Why is Today's Music So Bad? Robert Christgau and the Failure of Counterculture
|by John Botticelli|
File under: Fake Culture07 Feb 2014 12:11 EST
Something has gone horribly wrong in pop music, that much should be clear. Senior citizen veteran "rockers" now tour alongside marginalized younger acts. Bands have disappeared in favor of the pampered child laborer-entertainer. The "hits" are fake songs, little more than exercises in audio engineering and marketing, with auto-tuned vocals, "homage" elements, and lyrics seemingly written by spin doctors for the current political administration. It's misery, plain and simple.
Youtube, by its power to resurrect forgotten music, has become a kind of nostalgia factory for both young and old. Check almost any video by the Doors, or David Bowie, or Duran Duran, and the top-rated comments will be something like: "I'm 14 years old and I can't stand the music of my generation", or "This is when we had real music", etc. The sentiment is admittedly a bit banal, but over the decades we have clearly moved from a better situation to a worse one.
How did it get this way? That's the big question for people like me, people who weren't alive during the heyday of pop music, people who weren't able to witness its full precipitous decline into today's cesspit. But perhaps surprisingly, you won't find an answer anywhere in the music media (they don't seem to even recognize a problem) — which should already give us a clue to the cause.
Music critics are supposed to be something like industry watchdogs, liaisons between the industry and consumers. They are supposed to use their specialized knowledge and semi-insider status to report the truth to the wider, less-knowing public. If they discover that a new album is little more than an elaborate marketing ploy, for instance, they are supposed to say something like: "Don't buy this album, it's a fraud, not worth your money". Or if they know that an album has been made by exploiting a 16-year old artist: "Don't buy this hideous album, because if you do you are supporting child exploitation". At one time, they acted in this way. But music critics of the past few decades have stopped assuming any kind of responsible role. To be a bit more precise: they have tried to appear as watchdogs while acting as shameless cheerleaders for whatever the industry decides to excrete.
If this behavior sounds a bit Baby Boomer-ish to you, you're on the right track. It is perhaps no surprise that the most irresponsible generation, the generation that ran screaming from the idea of being a grown-up, is guilty of real negligence here as well.
I'd like to introduce you to Robert Christgau. Christgau is the 71-year old self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics". Perhaps the most prolific and influential American music critic in history, he has written rock reviews since 1969 and has spent 37 years as the music editor of the Village Voice, that once-important NYC-based publication. His career has spanned the rise and fall of pop music. If there is anyone who can answer our question of "how?" it should be him.
On his personal website, Christgau freely provides thousands of his album reviews and some of his essays. Yet even if one decides to dig through that massive pile of content (as I did),it is difficult to find any direct statements regarding the issue at hand. This is partly due to Christgau's obscurantist writing style. His personality was clearly formed in the 1960s, and he has retained a Johnny Carson-style "sophistication" which amounts to deliberately speaking in paradoxes while smiling suggestively. That being said, there is much to be learned by analyzing some of his key reviews over the decades.
Let's start with an unambiguously "good" review. In a 2001 interview with Salon magazine, Christgau stated that his favorite musician "of all time" was Louis Armstrong. Leaving aside the fact that this is a little strange for a rock critic, let's look at his review of one Armstrong's albums to see just what he likes about it. This album is a compilation entitled Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: 1923-1934, released in 1994. Christgau assigned it a (rare) A+ rating:
Certainly he can't be more superlative with his "greatest artist of the 20th century" line, and we definitely detect some value-laden phrases: "brilliant originals", "without belittling his sources", etc. Strangely though, all of the songs on this album were recorded before Christgau was born. He is, essentially, praising the music and taste of his parents' generation. This is his sincere "A+".
Let's look at his opinion of a band from his generation, a band irretrievably enmeshed in the culture of the 1960s: the Grateful Dead. Christgau is generally positive about the Dead, and he assigns their landmark 1970 Workingman's Dead album a solid "A" rating:
Fine, and it's interesting to note the comment about "counterculture" here — this was a term used prior to the 2000s to indicate a resistance to what was seen as mainstream culture. Christgau, who worked for the countercultural Village Voice, felt personally invested in that movement (as most Boomers did). This becomes more apparent when he criticizes UK proto-metal band Black Sabbath's first album, also from 1970 (C- grade):
So the movement can be undone — by "plastic platters" and false allies. In 1970, something about counterculture is clearly at stake for Christgau, and he tries to defend it here with his "C-" rating. A bit of an emotional overreaction, perhaps, because aside from the necromancy bit, this review could just as easily apply to Workingman's Dead.
Now let's skip ahead to the late 1990s, to the end of grunge rock and the beginning of the child exploitation era. Specifically, let's go 1997 and the release of the Backstreet Boys' first album. Christgau — enemy of the mainstream and fake values — gives it an "A-" grade:
Alas counterculture. At this point in his career Christgau has clearly given up trying to defend his former beloved against a corrupt mainstream, deciding instead to join that corrupt mainstream and delight in its "pleasures". He seems to express respect for Max Martin, one of the adult designers of this "genius teensploitation". If that's not cynical enough, try savoring "soulful simulations" and "juicy sexual fantasy for virgins". Gone is the sincerity, gone is the erstwhile hint of watchdog-ism, gone is any type of responsible attitude toward the younger generation (after all, the "A-" grade is literally putting this "gross" album into the hands of children who "deserve" it). There have always been cheap teen idols in pop music (Fabian, David Cassidy, etc.) — the difference now is that a critic is praising them instead of mocking them. Who sold out here? Was it the music industry? Was it the Backstreet Boys? Or was it critics like Christgau, who obviously knew better?
Note that Christgau pulls a similar switch in the hip hop genre. In 1988, he gave Public Enemy's anti-establishment It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Backan "A+". Listen to this:
Reality check: you just listened to a 65-year old white man talk about songs like "Booty Meat" using the words "cute" and "winning". I'm not sure one could contain more neurotic self-loathing into a single review. The fact that anyone could seriously publish this as music criticism beggars belief. Nevertheless, Christgau, like the rest of the Boomers, isn't going to change his ways. He will remain steadfastly — and senselessly — in his disgraced throne, trying to make others as miserable and compromised as he's made himself. But of course, we don't have to listen to him, and morally: we shouldn't.
If you want to know how we've arrived at this point in pop music history, don't look to the industry and don't look to audiences (though both are partly responsible) — look to Christgau, and the hundreds of other little Christgaus in the world of music criticism, who continue to tow this line, sneer at you, and pollute your environment with "A" grade albums.
SEND TO A FRIEND
Friend's email: Your email: