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Wanted for Attitude: The FBI Hates This Band

The Right-Wing Attack on Rock

HOW’S THIS FOR GOVERNMENT intimidation? In early August, a letter arrived on the desk of Priority Records president Brian Turner. Written on Department of Justice stationery, it was just three paragraphs long:

A song recorded by the rap group N.W.A. on their album entitled “Straight Outta Compton” encourages violence against and disrespect for the law enforcement officer and has been brought to my attention. I understand your company recorded and distributed this album, and I am writing to share my thoughts and concerns with you.

Advocating violence and assault is wrong, and we in the law enforcement community take exception to such action. Violent crime, a major problem in our country, reached an unprecedented high in 1988. Seventy-eight law enforcement officers were feloniously slain in the line of duty during 1988, four more than in 1987. Law enforcement officers dedicate their lives to the protection of our citizens, and recordings such as the one from N.W.A. are both discouraging and degrading to these brave, dedicated officers.

Music plays a significant role in society, and I wanted you to be aware of the FBI’s position relative to this song and its message. I believe my views reflect the opinion of the entire law enforcement community.

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THE LETTER WAS SIGNED by Milt Ahlerich, an FBI assistant director, who describes himself as the bureau’s chief spokesman and who says he reports directly to Director William Sessions. Ahlerich says his letter represents the FBI’s “official position” on the record by N.W.A. (Niggers With Attitude), hip-hop’s most streetwise and politically complex group. But he also says he hasn’t heard the song. Neither he nor the bureau owns a copy. Ahlerich didn’t ask N.W.A. or Priority for the oft-unintelligible lyrics; he got them — or something purporting to be them — from unnamed “concerned officers.” Ahlerich says the FBI has never adopted an official position on a record, book, film, or other artwork in the four years he’s worked there nor, so far as be knows, in its entire history.

Ahlerich claims writing the letter was justified because N.W.A.’s song, “**** Tha Police,” allegedly advocates violence against the police, (The group sings “Fuck the police,” but the album just uses blanks.) “I read those lyrics and those lyrics spoke of violence and murder of police officers. That to me did not seem to be in the public domain at all,” he said, strenuously objecting to implications that the letter was censorious or intimidating,

Ahlerich isn’t the only cop incensed by “**** Tha Police.” An informal police net­work faxes messages to police stations nationwide, urging cops to help cancel concerts by N.W.A., a group based in Compton, California. Since late spring, their shows have been jeopardized or aborted in Detroit (where the group was briefly detained by cops), Washington, D.C., Chattanooga, Milwaukee, and Ty­ler, Texas. N.W.A. played Cincinnati only after Bengal linebacker and City Council­man Reggie Williams and several of his teammates spoke up for them. During the summer’s tour, N.W.A. prudently chose not to perform “**** Tha Police” (its best song), and just singing a few lines of it at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena caused the Mo­tor City police to rush the stage. While the cops scuffled with the security staff, N.W.A. escaped to their hotel. Dozens of policemen were waiting for them there, and they detained the group for 15 min­utes, “We just wanted to show the kids,” an officer told The Hollywood Reporter, “that you can’t say ‘fuck the police’ in Detroit … ”

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In Toledo, N.W.A. performed only af­ter Reverend Floyd E. Rose complained publicly about police pressuring local black clergymen, “Rightly or wrongly, the perception in our community is that the ‘police think they have the authority to kill a minority,’ ” he wrote the police chief, quoting the song, “and that [police] think that every black teenager who is wearing a gold bracelet and driving a nice car is ‘selling narcotics.’ … I must say that while I do not like the music and abhor the vulgar language, I will not be used to stifle legitimate anger and understandable resentment.”

Anger and resentment are at the center of N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton, a two-million seller that slices current r&b fashion to ribbons, then goes on to pretty up the latest in gang-culture bad-mouth­ing. It rocks harder than any other album released this year; if the abusive, profane language didn’t keep N.W.A. off the ra­dio, the sheer assaultive sound probably would, N.W.A. is, above (or below) any­thing else, not nice. But the profanity exists not for shock effect or as a bohemi­an art stance, but as an organic expres­sion of south-central L.A.’s half-hidden gang world. The group wouldn’t be half so politically important, or half so exciting, if they were just rap’s answer to Andrew “Dice” Clay. Much if not most of what the group has to say — especially about women, but also about drugs, guns, and the sanctity of private property — will make any civilized soul squirm. They don’t just épater les bourgeois, they rub its face into its own merde. This is music to make the blood run cold, and if only a dimwit would salute its values, only a fool would completely disrespect them.

As Reverend Rose and most everyone who has heard the song realizes, “**** ­Tha Police” isn’t about shooting cops. It’s about being bullied and tormented by them. A hip-hop barrage, the song tells of a young black man who loses his temper over brutal police sweeps based on appearance, not actions, like the ones fre­quently performed by the LAPD. In the end, the young man threatens to “smoke” the next flatfoot who fucks with him. The same point is made even more clearly in the “Straight Outta Compton” video, which presents docudrama footage of a gang sweep in which the L.A. police vio­lently round up street kids (played by N.W.A.) just for wearing dookie ropes and beepers. Finally, the kids retaliate — ­or to put it another way, defend them­selves. (Ahlerich isn’t so eager to mention that 339 Americans were gunned down by peace officers last year in “justifiable ho­micides.” Or as Brooklyn rapper KRS­-One puts it, “Who Protects Us From You?”) N.W.A.’s Ice Cube calls his songs “revenge fantasies.”

1989 Village Voice article by Dave Marsh and Phyllis Pollack about FBI tracking NWA-THE FBI HATES THIS BAND

ADVOCACY? “The song does not consti­tute advocacy of violence as that has been interpreted by the courts,” says Barry Lynn of the American Civil Liberties Union. “It doesn’t come close.” As for saying “fuck the police,” attorney Charles Rembar, an obscenity expert, remarks, “It’s far more clearly protected than burning the flag.”

To Lynn, what is legally questionable is Ahlerich’s letter. He cites several court decisions that hold that government com­munications can have an unconstitution­al chilling effect “even if they don’t threaten direct action.” And Ahlerich says that his letter was not personal but an official FBI policy statement, albeit adopted “on my authority” without con­sulting his superior, Sessions.

Lynn says, “It would not violate the First Amendment for an individual working for the FBI to personally write such a letter. But it’s incredible for the FBI to send this kind of official letter to any person in the creative community.”

“Oh, I didn’t know they were buying our records, too!” Ice Cube told his publi­cist when she first told him of the Ahler­ich letter. “People overreact,” he told us. “Getting a letter from the FBI seemed kind of funny to me.” Does he feel threat­ened by what might come next? “No. Money conquers all. There’s a lot of peo­ple that’s making a lot of money off N.W.A. as far as record companies, dis­tributors, and concert promoters.” But by the end of the conversation, he was saying, slightly more seriously, “Maybe they’ll send the CIA after me, arrest me for treason.”

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INTERESTING AS IT is that Milt Ahlerich chose to have the FBI take an official position on a record nobody in the bureau has bothered to buy, it’s even more inter­esting that he can’t explain how word of that record’s existence reached him. Pressed he said only that he received a copy of the purported lyrics from “re­sponsible fellow officers.” He wouldn’t, or couldn’t, name them.

Police officials in Toledo and Kansas City say officers in Cincinnati faxed them the information about N.W.A. and “**** Tha Police,” according to Gregory San­dow the Herald Examiner rock critic who tracked the informal anti-N.W.A. cop network. Cops began receiving the anti-N.W.A. warnings in late spring, about the same time an article about the group appeared in the June issue of Rev­erend James C. Dobson’s Focus on the Family Citizen under the headline “Rap Group N.W.A. Says ‘Kill Police.’ ” Its readers are urged: “Alert local police to the dangers they may face in the wake of this record release.”

The article was written by Bob De­Moss, Focus on the Family’s “youth cul­ture specialist.” DeMoss formerly headed Pennsylvania-based Teen Vision, which produced Rising to the Challenge, the Parents’ Music Resource Center’s video. This video was recently withdrawn from circulation and re-edited after revelations that it ended with a phony endorsement attributed to Bruce Springsteen. The PMRC contends that they were not aware when the video was made that the Springsteen quote was false.

The Dobson/DeMoss/PMRC connec­tion is instructive and important because, while the Washington wives like to boast of their respectable affiliates (the PTA, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the political board members), they don’t like to admit their role in stirring up the Christian right. In fact, the PMRC’s offi­cial position is that it has no relationship with any group except the PTA and the pediatricians. It does everything it can to deny other ties.

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Since October 1985, when the PMRC coerced the Senate Commerce Commit­tee, composed largely of PMRC’s direc­tors’ husbands, into holding antirock hearings, rock has been attacked from city halls, statehouses, fundamentalist pulpits, and the executive echelons of the FBI. The PMRC has become a key link connecting right-wing Christian groups like Reverend Dobson’s with such theo­retically respectable entities as the PTA, the pediatricians, and PMRC advisory board members like Atlanta mayor An­drew Young.

