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:

I don't mean to start a parlor game, but does greatest artist of the 20th century mean anything to you? I mean, who else you got? Picasso? Joyce? Renoir? Elvis? So here's one $50 item you owe yourself. I doubt it could be winnowed much—expanded would be better ... Home in on Pops's trumpet solos—their strength, clarity, daring, ease, humor, swing, melodicism, and endless newness. Enjoy his irrepressible vocals without calling them comic relief—the comic is everywhere in this music. Get to know the brilliant originals. Hear how he takes over blues and hokum, pop classics and pop disposables without belittling his sources. Ask yourself whether high and low mean any damn thing at all. A+

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:

The sparse harmonies and hard-won melodies go with lyrics that make all the American connections claimed by San Francisco's counterculture; there's a naturally stoned bemusement in their good times, hard times, high times, and lost times that joins the fatalism of the physical frontier with the wonder of the psychedelic one. And the changeable rhythms hold out the promise of Uncle John's Band, who might just save us if we'll only call the tune. Inspirational Verse: "Think this through with me." A

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):

The worst of the counterculture on a plastic platter—bullshit necromancy, drug-impaired reaction time, long solos, everything. They claim to oppose war, but if I don't believe in loving my enemies I don't believe in loving my allies either, and I've been worried something like this was going to happen since the first time I saw a numerology column in an underground newspaper. C-

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:

I'm not claiming I would have gotten the message without a 13-year-old I know broadcasting it from her boombox. But keynoted by two guaranteed pop classics, one dance and one heart, this is genius teensploitation. I give half credit to songwriter-svengali Max Martin, who's put in time with Ace of Base. But as someone who still suspects Abba were androids, I award the other half to the Boys, without whose sincere if not soulful simulations of soul and sincerity Martin's slow ones would be as sickening as any other promise that's made to be broken. Together the team manufactures a juicy sexual fantasy for virgins who get nervous when performers grab their dicks and think it's gross when teenage ignoramuses copy the move. They deserve one. After all, it is gross. A-

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:

[M]usically, no pop in years has reached so far while compromising so little. Bill Stephney, Hank Shocklee, and Terminator X juice post-Coleman/Coltrane ear-wrench with the kind of furious momentum harmolodic funk has never dared: the shit never stops abrading and exploding. Yet it holds fast, a revolutionary message D's raps have yet to live up to—which isn't to say that isn't a lot to ask or that they don't sometimes come close. I mean, me and Chuck E like punks—D's not the first talented asshole to front a great band. In fact, he's in a grand rock and roll tradition.  A+

But about twenty years later, in 2007, he is unashamed to anoint Lil Wayne "the best rapper alive" — though Soulja Boy comes close with his Souljaboytellem.com album:

Boy do the haters get busy on this 16-year-old. But scrutinize the "superman" matter (look it up) and you'll see that even if he thought he was sneaking something outlandishly filthy onto a pop record, his fans thought he was inventing a dance that involved flying, thus furthering the presumption of innocence so crucial to his cute. Unlike his crunk forebears, he's not into pimping or dealing or even strip clubs—"Booty Meat" is as explicit as his carnality gets, and not only is he looking not touching, he's hoping an amateur will "turn around just like a pro." He's still boy enough to worry about those F's, and the most winning of his many winning songs was written to, and on, his Sidekick 3. There are enough sonic strokes here to keep the wrong bizzer in ringtone rappers for a year. But Soulja Boy's spiritual secret is that with less subcultural support than, say, Be Your Own Pet, he's reached the top of his world on a few tips from ex-partner Young Kwon and the loyalty of human sidekick Arab. You can hear how tickled he is about it. A-

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.

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Eric D R says:17 Sep 2016 18:28 EDT
Christgau and his fellow baby-boomer music critics do not have as much influence as this article supposes. Most consumers of pop music don't even read such reviews at all. If we want an explanation for how and why popular music has lost integrity over the past 20 years, this article is not offering it. I'll give you this: Popular music has actually NOT become so much worse. The EDM-influenced pop we hear on mainstream radio from singers like Ariana Grande contains some very impressive and creative musicality; It's just that a lot of it is coming from DJ's (or production engineers we don't see) and not from the singer we see on stage. There are people behind the scenes of pop music who are creating amazing musical tracks. Perhaps what has been degraded most compared to 20, 30, 40 years ago is the tradition of the band, of musicians playing instruments as a discreet unit, and also lyrics that rebel and push the envelope on social and political issues. But even that's not entirely true, as there continue to be exceptions.
andrea twerkin says:02 Feb 2016 20:09 EST
yo OSCAR, care to xplain yaself lol? how is boticelli's point "stupid" xD? christgau argues that certain music (predominantly pop music lol) is worthless, manufactured shit n garbage & then gives it a high-ass rating like an A-? seems pretty much xactly like pathetic, defeated, cynicism lol, care to articulate how it could be somethin more than that?
The Dean says:09 Dec 2015 19:03 EST
Christgau is entitled to his taste, however appalling it may be, and his opinions, however indefensible they are.
Oscar says:03 Jul 2015 15:02 EDT
"Together the team manufactures a juicy sexual fantasy for virgins who get nervous when performers grab their dicks and think it's gross when teenage ignoramuses copy the move. They deserve one. After all, it is gross."

"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)."

Boticelli does not seem to comprehend...
Or maybe i'm too stupid to understand him.
kray28 says:28 Mar 2015 17:29 EDT
Critics like Christgau have consistently proven to me that nothing they write actually correlates in any meaningful fashion to how much I may actually enjoy a certain piece of music. It is fun to see how he rated music over time though. He doesn't really know what he's talking about though. Take Steely Dan, who he clearly likes....fits the "counter-culture" club he so totally thinks he's part of. Still he can't even identify SD's best album for us....the pop masterpiece Aja...merely giving it B+ while giving the comparatively average Pretzel Logiv an A+.
NImsy says:26 Jan 2015 0:03 EST
LOL @ Alex Wilson:

"He believes in truth."
Alex Wilson says:23 Jan 2015 6:58 EST
In regards to the actual question--which is a completely illogical, irrelevant one--music doesn't get worse or better with time. That viewpoint is retarded. There will always, always, always be good musicians and albums and bad musicians and albums. That's just the way it is. What a dumbass post.
Alex Wilson says:23 Jan 2015 6:55 EST
This is hilarious, as you are so, so wrong about Christgau. He praises music first-and-foremost for it's musical content. Is it catchy? The Soulja Boy album was catchy as hell. It's the same reason hipsters like to trash him for liking Tha Carter III by Lil' Wayne. That album is undoubtedly one of the greatest hip-hop albums ever, but, because Wayne is seen as cheesy by people who believe they are far cooler than they actually are, he gets panned for it. He believes in truth. If you can't accept that, you're foolish, naive and immature, and have no say in music criticism at all.
Mary Hartmann, Mary Hartmann says:11 Oct 2014 0:18 EDT
Christgau is consistently outdated, outmoded and has always been hailing the blandest mainstream crap bands since day 1. Getting a good review from him is a death sentence, a scarlet letter and a venereal disease wrapped in a corporate blow jay. Lou Reed called him a "toe fucker" because he fucks the toes of stinky ho's and Sonic Youth have the photographic evidence to prove this. Robert Christgau should fly a kite, take a nap, plant a garden or start a band but instead that boring motherfucker wrote boring reviews for boring motherfuckers just like him. What a waste, Yo.
Anonymous says:02 Sep 2014 17:05 EDT
I was really hoping this article would get into the question it posed at the beginning of it. I've been searching for an answer to it for years.
Zettel9016 says:08 Jun 2014 16:54 EDT
The truth hurts. How else to explain these two confused responses
posing as intelligent appraisals of the above article? Neither actually
describes the piece (which is very good) but instead tries to "rebut"
with stock insults and a tired sanctimoniousness leftover from previous
rants. Strange. Very strange. Like Christgau himself actually.
Dude says:16 Feb 2014 2:34 EST
Piece of shit article.

Kristian says:08 Feb 2014 11:49 EST
Boneheaded, oblivious analysis of self-aware and complex writing, check. Simplisticly developed argument about pop vs. "real" music, check. Irrelevant and uninsightful gibes at age, check. Gimme a break, dude.

Traitors, sell-outs, and Soulja Boy, oh my!
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