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

1994 Pazz & Jop: Hegemony Sez Who? Does ‘Alternative Rock’ Rule or Rool?

The shoo-in winner of the 21st or 22nd Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll is hardly a shock, except perhaps to those who’ve declared the nifty little pop band Green Day a sign of the zeitgeist. Most wily young alternacrits had handicapped Hole’s Live Through This at No. 1 months ago, and without much to-do about her gender. One reason Liz Phair’s status as our first female victor in 19 years was so momentous was that it signaled the very change in rock’s sexual politics that renders Courtney Love’s status as our second consecutive female victor relatively incidental. Her gender is integral to her appeal — at the core of what she says and how she says it, essential by definition to her descents into the madness of sexism. But it’s no longer headline news in a milieu where female artists may finally have achieved a measure of permanent respect. Zeitgeistwise, Love signifies as a bohemian — totally identified with a subculture she scolds, consults, and gives herself up to every time she mounts a stage — before she signifies as a woman. And she also signifies as a widow before she does as a woman. Only I don’t really mean widow, I mean FOK, and maybe FOK should come first.

I mean, we got Friends of Kurt all over this poll. We got his wife’s breakout at number one, his group’s exequy at number four, his Dutch uncle’s tribute at number five; we got his new buddy Michael Stipe rediscovering the guitar at three and his replacement love object Trent Reznor superceding the guitar at nine and Seattle’s Soundgarden inhabiting their groove at 11 and Seattle’s Pearl Jam eyeballing his death mask at 25. We got a singles list featuring five records by the above and a video list featuring three of those. We got a bunch of Pazz & Jop-approved and -unapproved “alternative” albums going multiplatinum, never mind Hole’s gold. In short, we got the Nevermind revolution, three years after Nirvana’s major-label debut transformed the Amerindie aesthetic into a corporate tool. Alternative doesn’t just rool, it rules; it’s mass culture, mainstream, hegemonic. Leaving us with not just the eternal question “Alternative to what?” but the brand-new conundrum “Hegemonic sez who?”

On the most obvious level, Pazz & Jop ’94 is the triumph of a subculture and a generation — the nationwide postpunk bohemia that has fed into our poll since the early ’80s, back when everybody from R.E.M. to the Minutemen were critics’ bands. That the triumph is fundamentally symbolic — limited not just to the universe of signs, but to an attempt to quantify quality there — doesn’t nullify its sweep. Talk about your blitzkrieg bop. In 1994, Pazz & Jop’s politely ecumenical mix of Euro and Afro, Yank and furriner, fart and turk was demolished. This was the sorriest year for black music in Pazz & Jop history: the six black artists in the top 40, one in the top 30, and zero in the top 20 are the fewest since we started counting to 40 in 1979; except for 1978, when there were zero in the top 20 but two in the top 30, they’re the fewest ever. The three albums from the British Isles also represent an all-time low, reached just once before. Ambient ethno his specialty, Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure was the sole “world music” finisher as well as one of the six blacks, and he needed help from Ry Cooder, one of just three prepunk survivors to make our list. That’s also a record, and at least Ry’s only half a ringer: his fellow oldsters are denim-clad Neil “Forever” Young, whose postpunk affinities date to 1979, and basic-black Johnny “Hard” Cash, whose Rick Rubin–masterminded acoustic pseudocountry record impressed young death-trippers worried that a “real” gangsta might beat them up. As in the “real” world, where people buy their records, Cash’s support from fans of the Mavericks, the Nashville-massaged nuevo honky-tonkers whose 35th-place ranking was an encouraging anomaly, was random at best.

Don’t let my dismay mislead you — as a matter of sheer taste, a judgment of where the musical/cultural action was and wasn’t in 1994, I go along with the electoral trend. It was a great year for good new-fashioned guitar-band rock and roll. This was the first time since 1987 when I didn’t put a hip hop record or two in my top 10. Ditto for Afropop. In fact, the sole black voice among my favorites was provided by dance diva Heather Small on one of the two Brit albums in my top 40. M People’s Elegant Slumming came in an ill-informed 55th with the voters, lower than any other record I gave points to; the other selections in my most critically conventional top 10 in memory finished 1-2-4-10-18-20-21-27-43. The coots on my ballot are Los Lobos spinoff the Latin Playboys, who I assume are in their forties; the mom-and-pop band that is the paradoxically named Sonic Youth, who I know are in their forties; Bob Mould of Sugar, who retreated to the boho enclave of Austin at 34; and Iris DeMent, who at 33 makes a matched Pazz & Jop set with 35-year-old Victoria Williams, two chin-up Southern aunts to balance off sourpusses Young and Cash, although both are young enough to be their sisters (and my daughters). Except for Sugar, all four of these artists were Consumer Guided at an overcautious A minus only to overwhelm me with mature musical command — how rich and right they sounded as waveforms in the air. But it was under-30s like Beck and Hole and Sebadoh and Pavement and most of all Nirvana — as well as such voter favorites as Soundgarden and Green Day and to some extent Pearl Jam and the Beastie Boys — who spoke most compellingly to my sense of history. And in this respect I may well have been hearing them differently from their natural-born fans.