Tipper Gore has been every rocker’s favorite basher, but the most powerful of the PMRC’s founders is Susan Baker, whose husband, the secretary of State, is now four heart attacks away from the White House. Susan Baker, who incar­nates the stiff-necked, antisexual Born Again, sits on the Focus on the Family board of directors. (Several members of the board come from the investment and banking business that James Baker, as secretary of the Treasury, “regulated.” Secretary and Mrs. Baker refused to comment on their ties to Dobson and his organization.)

Although the PMRC’s ties to the Christian right are numerous, the most crucial of them is Focus on the Family and Dobson. The ACLU’s Lynn says that with the breakup of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, Focus on the Family makes Dobson “the most powerful fundamentalist in the country.” Perhaps the flakiest of all the Meese Pornography commissioners, Dobson came to prominence as Ted Bundy’s final confessor, claiming that the mass murderer/con man’s crimes were the result of addiction to pornogra­phy. Dobson campaigns stridently against abortion, and his Citizen maga­zine is a forum for activists like abortion­-center terrorist Randall Terry and Nixon administration felon Charles Colson. His plan for American education calls for get­ting evolution out of the classroom and putting prayer back in. Susan Baker, as a director of this 500-employee, $57-mil­lion-a-year organization, presumably shares those goals. We know that Dobson shares her views on rock ‘n’ roll, because Citizen’s July 1988 issue ran an article on her complaint that record labels were dragging their feet on warning label compliance.

The rest of the PMRC’s ties with Dob­son aren’t so casual, either. In the June 1989 issue of Citizen, which contains DeMoss’s anti-N.W.A. article, PMRC exec­utive director Jennifer Norwood says. “We want music critics and organizations like Focus on the Family to disseminate this information to their constituencies. This is something that needs to be done.” Norwood insists that this call to Chris­tians to crusade against rock is the same as dispensing “consumer information” to moms and dads at the PTA.

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If Dobson is the most important of the PMRC’s Christian cronies, he’s far from the most dubious. None of the groups listed below is an official PMRC affiliate. But all of them use the quasigovernmen­tal clout and the credibility of the PMRC to legitimize their endeavors, and the PMRC shares many of their goals. Whether it also shares money, no one knows. The PMRC refuses to reveal the sources of its funding.

• The Back in Control Center, the Ful­lerton, California, “de-metaling/de-punk­ing” center, is endorsed by Tipper Gore in her book, Raising PG Kids in an X-­Rated Society. Its de-metaling handbook lists a variety of satanic/occult symbols, including the “six-pointed star represent­ing the Jewish Star of David.” Director Greg Bodenhamer, a former probation of­ficer, accused the rock group Kiss of us­ing the Jewish star to worship the devil; on more than one occasion, Bodenhamer has flashed a picture of Kiss members wearing such stars as “proof.”

Back in Control also produced Punk Rock & Heavy Metal: The Problem/One Solution, a 20-page training manual used by several California police departments. Printed over the name Sergeant M. Shel­ton, of the Union City PD’s now-defunct Youth Services Board, the manual likens rock ‘n’ roll to Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist Party and makes sure to point out that music can be used as a very effective medium of rebellion against the government. Besides the usual heavy metal targets, it also attacks “Huskerdo,” Rush, and Van Halen, and rock magazines like Circus, Hit Parader, and Creem. (Through the press office of her husband, Senator Albert Gore, Mrs. Gore said that Bodenhamer’s misrepresenta­tion of the Jewish star was a “mistake.”)

• Truth About Rock, the St. Paul, Minnesota, ministry of Dan and Steve Peters, pastors of Zion Church. The Peters brothers and their antirock writings have been repeatedly touted in PMRC litera­ture. The brothers specialize in record album burnings; they also condemn Tina Turner, among others, for non-Christian beliefs. (She’s a Buddhist.) The Peters also claim, “The Jewish star is the uni­versal symbol for Satan.” (Jennifer Nor­wood says the Peters brothers book Why Knock Rock? — recommended by the PMRC — doesn’t endorse record burn­ings. However, the book has a photo of the brothers at an LP bonfire.)

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• Missouri Project Rock, which was founded by Shirley Marvin, a lobbyist for Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum. Marvin cites an Eagle Forum meeting with Tip­per Gore as her inspiration, and an MPR brochure claims that it works in coopera­tion with the PMRC. A Memphis rock-­monitoring group called the Community Aware of Music and Entertainment Co­alition, praised in Gore’s Raising PG Kids, is also listed as an ally in MPR literature. (Norwood denies any PMRC ties with MPR and says she asked Marvin to delete its claim of one in the brochure.) MPR’s “musical director,” Reverend Shane Westhoelter, calls Catholics “cannibals, because they eat wafers which are the body of Christ.” Project Rock’s literature says that Bruce Springsteen has a satanic backwards message in “Dancing in the Dark,” and their infor­mation kit includes tapes from Victory Christian Church in St. Charles, Missou­ri, asserting that Hollywood promotes race-mixing, that the Holocaust never happened, and that Hitler didn’t write Mein Kampf. The tapes also refer to “Martin Lucifer King.”

• The American Family Association, best known for Reverend Donald Wildmon’s campaigns against Madonna’s Pepsi com­mercial, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Mighty Mouse’s sniffing of flower petals. Wildmon’s anti-Semitism finally led to disavowals by such erstwhile supporters as Archbishop John L. May of St. Louis, and the leaders of the Church of the Lutheran Brethren and the Mennonite Church.

Wildmon’s National Federation for De­cency magazine reprinted 14 pages of Raising PG Kids with permission, accord­ing to the book’s publisher. Mrs. Gore, through Norwood and her husband’s of­fice, claimed that she never learned of the reprint until we asked about it.

On September 14, Gore’s office said the Gores “have never and would never coop­erate with any effort in any way connect­ed to anti-Semitism … Mrs. Gore had no knowledge whatsoever and did not au­thorize in any way the excerpting of her book in the magazine of the National Federation for Decency. She does not know and has never met Donald Wild­mon.” Does this constitute a repudiation of Wildmon? Gore press officer Narla Romash said, “Yes.” Asked for a com­ment, a Wildmon official hung up.

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AS EVEN THE NEW YORK TIMES recog­nizes, bigotry is rock’s fastest-growing problem. Jennifer Norwood told us the PMRC has taken a firm stand on this topic, corresponding with the Anti-Defamation League and the NAACP. Tipper Gore made similar claims on Entertainment Tonight September 22. Norwood says that the PMRC has been vociferous in its condemnation of Guns N’ Roses’ racist, homophobic “One in a Million,” though only after the song became na­tionally notorious did the PMRC attack it (for instance, on the ET broadcast). The PMRC didn’t mention the tune in its summer 1989 newsletter, a peculiar omission in that GNR’s “I Used to Love Her” from the same album was included in a list of objectionable “Top 40 Lyrics.” That song was placed under the heading Murder. The only other headings are Vio­lence, Sadomasochistic and Sexually Explicit.

Meanwhile, the record industry silently but effectively participates in the repression. Contacted about the FBI letter threatening N.W.A., neither the Record­ing Industry Association of America, the record lobbying group that numbers N.W.A.’s Priority label among its mem­bers, nor the National Association of Record Merchandisers, the lobbying group for record sellers, had any com­ment. Nor did Russ Bach, president of CEMA, the Capitol/EMI-owned compa­ny that distributes Priority. Billboard, the industry’s leading trade publication, has rarely taken an editorial stand against censorship. On the odd occasion when it has published anticensorship guest editorials, it has immediately fol­lowed up with articles by the PMRC spreading the same old half-truths.

At the National Record Mart chain’s July convention, a not-so-silent Russ Bach said that he has recommended to the labels CEMA distributes — which in­clude not only Priority, but Southern California Civil Liberties Union chief Danny Goldberg’s Gold Castle and Frank Zappa’s Barking Pumpkin — that they should more carefully scrutinize and sticker their albums. “It’s obvious that there is a wave of conservatism in this country,” Bach said. “If anything, we should err toward the conservative.”

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With a few exceptions (Zappa, Don Henley), rock stars have been equally si­lent. Most prefer to treat censorship as an issue that affects only the music’s vul­gar fringe: rap and heavy metal. Many still believe that the notoriety of a stickered album is good for business.

The PMRC would like to wipe the smirk from their faces. Its recent quarter­ly newsletters carry Red Channels-style lists of “Releases Without Consumer In­formation” (that is, warning labels) and “Releases With Consumer Information.” Norwood says this is legitimate consumer information; she was unable to specify either where her group draws the line in deciding which unlabelled albums to re­port, or why it does not report on records that don’t need labels. The PMRC doesn’t just provide consumers with neu­tral information. On September 22 Nor­wood told radio station KSD-FM in St. Louis that the PMRC “endorses” the Rolling Stones tour.

Aside from proving that even pleading guilty-by-implication with a sticker won’t keep the censors off you, this particular package of “consumer information” has other revealing implications. On the most recent “Releases With Consumer Information” report, every stickered act is black — including N.W.A., Prince (hon­ored for Batman), and L.L. Cool J. According to Norwood, this indicates that rappers are among the most compliant rockers; in reality, it tells you who the record industry most easily pushes around.

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Harsher days are coming, even for art­-rockers, college radio favorites, and main­stream stars. On the “Without Consumer Information” chart are a number of rap and metal records, but also Siouxsie and the Banshees’ Peepshow and XTC’s Or­anges and Lemons. The spring edition of the PMRC blacklist includes Iggy Pop’s Blah Blah Blah, the Rolling Stones’ Dirty Work, the Cure’s Standing on a Beach, the The’s Infected, Big Audio Dynamite’s No. 10 Upping Street, Simply Red’s Men and Women, and the Beverly Hills Cop II soundtrack.

Although the PMRC has failed to get the record companies to comply with its deepest stickering desires, it has had far less trouble with retailers, who are much more vulnerable to picketing and boy­cotts. The 130-store Hastings chain now is refusing to sell certain rap and heavy metal records to minors; Camelot Music told Billboard that it would pull records from stores rather than be picketed. The PMRC says it doesn’t want government legislation against rock, and no wonder — ­look how effectively the marketplace does the job. But as the FBI has shown, legis­lation isn’t the only way for the the gov­ernment to become involved.

The record industry is testing the civil liberties idea that, for every inch the cen­sors are given, they’ll demand a kilome­ter. The major labels and distributors’ November 1985 concession to the PMRC, which created the warning labels, is an implicit guilty plea that gave Susan Bak­er and Tipper Gore the credentials to write a Newsweek column conflating the tabloid connection between rap and the Central Park rape and the need to control what our children hear. (You can be sure that they won’t be contributing a piece on the connections between bel canto and Bensonhurst.)

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Not everyone is so cowardly. In Rapid City, South Dakota, the local PMRC af­filiate tried to get city officials to block a June 16 Metallica/Cult show. Opposed by citizens connected with Music in Action, the music industry’s anticensorship group (the authors of this piece are mem­bers), they lost. The concert produced the most integrated white/Indian audience ever seen in the Black Hills. In Kansas City, where N.W.A. played after the city’s acting mayor, Emanuel Cleaver, tried to stop the show (saying “Take your trash back to L.A.”), Ice Cube concluded the performance by saying, “We just showed your City Council that blacks, whites, Mexicans, and Orientals can get together for a concert without killing each other.”

Nevertheless, rock world opposition to the censors remains small and unfocused. The $6.2 billion record industry has no defense budget at all. The record business has nothing to say about the FBI’s abuse of artistic liberty — maybe because it pro­tects its investment with the FBI’s Special Task Force against record piracy. Li­beled by bullies, liars, reactionaries, and bigger weirdos than rock ever knew in its psychedelic heyday, corporate rock ‘n’ roll can’t even find the strength to whimper. ■

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COPS ‘N’ ROCKERS

Police pressure forced the cancellation of a June 17, 1987, Run-D.M.C./Beastie Boys show at the Seattle Center Coliseum, beginning a new cycle of such abuses that trace back to the heyday of Alan Freed. Last May, Ouachita County, Arkansas, sheriff Jack Dews seized rap and heavy metal tapes from a Wal-Mart and from the Heart of the Blues record store in Camden, claiming the music was obscene under state law and couldn’t legally be sold to anyone under 17. In August, the 203,000-member Fraternal Order of Police declared a boycott of any musical group that advocates assaults on police officers, a significant stand since off-duty cops staff most security teams.

Billboard‘s September 9 front page detailed nationwide efforts to repress acts “that swear, engage in erotic posturing, and sing lyrics touting violence.” It reported curtailment or cancellation of shows by Skid Row, Too Short, GWAR, and N.W.A., as well as arrests of Bobby Brown in Columbus, and Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Among other towns where local officials censor rock are Cincinnati and Toledo, Ohio; Erie, Pennsylvania; and Poughkeepsie and Syracuse, New York. GWAR manager Bill Levine says that in Toledo, “We couldn’t say fuck or shit, but it was OK if we cut the heads off people.” (The decapitation of mannequins and pseudo-dismemberment of each other is a focus of GWAR’s oeuvre.)

The New York area is not immune to governmental shenanigans against rock. Some months ago, Middlesex, New Jersey, district attorney Alan Rockoff formed JUST (Joint Unit To Stop Terrorism), alleging the task force is necessary to stop cemetery vandalism caused by kids listening to rock. “There’s a healthy way to be Big Brother,” says Rockoff, whose unit tracks heavy metal bands and their fans with a computer.

N.W.A has not yet played New York. According to Ice Cube, nobody’s made the multiplatinum hip-hoppers a worthwhile offer.

— D.M.

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RETURN TO SENDERS

In July, I obtained the suspiciously uniform batch of letters that Priority Records received protesting N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton. To find out why the letters were so often alike, I called their authors, who came from all over the country. I checked more that 100 letters.

Most of the letters claimed that the authors would “never buy an album from your label again,” but my interviews with their writers indicated that none of them had ever bought any LP, cassette, or CD in the last 18 months excepts two who said they’d purchased a “Christian record.” (How can you boycott product you never buy?) None were aware of a wide range of rap acts, including Run-D.M.C.; several said they’d never heard of N.W.A. Those who were aware of the group said they’d learned about them from Reverend James Dobson’s Citizen magazine. Not one of these anti-N.W.A. letter-writers had listened to their record, although many were quick to respond to questions about the group by saying that “**** Tha Police,” as one put it, “calls on blacks to kill police officers.”

Only a single letter-writer acknowledged living in a household with anyone who buys “rock ‘n’ roll records.” And that respondent was the one who asked for advice on how to organize a rock-bashing group. She said she’d already started working on it.

— P.P.

1989 Village Voice article by Dave Marsh and Phyllis Pollack about FBI tracking NWA-THE FBI HATES THIS BAND

1989 Village Voice article by Dave Marsh and Phyllis Pollack about FBI tracking NWA-THE FBI HATES THIS BAND

1989 Village Voice article by Dave Marsh and Phyllis Pollack about FBI tracking NWA-THE FBI HATES THIS BAND

1989 Village Voice article by Dave Marsh and Phyllis Pollack about FBI tracking NWA-THE FBI HATES THIS BAND

1989 Village Voice article by Dave Marsh and Phyllis Pollack about FBI tracking NWA-THE FBI HATES THIS BAND

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1993 Pazz & Jop: Playing to Win

No use seeking hidden meanings in the 20th or 21st Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll. The story is smack dab on the surface, there for the kvelling and the selling — self-evident and significant, heartening and thrilling, unprecedented and maybe even sexy. Liz Phair — the first female victor since Joni Mitchell in 1974, when the 24-person electorate consisted largely of my friends — is joined on the album chart by 11 other women, recording under their own sobriquets or fronting bands that usually include more women. With PJ Harvey scoring twice, and the Digable Planets and Yo La Tengo granted half-credits for Ladybug and Georgia Hubley, that’s 13 and two halves records all told, and though in 1992 we had 10 and two halves, then women garnered a mere one (and a half) of the top 10, whereas in 1993 they scored three of the top four. On the traditionally distaff singles chart, where the gender breakdown is unremarkable, the Breeders follow Tracy Chapman in 1988 and Laurie Anderson in 1981 to the top spot. Björk’s “Human Behaviour” came in second on our video ballot, following Cyndi Lauper in 1984, and “Cannonball” rode in fourth on a goofy clip codirected by better half Kim Gordon. Rap-rockers Luscious Jackson follow Lucinda Williams in 1989 as EP winners. Only on the reissue list, where Columbia’s proudly feminist Janis Joplin box finished seventh in an otherwise male field, did guys still rool.

Needless to say, skepticism is always justified when journalists crow about trends. Note that as recently as 1991, the only women to place were Bonnie Raitt, Sam Phillips, and Kirsty MacColl, and note also that this is hardly Pazz & Jop’s first Year of the Woman. We had one in 1992; we had one in 1988; we had one in 1981, when women put ten and three halves albums in the top 40; hell, we thought we had one in 1979, when 10th-place Donna Summer, now cited as an example of how critics only respect sexually assertive white women, led seven (and three halves) female artists onto our chart. And as was noted by many of our 309 respondents — a new high, as were the 68 female voters, their numbers swelled by Elizabeth Cady Stanton Memorial Poobah Ann Powers’s affirmative-action effort and H. L. Mencken Memorial Poobah Joe Levy’s insistence on declaring our deadlines a disaster area — the women on our chart are as varied as the men. (Almost, anyway — none of them is as big a creep as Dwight Yoakam, not to mention Dr. Dre.) I’ll grant you that 68th-place diva Toni Braxton and 47th-place sexpot Janet Jackson deserved more respect, that icons on the order of Sinéad and what’s-her-name were nowhere in evidence, and that we got no riot grrrls either (although Bikini Kill’s Joan Jett–produced “Rebel Girl” was tied just below chart level with seven other singles that would have toned up an already healthily non-album-dependent list). But despite all that, we cover a lot of territory; I mean, from Sade’s velvet wallpaper and Aimee Mann’s power-pop singer-songwriting to Rosanne Cash’s mainstream privatism and Jane Siberry’s eccentric privatism to Carol van Dijk’s Euroneotraditionalist lead work and Laetitia Sadier’s Euroexperimental front work to Me’Shell NdegéOcello’s people’s poetry and Cassandra Wilson’s art of improvisation seems like a lot to me. And Phair at number one, PJ Harvey at three, and the Breeders at four (plus Belly at 37) represent a sea change.

