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

2000 Pazz & Jop: Albums While They Last

Guess who didn’t win the 27th or 28th Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll. C’mon, I’ll even give you a hint. If you were rooting for him, you didn’t give him much chance. But if you regard the motherfucker as the epitome of all that is vicious and/or venal in popular music, you may well have assumed the worst — after all, assuming the worst is a habit of yours. Now you got it, right? His name is, his name is, his name is — Mr. Triple Trouble himself, Eminem/Marshall Mathers/Slim Shady, who finished only fourth among the 586 pros, prose poets, hacks, hackers, slackers, hobbyists, copywriters, and gray eminences who participated in our most humongous rock critics’ poll ever. Eminem was way ahead of the neck-and-neck if not yet tits-and-pecs Shelby Lynne and D’Angelo, but well behind third-by-a-hair Radiohead. Although PJ Harvey attracted no more voters than her fellow Brits, whose leader sang more winningly on her record than on his own, Pazz & Jop’s almost-famous point system boosted her almost-perfect record to second in a year when supporters of D’Angelo, Eminem, and Radiohead felt no obligation to deny their faves’ flaws.

As for the perfection of our biggest winner since Pazz & Jop hit cyberspace, suffice it to say that OutKast’s fourth album has people crying masterpiece, and that whatever my personal rankings I was glad Stankonia beat Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea. Having decided that The Marshall Mathers LP was so intense it had to be my No. 1 even though Harvey had generated the more through-inspired record, I was in no position to quibble that Stankonia doesn’t maintain for 73 minutes. If the voters felt that OutKast’s singles-topping “Ms. Jackson” and “B.O.B.” blew such distinctions away, that feeling alone proved it. Hallelujah! Our first real rap winner since De La Soul in 1989 or — depending on how you define reality, always the key to hip-hop metaphysics — Arrested Development in 1992. And while the surest proof that the end is near may well be that our best golfer is black and our best rapper is white, African American artists have suffered polite liberal prejudice so regularly in our poll that it was nice to see OutKast benefit from it. Relative to the dreaded Mathers, the reformed Atlanta drug dealers — hey, that detail couldn’t be some Slim Shady persona-twist, could it? — seem pretty safe.

But that’s a jaded reading. Stankonia is also the deeper musical choice, its hooky funk far stickier than Eminem’s brightly tripping high-versus-low pitch juxtapositions and its raps even more rapid and rhythmic, with bonus points from diehards hung up on music being played live. Its vision of a community as enmeshed in pleasure as in responsibility is a way out of the gangsta trap, too. But in 2000 Eminem was the more momentous artist, and not only because he was white, or “provocative.” It’s because he was brilliant, galvanizing an audience everyone knew was there with rhymes of exceptional if not unduplicated technical bravado that layered levels of meaning hip-hop had always hinted at but never so fully exploited — and also because, far from indulging the woman-hate that has long been a sorry cliché of our richest genre, he begins the ugly labor of unpacking it, in terms that never kowtow to the public moralists whose imprimatur would taint any such development for his faithful.

Please, I’m not claiming Eminem is a caped crusader battling for justice under cover of warning sticker. He’s just a rock star, the old-fashioned kind who cares (even) more about fame than money and isn’t a creature of the lifelong career calculation that distinguishes the current glut of Mickey Mouse Club alumni from the Bay City Rollers. But he’s so intimate with the dissembling pseudoauthenticities gangsta rappers lay on friends and foes that he’s taken them somewhere, and in this, as Frank Kogan’s “Open the Trapdoor Eminem” makes as clear as is suitable, his stardom provides leverage. Many believe such multifaceted contradictions are over the heads of a young audience that’s even more confused than he is — surely that’s why pundits are in a lather over his Grammy nods while no one peeps about Steely Dan’s 19th-place Two Against Nature, in which cheaters plot to drive a wronged wife insane and a lovable pedophile sets up a three-way with his “Janie Runaway.” I don’t think so — teenagers in love generally hear lyrics better than professionals holding their noses. And one reason I decided to publish Kogan’s explication de gestalt was that a lot of my colleagues weren’t getting it either.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692648″ /]