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Not one to abjure the comfy emotions of uncledom, I’ve always taken an indulgent attitude toward Amerindie – ingrates might call it condescending. Over the past decade, postpunk has outproduced even such pleasure-intensive subgenres as rap and Afropop, and in addition it’s held out hope for bohemia — for disssenting subcultures where new ways of doing things can be tested. But bohemias are silly and deluded places. Back when my hair was halfway down my back and my Lower East Side apartment cost $45 a month, I scoffed at hippieville’s insularity, self-righteousness, privilege, and half-assed analysis of the marketplace. And in the postpunk era I’ve been wont to ask, “Why so glum, chum?” The charges of nihilism endured by young people with nose rings and unusual hair are dumber than the young people themselves, and not just because nihilism is rarer than it’s given credit for — in artistic output and personal relations both, alternakids make room for considerable kindness and enough hope, and their bleakest moments tap into a musical energy capable of reversing the negative charge. Often, however, the polarity remains unchanged, leaving only misery and rage, passivity and sloth, willful incoherence and helpless sarcasm, naive cynicism and cheap despair. And even when it does go positive — as with Nirvana above all, or Beck — it’s hard for anyone who’s spent 30 years watching fucked-up kids get lives not to point out that there are more direct routes from A to B. Growing up hurts. Duh.

By November, however, I was feeling more simpatico. Partly it was coming to terms with Kurt. Weighing in late, after the bullshit had cleared, I read several books, reimmersed in his catalogue, and got serious with MTV Unplugged, music I had earlier dismissed regretfully as a low-energy holding action turned last will and testament. But although like most live albums this one isn’t without redundancies and flat moments, it goes a long way toward establishing Cobain’s genius. By singing his opaque lyrics instead of howling them, he shades in his affect, and Nevermind’s and In Utero’s as well — thus helping well-adjusted optimists like me empathize not just with his pain but with the extravagant alienation that fed off it. And by November, it wasn’t just a dead guy making me feel that way. As a left-of-McGovernik electoral skeptic, I don’t believe a shift of a few percentage points among lever-pulling registered voters signals a transformation of the national character. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t frightening to watch editors and pundits leap slavering to that self-fulfilling analysis. It doesn’t mean the real-life consequences of the Republican takeover won’t be horrific for Americans who can least afford more shit. And it doesn’t mean that without Tom Foley to kick around anymore, the nattering nabobs of negativity holding forth on Capitol Hill — not to mention the medium that long ago gave us rock and roll — won’t now take out after more genuinely marginal types, “alternative” rock (and “alternative” newspapers) included.

So my November was as shitty as many Pazz & Joppers’ April, a disjunction in timing suitable to someone who has long believed rock and roll shouldn’t be a religion — that if your life is saved by rock and roll, either it would have been saved anyway or it wasn’t only you don’t know it yet. Kurt’s suicide distressed me, but it didn’t surprise me much, and it took the equally unsurprising suicide of America’s corporate liberals to traumatize me into feeling it as deeply as my young friends did. Suddenly all the anarchic, discordant records I already considered 1994’s best were expressing an inchoate rage that I felt. Suddenly the loopy jokes, bitter asides, and free dissociations of Beck and Cobain made perverse sense. Suddenly all that angst and confusion and cynicism and despair felt like part of my daily life.

The under-35 Amerindie natives who now constitute our largest voting bloc rarely fret so about personal identification. Although some alternacrits look back wistfully to when they could fairly be characterized as under-30, even under-25, for them — and for most of today’s rock criticism audience, even in this historically hyperconscious, culturally catholic periodical — discordant-to-anarchic guitars are the world. Many respondents delightedly or defiantly or dutifully or desperately broaden their aural perspectives, and only a few are so ignorant or intolerant that they never venture out of the compound. But whatever smorgasbord of hip hop and funk and jazz and r&b and classical and pop and blues and country and dance and trance and African and Hispanic and Asian (and lounge?) they sample, guitar bands of a certain scruffiness remain their staple diet. For 10 or 15 years these critics’ lives have revolved around clubs, shops, and radio stations that specialize in such bands, and far from finding the musical language limited, they suspect, more as a habit of thought than a tenet of faith, that it can be adapted to any meaning worth expressing, any need worth satisfying — at least any meaning or need that interests them.

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I don’t want to overstate how narrow this world is. Many alternative-identified voters — although too separated from each other (and probably their faculties) to comprise any counterconsensus — would find our top 40 hopelessly pop, slick, unindie, etc. Anyway, discordance is a dinosaur-era tradition — cf. Neil Young, cf. Soundgarden, cf. even pomo scam artist Jon Spencer — that remains discreet in such new singer-songwriters as Liz Phair and Kristin Hersh and to a lesser extent the postmodern folkie Beck and to a greater extent the premodern folkie Johnny Cash and to any extent you care to calibrate the eternal folkie Jeff Buckley, and just about inaudible in such alternative-by-association singer-songwriters as Freedy Johnston and Victoria Williams. Moreover, while such finishers as industrialist Nine Inch Nails and rap-derived Beastie Boys and demo-hawking Magnetic Fields and pop-ambient Portishead and fiddler-engineer Lisa Germano and music therapist K. McCarty and gosh-jazzlike Soul Coughing all utilize guitar sounds, not one made a true guitar-band record. So there’s variety aplenty on our list. Even if Nine Inch Nails and Portishead are both technoid, one’s as assaultive as Archie Shepp, the other as soothing as the MJQ. Even if Pavement and Pearl Jam are both guitar-driven, one’s as cool as Sade, the other as corny as Mariah Carey. And even if Michael Stipe and Courtney Love are both politically outspoken FOKs, one will settle for a cup of coffee while the other wants the most cake.

