, not just in how it’s consumed — literally, in so many words, words that change lives and express truth. That possibility is a ’60s myth, of course, but Eastern Europe reminds us that those myths aren’t exhausted, and while their current go-round may prove as subject to capitalist illusion as left anticounterculturists have always claimed, who knows what Pulnoc, say, will make of them? Similarly, though the proposition that the future is acid house is a classic, parochial British trend-hop, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if the new dance subcultures tried to put their new pretensions into words, a development that could go somewhere even if it doesn’t change that many lives. The dance-sucker proponents of rap, easily the decade’s most vital genre, have been on that case for years, and they’ve gotten somewhere already.
One aspect of internationalization that even a critic as balanced as Frith sometimes seems to forget is that the U.S. and the U.K. are no longer very closely linked. That’s why important Brit rock books never reach U.S. retailers, why reasonable people can believe acid house is worth anything more than a subset here. As Europe develops its own artists/suppliers and even its own roots and Afro-hybrids (not to mention its own Economic Community), Old World loyalties and cultural habits (and economics) pull powerfully against the familiar linguistic ties. And as its pop world becomes more distinct, its example becomes less relevant to the enormous market where pop music as we know it was born.
Certainly the U.S. has a lot to learn from Europe musically. Though in the end Americans dominated world pop in the ’80s — U2 was the only non-American star in the international megaplatinum constellation — that’s unlikely to continue. Pondering the lines of historical force, I think the rock hero of the ’90s will be nobody. But if I’m wrong, he or she (or they) will almost certainly be dark-skinned (racial turmoil will heat up further) and from some other place — maybe won’t even speak English as a first language. (Not Youssou N’Dour.) As bad as the Age of Reagan has been for the American psyche, the Age of Thatcher has been sheer grinding pessimism, a good reason to take the dour projections of postmod futurism (which is often Anglophile when it isn’t Brit) with a grain of salt. The death of the (Romantic) subject is real, and overdue, but things don’t change as fast or as utterly as those weaned on a phenom-a-week music press instinctively expect.
In fact, a lot of how one views the rock-pop/albums-singles dichotomy has to do with the related question of how deeply one craves epiphanies. Scanning Marsh’s book, I kept thinking how I’d rather hear this Smokey or that Randy Travis song on an album, because as much as I loved them I knew that for me they no longer had the spark, the impact, what John Sebastian and Rolling Stone used to call “the magic that will make you free” — that in fact their impact could only be experienced retrospectively as part of a broader if less intense vision. The myth of the Great Album held that this sort of pop epiphany could be sustained, and for a while it could, but the end of that possibility shouldn’t surprise or even disappoint us. Internationalization has its dire aspects — multinational corporations scare the shit out of me, thank you — but as we absorb the plastic images promulgated in a bright and hooky world-pop lingua franca, it’s also inevitable that we’ll familiarize ourselves with the semi-legible aesthetics of somewhat grainier local cultures — collective realities epitomized by representative individuals. Just the kind of thing the nongreat album is made for.
Hope that’s chipper enough for you. And enlightened enough too.
1. The Indestructible Beat of Soweto (Shanachie); 2. Ornette Coleman: Of Human Feelings (Antilles); 3. X: Wild Gift (Slash); 4. Sonny Rollins: G-Man (Milestone): 5. Franco & Rochereau: Omona Wapi (Shanachie); 6. Double Dee & Steinski: “The Payoff Mix”/”Lesson Two”/“Lesson 3” (Tommy Boy promotional EP); 7. DeBarge: In a Special Way (Gordy) 8. Public Enemy: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (Def Jam); 9. Bruce Springsteen: Born in the U.S.A. (Columbia); 10. Replacements: Let It Be (Twin/Tone)
1. Funky Four Plus One: “That’s the Joint” (Sugarhill); 2. T. S. Monk: “Bon Bon Vie” (Mirage) 3. Public Enemy: “Bring the Noise” (Def Jam) 4. Michael Jackson: “Beat It” (Epic); 5. Imagination: “Just an Illusion” (MCA); 6. Madonna: “Open Your Heart” (Sire); 7. Rob Base & D.J. E-Z Rock: “It Takes Two” (Profile); 8. Afrika Bambaataa & Soul SonicForce: “Looking for the Perfect Beat”(Tommy Boy); 9. Taana Gardner: “Heartbeat” (West End); 10. Beat: “Twist and Crawl” (Go-Feet import)
This and other classic Voice stories can also be 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.