Unannounced, 2000 turned out to be what some were proud to anoint “Year of the Rock Critic.” Sadly, it wasn’t in-house causes célèbres like Jim DeRogatis’s Bangs bio or Richard Meltzer’s Da Capo best-of that inspired the heavy breathing. It was sanction from popular culture’s Holy See — Hollywood. First came High Fidelity, which deftly imported Nick Hornby’s London-based record-geek novel to Chicago. And then the clincher, Almost Famous, an entertaining fantasy with a cute premise that presented both Lester Bangs and Cameron Crowe as paragons of a J-school integrity few were aware they had anything to do with. Fun flick, but the main thing it told me about rock criticism happened when it placed midway up the Voice’s much smaller film critics’ poll. As both filmmaking and culture myth, this critic preferred not just High Fidelity but Gladiator. Us guys may not be so classy, but as a group we’re also not so damn avant-genteel. Which is why I was bummed by all the voters’ Eminem-keyed boilerplate — from “homophobic” and good ol’ “misogynistic” to “rhyme skills” and “urban stories,” not all equally inaccurate but all useless rhetorically and analytically. After we win our Pulitzer, the new Voice ownership will publish the Eminem section separately and distribute it in schools. Also included will be the Napster-etc. “Danger — Sky Falling” and “Boogie Oogie Google,” an unsolicited-and-then-some missive from inactive critic Julian Dibbell, whose name I struck from the rolls myself, but who was then invited to vote via — life can be so poetic sometimes — computer glitch.

Pazz & Jop’s hugeness can be a pain in the ass; God intended better things for me than extracting indie labels from CDNow so surfers who’ve clicked over from The Drudge Report will know who to blame for the latest Nitin Sawhney joint. We did finally succeed in attracting more African Americans and hip-hop specialists (unidentical cohorts, as Condoleezza Rice and DJ Koala will soon explain to Charlie Rose), but beyond that I doubt the size of the thing impacts results much. What it does is provide proof against elitism, claiming aesthetic authority for informed consensus rather than rhetorical force. My theory has always been that listening to lots of music so you can write about some of it will teach anyone things they’re better off knowing. Dullards dance with smartasses and cranks harangue geniuses as the buzzworthy corrects for the tried-and-true and the strictly personal stays that way.

Patterns assert themselves — Best New Diva, Great Country Hope. But they also shift. Those who consider alt-country yesterday’s news because Jay Farrar took a powder, for instance, should note that 2000 gave us a young Great Country Hope (Shelby Lynne, whose fifth and best album is up for a “new artist” Grammy), an old GCH (Merle Haggard, whose 76th and best album snared a P&J debut), and a middle-aged GCH (Steve Earle, whose 11th and squishiest album coasted on cred), as well as the surprising reprise of trans-Atlantic transubstantiators Billy Bragg & Wilco, the suspect alt-countrypolitan resuscitation of the Jayhawks, and two standard-bearers from the Bloodshot flagship: Warners/Whiskeytown refugee Ryan Adams and Neko Case, 36th with her Boyfriends and 118th with her New Pornographers. Strap yourself to a tree with roots, they belong in any future-conscious overview of American pop. Over the decades, as more young critics cut their chops on college radio’s different-is-better-but-new-will-do, the pop part has angered many militant avant-gardists, not all of whom would be voting if we applied the same exacting standards to criticism they think they apply to music. But polls generally measure consensus, and a thrilling consensus is what pop is.

So we examine the results and conclude that 2000 was a great year for hip-hop. Ignore the wailing wall of alt-rap ideologues and thirtysomething grouches sounding just like the doomsayers of that great year for alt-rock 1994 — who, OK, had a point, but history doesn’t always repeat itself, and this history began before alt-rock knew its name. After 20-plus years, the genre formerly known as rap is still exfoliating from both its pop-crossover and bohemian-purist trunks. Our record eight hip-hop finishers include Wu-Tang’s Ghostface Killah commanding strong genre support and major-label alt-rappers Jurassic 5 jollying none, conscious pioneer Common forging onward, New York undergrounders Dead Prez and Talib Kweli & DJ Hi-Tek edging low, young loonybird Eminem and old quack Dre, and the most dominant P&J album since the mid ’90s, when Hole, then Harvey, then Beck ran away with successive polls. Although it somehow failed to excite alt-country roots fanciers, Stankonia is very much of a place — East Point, the working-class-when-there’s-work Atlanta ’hood where Dre 3000 and Big Boi live large without playa playing. Yet by backing up front-porch solidity with assault-weapon sass, its hugely successful run at the pop charts packs as much metaphysical ambition as any alt-rock master-statement. OutKast need to see more of the world before they can take it to George Clinton’s stage. But note that no Clinton album ever breached our top 10. Not only do hits come more naturally to funk innovators these days, so does status.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692643″ /]

Ah, hits — where “r&b” lives, supposedly, only on our chart rhythm things were always getting lost beneath the album-cut staples of college/alt radio. So we canned the reissues category, which had degenerated into a dick-size contest for well-promoted luxury boxes and tokens of retro hip, and expanded to 40 singles from 25. And in a technical adjustment to the Napster-etc. brouhaha — which moved the wags at Spin to name “your hard drive” album of the year — we defined a single (too broadly) as any individual song. So perhaps the way hip-hop and r&b overran our chart — 11 rap records top 25, five more below, plus Aaliyah and Sisqó and Badu and Scott and R. Kelly and Lucy Pearl and Macy (not David) Gray and three Destiny’s (not Desmond) Childs — reflects the dispersion of the album-rock vote into the mists of unlimited choice, while folks who love rhythm things remained social beings tryna get this party started. Or maybe, with deserving teenpop down to Britney and ’N Sync smashes (no Pink? no M2M?) and the 38th-place “Kryptonite” and “The Bad Touch” the only decent new radio-rock novelties (no Matchbox Twenty! no Bon Jovi!), the silly likes of “Country Grammar,” “Shake Ya Ass,” and “Thong Song” could be cheered on as the affirmations they always are. Maybe it was just a great year for hip-hop.