So, OK, I’m being fair, right? And remember, I said this was a great year for loud guitar bands, got off on most of the faves myself. Yet seven of our top 12 — Hole, Pavement, R.E.M., (the admittedly unplugged) Nirvana, Guided by Voices, Soundgarden, and Green Day, with Young and Beck and Nine Inch Nails this close sonically and lucky sophomore Liz Phair not all that far away (which in case you’ve lost count leaves Uncle Johnny standing alone with his unwhine and his hand-powered axe) — somehow seems too uniform. It’s exclusionary, myopic; it can’t last, it won’t last, and even though it vindicates all of us (not just Amerindie natives but their older supporters) who’ve been fending off rock-is-dead rumors for as long as we can remember (would you believe 1969?), I don’t want it to last. Gratified though I am by how my favorites placed, that’

s all the more reason for me to suspect that this year my dissents from the consensus aren’t just nitpicks, judgment calls, and specialized pleasures.

For starters, there’s the critics’ hype and fantasy of the year, Guided by Voices: nerd concocts obscure hookfests in basement, transmutes magically into Michael J. Fox onstage. And hey, he’s almost old besides, just barely under-35, plus he has a real job. (Let me here give thanks that my fourth-grader is taught by someone who loves her job rather than Robert Pollard, who has bigger dreams. At least Courtney limits her ministrations to her own kid.) Then there are the mainstream hypes: Big Jawn, who’ll capitalize by collaborating with the Dust Brothers on the vinyl-prereleased Outlaw Rap, and Ms. Liz, lavishly forgiven for producing a barely adequate follow-up instead of an unmistakable sophomore stiff. There’s the future presaged by the least enthusiastic EP list in poll history — the 1994 album by the Pizzicato Five, who with 15 EP mentions would have been fifth in 1993, finished below 140. There’s a 41-50 list where “alternative” continues to wield an iron hand: Veruca Salt, American Music Club, Sonic Youth, L7, Pretenders, Richard Thompson, Jack Logan, Seal, Seefeel, Wu-Tang Clan. There’s the disgraceful shortfall of the noisebringers of 1987, Sonic Youth (43rd) and Public Enemy (60th), perennials who elaborated their innovations with something very much like wisdom in 1994 and were counted old and in the way by voters whose tradition of the new makes them semiofficial biz interns, chain-gang volunteers shoveling bands into buzz bins. And there’s the collective point inflation of Phair, Kristin Hersh, Luscious Jackson, Lisa Germano, and the less female-identified K. McCarty, which suggests to my obviously nonfemale ears an electorate that considers gender solidarity (by men as well as women) a suitable substitute for full-service politics.

I do more or less exempt Hole from this charge. Live Through This’s punk song sense, screechy lyricism, and all-around voracity would have taken it top five if Kurt had given up music to become a narcotics agent. Still, I note that Courtney could be the second straight winner to make girls who don’t know any better think twice about the perils of feminism. Liz Phair didn’t “sell out,” children, but she sure did “freak out,” as we used to say, so you have to wonder when the far crazier Courtney’s far more stressful bout of fame will simply waste her, to the relief of the fools who find her bad personality and lust for attention distasteful when in fact they’re her skillfully orchestrated aesthetic ground. I’m not asking Courtney over for dinner, but I am rooting for her, because I think she’s smart (and lustful) enough to make a great record, not just a fortuitously timed very good one — a record that bounced around the bottom of my top 12 along with five other guitar albums, landing higher than it probably deserved. Which is to admit that I don’t entirely exempt Hole from suspicions of special-interest support. But it’s OK, really — since one proof of Nirvana’s greatness was the spontaneous antisexism of its ordinary-joe apotheosis, it’s only natural that girls in Nirvana’s wake should get extra credit for being girls. Unfortunately, this doesn’t help me hear their records. With Hersh especially the disconnection may be personal — I’ve never gotten Laura Nyro, but I grant others their response to her emotionalism. With Luscious Jackson, however, I’m positive there’s not much there, because I wish it was, and so feel certain they’re being rewarded for their (theoretically) funky agape as Veruca Salt are passed over for their cynicism or calculation or something — which I find inaudible, and isn’t it the stuff you can hear that matters in the end?

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Given my feelings in the Veruca Salt matter, which inspired water-balloon attacks and even food fights in a community you’d think had more important things to argue about, I’m relieved the critics had enough fun in them to select “Seether” their No. 2 single, behind the song of the year, Beck’s “Loser.” And there were plenty of titles not on top-40 albums in the lower reaches of that list, which is always a sign of health — of voters actively enjoying records with a life of their own. Seven of the top 10, however, were from top-40 albums, the most since 1986. Worse still for pluralists, six of these came from “alternative” albums in the top 15 and only two didn’t score as videos. Worse than that, the five rap singles were the fewest since 1987, and only one of what might loosely be called the three dance records — Crystal Waters’s “100% Pure Love” — could also be called a club record.

I assume these patterns aren’t permanent, but they worry me. In the techno era, dance music has become such a DJ’s medium that hits no longer cross over automatically — you have to seek them out, which can seem like one of the seven labors of Lester Bangs in a market predicated on mastermixing, exoticism, and disposability. As for what any critic worth his or her baseball cap now calls hip hop, Touré’s unapology (headed “Skills, Son”) speaks for itself. I’m enough of an East Coast chauvinist to give props to several of his designated aesthetic milestones; at his behest I’m reconsidering Wu-Tang, and nonspecialist though I be, I could always hear the art in Jeru and Nas (with the proviso that Nas’s music is in his rhyming/rapping). But the questions Touré barely thinks to ask are precisely those so many more-alternative-than-thous consider beneath them. Why should anyone outside the hip hop community care? And isn’t the failure to induce outsiders to care an artistic flaw in itself? In a culture of overproduction, skills aren’t all that hard to come by.