I’m not forgetting that Harvey and the all-female L7 burst upon us in a 1992 that was topped by the half-credited Arrested Development. And I’m down with the profusion of comments on the varieties of female experience. But I still think that the big story in 1993 was girls learning to play a boys’ game by boys’ rules, and play it to win. Sade and Mann and Siberry and Cash and Me’Shell and Wilson and van Dijk and Sadier all fit established female niches that critics appreciate. It’s not impossible to imagine a poll-topping successor to Joni’s Court and Spark emanating from a leader-plus-backup like van Dijk’s Bettie Serveert, even from a singer-songwriter who combined Siberry’s singularity with Mann’s thralldom to the hook. Not impossible — just damned hard. I believe that Blondie’s 1978 Parallel Lines was a more incandescent explosion than the poll-topping This Year’s Model, that the McGarrigles’ 1977 Dancer With Bruised Knees was a tougher statement than Never Mind the Bollocks, but I wouldn’t waste time electioneering for either. I know all too well that in practice, our poll honors music that parades its mastery of meaning, and that in practice this comes down to bands, whether ad hoc creations like Paul Simon’s Graceland hirelings, De La Soul’s voice-and-tape fantasias, and Prince’s multitracked versions of his multitalented self or old-fashioned tour-bus brawlers like the Clash, E Street, Crazy Horse, and Nirvana — whether ad hoc studio creations like Phair and friends or old-fashioned tour-bus brawlers like PJ Harvey or hybrids like Belly and the Breeders.

In short, what we have here is the consummation a lot of male critics said they were waiting for — not women who could play their axes or anything stupid like that, just women who knew how to come on strong. This is basically the musical bias the Brits call rockism, a promethean schema that valorizes the artist as creative actor. From Van Morrison at 55 to Mick Jagger at 110, from Donald Fagen at 43 to John Cougar Mellencamp at 93, from Elvis Costello at 57 to Sting at 65 — hell, from John Hiatt at 38 to Billy Joe Shaver at 38 (hell and tarnation, from Kate Bush at 65 to Rickie Lee Jones at 106) — old-timers of all ages still strive proudly to fulfill this ideal. But it’s no longer the fine strapping hegemony it used to be, and not just among fad-hopping U.K. pomo-poppers. What does it mean, for instance, that three of our most aged white male finishers — Jimmie Dale Gilmore (seventh), Willie Nelson (22nd), and Bob Dylan (23rd) — devoted themselves to other people’s songs? Or that after years of traditionalist resistance, the Pet Shop Boys — whose three previous entries finished 22nd, 32nd, and 35th — should leapfrog to fifth on their poorest-selling disc? Above all, what does it mean that after years of posing atop Mount Caucasus, torch aloft and eagle at liver, U2 should finish ninth with a damn Eno album?

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For good reason, the rockist vision is often attacked as Euro, male chauvinist, and so forth — as an aestheticization of the will to dominance. Yet oddly enough, while rockism continues to define metal and fuels many of the new male country singers, two of its bulwarks these days are rap (pardon me, hip hop) and the former Amerindie subculture still sometimes labeled alternative, both of which reject or redefine virtuosity while championing their own modes of rugged mastery. As so often happens in countercultures, it’s like hippie all over again: in order to combat the ruling class, the media, the powers that be, the establishment, the man, both rappers and alternative rockers lay claim to an individualistic ethos they believe has been homogenized out of existence. Big on authenticity and creative control, they carry the rockist flag. But not without misgivings. Reluctant to cross over yet desperate to get paid, reliving African trickster and griot traditions as they act out against absent fathers, forced by the forces of censure and censorship to front about how literal they are, rappers suffer ugly doubts about their own autonomy. And the indie guys, who reject rockist ideology while embodying its aesthetic, don’t have it so simple either. They’d be confused about gender privilege even if their girlfriends didn’t hock them about it.

When Nevermind overwhelmed Billboard first and Pazz & Jop later in 1991, we all knew “alternative” was in for weird times, but except for some feminist critics, notably the Seattle-born Powers, few considered gender consequences in the year of Raitt-Phillips-MacColl. Who would have figured? Yet here we are. Say there are 12 Amerindie bands in our top 40, and nine in our top 20: Dinosaur Jr., Belly, Uncle Tupelo, Yo La Tengo, American Music Club, the Afghan Whigs, Urge Overkill, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, the Breeders, Nirvana, and Liz Phair. Since not one of these bands records for a fully independent label, this list is deeply debatable; maybe it’s wrong to exclude long-ago Twin/Tone stalwart Paul Westerberg, and I count Pearl Jam only because…I forgot. Still, bear with me. Seven of the 12 are first-time album finishers, but not one of the four male newcomers — Uncle Tupelo, the Afghan Whigs, Urge Overkill, and Smashing Pumpkins — scored with a debut album. All came up in the indie farm system, where all recorded at least two albums/EPs. A version of the Breeders that included Belly’s (then Throwing Muses’) Tanya Donelly released a Rough Trade album in 1990 and a 4AD/Elektra EP in 1992. But Liz Phair and Belly charted true debut records, which added to Digable Planets, Me’Shell, and Netherindies Bettie Serveert makes five, all showcasing women, on a chart that averages around eight — with Exile in Guyville, which predated the Atlantic deal critic-bashing former Pazz & Jopper Gerard Cosloy cut for his poll-vaulting Matador label, our only genuine Amerindie album.

Nor is it just the numbers that tell me women are now the prime hope of a onetime youth culture whose length of tooth is measured by the 1986 and 1988 debuts of Overkill and the Whigs. It’s my ears. Although I didn’t resist Exile in Guyville, I did find it hard to hear through the word-of-mouth, just as Nirvana’s number-two In Utero was hard to hear through the media clamor (in my defense I’ll say that two decades ago it took me just as long to penetrate Exile on Main Street, which I promise not to mention again). When I gave myself the Christmas present of relistening in depth, however, the voters’ choices ended up my favorite new music of 1993, and Guyville started sounding like a full-fledged classic.

If you wanted to get wise, you could grouse that Guyville shares all too much with Court and Spark, but you’d be jiving. Where Joni’s winner was a produced, listener-friendly variation on the audaciously arty For the Roses, Phair’s recalls the more tentative Clouds — except that it’s realized and Clouds isn’t, proof positive that minimalism lives. Phair milks drummer-coproducer Brad Wood (who kicks things off with a perfect Bill Wyman bass hook) and multitracks with Princely panache, adding simple, self-taught, alternative guitar noises — strums and riffs rather than Nirvana/Sonic Youth noise-a-rama — where he-who-cannot-be-named would lay in a beatwise panoply. By the time I’d heard the 18 songs 18 times, I was hooked right down to the perverse slow ones — like “Canary,” which follows a minute of halting piano with a sad ditty whose mix of domestic detail and attempts at cooperative cohabitation climaxes quietly with a house on fire. Clearly, Phair wanted to prove she could do it with a band and prove she could do it without one; substitute “guy” for “band” and you’ll know why. Not only does she have another album in her, she has a career in her, one she’s canny enough to stay on top of. But at the same time she’s alternative-rockist enough to look askance at careers undertaken exclusively from behind closed doors. So her next step is to get out of the studio and start a band. Since this leader-plus-backup is unlikely to bog down in participatory democracy, I just hope Phair figures out how to generate the requisite synergy anyway, and noting that the four musicians credited on her record are fulltime citizens of Guyville, submit that a female player might shake up the dynamics.

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For I also note that of the three other women’s bands, PJ Harvey, which consists of Polly Harvey and two guys from Somerset who knew a genius when they saw one, is at once the most accomplished and the most conventional — a blues-based power trio who, like Nirvana, hired critic-bashing former Pazz & Jopper, alternative ideologue, and sexist dweeb Steve Albini to guarantee the hard-edged power-as-integrity they demanded in a followup. Albini’s input was pitiless and extreme, and although the device of turning some levels so low that listeners have to choose between not hearing the record or playing it loud is what insiders call a “stupid gimmick,” I go along with the consensus that Rid of Me is realer than the 35th-place 4-Track Demos. I prefer it to Belly’s Star and the Breeders’ Last Splash, too, and not just for its passion — hybrids who recorded before they played out, Belly and the Breeders aren’t all there yet musically. Yet live, Star’s mystofemmes are postmacho masters of their own pre-Amerindie pastiche, while Last Splash is simply the most outlandish record ever to make our top five. Take as a metaphor the tumble-bumble number-one single “Cannonball,” which is either alternative’s “Horse With No Name” or the revenge of the shambolic — proof the garage lives creatively, commercially, and in all the erogenous zones in between. Unlike the Pixies or PJ Harvey, the Deal twins don’t equate guitars with virtuosity or expressive display, and if they’re too messy by me, the voters took their loose ends as proof of a righteous impulse worth loving and rewarding.

And at least Last Splash made the Dean’s List — down in the 50s, stranded in a vast expanse of nonfinishers. Where before world beat and college radio my lists often anticipated the consensus, recently their correspondence to the general wisdom has been random — my first would be the voters’ 87th, my fourth their 32nd, my ninth their eighth, my 38th their fourth. This year, however, the pattern was different. Rarely have I concurred so thoroughly on the cream — four of the voters’ top eight are in my top seven, nine of their top 17 in my top 18. But not one of the 23 records below that — and only two of a typically varied 41–50 that goes Spinanes, Henry Threadgill, Donald Fagen, Counting Crows, Björk, Mekons, Janet Jackson, Pharcyde, Suede, Velvet Underground — made my year-end A list. Most of the voters’ choices were solid and smart, worthy of honor or at least mention; from Dwight Yoakam to Cassandra Wilson, I might have missed a few altogether without the P&J seal of approval. But they’re almost all by Yanks. And while the chauvinism wasn’t as unremitting as in 1992, when PJ Harvey and Morrissey were the only aliens on our chart, I find the census discouraging: the only non-Americans are Harvey, perennials U2/Sade/Pet Shop Boys, major-label freshpersons Stereolab, and Amsterdam Anglophones Bettie Serveert.

Although under the sexual circumstances I cherished hopes for 62nd-place Zap Mama, this is not a plea for “world music” — most of my African and Caribbean (and Central Asian) finds were strikingly archival. So forget Third World outreach — I would have settled for Anglophilia. Because in this particular year of the woman, I found the oblique genderfucks of the Popinjays and Saint Etienne and the self-contained dream-pop of Ireland’s Cranberries and Michigan Anglomorphs His Name Is Alive more pregnant with meaning than the arty variations on womanist expressionism served up by Mann, Siberry, and Me’Shell. When expressionism works it’s the shit. Mud-wrestling with chaos, cutting their rage with conscious grotesquery and indignant self-deprecation, Kurt Cobain, Polly Harvey, and Greg Dulli give irony the arm without denying themselves its out. In contrast, crooner-poemwriter concrète Mark Eitzel, one-trick guitar god J Mascis, Music Row status symbol John Hiatt, recovering outlaw Billy Joe Shaver, Oprah volunteer Eddie Vedder, and Prince surrogate Terence Trent D’Arby all express too much, methinks. Yet though their moments rarely become minutes and their minutes never become hours, all have parlayed identifiable styles, discernible smarts, and reliable personas into serious Stateside reps. Meanwhile, a straight U.K. band’s gay-identified U.K. record affects a pathos so flamboyant that reasonable people can’t stand it — until the songs climb into bed with them. In Britain, Suede wins a Mercury Music Prize. In Rolling Stone, it’s “Hype of the Year.” And in Pazz & Jop, it finishes 49th — better than it might have, worse than it deserved, and at least it deflected repressed homophobia from the Pet Shop Boys.

Although the shortfall may be random, to me Suede’s showing seems emblematic of Amerindie provincialism. With its naturalization of fashion, hype, indirection, androgyny, and Jacques Brel, Brit music culture is now so far removed from America’s alternative mindset that the poor guys might as well be performing Bulgarian folk songs. But provincialism begins at home. Were I to kvetch that of the 16 votes for Suede, nine came from New York and California and only two from Middle America, Midwesterners could respond that of the 18 votes for St. Louis fiddle-and-steel band Uncle Tupelo, nine came from Middle America and only four from New York and California. So as with Suede, I’d listen a lot and get it eventually. There’s something smartly posthomespun there, though not enough — I’d like more lyrics on the order of “Name me a song that everybody knows/I bet you it belongs to Acuff-Rose.” On the other hand, I’m not always so sure what Suede’s songs mean either, and if a Minnesotan were to claim that our differences came down to dialect — that camp and falsetto are indigenous to one place, banjo and drawl to another — I’d have trouble mounting a convincing counterargument. As discrete monads segregate themselves into subsubcultures determined by geography and sensibility, battening down the hatches from Compton to Croatia, the fine old liberal myth about music dissolving boundaries is showing its bullshit quotient.

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As you might have guessed, it is with rap that segregation becomes most problematic, although this time it may be less characteristic of consumers than critics, with formerly tolerant white worrywarts on one side and populists and rap specialists on the other. Dr. Dre didn’t get near the victory some scaredy-cats predicted was his for the drive-by. But having fretted that gangstas were cordoning off their own market niche like the heavy metal kids of yore, I obviously never imagined that The Chronic, a late-’92 album that picked up all of 10 points last year, would finish a triple-platinum sixth in our 1993 poll. Still, Dre’s triple-platinum partner in profit Snoop Doggy Dogg was only 52nd, and the tenor of the few progangsta comments suggested considerable support in the fact-of-nature, sound-of-the-streets, and guilty-pleasure categories. And though the tough-talking Latinos of Cypress Hill were 29th, voters generally preferred the alternative: De La Soul, Digable Planets, A Tribe Called Quest, and Me’Shell, all whom explored jazzy beats that signified bohemia as much as they did great black music. I don’t exempt myself from this tendency — after a year of prayer and meditation, I’ve learned to loathe The Chronic. But I much prefer De La’s dislocated funk and the Digables’ hard-bop hooks to the cocktail-flavored groove of 82nd-place Guru, Me’Shell, even Quest, and would single out for praise the alternative/metal-rap of the 60th-place Judgment Night soundtrack, which attempts to suture cultural lacerations more patient-appropriately.

Dave Marsh leads off the “Gangsta Bitching” section with a typically passionate outburst that’s also typically, shall we say, overstated. The facts are these. Between 1988, when It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back announced hip hop’s rockist agenda, and 1992, when 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life of… became our third rap winner in five years, we’ve averaged two black albums a year in the top five, three in the top 10, and 10 in the top 40. But by “black,” I mean “featuring an artist of African descent.” This makes sense to me; anyone who doesn’t think Vernon Reid or Tracy Chapman is “really” black should try and imagine saying so to their faces. Others might counter, however, that a black album can only be one that attracts a substantial black audience, which also makes sense. Then our black numbers go down, although not that much — unless you want to argue that the black audience for Prince and P.M. Dawn and Arrested Development isn’t “black enough.” These calculations do get tricky — and risk unseemly racial presumption in the bargain.

We can safely say this much, however: 1993 is the first year that there hasn’t been a black album in the top five since 1985, when Artists United Against Apartheid earned only a half. And if we can also project that this will prove an exception rather than a trend, we can nevertheless see why Marsh is so upset. Because make no mistake, bohemia is a trend, from Digable Planets and Me’Shell NdegeOcello to Smashing Pumpkins and Liz Phair. Bohemia is a function of class, a concept that in this context encompasses cultural style as much as gross income; it’s hostile to the merely popular in ways both stupid and smart. Marsh, who voted for Pearl Jam as well as Dr. Dre and has always trumpeted working-class taste and rockist expressionism over collegiate exclusivity and pomo irony, hates bohemians for reasons he would argue are fundamentally political, and even those who would beg to differ will grant that politics is hardly a specialty of this year’s boho crop. Where in 1992 we heard nonstop propaganda from John Trudell and the Disposable Heroes and heavy protest from Arrested Development, Neneh Cherry, even Sonic Youth and Leonard Cohen, 1993 never gets more ideological than Me’Shell, Digable Planets, and — jeeze — the Pet Shop Boys. For some, this leaves Dr. Dre in the symbolic position of embodying our inarticulate collective rage. I say he’s not good enough for the job. In fact, I say he’s not angry enough.

Yet however much our women pussyfoot around the four-syllable F-word, however heavy they come down on the inward, they do represent a power shift, and power shifts are what politics is about. It’s my (male) belief that the progress this shift will effect is unlikely to nudge, much less dislodge, the entrenched economic interests exploiting gangsta pathology, although it might palliate some symptoms. Nor do I expect international sisterhood to cut into an America-firstism that could get real tedious real soon. And let me note that as a longtime bohemian hanger-on, I’m appalled to witness in one year the returns of Tim Buckley (in the voice of his EP-charting son) and El Topo (a dreadful fillum revived as the dumbest video ever to top our poll). But none of the above is to suggest that Liz Phair represents anything less than a long overdue and exceptionally happy development in an exercise that teaches me something new every year. Male critics said they were waiting for it, and they were. Now they get to find out how much they like the consequences.

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Top 10 Albums of 1993

1. Liz Phair: Exile in Guyville (Matador)

2. Nirvana: In Utero (DGC)

3. PJ Harvey: Rid of Me (Island)

4. The Breeders: Last Splash (4AD/Elektra)

5. Pet Shop Boys: Very (EMI)

6. Dr. Dre: The Chronic (Interscope)

7. Jimmie Dale Gilmore: Spinning Around the Sun (Elektra)

8. De La Soul: Buhloone Mindstate (Tommy Boy)

9. U2: Zooropa (Island)

10. Digable Planets: Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) (Pendulum)

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Top 10 Singles of 1993

1. The Breeders: “Cannonball” (4AD/Elektra)

2. (Tie) Digable Planets: “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” (Pendulum)
Nirvana: “Heart-Shaped Box” (DGC)

4. Dr. Dre: “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang” (Interscope)

5. Salt-N-Pepa: “Shoop” (Next Plateau)

6. (Tie) Radiohead: “Creep” (Capitol)
Soul Asylum: “Runaway Train” (Columbia)

8. The Juliana Hatfield Three: “My Sister” (Mammoth/Atlantic)

9. Urge Overkill: “Sister Havana” (Geffen)

10. (Tie) Ice Cube: “It Was a Good Day”/”Check Yo Self” (Priority)
Tony! Toni! Toné!: “If I Had No Loot” (Wing)

—From the March 1, 1994, 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.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1990 Pazz & Jop: Hard News in a Soft Year

The night Voice music editor Joe Levy and I began tabulating the 17th (or 18th) Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll, the war had been on for more than a week, and my CNN habit was in remission. So we played music uninterrupted as we counted from 8:30 till 4 and 9:30 till 1. Though Public Enemy led for the first quarter (wouldn’t that piss people off?) before giving way to Sinéad O’Connor (who dominated straighter, smaller polls), by bedtime Neil Young looked like the shoo-in we’d figured. We were having fun, sampling dark horses (matched Replacements surrogates Soul Asylum and Goo Goo Dolls) and cracking wise about other people’s tastes (today Tim Buckley, tomorrow Essra Mohawk). Glimpsing the top of the mountain (289 voters, 34 more than the 1989 record), we broke for lunch, picked up a paper, and there it was: oil slick all over the front page, for me an even worse nightmare than the bombing of Tel Aviv. Suddenly fun was beyond us. Back upstairs, after a brief TV fix, I felt compelled to hear music that was painful and familiar: Wild Gift, Exile on Main Street.

As it happened, our return-mail date was January 17, so that many out-of-towners found themselves trying to say something clever about their fave albums as the UN deadline passed and the countdown began. Geopolitics put our little world in perspective — or so it seemed in late January. But one reason the gulf war is the most disastrous event of my conscious lifetime is that it tempts us to obsess on it at a time when so much else desperately requires our attention. Culture vulture though I am, I wouldn’t put the death of rock and roll up there with nationwide bank robbery, semitropical winters, the future of excommunism, or even the budgetary suicide every public school parent is up against — especially since I suspect the obituaries are premature yet again. But there they were, set off by Billboard chart-watcher Paul Grein’s observation that 1990 was the first year since 1963 that not a single guitar band had a number one album. And as I pored over the mountain, I realized that for many critics, especially sharp young ones and bitter old ones, 1990 seemed like a turning point. Something is happening, and nobody really knows what it is — me included, so don’t get your hopes up.

Poll results reflect this uneasiness only insofar as they represent small departure from recent trends — fail to provide so-called trendmakers the breakthrough they crave. Never have albums seemed more irrelevant. As Mike Rubin notes in the “Yesterday’s Papers” section — and I recommend you read the conversations I’ve constructed from the ballots before winding through my inescapably inconclusive comments, which I’ve held down to make room — 1990 was a year in which press coverage of the usual profusion of product gave way to larger thematic concerns. Or maybe smaller. Hard news, maybe. Or maybe just what hard-news hardheads (the guys who churned out videogame criticism and called it military analysis) dis as “back-of-the-book copy” — reported, even investigated, “stories” instead of celeb profiles or (ugh) reviews.

Censorship was the heavy deal all year, and don’t tell me it’s a red herring, not with retail chains prescreening sex ’n’ violence and so-called parental warning stickers keeping tapes out of Saudi Arabia. Though metal took its licks, rap obsessed the watchdogs, generating racial controversy and racist hysteria even as the Oreo and the Sno-Cone topped the charts, and rock/rap sexism (though not, fancy that, homophobia) ballooned from boring old left-lib plaint into national nightmare. Everywhere, Public Enemy and Madonna angled for the ink Sinéad O’Connor dove into. Predictably, all these headline-stealing issues and personages inspired mucho respondent analysis — especially rap, which remains “the new punk” on formal and cultural momentum alone. But to my surprise, it was Silli Vanilli that really stirred the critics up. I assume you know how dumb the shit was — John Leland found ghostsingers behind Frank Farian’s video-friendly concoction a year before Rob and Fab confessed their sins. And the voters were hip, only rarely bemoaning the shame and scandal of it all. But among many conservatives, as I’ll label them — the Clubrats described toward the top of the long section called “Mass Culture Theory,” or professionals like Geoffrey Himes, who spends his life reviewing the “news events” hardheads demand (the reason concerts rather than records dominate daily rock coverage) — the story struck a spark.

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So suddenly I get eight or 10 letters hyping live over Memorex, and with common sense on their side. After all, which came first — the juke joint or Sun Studios? But even if Sam and Elvis did recreate a roadhouse music, which is highly debatable, so what? The medium may not be the message, but the medium sure changes the message, and Stayathomes like different kinds of messages than Clubrats. Or vice versa. Himes’s “unmasked emotion” is cant — it happens once in a while, usually when the sound man fucks up, but the most you can expect from someone who’s singing the same song for the 200th or 2000th time is the variation on authenticity quote-unquote that the forgotten popular culture theorist Reuel Denney termed “self-stimulation.” David Sprague’s “wild abandon,” on the other hand, is more subject to performance discipline and its obverses, though it sure gets faked a lot. And the question of who can “really” play or sing isn’t altogether meaningless — while technical skill obviously doesn’t guarantee artistic innovation or listening pleasure, it does help sometimes, even on record. But the main thing that happens at shows is that you see other people there. The artiste first of all, with all the extra inflections that fabricated intimacy, physical detail, and interpretive variation can afford. Even more important, listening to music live puts you in contact with other listeners. Instead of imagining a pop community, you encounter one.

This isn’t the main thing the conservatives care about, of course. That would be art in all its truth and beauty — especially truth, a truth associated with unmediated perception and “human” scale, though some wise guy might wonder why it so often comes in a four-four box. Relatively speaking, their opposite numbers, who I’ll call the couch potatoes, are relativists, skeptics, pop intellectuals. Truth and beauty aren’t their game. One reason they stay at home so much (almost as much as the average fan!) is that they like to read and watch television, which ain’t so easy when you hang out in bars three-four nights a week. Whether this makes them smarter or stupider is beside the point — either way they feed on secondhand information. I say civilized human beings have always shown this sort of bent for abstraction, though not to the extent of fashioning pomo theories out of it. And although that doesn’t end the discussion — people who like rock and roll have always had their problems with the way civilization quote-unquote defines the civilized (as non-Islamic, say), not to mention the human  it’s why I side with the couch potatoes even as I dream of getting out more.

So say it loud — what all our deliberations and computations add up to is a bunch of ABSTRACTIONS. The points are abstractions, the results are abstractions, and, oh fuck, in many ways the albums are abstractions too. Sure they have physical reality, even in the digital form so few critics resist any more. And sure our judgments proceed (can proceed, should proceed) from our aural experiences. But not only are these experiences intangible in themselves, they generate intangibilities of a greater order of magnitude. We have the presumption to construct imaginary communities around them even though we can’t swear our significant others went to the same heaven we did last night. And we assume they can stand in for barely expressible ideas — certainly when we write about them, and too often when we vote for them as well (many critics feel obliged to augment their favorite records with representative black/white/female/male/indie/pop/disco/metal/jazz/worldbeat mentions, a piety I deplore). One reason voters are forever discovering that they prefer singles to albums is that singles aren’t so burdened with abstraction. They’re usually experienced publicly, on the radio or the street or the dance floor, and — in the famous guilty pleasure effect — less subject to superego review (although I confess to leaving Bell Biv Devoe’s jack-swinging “Poison” off my list solely because I found its sexism intolerable). Albums are still supposed to resonate like Great Works even though we suspect the concept of the Great Work is an oppressive fiction.

Statistically, that fiction held this year. As music has factionalized and consensus softened, the top Pazz & Jop albums haven’t been getting such Great numbers — in recent years only Prince’s Sign ‘O’ the Times has won big. So it’s no surprise that the 1990 triumph of Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s Ragged Glory was less than sweeping — its points-per-voter quotient fell about midway between that of 1988’s controversial It Takes a Nation of Millions and 1989’s flukey 3 Feet High and Rising, which had the shallowest support of any winner in poll history. Although the point strength of the top 10 albums was respectable, the wan kudos volunteered on The Rhythm of the Saints and Interiors and Graffiti Bridge and even Time’s Up made you wonder how much the critics raved about their faves after their reviews were in. But I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got and Fear of a Black Planet were powerful second- and third-place finishers in both votes and corroborating commentary. Different as the top three records were — the Young an atavistic garage stomp, the O’Connor a singer-songwriter effusion bursting with rock/rap/worldbeat juice, the PE the impossible followup to a revolutionary LP — they obviously entered many different voters’ lives (61 named at least two, 10 all three). And most of us can take comfort in the one overarching value all three artists share: they don’t have much use for the American flag as it’s currently displayed. Ragged glory indeed.

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In general, though, the album list was inconclusive if not stagnant if not meaningless. Though rap is said to be hurting artistically, it landed exactly as many albums in 1989 as in 1990 — six, with Queen Latifah placing the same record twice, 3rd Bass a late-’89 release, and the other full-fledged debuts by unreconstructed middle-classniks Digital Underground and A Tribe Called Quest in a year when street Afrocentrism was the power move. More debut albums charted in 1990 (10 counting Ice Cube and the Texas Tornados) than in 1989 (eight counting Bob Mould), but only sophomore-in-disguise Cube made top 10, whereas last year De La Soul–Neneh Cherry–N.W.A–Soul II Soul placed 1-5-6-9. Thanks partly to inspired poaching by Deee-Lite, Lisa Stansfield, and 3rd Bass, the top 40’s black-artist total dipped from 14 to 11, but once again half the top 10 was black. There were seven albums by women in 1989, six (counting Deee-Lite) in 1990. Dance heroes Soul II Soul broke in a little higher in 1989 than dance heroes Deee-Lite did in 1990. Non-English-speaking Caetano Veloso finished 27th in 1989, non-English-speaking Youssou N’Dour 25th in 1990.

In fact, the only album “trend” I see is, of all things, white rock and roll. Early in the decade new indie groups bum-rushed Pazz & Jop every year, but not lately. In 1989, the only indie-style poll debuts came from NRBQ, who are older than Gavin Edwards, and Galaxie 500 (who plunged to an astonishing one mention in 1990); in 1988 the Cowboy Junkies (who plunged to a less astonishing zero mentions in 1990) were the new kids on the block, though art-rockers Jane’s Addiction and metalists Metallica and Guns N’ Roses also made their dents; in 1987 it was two more sad stories, 10,000 Maniacs and That Petrol Emotion. This year five newish bands charted for the first time: the Black Crowes were 31st, Faith No More 27th, Yo La Tengo 19th, and World Party 15th, while the Chills scored our cult record of the year, finishing 12th even though they made 11 fewer ballots than 13th-place Deee-Lite. Precedent suggests that some of these artists will never darken our poll again; except for the smart, sublime jangle-pop of the Chills’ Submarine Bells, I found all their music slightly annoying myself. But flashes in the pan they’re not — only the flashy Black Crowes placed a debut album. With the junk syncretism (kitchen-sink eclecticism? styleless mish-mash?) of Jane’s Addiction up from 34th to 24th, it’s my reluctant conviction that Faith No More will be around. And World Party might just turn into a Squeeze for our time — Beatles fans (also Tim Buckley fans) with their fun-filled conscience on Karl Wallinger’s sleeve. Hold the obits, please. Critics can be so stubborn.

On the singles list, meanwhile, things changed plenty, and in the opposite direction. Women sang lead on only four of our 1989 top 25; in 1990, the figure was 12. And for all the rap-dance futurism of last year’s comments, 12 rock/pop singles underwhelmed seven rap and six dance singles on the list itself; this year, rock/pop singles were down to eight and dance up to 11. For all you category-haters out there, I’ll hasten to emphasize that mine are dubious. People obviously dance to rap, especially the likes of “Bust a Move” and “Humpty Dance,” while dance records like “Buffalo Stance” and “Poison” get half their shit from rap (to make matters worse, I counted Snap’s “The Power” as dance and Chill Rob G’s as rap even though the tracks are identical). “Tom’s Diner” is a dance record that owes an immense debt to rock (or folk, or whatever); “Epic” is a rock record that owes a medium-sized debt to rap. In fact, though dance singles obviously achieved some critical hegemony in 1990, with the crucial side effect of a surge in female voices (a bow to Martha Wash, who belongs on MTV no matter what you think of authenticity as concept and construct), this category-hopping is the story. For all their syncretic dreams and cute little experiments, the Pazz & Jop albums categorize pretty easy. The singles, which in the top 12 or so all got airplay in a dismal year for pop radio, ignore genre boundaries the way Neil Harris planned it.

I don’t think rock and roll is dying, even in its square old guitar-defined form. Not because Warners signed the Chills, or because the Black Crowes are younger than the Rolling Stones, or because Yo La Tengo is the most shameless critics’ band since the Pet Shop Boys. The poll has never had that kind of precise predictive value. It’s just that after 17 (or 18) years I know years are funny things — they’re all atypical. Grein didn’t count Sinéad or Bonnie Raitt because girls who play rock and roll ruin neat theses. Two rappers, one worse than the other, topped the pop charts for more than half of 1990, and though rap isn’t dying by a long shot, I bet that never happens again. Springsteen takes over the racks in April. And so forth. But though it hit a blank with the commercial shortfall of Amerindie (a hardy cottage industry in any case), the poll has always had general predictive value. What it predicts is that’s something’s gonna happen and we don’t know what it is. What I’m hoping is that eventually we’ll figure it out.

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For years young critics have been pointing toward the rock-dance fusion Billboard has been bruiting lately — maybe not in the form of one famous professional (Phil Collins, say) jiving up his schlock by hiring another (Shep Pettibone), but that’s biz for you. Critics rarely understand biz — they just sense what people need to hear a little quicker than bizzers do. So for a neat thesis we can posit rock-dance fusion as if no such thing had ever happened before — though in fact it was a fad (and a Pazz & Jop theme) 12 years ago, and what Brit New Pop was about, and also, from another angle, what rap was, is, and will be about. This thesis carries with it the usual unexceptionable abstractions — serious fun on the mind-body continuum. And not only is it all over the singles chart, it’s revitalized the EP chart, which is topped by some postpunk guitar heroes’ dance record (because they’re reserving the real stuff for a new label?), a gangsta rapper moving on indie-rock turf (or getting paid more per song), and guitar uglies gone New Romantic (really new age). Extry, extry: Amerindie redoubt goes DOR.

But the thesis doesn’t explain the out-of-nowhere showing of pop pigfuckers Pavement, who finished fourth (surrounded by Two Nice Girls and major-label product of wildly disparate quality) on one of the tiny labels the EP list is supposed to give a crack to. It doesn’t explain a reissue chart dominated by Brobdingnagian CD reclamations of music that safely predates postmodern fuss. It doesn’t explain the top three albums, each of which honors the great god beat in its own cerebrally undanceable way. It doesn’t explain Sonic Youth even if their drumming’s better, much less Living Colour, whose jagged, pretentious art-rock qualifies as DOR only if you subscribe to the theory of natural rhythm. It doesn’t explain Rosanne Cash, whose songs sang clear when she toured without a drummer. It doesn’t explain Los Lobos or the Texas Tornados, roadhouse-rooted though each may be. It doesn’t explain Jane’s Addiction or the Black Crowes, Iggy Pop or Eno/Cale, Reed/Cale or Robin Holcomb, Van Morrison or Bob Dylan, the Pixies or the Replacements. It doesn’t even explain the Pet Shop Boys.

All right, we’ve been here before. Electoral processes are rarely unanimous, trends are never monolithic, and different critics like different kinds of music. Big deal. Radical pluralism or a thousand points of light, it’s an old story, and as such a long way from the divine rupture of something-is-happening-and-we-don’t-know-what-it-is. Indeed, I’m almost as sick of the metaphor as you must be. Like any concept, pluralism risks turning into a shibboleth unless it absorbs new data — it’s losing its explanatory aura. But what can I do? According to many respondents, 1990 was the latest in the endless line of worst years ever, yet having freed myself to seek out only good records, I put together my longest Dean’s List ever. And as usual my picks were all over the place, including 13 and counting representatives of a black Africa that from Ladysmith to the Oriental Brothers has far more to offer than the estimable Youssou N’Dour. Internationalism is built into the dance-rock thesis — I don’t just mean Hull’s own Beats International, I mean Snap — but as the term is usually understood it remains a far-future projection of indeterminate shape. Even for this radical pluralist, whose list was dominated by what we jokingly call rock and roll — 17 guitarslingers as far-flung as Ministry and the Flatlanders and the Beautiful South, as differently same-old as Sonic Youth and Living Colour and the Chills and the Pixies and, well, Neil Young.