A similar logic would then pertain on the album chart, which for all its neotraditionalism has always honored the accessibly avant-garde — progressive populism, call it. This dream is mocked by avant-garde militants, who are so postpop they’re barely aware that hip-hop might be an artform, although the city dwellers among them presumably recognize its existence as other people’s noise. But for those who hold to the avant-pop hope/illusion, the argument would go, the scant guitar-band options have given way to an underground rap achieving critical mass and dozens of bigger names approaching maturity. Compared to the low-overhead Blackalicious or Del the Funky Homosapien, the Jurassic 5 seem as blandly good-time to me as the Del Fuegos of early Amerindie, but I like what their finish signifies. Common finally made our chart with the most musical of his four honest albums. I’m only sorry that De La Soul (81st) and the late-released Wu-Tang Clan (45th) didn’t get the respect their accrued accomplishments warrant.

It turns out, however, that the voters didn’t find 2000 such a bad year for young guitar bands. After dipping to 18 in 1998 and 14 in 1999, Pazz & Jop debuts rebounded to 20 in 2000. These include the solo bows of Wu-Tang’s Ghostface and Whiskeytown’s Adams, the winterbloom of 63-year-old Hag, and the reunited Go-Betweens (whose ’80s shutout proves that sometimes we miss even guitar bands), as well as the fresh hip-hoppers and Best New Diva Jill Scott. But Lynne and Neko Case lead us to a varied alt-rock contingent, from the aggressively conventional Travis and Coldplay and Marah and Queens of the Stone Age to the glacially keyby Sigur Rós to the dissimilarly punky Le Tigre and At the Drive-In to my favorite pairing, mopey Mancunian Badly Drawn Boy and calm Californians Grandaddy.

Few of the new newbies are alt-rock in the familiar Amerindie sense: the Springsteenish Marah and the metallic Queens forswear any collegiate vibe, Sigur Rós are from Iceland and hunger, and three others are just plain British. Even if Travis are dumb sub-Bluroroasis tunesmiths who seem alt over here because we’ve gotten so chauvinistic, together with Coldplay and Badly Drawn Boy they betoken an Anglophilia revival that picks up on the excitement that a few years ago surrounded electronica. Why not? Damon Gough isn’t just another depressive with hooks — his album mutates like Tricky rather than marching like Bluroroasis. Six thousand miles away in the sun-baked Modesto flatlands, Jason Lytle of Grandaddy has also been nurturing a gift for song cycling. Thom Yorke, call your guru.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692640″ /]

In case you were wondering, Yorke seems to be what happened to the excitement surrounding electronica. Was 2000 the year when Moby launched his world takeover from the top of our 1999 poll? Or was it the year when not a single danceable techno album placed among the voters’ 100 favorites? The latter, I’d say. (Down to 50, for your tree-killing information: Björk, Bebel Gilberto, theasteriskedEgoTrip’sTheBigPlayback*whichgot30pointsfromallthede admag’splayasandstillfellshortfuckyouguys, James Carter’s Chasin’ the Gypsy, Wu, Emmylou, North Mississippi All Stars, Dandy Warhols, Modest Mouse’s Moon and Antarctica, and John R. Cash). But it was also when the world’s greatest rock band cough cough chose to concede techno its futuristic pretensions by emulating illbient texture and flow. Although Radiohead’s subtle, synergistic exercise in pomo beauty is accounted terribly difficult by Kid A’s anhedonic supporters, don’t waste any paranoia on it. Not only was more recondite music available from sex symbol D’Angelo, the years to come promise terrible difficulties worth warning people about — and I don’t mean the fallout from Primal Scream’s dystopian XTRMNTR, which does a Radiohead-style solid for pomo ugly.