It’s true that the core audience for albums like Illmatic and The Sun Rises in the East seems economically self-sustaining, and it’s undeniable that hip hoppers are historically justified in paying small mind to outsiders — if not the large number of African American music lovers with no interest in Jeru’s subtly disquieting beats, certainly white pleasure-seekers. As the American apartheid rap prophets ranted about becomes a malignancy so virulent I won’t waste space on the exceptions, racial separatism — deliberate or de facto, power play or default position — becomes ever more inescapable in hip hop. Not to respect the impulse is to give too much slack to the racism it reacts against. But it has to trouble integrationists — because we don’t like being left out, sure, but also because it seems short-sighted. It’s not just that uncommitted fans who are given an, er, alternative will probably pass on spare purist beats yoked to in-crowd rhymes — hip hop that rejects pop music and pop imagery. It’s that there’s no guarantee the larger black audience will provide sustenance once somebody comes up with a more reassuring and legible option. One thing that can be said for Pazz & Jop’s alternarockers, including the dubious ones, is that as heirs of the dominant culture they know how to make themselves legible. A hip hopper or anyone else could be forgiven for confusing K. McCarty and Lisa Germano at a distance, but in sound and sense, the distinctions between them are still broader than the quite real distinctions that differentiate Nas and Jeru.

What’s more, this counts for something. Pazz & Jop rewards legibility — pop hooks, pop success — and that’s as it should be. Of course it’s about aesthetics, about the enduring satisfaction experienced listeners find in their records. And right, surface meanings don’t endure as reliably as the stuff you can hear. But one way or another this is still pop music, and for most of us, sharing its outreach validates and enriches its satisfactions. The belated Nirvana revolution produced broad-based sales on a scale that was only a projection in 1991. It sweeps into prominence one- (or two-) hit platinum (or multiplatinum) wonders like Weezer and Offspring (two album mentions each) as well as non-Billboard 200 critics’ choices like Sebadoh and Guided by Voices. And if it’s a trifle giddy in its self-regard, its landslide here was assured as much by generalists swept away by a cresting subgenre as by the Amerindie bloc. Even at that, had our electorate been approximately 15 per cent African American, as were our invitees, rather than 8 per cent, which is what we got back, we would have gotten a more useful overview of the nation’s hip hop succés d’estimes. My guess: baby gangsta Warren G still on top, Wu-Tang a finisher, Biggie Smalls well up from 68, Public Enemy and the Digables (and Jeru) holding if they’re lucky.

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Generalizing about blocs is tricky — most African American critics, for instance, are not hip hop specialists (and many who are don’t credit our vote any more than the government’s). Still, I’m struck by the third-place reissue — Bar/None’s Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music, by ’60s Mexican pop-mewzick orchestrator Esquivel. Esquivel is a wild-eared kitschmeister whose vogue is generational — over-40s won’t give him try two because he reminds them of the hi-fi pap their parents used to drive them out of the rec room with. But beyond pomo’s weakness for anticanonical nose-tweaking, his demographic edge was Bar/None’s mailing list, which reaches lots of youngsters who may not see a free reissue all year. No matter how shrewd you are at the used-CD store, you can only vote for records you hear; a slab of world-historical genius like the Louis Armstrong box made 34 ballots instead of 150 because no more than (a wild guess) 60 respondents were serviced with it. And that isn’t just because publicists are chintzy with big-ticket packages — it’s because many voters receive only “alternative” product, if that, from the major labels. As rock history expands in every direction, it’s damn near impossible to become a young generalist, and the majors, for whom ’zines and local weeklies are an adjunct of the boutique marketing that now complements all blockbuster strategies, don’t care if they make things worse — specialists are ideal chain-gang fodder. For somebody so balmy as to still believe in criticism, this is tragic. I’d like to think that, given the chance, many young crits would find Slim Gaillard (eight votes, not bad considering) pretty anticanonical. Unlike Esquivel, he means to be funny.

Of course, that’s assuming young alternacrits want to become generalists. In fact, most of them can’t be bothered, especially when it comes to contemporary pop, defined by purists as what happens when a record on Matador is distributed by Atlantic and by triumphalists as the shallow stuff dumb people buy instead of Guided by Voices, Johnny Cash, Tall Dwarfs, or Anal Cunt. And to me insularity on this scale looks suspiciously like a species of, well, suicide. Hegemonic sez who? In the world where people buy their records, our assembled tastemakers’ landslide is merely a thriving pop-music taste culture. My hope is that — like alternacheerleader Renée Crist (see “Fun Matters”), who’s probably too openhearted to be typical — alternacrits and the subculture they represent are intelligent enough to put out a few feelers when the truism that it can’t last hits home as truth. My fear is that a taste of power will put the kibosh on whatever chance the alternarock bohemia had of not ending up yet another self-contained enclave in a balkanized Amerikkka where one citizen in eight now pays a community association to police the streets.

The strangest thing about our national-election commentary this year is that with a few notable exceptions there wasn’t any — especially from alternacrits, who had plenty to say about Courtney’s flawed feminism, who’s really punk, and whether Minty Fresh is a Geffen front. The mood I sense is that Washington is them, alternarock is us, and let’s hope the twain never meet, because we’ve now got a big enough piece of the pie to feed us in perpetuity. Not the whole pie, even in music-biz terms, not actual hegemony, but we’re not greedy. As indicated, I think this is deluded. Since the right-wing agenda is as much cultural as economic, a reaction to everything “the ’60s” are thought to have done to this happy land, direct attacks on weirdos correctly perceived as modern hippies are inevitable once hippie sellouts like Bill’n’Hill are out of the way — that is, yesterday. If alternarock should prove more a fad than seems likely, our piece of pie will shrink pronto. And while alternarock had developed a solid infrastructure well before the big boys started throwing money at it, key components of that infrastructure are now in peril — left-of-the-dial radio, college loans, relatively humane public-service jobs, and the whole edifice of middle-class leisure on which slackerdom is based. But why fool around? The main reason alternarock separatism bothers me is that I think it’s wrong. It isn’t just intellectually bankrupt for critics to ignore or dismiss music that doesn’t fall into their laps — by which I mean not yet more indie obscurities but hip hop, dance music, straight pop, and, increasingly, a canon that ought to be understood before it’s rejected or reconfigured. It’s also morally weak. So there.

I say this in full confidence that some will ponder and others jeer, and I’m Dutch uncle enough to believe both responses are healthy. We always need young jerks pumping obscurities no matter how useless 95 per cent of them are. For years I’ve been grousing about the ideology now dubbed lo-fi — the notion that poorly engineered records are aesthetically and spiritually superior to ones where you can hear separate instruments and make out some of the words. One of my problems with Live Through This, in fact, is that I suspect it shortchanges Hole’s guitar sound — Courtney’s singing is lo-fi enough on its own. And one reason I love MTV Unplugged in New York is that I can hear Kurt’s every creak. But as it turns out, my three favorite 1994 albums deploy the lo-fi idea instead of stupidly embracing it. Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star cuts the modest gloss of Dirty and Goo with a textured evocation of where Sonic Youth are going and where they’ve been. Mellow Gold uses sounds of vastly disparate purity to create a convincing neorealist environment for Beck’s best-recorded and best recorded songs. And the Latin Playboys — David Hidalgo, Louie Pérez, Mitchell Froom, and Tchad Blake, whose big statements on Kiko I found sententious, cautious, and, well, overproduced — construct dream music that reveals ambient techno for the cerebrum trip it is. Without considering content or zeitgeist, I made Latin Playboys my No. 1 because it was the most beautiful record I’d heard in years. But in a separatist year when this nation’s ample xenophobia has come down hardest of all on California’s Hispanics, maybe it has more to teach than I thought. Sure reaching out and touching somebody is a corporate hype. But like “alternative rock,” that ain’t all it is.

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Top 10 Albums of 1994

1. Hole: Live Through This (DGC)

2. Pavement: Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (Matador)

3. R.E.M.: Monster (Warner Bros.)

4. Nirvana: MTV Unplugged in New York (DGC)

5. Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Sleeps With Angels (Reprise)

6. Liz Phair: Whip-Smart (Matador)

7. Johnny Cash: American Recordings (American)

8. Guided by Voices: Bee Thousand (Scat)

9. Nine Inch Nails: The Downward Spiral (Nothing/TVT/Interscope)

10. Beck: Mellow Gold (DGC)

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Top 10 Singles of 1994

1. Beck: “Loser” (DGC)

2. Veruca Salt: “Seether” (DGC)

3. Coolio: “Fantastic Voyage” (Tommy Boy)

4. Warren G: “Regulate” (Violator/RAL)

5. Beastie Boys: “Sabotage” (Grand Royal/Capitol)

6. R.E.M.: “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” (Warner Bros.)

7. Pavement: “Cut Your Hair” (Matador)

8. (Tie) Hole: “Doll Parts” (DGC)
Liz Phair: “Supernova” (Matador)

10. Offspring: “Come Out and Play” (Epitaph)

—From the February 28, 1995, 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.

 

 

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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.

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Those Darlins

Hot on their “Summer’s Dead” national tour, punk is anything but with this gritty, Nashville-based power trio. Often compared to the Runaways for their high estrogen quotient and lo-fi, pseudo-’70s country punk hybrid, sort of Liz Phair if she’d been more of a badass, they share more in common with the Ramones, having taken Darlin as a last name and strumming their low-hung guitars with a reckless abandon that would have been just too intense for Lilith Fair. Setting the macabre tone for the week, the tour’s eponymous single is a murderous sprint through a haunted Winnipeg hotel the band recently played.

Fri., Oct. 26, 8:30 p.m., 2012

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STILL WHIP-SMART

Having concluded (perhaps) that being hated is preferable to being ignored, Liz Phair took to her website last year to follow up 2005’s ultra-bland Somebody’s Miracle with Funstyle, a purposely low-rent bit music-biz satire that has attracted more critical eye-rolls than her notorious collab with Avril Lavigne’s peeps. Don’t believe the anti-hype: With its giddy-goofy rap tracks and occasional radio-pop choruses, Funstyle is indeed a good deal of fun, and no less confrontational than the sacrosanct Exile in Guyville. Figure she’ll play at least one song from the thing tonight.

Wed., Jan. 26, 8 p.m., 2011

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The Worst Lyrics of the Decade

It has come to this: a brutal, single-elimination, March Madness–style tournament to determine the most appalling songwriting conceit of the past 10 years. With an assist from various online pals (especially Voice music blog Sound of the City’s own F2K braintrust), we’ve waded through the torrent of political passions (and bodily fluids) unleashed in the aughts and arrived finally at a battle royale between the obvious (Black Eyed Peas) and the not-so-obvious (Liz Phair). It’s a duel so dismaying, in fact, that I’m disinclined to choose between them. No winners here, alas. We are all losers. Better luck next decade. (Just kidding. The Black Eyed Peas take the final in a walk.)

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The Raincoats

Mostly known now as the darlings of Kurt Cobain, the Raincoats were an important part of the original post-punk scene, and added a violin for flourish, no less. On their reunion tour in the early ’90s, they blew away Liz Phair and now, back again, they’re appropriately teamed with someone who’s learned a lot from them (Stern) and one of their fellow travelers (Albertine), which should make for quite a evening. Don’t forget to flash your cellphone for “Fairytale in the Supermarket.” With Soft Power as part of the Royal Flush Festival.

Fri., Oct. 16, 8 p.m., 2009

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Live: Liz Phair Returns to Guyville

And watch how fast I run to the sea

Liz Phair
Hiro Ballroom
June 25, 2008

This is the fifteenth anniversary of the release of Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville, which means it’s also probably the fourteenth anniversary of Liz Phair distancing herself from Exile in Guyville. A few years back, when she was working with Avril Lavigne song-doctors the Matrix, Phair was claiming in interviews that she’d never given a damn about that whole indie/underground willfully-obscure aesthetic, that she’d always wanted to make widescreen pop music. That’s a claim I’d be inclined to believe from anyone else, but Exile in Guyville is too perfect a realization of that whole indie aesthetic. In fact, for me, it’s possibly the most perfect realization, the one that goes a million miles toward at least explaining the existence of every godawful Pavement-clone still sending ironic noodles out into the world. Guyville had classic-rock slither and serious hooks, but it also had every last tenet of that aesthetic: muffled and pillowy production, flatly conversational vocals, lyrics that artfully but directly depicted very specific tangled-up feelings, jangly riffs, the vague sense that the singer was having a laugh at the listener’s expense at least part of the time. For somebody who never gave a fuck about indie, Phair sure knew how to bring the pseudo-genre to its absolute platonic ideal. But she’s still keeping up that contrarian streak even now; in the new Entertainment Weekly, she names Third Eye Blind’s self-titled album her favorite lazy-Sunday LP, a choice guaranteed to piss off people who still care about such things even if she really genuinely does love Third Eye Blind. (And, I mean, she probably does; plenty of people do.)

And so given that decade-plus move away from Guyville, Phair’s in sort of a weird position these days. Dave Matthews’s ATO label has just reissued Guyville, and Matthews’s semi-coherent stoned ramblings about the album are the second-best thing about the accompanying DVD. (The best: Phair’s revelation that she wrote the whole album about preening, medallion-rocking, Neil Diamond-covering Urge Overkill frontman Nash Kato, who shows up on the DVD smoking a bong and looking supremely haggard. In any case, inspiring Guyville was the best thing Kato ever did, and I say that as someone who once tried to shoplift an Urge Overkill T-shirt from a suburban record store.) To promote that reissue, Phair played Guyville in its entirety at the Hiro Ballroom last night; she’s doing it again tonight, but good luck getting in if you don’t already have tickets. A write-up of the Chicago show the night before had me shook; the way it was written, Phair was less visibly into her songs than anyone else in the room, with the possible exception of the door-staff. Maybe that was the case in Chicago, but it sure wasn’t last night. Part of the reason must’ve been an absolutely rapturous crowd, one of the best I can remember being a part of. (These would be the rare shows where a heavy press presence actually meant the crowd was louder then it might’ve otherwise been; we rock critics love us some Guyville.) We cheered all through the damn show last night. When Phair announced that she needed to clip her nails really quick, we cheered nail clippers. And when she said that maybe she should just bite them off instead, we cheered nail-biting. “God, this is going by too fast,” she said near the end. “I was so scared to do these shows cuz I was like [mock horror] ‘Eighteen, all in order.'” Then she shrugged and launched into whatever song was next.

These shows where people play entire albums straight through are inevitably weird; like, why not just recreate the effect at home by playing the album and clapping in between songs? But Guyville is one of those few records that works perfectly in this context: right opener, right closer, right peaks, right valleys. And if you’ve heard the album as many times as I have and as many times as, I’m assuming, most of the people in the audience had, the transitions are so worn into your brain that it’d be even weirder hearing the songs out of order. So when the last notes of “Soap Star Joe” faded out, I got full-body goosebumps even before “Explain It to Me” started. “Explain It,” which she dedicated to Kato if he was there, is my favorite song on Guyville and one of my favorite songs ever, but there are too many great moments on the album to bother listing here. It’s a long album, but I can’t imagine losing a single song from it. Phair’s long had a rep for being unreliable live; I can remember it being one of the (incredibly dumb) reasons why some critics had trouble taking her seriously back when Guyville first came out. And she cracked a couple of jokes last night about not being able to remember old lyrics. And there were a few moments where she had to ask her band how a songs started or she flubbed a riff, but she’s definitely got enough weight of presence to hold a stage. And my impression is that she’s still invested in these songs, at least to the point where she could conjure the wry intensity necessary to drive them home. Her band faithfully recreated the album right down to its most minute production-touches: the sleighbell on “Divorce Song,” the shaker on “Mesmerizing.”

When it came time for an encore, she left the band behind and played a song apiece from her two almost-as-great followups: “Chopsticks” from Whip-Smart, “Polyester Bride” fromWhitechocolatespaceegg. She also played one new song, a falsetto-laced Stevie Nicks-ish thing with a whole lot of ire toward a dude or the music business or maybe a dude who works in the music business. I’ve never heard the two much-derided major-label albums Phair released this decade, even though I’m guessing I might like them, which says volumes about the psychological force of a Pitchfork 0.0. The new one sounded like nothing off Guyville, certainly, and I have no idea where Phair will go now that she’s got this whole classic-reissue thing behind her. But I left last night’s show near-dizzy with happiness, and whatever she does next, it’ll at least warrant my attention.

Voice feature: Rob Trucks on Liz Phair
Voice review: Georgia Christgau on Liz Phair’s Somebody’s Miracle
Voice review: Joshua Clover and Robert Christgau on Liz Phair’s Liz Phair
Voice review: Robert Christgau on Liz Phair’s Whitechocolatespaceegg

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CULTURE ARCHIVES Living MUSIC ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES

Exile in Guyville: The Oral History

One late April afternoon, I spend three and a half hours with Liz Phair. I request that we listen to her 1993 debut, Exile in Guyville, together. She, in turn, asks that I keep my tape recorder on.

Liz talks about writing — and rewriting — her most famous album. She tells me about her son, things he’s afraid of. She tells me a couple things off the record. And, at one point, back in her hotel room, we scream at each other — well, both our voices are raised. This follows a question I had to ask: When the 15th-anniversary reissue of Guyville (out this month) was first announced in early April, Liz did an interview with Billboard: “I can honestly say,” she said, “for the first time in 15 years, I feel creative.”

Now, I do not tell Phair that it’s near-impossible to overstate Exile’s importance as an astonishingly honest, influential, genre-busting exercise in gender-role investigation. Nor do I suggest that her output since then, particularly her last two underwhelming grabs at commercial success, damages Exile‘s legacy.

But she probably gets the gist of my feelings, because once I ask the question about her return to creativity (despite her hailing each interim release as some seemingly new awakening), both of our voices rise in volume. Our words become harder-edged. So, Liz Phair’s kind of screaming at me. But she then changes course, adopting a tone of voice that probably was not in her arsenal until she became a mother: a sort of “Now, you are going to eat your peas, aren’t you?” approach. I also take a different tact, speaking very, very quietly, as though I am a flight attendant attempting to keep an unruly passenger calm until the plane lands so the authorities can deal with her. Which, admittedly, is not a good thing.

Somehow, we regroup. The mood lightens. She gets ready for dinner out with friends, and I walk her down the stairs because the elevator in this hotel is being repaired. On the street, just before she jumps in a cab, we hug good-bye.

Here are some of the things she said in our time together:

“I’ve been on a major label, and as much as people think, ‘Oh, that doesn’t make a difference,’ it makes a huge difference. I haven’t been able to be the orchestrator of my own career for a while.”

“A lot of Guyville is about venting anger — or frustration with men in general.”

“That record could not have been more about the fact that, at that time, I wasn’t in control of my own sexuality as much as I was using it. And it was kind of using me, too.”

“I feel like I participated in what the truth [is] for young women in their sexuality with that record. Is that going to hold true later? I don’t know. But I participated in the grand bubble of: ‘What is the truth for young women and their sexuality?’ I think that’s why women responded to it, because they said: ‘Yeah, that is true for me, but I would never say it.'”

“But you’re wrong. Because I was … does that come across as aggressive? Let me try it again. Well, actually … [laughs].”

“You’re totally wrong — 100 percent. And I have to tell you, you’re wrong about that other thing, too, but we’ll get back to that.”

“I knew pretty much that we were supposed to look critically at society, and look at the way gender roles played out in our society. So there was definitely an element, when I made Guyville, that I was aware that I was going to appropriate ‘guy rock,’ to turn it on its head a little bit. But the songs came from an emotional place.”

“‘Guyville’ was a specific scene in Chicago — predominately male, indie-rock — and they had their little establishment of, like, who was cool, who was in it, who played in what band. Each one wore their record collection, so to speak, like a badge of honor. Like, ‘This is my identity, this is what I’m into, and I know a lot about it.'”

“It was just like: ‘Really? OK, so you guys are into music. Watch — I can make music.'”

“I can just remember, for such a loud record in terms of personal expression, I had come from a very quiet time of, like, listening a lot. Which is not such a bad thing. You learn a lot when you listen, but you also can get really tired and frustrated of it.”

“There isn’t one synopsis that will cover the record in terms of: ‘Was it made in reaction to the scene? Was it made as a feminist statement? Was it made as a love record, to try to talk to someone that I wanted to pay attention to me?’ It was all of those things. Like: ‘Is it true?’ Yes. ‘Did I make shit up?’ Yes. You know what I mean? The problem is, in the years and years of talking about this, that what’s true is a multiple thing. There are many things going on in it, because it was organic. It was born of a number of things, and it expresses a number of things. Not every song is pissed off, and not every song is sexual, and not every song is … even a rock song.”

“Like Julia Roberts — she just needs to do romantic comedies. Now that probably upsets her, you know? [Laughs] She probably feels that there are more dimensions to her. But maybe I’m stuck being, in terms of a public person, best as this weird, laser-focused, pissed-off persona. I can accept that.”

“I just think it sounds so fucking cute. Listen to how cute that is.”

“I’m sorry — when I say, ‘You’re wrong,’ it’s because I think we’re, like, in a fun debate.”