As Elena Oumano says somewhere hereabouts, we dance to Armageddon to the beat of our own drummer. And as Joe Levy says somewhere else hereabouts, there’s no reason to think guitar rock won’t be a viable residual subgenre for a long time to come. It would be tasteless to make any grand claims for its ability to save or even improve the world at this horrible moment, but it certainly speaks to a little group of paras and professionals who’d like to see the world save or improve itself, and who take hope in the best of popular culture — “people’s” culture, to and/or from as the case may be, generously accessible in both its renegade-seeker and utopian-hedonist forms. Looking over my own list, I was struck by all the high-ranking faves I’d classify as pop rather than rock, pop with historical perspective — Red Hot and Blue and The Civil War, and also Evan Lurie’s all faux, all true tango and Madonna’s blindly underappreciated camp. They reminded me of Jason Weisbard’s modestly visionary suggestion — a grander version of whatever inspired a vocal minority to campaign for the return of the video ballot — that our interest group comprises not just rock critics but all popular culture fanatics. And what are our interests? How about free expression for those human X-factors Victorians referred to as the dangerous classes? Spiritual growth from the ass up? Pop history as art history? The old ideal of art as community? Trial by disco for Allan Bloom? Like that.

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Reclaiming mass culture is a couch potato’s dream. Insofar as live-over-Memorex partisans hope to encounter a community instead of imagining one, it’s a community fixated on difference — a community of people who already agree with them. There’s admittedly something very abstract about the commonality couch potatoes posit as an alternative — real human beings are far more unpredictable than any work of art, however “complex,” “vital,” and so forth it may be, which bothers aesthetes no end. But there’s something even more abstract about the Clubrat-Stayathome polarity itself — most of us fall somewhere in between. So let me tell you a story and turn the speculation over to my colleagues.

Like most of the voters in this pluralistic interest group, I didn’t put Ragged Glory in my top 10 — thought it dragged, basically. But though those who don’t get Young may dismiss his victory as pure reaction, I like the record, which makes good on several potent fantasies — eternal renewal, the garage as underground, the guitar as shibboleth and idea. And I wasn’t going to miss his gig, especially not with Sonic Youth opening. When’s the last time two such Pazz & Jop eminences shared a bill anywhere, much less Madison Square Garden? (Answer: in Chicago a month before, when Chuck & Flav and Kim & Thurston occasioned a police riot you may have read about.) But between the display ad and the event fell the bombs, which transformed the concert as they have everything else. Ordinarily the kid from the cheap seats wearing an American-flag T-shirt with the legend TRY BURNING THIS ONE…ASSHOLE would have served as a neat symbol of mass culture and its contradictions. Now he brought to mind Toby Goldstein critiquing Madonna’s morality one minute and nuking the barbarians the next.

Young has made some exceptionally asinine political comments in his time, so I didn’t know quite what to think when he skronked out an invisible Hendrix-style “Star Spangled Banner” after Sonic Youth went on and off. Wasn’t so sure about the giant yellow ribbon hung around the giant microphone prop, either. Sure was nice to see that peace symbol up there, even if it was Freedom’s logo. But though I’ve heard complaints about the predictability of his set list and the automatism of his abandon, I don’t think he’s ever exalted me like that. I admit his every-word-counts claim on “Blowin’ in the Wind” — as if to say, “This is my song now, Bob, but I’d love for you to try and take it back” — put me in a receptive mood, especially after the huzzahs for “Before they are forever banned.” But though he didn’t utter a nonlyric for two hours, that painful and familiar beat provided respite from Armageddon, with warhorses like “Powderfinger” and “Cortez the Killer” and for that matter “Rockin’ in the Free World” ideologically focused for once. And when during a delirious encore of “Welfare Mothers,” he kept yelling “Day care, day care,” I felt he understood. I didn’t especially deserve the respite, of course — not the way they do over in the gulf. But we haven’t figured out how to effect the transfer. All we can do is contest symbols and abstractions — rhythms and sonorities, flags and ribbons — as we mourn and marvel at the incursions they make on our physical lives. Ain’t much, is it?

Oh shit. Peace. And salaam.

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Top 10 Albums of 1990

1. Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Ragged Glory (Reprise)

2. Sinéad O’Connor: I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got (Ensign/Chrysalis)

3. Public Enemy: Fear of a Black Planet (Def Jam)

4. Sonic Youth: Goo (DGC)

5. Living Colour: Time’s Up (Epic)

6. Ice Cube: AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted (Priority)

7. Paul Simon: The Rhythm of the Saints (Warner Bros.)

8. Rosanne Cash: Interiors (Columbia)

9. L.L. Cool J: Mama Said Knock You Out (Def Jam)

10. Prince: Graffiti Bridge (Paisley Park/Warner Bros.)

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Top 10 Singles of 1990

1. Deee-Lite: “Groove Is in the Heart”/”What Is Love” (Elektra)

2. Sinéad O’Connor: “Nothing Compares 2 U” (Ensign/Chrysalis)

3. Digital Underground: “The Humpty Dance” (Tommy Boy)

4. Madonna: “Vogue” (Sire/Warner Bros.)

5. (Tie) Faith No More: “Epic” (Slash/Reprise)
Lisa Stansfield: “All Around the World” (Arista)

7. Black Box: “Everybody Everybody” (RCA)

8. Madonna: “Justify My Love” (Sire/Warner Bros.)

9. Soho: “Hippychick” (Atco)

10. Public Enemy: “Welcome to the Terrordome” (Def Jam)

—From the March 5, 1991, 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.

 

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Kendrick Lamar Wants Us All To Say “Bitch”

Last week, Kendrick Lamar had the whole world calling each other a bitch.

You may know young Kendrick from his good kid m.A.A.d. city album, which was executive produced by Dr. Dre and is apparently so wondrous a body of work that it was magically certified as a classic even before it was released. If you’re active on Twitter then you certainly know Kendrick as the rapper responsible for the phrase “ya bish” littering your timeline. Ya bish, of course, is a thinly-veiled off-spring of “you bitch.” Kendrick has openly confirmed that by bish he means bitch via his own Twitter account. Yet he’s been given a pass on what amounts to encouraging the popular use of the word bitch.

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Kendrick Lamar Arrives In New York, Takes Over S.O.B.’s

Kendrick didn’t invent ya bish as a slang term, but his song “Money Tress” sparked the phrase’s recent social-media life. The catchy track features Kendrick and guest rapper Jay Rock ending most of their lines with “ya bish.” Soon Twitter timelines were swarmed with “ya bish,” used either as a hashtag, a way to accentuate a statement, or to directly insult someone. A search for the term finds some honorable examples like one Robert Redmond from Tulsa, Oklahoma tweeting, “group of old ladies tryna cross the street lookin at me like i need to walk them over but im just like ‘bish dont kill my vibe’.”

Enlightened Kendrick must be exceptionally proud of the way his plucky follower dealt with those fearsome old gals. A tweet from Three 6 Mafia’s Juicy J saying “You bish” has been retweeted 2,549 times. That’s a lot of wanton bish-baiting.

The widespread use of ya bish is distasteful in part because it’s not a particularly cryptic piece of slang. The Wu-Tang Clan’s Raekwon once told me that most of the seemingly unintelligible slang he and Ghostface used in their rhymes was deliberately obtuse because it originated in a criminal world where they didn’t want the police to understand what they were talking about. Ya bish is not like that. It’s meaning, intention and use are exactly the same as saying “you bitch.” Kendrick has just found a way to validate a lot of peoples’ misogynistic urges, whether fleeting or deep set.

Despite the obvious origin of ya bish, it’s being bandied about with a knowing abandon. But would the same people happily spewing out “ya bish” so readily call someone their “zaggin” just because, you know, it’s rap slang? And it’s hard to believe a guy in Oklahoma using “bish” on Twitter is doing it to reclaim the word for women the world over. Unfortunately, you suspect someone at Urban Outfitters HQ has already jumped on the trend and decided to supplement their “Strictly for my ninjas” tees with a ya bish line.

The way Kendrick himself has escaped any sort of questioning or criticism over instigating the bish trend smacks of the horrid immunity that is bestowed upon any rapper who’s presented as being vaguely conscious of a few social issues. In Kendrick’s case, Interscope’s millions have helped push him as the kid from the war-zone of Compton who writes intelligent and nuanced songs like a modern day Bob Dylan (Pharrell’s comparison). He even has a crew called Black Hippy. So just like Common gets a pass for his homophonic slurs and stance against mixed-race relationships because he now dresses like a locavore who works at the Park Slope Food Coop, so too is all forgiven with Kendrick and his role in the grand desensitization of the word bitch.

Or maybe Kendrick is savvier than all of us and is simply invoking a mantra from one of his Compton fore-fathers, Ice Cube, who once explained, “A bitch is a bitch is a bitch is a bitch/ Then I got rich.”