In the section entitled “The W,” you will find many conflicting theories of what Washington’s return to Reaganism will mean to progressive music. I tend toward agnosticism in re such broad social questions, which means that at the very least I think it’s deluded to wax optimistic, just as it’s deluded to swear the damn Democrats will come roaring back in 2002. But as usual I hope you grant this much to Pazz & Jop’s version of the damn Democrats, oldsters tied to the tried-and-true: New doesn’t equal progressive. Although encouraged by the three Best Old Divas — Scott’s impressive ninth place didn’t cancel long-awaited efforts by Sade or Erykah Badu or the latest from the fecund Madonna — I suspect that our electorate’s openness to young guitar bands comes at the cost of insensitivity to old ones, and that fresh-obsessed hip-hoppers taking De La and Wu-Tang for granted are no better. U2 wrote some songs and got many props, Yo La’s lounge venture lost some fans as it reassured others, and while my clique was convinced that the world’s greatest rock and roll band hip hip hooray had finally slipped, the 10th-place finish of Sleater-Kinney’s All Hands on the Bad One, after 1999’s The Hot Rock came in 23rd, could mean we were wrong. But some of my deepest satisfactions in 2000 were provided by old artists up to old tricks with new twists: Lou Reed’s Ecstasy (63rd), Sonic Youth’s NYC Ghosts & Flowers (104th, Jesus), and RZA’s supremely meditative Ghost Dog soundtrack (83rd). Maybe I’m just a damn New Yorker, but the voters’ preference for young repeater Elliott Smith’s soupiest album, not to mention old farts the Jayhawks’ smiliest, gets me mad.

Top 10s do rein one in. Me, I’d have loved to tip my ballot to the life-sentenced Waco Brothers (two mentions), in-it-to-win-it Amy Rigby (six), ‘buked-and-scorned Fatboy Slim (six), postexotic Youssou N’Dour (nine). But I suspect many voters would have kept listing putative next big things, often strictly personal ones. Of the record 1621 albums named by our 586 respondents, 1021 appeared on precisely one ballot. Figure a mean length of an hour and it would take a person 40 work weeks to consume each of these leisure products once. Or put it another way — 1621 is almost half the total estimated annual album production of the mid ’80s. This is, as I hope everyone at least glimpses, the flip side of both the Napster brouhaha and the Mickey Mouse Club blitzkrieg, each of which is equally as responsive (or not) to the incomprehensibilities of defining and servicing an audience.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692636″ /]

Ponder the 2000 label breakdown. A full half of our major-label albums came from the megacorp I call UniMoth — 11 in all, four of the top seven, on Interscope, Island, MCA, Motown, Giant, DreamWorks. But breaking last year’s record of 14, 18 of our finishers were on independent labels, be these well-capitalized ventures by renegade bizzers from the philanthropic Danny Goldberg to the profiteering Richard Branson or tiny outfits like Le Tigre’s feminist Mr. Lady or renegade bizzer Aimee Mann’s DIY SuperEgo. This is hardly a utopia — those don’t exist, not under anybody’s capitalism. But it’s myopic to see only doom in the spectacle of a music industry that can conceive no market vast and malleable enough to manipulate on a scale acceptable to its number-crunchers except kids who don’t yet know their own power — kids who may remain passive forever, probably won’t, and are certain to change in other ways regardless. And it’s also myopic to think the music industry stops with the five-going-on-four megacorps up top. Will Napster-etc. put an end to the album — and, boo hoo, Pazz & Jop — as we know it? I tend toward agnosticism in re such broad social questions, which isn’t to say I don’t wonder — and worry — sometimes. Then again, I’m also on record as mourning the death of the monoculture. Those who don’t, which means all too many technodeterminists, should rejoice instead that for the foreseeable future some Internet facility or other will enable anyone with a modicum of motivation to get his or her recorded music to simpatico individuals — maybe retail, maybe fucking free.

Is this progress? Of a sort, at a loss. But in a historical moment when no music is capable of providing the relief all anti-Reaganites crave, maybe the path of wisdom is to leave the pronouncements on who and what does and doesn’t truly herald progress to the Nayda-hatas and their opposite moralizers among the damn Greens. I just figure that in a marginalized left, the symbolic one Pazz & Jop monitors no less than the real-world one where it is oh so marginally situated, all who desire justice for the disadvantaged are my allies — however pathological their personalities, impotent their tactics, or delusory their respect for the actually existing disadvantaged.

As rock becomes ever more self-conscious, what I prefer these days to call popular music encompasses an ever more incalculable profusion of aesthetic…”levels”? “approaches”? “multivalences”? “tones”? But what’s interesting about the ones rock stars go for is that they move masses rather than nurturing subcultures. For 30 years now, ever since I uttered the words “semipopular music,” I’ve wanted both while too often settling for the easy one. Subcultures are for company, solace, protection, inspiration. Only if they’re exceptionally strong and lucky do they have a chance of germinating change. Symbolically yet again, rock stars with a pipeline to the actually existing disadvantaged hold out the possibility of something more. The unlamented Eazy-E was proud to donate money to the damn Republicans, and I wouldn’t put the same stratagem past his opposite immoralizer, Eminem’s man Dr. Dre. But on the other hand, Eminem has cameoed on more rap records in the past year than anybody this side of that ho Snoop. So here’s my modest proposal: that the good Dre, the dirty Southerner in the faggoty pants, give Marshall Mathers a call.

[related_posts post_id_1=”572924″ /]

Top 10 Albums of 2000

1. OutKast: Stankonia (LaFace/Arista)

2. PJ Harvey: Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea (Island/Def Jam)

3. Radiohead: Kid A (Capitol)

4. Eminem: The Marshall Mathers LP (Aftermath/Interscope)

5. Shelby Lynne: I Am Shelby Lynne (Island)

6. D’Angelo: Voodoo (Virgin)

7. U2: All That You Can’t Leave Behind (Interscope)

8. Yo La Tengo: And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out (Matador)

9. Jill Scott: Who Is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1 (Hidden Beach)

10. Sleater-Kinney: All Hands on the Bad One (Kill Rock Stars)

[related_posts post_id_1=”697296″ /]

Top 10 Singles of 2000

1. OutKast: “Ms. Jackson” (LaFace/Arista)

2. Eminem Featuring Dido: “Stan” (Aftermath/Interscope)

3. OutKast: “B.O.B.” (LaFace/Arista)

4. U2: “Beautiful Day” (Interscope)

5. Madonna: “Music” (Maverick/Warner Bros.)

6. Nelly: “(Hot S**t) Country Grammar” (Universal)

7. Eminem: “The Real Slim Shady” (Aftermath/Interscope)

8. Mystikal: “Shake Ya Ass” (Jive)

9. Destiny’s Child: “Say My Name” (Columbia)

10. (Tie) Aaliyah: “Try Again” (Blackground/Atlantic)
Macy Gray: “I Try” (Epic)

—From the February 20, 2001, 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

1999 Pazz & Jop: Flak on Both Sides

Rock critics are nerds. We like it that way. We like staying home and listening to records, then trading them in for other records (even, heh heh, beer money). We like being on the guest list, too. There’s lots of good things about this job. We don’t have to coo over John Updike or Robert Bresson. We get to use CAPITALS more than front-of-the-book colleagues who don’t know our names. And exclamation points! So say it loud — ROCK CRITICS ARE NERDS!! A nerd army, with thesauruses mightier than a ploughshare, and the up-to-the-minute vernacular weapons our chosen artform exploits so greedily. We’re paid to have fun! We’re not paid much, true. But, heh heh, see the barter part above.

All of which is to explain why, for rock critics, the turning of the millennium took a backseat to something far more important: 1999 was a terrible year to be a nerd. Or anyway, an art nerd; techie nerds did fine. Yet though the spectacle of young workaholics getting rich quick with every IPO hardly enhanced the social happiness of our community of content providers, the year’s most galling indignities were inflicted by our chosen artform. We’re used to not topping the charts; too many of us enjoy it. But usually there are status perks to compensate, and historically the Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll has partaken of these. The 1998 Lauryn Hill–Lucinda Williams face-off pitted the glamorous teacher-diva of rockcrit’s rap dreams against a longtime succès d’estime propelled into something resembling fame by print media; 1997 winner Bob Dylan proffered wordslingers the gift of meaningful old age if not eternal life, while in a grand old Brit tradition Radiohead’s art-rocking second-runners rode reviews to sales; in 1996 alt-folk superloser Beck transformed himself into a pop-funk best-seller by dint of the cleverness and chutzpah rockcrits live by; and before that we lived for years off Nirvana’s leavings.

Our 26th or 27th poll provides no such satisfactions, showcasing shortfall after shortfall. Not only are winner Moby and runner-up Stephin Merritt two of the shrimpiest guys ever to achieve prominence in an artform that has never competed with the NFL, but their albums are succès d’estime only: Moby’s Play clawed its way to 125 on “Bodyrock” ’s run and is now, cross your fingers, climbing again, while the Magnetic Fields’ three-CD 69 Love Songs wouldn’t have charted if Stephin’s mom had bought out Merge’s first pressing. These heroes are followed by former pop-funk best-seller Beck, whose supposed sexx album has failed to back any azzes away from the black pop that supposedly inspired it; Oklahoma’s acid-tested Flaming Lips, who floated their magnum opus heavenward in a poll where they’d never cracked 60 before but, as with all but one of their previous dozen longforms, failed to breach the Billboard 200; and the indie-rock debut of old semipop role model Tom Waits. Then the exception, Rage Against the Machine’s double-platinum The Battle of Los Angeles, album of the year in Rolling Stone and runner-up in Spin, kudos some call p.c. though clearly both rewarded Rage’s rare-in-’99 parlay of critical and commercial credibility. Fiona Apple’s solider follow-up to her megaselling 1996 debut clearly lacks the legs of the hit that made it possible, as does Beck’s sillier follow-up; released in November, both are certified gold and swooning around toward the bottom of the top 100 as I write. Sadly soothing Wilco and Beth Orton enjoyed even less impressive SoundScan debut-peaks, 78 and 110. And the sole top-10 hip hop selection, Mos Def’s Black on Both Sides, is on indie-rap Rawkus, a sales behemoth by indie-rock standards that has yet to command the market share galvanized by nearly every 1999 release on Def Jam or Cash Money.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692643″ /]

Shortfalls are business as usual on our unbusinesslike survey, of course. But except for 14th-place Nine Inch Nails, 1999 was exceptional for its dearth of crit-mersh parlays down the line; the hip hop and r&b artists we deigned to recognize don’t need us for sales or status, and with 40th-place Santana we’re just along for the ride — Carlos’s four other ’90s albums garnered nary a mention. Worse still, these fiscal embarrassments are epiphenomena. The real problem is that, just like in high school, we’re being made to look bad from two sides, and in areas where we thought we’d secured squatter’s rights. Hitters like Limp Bizkit will sell records forever, we accept that, but we never imagined that one day they’d get to smash all that Woodstock peace-and-love ticky-tacky to bits — Woodstock was ours no matter how much we made fun of hippies. And though teenpop had been coming and going even longer than metal, it had generally been reducible to a single symbol like the Osmonds or the New Kids. How annoying to have to distinguish between the Backstreet Boys and ’N Sync, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. And how ominous that every goddamn one of these cheerleaders and student council suckups was selling a gazillion albums. Like Woodstock, albums are supposed to be ours. They’re supposed to have artistic pretensions. Teenyboppers get singles.

For purposes of clarity, I’ve been free with the editorial “we” here. In fact, not all rock critics are nerds, and if you don’t buy that one how about not all nerds are the same? Specifically, some have no use for the state of formal hyperconsciousness that rolls its eyes at pop’s trick bag of mnemonic riffs — they like having their buttons pushed. So our singles voters have always made room for trifles album snobs enjoy despising — “Jump,” “Lump,” “Creep,” “Jump Around,” “Unbelievable,” “La Macarena,” “C’Mon N’ Ride It,” and, most remarkably, 1997’s first-place “MMMBop,” which occasioned a P&J cover depicting three milk-drinking young Oklahomans taking a bubble ride. With teenpop all over the radio in 1999, the electorate anointed three certified cheerleaders and suckups — Britney, Christina, and the Backstreet Boys. But since “I Want It That Way” is a timeless cipher that deserved to whup the “progressive” “No Scrubs,” and the misleadingly kid-identified “Steal My Sunshine” and “Livin’ La Vida Loca” are the kind of happy skyrockets the voters always go for, this showing seems pretty lackluster to me. Critic after resentful critic complained that unnamed colleagues were shilling for teen shit, but darned if I know who they mean. Does Metal Mike Saunders loom that large? Am I really not allowed to stick a Backstreet Boys column in between the Latin Playboys and the Holy Modal Rounders? Some people are so threatened by the state of the pop marketplace that any informed response to same is dismissed as a pseudointellectual betrayal just for accepting — provisionally, mind you — the marketplace’s terms.

Really, even folks who compare Max Martin to Gertrude Stein or usher symbolic schoolgirls into their sex fantasies have their doubts about this pop marketplace. So before I move on to the music I care most about — Moby and the Magnetic Fields topped my album list too — allow me a few observations and projections. Christina Aguilera could end up a cleaner if not squeakier Mariah Carey, God help us, and some kid cabal Jive Records has never heard of is sure to bust out of the rehearsal rooms. But musically, teenpop’s crucial architect so far — producer-songwriter for BSB, Britney Spears, ’N Sync, and counting — has been Swedish Europop mastermind Martin, who has direct links to Ace of Base. Those who believe his songs will fast-fade into oblivion should forget Paula Abdul and the Bay City Rollers and ponder the gaudy durability of Abba. They should wonder whether in 1968 Kasenetz & Katz themselves were certain that the Ohio Express’s “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy” would be remembered longer than anything ever recorded by Rhinoceros or the Electric Flag. I’m not even convinced the teenpoppers will self-destruct when their target demo graduates from high school. All these showbiz kids memorize Behind the Music. Isn’t it possible that, just like George Michael, one of them will figure a way out of its cycle of eternal recurrence?

[related_posts post_id_1=”692640″ /]

Boy-band pimp though I may be, I hope not. Surrounding a few telling details with feel-good platitudes that never face facts or smash up the joint, teenpop is George W. Bush music right down to its faint Latin flavor. But this fact of life is aesthetic, not political — if kids do actually fall for the latest Yalie drug survivor, blame the Democrats or the damn Greens, not Carson Daly, Vibe, and the failure of Seagrams to make role models out of Girls Against Boys. What’s remarkable about the present pop moment isn’t the ignorance, passivity, and materialism of its consumers, none of it as one-dimensional as elitists assume. Correcting for economic anxiety, which diminished in the ’90s no matter how delusory the new mood may be, do you really think Nirvana’s millions were so different? The change is almost entirely a matter of blandness quotient, in fans and artists alike. And what’s unprecedented is not just that a rather luscious aesthetic has cohered around this vanilla sensibility, an aesthetic that at its best — as in LFO’s borderline-stupid “Summer Girls,” which ducked insults all the way to its 36th-place tie — makes its gawky self-interest seem coltish and sexy. It’s that this aesthetic is the only new game in the console. Not that we should write off future undergrounds — quite the opposite. But except in hip hop, where I hope against hope that breakouts and consolidations are imminent, few imagine that these undergrounds are anything else.

With only four of the top 10 singles on charting albums, no one can grump that the critics are reiterating their long-form tastes; it’s not their fault when the hits they love are withheld or withdrawn to force people to buy bad CDs with good songs on them. Their singles aesthetic favors energy and edge: “Steal My Sunshine” and “Believe” and “Praise You” and “Bawitdaba” and “Vivrant Thing” and “Livin’ La Vida Loca” all devote themselves to toning up the élan vital, while “No Scrubs” and “You Got Me” and “All Star” and “My Name Is” and “Unpretty” are reality rushes, upful doses of home truth that set pungent rhyme to body-friendly rhythm. But of their top 10 albums, only Moby’s Play and Beck’s Midnite Vultures (both of which scored singles, notice) pay much mind to either effect, and even those are Serious Works. If Beck had accomplished anything like the art-funk/mind-body fusion he’s claiming, he would have run away with the poll — his problem isn’t that he tries to be funny, but that his jokes are as forced as his horn charts. Moby, on the other hand, not only proved himself the humanistic sellout techno straight-edgers have always suspected but gave unto the world his devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ. Atheists have been having mystical experiences on the dance floor since disco. This born-againer made them flesh. He’s never believed electronics were the living end, and doesn’t show proper respect for the generic blues and gospel he exploits so grandly either. That makes him our kind of guy, and that’s why he won. Hurray.

When I say these albums are Serious, I mean for one thing that they’re short on laughs. Beyond Midnite Vultures, the only top-10 albums that made jokes a project came from Tom Waits, a funny guy who should be funnier (less Kerouac, more Burroughs, and please mister could we have some Ginsberg too) and isn’t as funny as he thinks he is (more pop burlesques, fewer literary grotesques). Plus of course the Magnetic Fields, whose three-CD act of conceptual derring-do is almost never not funny — even when the presumptive mood is somber, which isn’t often, the bravura rhymes make you chuckle with delight if not amusement. Cheap or rich, the tone is so much more complex than what is suggested these days by “irony” that you can assume anyone who uses the term doesn’t get the record, which knows things about love that you don’t. Since Merge was stingy with freebies, most of its 99 supporters paid or traded for it, which makes its second-place finish even more impressive. It will, it will rock you.

Granted, other funnymen also made our top 40 — nasty Randy Newman, kindly John Prine, wiggy Handsome Boy Modeling School, buggy ODB, dirty Kid Rock, and dirtier Eminem constitute the usual quota or better. What’s more serious is how many of the critics’ favorite albums took up the burden of historical recapitulation. It would be nonsense to call this impulse millennial when it so obviously reflects rock and roll’s ever-advancing maturity, which I mean not as stodgy compliment or veiled insult but neutral description. So our winner joyfully integrated rural feeling (not to mention rural hooks) into a “postmodern” “electronica” that has lost its next-big buzz — diehards voted for the Chem Bros. and Underworld the way earlier diehards stuck with Van Morrison, but the utopian rhetoric has faded away. Our runners-up, meanwhile, impassively stuffed an eccentric reading of 20th-century songwriting into slyly rudimentary postrock arrangements that sound like nothing you’ve ever heard except old Magnetic Fields. The same historiographic impulse touched off the repertory revivals of Prine and Ibrahim Ferrer, and imbues blues- and bluegrass-steeped Tom Waits and Steve Earle. Less familiarly and more pregnantly, it also puts across the pop-schooled orchestrations of Randy Newman (who invented this shit), Fiona Apple (thank you Jon Brion), XTC (West End boys after all), and — a thorny case — the Flaming Lips.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692636″ /]