“This song [‘Canary’] is a perfect example. This isn’t talking about a guy; it’s talking about me and my home life with my family, having this stressful relationship with this quasi-abusive brother, and trying to be a good little girl for everyone while all this shit was going on inside me. And I had these contrary feelings and inappropriate thoughts, and my piano was where I would go. I was allowed to practice piano, so instead of practicing, I was making up these subversive songs. This is probably fucking the oldest one on Guyville, now that we come to it, because I can see myself in my parents’ house, and what I’m saying is: ‘Send it up on fire in the music, up to the heavens. I will be deaf and stop listening to you all before I will shut up. Deaf before dawn.'”

“There is a line in there about sex, like: ‘I come when you circle the cherry/I sing like a good canary’ — but that’s acknowledging that even later. I think that would’ve been a line added later … rewritten, in a sense, to describe … I’m still there. I’m still stuck in a context where I have no voice, but I’m inside here somewhere.”

“OK, now listen. This probably sounds hollow coming from people who get written about, but it’s true: You cannot look at an interview, or pages on … a piece of paper, an interview, and freak out about it. Like, you can’t look at what a politician says in one context and freak out about it. We love to do that. We love to be like: ‘Oh, my God. So everything that you’ve done now has not been creative …'”

“I mean, I’m not going to get upset about it, but I think that you’re being a little overreactive about it.”

“Just a second. The tone in this room has gone antagonistic.”

“Rod Stewart — I mean, he used to make, like, brilliant music, right? And then he kind of went the whole celebrity route, and he stopped making brilliant music. But I wasn’t mad at him. [Laughs] I didn’t go, like: ‘You fuckhead! You fuckwit!’ Like, I don’t get that. Like, I don’t get people … Like, I just stopped buying records, which to me is the appropriate response.”

“You’ve asked me to accept responsibility for one dumb line in a Billboard interview. It’s a fucking interview in a magazine.”

“Get mad at the record. Throw it across the room. Get really angry at it. Step on it. Burn it. You can do whatever you want. But, like, it is unhealthy for someone to assume that they know someone, or have any … when they don’t know me. That’s just inappropriate.”

“Honestly, my boyfriend said something like this to me at Valentine’s Day. He’s like: ‘You can’t say what you say in interviews. You have to say this, that, and the other thing, because it’s coming across really badly.’ Something about Guyville — I can’t remember what it was. See, I didn’t even really take it in. I was just so affronted that it was Valentine’s Day, and he was taking that moment to critique my interviewing. But I can promise you: I will never learn this lesson. I will stick my foot in my mouth until I die. That’s just who I’m going to be.”

“Do you think that the person who would know what to tell you in an interview could write Exile in Guyville? Do you think the person who would know how to send a polished image out into the world would fucking write that thing?”

“I’m a messy, crazy, do-what-I- fucking-want pain in the ass. And, like, I will be forever. And hopefully, one of these days, I’ll do something that people are grateful for again. But, like, I cannot be two things — I cannot be this polished person that does what’s right and does what I’m supposed to that’ll make everyone feel good, and do the work that says ‘Fuck you!’ with the double guns.”

“See, a polished persona would not let you take a picture of her in a bathrobe, but I’m willing.”

“Look out, I’m perfuming, so stand back.”

“They want me to do a whole top-to-bottom Exile show. Like, play the whole record. That’s, like, a record-label thought that they had.”

“We’ve got to go. Come on. Take a picture of us in the bathroom.”

Liz Phair performs songs from Exile in Guyville June 25 and 26 at Hiro Ballroom (hiroballroom.com)

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VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

Back to Guyville

Never mind the protestation of the indie nation: Guyville’s premier provocateur, Liz Phair, sounded great doing bright-and-shiny mall pop on her controversial 2003 album (also named Liz Phair), which vividly captured the triumph and the torment of an outsider angling her way in. Where she really floundered was on that disc’s follow-up, the bored-and-boring Somebody’s Miracle. As a result, she now faces indifference rather than scorn—so before she wraps up work on a new studio album due this fall on Dave Matthews’s ATO label, Phair is wisely reminding listeners of how important she once was with a 15th-anniversary reissue of her 1993 masterpiece, Exile in Guyville; it’s out June 24 with bonus tracks and a retrospective documentary. Tonight, she’ll perform the album in its entirety—jokes, tunes, heartbreak, and all.

Wed., June 25, 7 p.m.; Thu., June 26, 7 p.m., 2008

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Breathy Heartbreak, Clever But Never Snide

Almost every song on Jennifer O’Connor’s impressive Matador debut is as heartbreaking as the next. “I don’t want to breathe if I can’t breathe here next to you,” she sings over shuffling drumbeats and a beautifully fingerpicked guitar line on “Dirty City Blues.” A few tracks later on “Today,” her gorgeous vocals lilt and soar as she carefully delivers her most longing lyrics: “I can’t wait to be with you/If only to say/Stay.” But as sad as Over the Mountain is, it’s never oppressive: O’Connor tries her best to grin through the tears on the poppy, Monkees-esque “Exeter, Rhode Island,” and the rapturous “I’ll Bring You Home,” complete with a chorus of angelic-sounding backup singers, even brushes against optimism. As for her overall sound, the closest comparisons might be an equally clever but less snide Eef Barzelay, or an Exile in Guyville–era Liz Phair folking around with Jana Hunter. But whatever it is, this is one of the best albums of the year.


Jennifer O’Connor plays Joe’s Pub Thursday.