Newman, Apple, and XTC we grasp: sonically arresting showpieces deploying lots of traditional pop instruments, rock only by association that couldn’t have happened without it. The Soft Bulletin, on the other hand, is rock period even though it drips with violin surrogates and trips over the beats of a drummer who’s spent too much time in the practice room. It’s the prime 1999 example of the species of contained adventure in which Megapop Inc. (especially Warners, which is still bravely trying to sell it) once invested with proud alacrity. People love it because it’s neopsychedelic in such an American, wide-open-spacy way — generous by nature, jerry-built on principle, and hopeful beyond all reason. What puts me off is that Wayne Coyne evinces so much more sweetness than brain. What puts me off Nine Inch Nails’ double-hoohah, on the other hand, is that Trent Reznor evinces neither, unless you think musical intelligence equals human intelligence, his con for years — always with music that says things like “dream job: emperor” and “more fun than death by injection.” Handsome Boy Modeling School gives me better goof and better techno-obsessiveness than either attempted masterwork, plus I know they’re not just wise guys because Prince Paul’s concept-album-of-the-year had deeper politics than The Battle of Los Angeles.Why both finished below The Soft Bulletin and The Fragile (and The Battle of Los Angeles) is for me to know and you to figure out.

The difference between confronting history and leaching life from the tried-and-true often confounds our alt-country branch. Wilco fans believe Jeff Tweedy is turning into Brian Wilson, poor guy; I’m reminded more of Tom Petty and the dogged craft of Richard Thompson, auteur of the not-half-baddest effort on our list. Since good songs infused with the right compound of concept and conviction can signify in any style, Kelly Willis and the Old 97’s are a different story. Only it’s easier to hear the songs if you feel the style — others pump Robbie Williams and Everything but the Girl as thinking teenpop and techno feminism, whereas for me they’re hip fop and pseudo Sade. I prefer the hip-schnook pseudopop of Fountains of Wayne, whose Utopia Parkway promises endless fun-fun-fun to those who can forget what’s actually on the car radio and don’t know that the real Utopia Parkway is a decaying residential thoroughfare in Queens. I’ll also take Mary J. Blige’s soulful indifference to class, which more than her stalwart songs is why I prefer her to Macy Gray, whose Billie-and-Dinah voice says Birdland and whose Shara-and-Dionne material (Nelson, Farris, remember?) says bank your advance. As someone who didn’t think Me’shell Ndegéocello would come this far, however, I’m not giving up on Gray. Like Ndegéocello, she wants to do something big with her big gift. It’s conceivable that someday either might come up with her own Play — or, what can you do, Soft Bulletin.

The hip hop that is regularly shortchanged in this poll is juiced as much by a similar sense of mission as by the new or undiminished musical ideas at its disposal. Figure a more involved and representative electorate would have boosted every rap title in our top 40 as well as elevating Mobb Deep (72nd) and late-December Jay-Z (68th, wait till next year) toward the printed chart. But note that the alt-pop split that has afflicted and energized rock since punk is taking hold in hip hop too. Because its market remains far more discerning than the dolts who assume it isn’t, the Roots are genuine stars, and voter favorites like Mos Def and Prince Paul still outsell all but the biggest alt-rockers. But they don’t represent the culture, just its Talented Tenth types. Although Prince Paul’s very different tours de force make him artist of the year — quite a contrast to Dr. Dre, who edges Marilyn Manson and Celine Dion for shithead of the decade even if his grayboy Eminem has a lot better chance of turning Beastie than Limp Bizkit do — the Roots’ soul jazz and Mos Def/Black Star’s understated old-schoolisms don’t transform enough history to suit me. Nor does flava-of-the-year Mannie Fresh agitate my azz, which never caught the Miami booty-boom either — the embarrassing fact is that I have more fun with the Brits in Basement Jaxx. In case you didn’t know, however, I also don’t represent the culture — I mean, not only am I down with Q-Tip’s electrobeats, I still like the Canibus album. So I’ll abide steadfastly until some forward-looking race man — not one of those hippy-dippy West Coast guys, and quite possibly Black Star itself — takes alt-rap all the way home.

If I continue to look to hip hop for pop renewal, that’s due partly to my regard for James Brown and partly to hip hop’s art-commerce interface. But it’s too late for semipopular music to stop now — way too late. So I meant what I said about not counting undergrounds out. Which brings us to 1999’s most striking statistics.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692633″ /]

Reflecting Megapop Inc.’s withdrawal from the succès d’estime game, a record 14 of our top 40 (more than ’96 and ’97 combined) were manufactured and distributed by independent labels — including 69 Love Songs and Play, the first indie one-two ever. In part that’s because indie patterns have changed. Play is on V2, the thumb Richard Branson stuck in EMI’s eye after unloading Virgin; Prince Paul works for hip hop pioneer Tommy Boy, still half-owned by Warners but otherwise independent; former runner-up Pavement finished only 29th in what I hope isn’t its swan song on Matador, which earlier in the ’90s took two majors’ money and ran. Moreover, five of our finishers — Moby, Waits, Willis, XTC, Prine — spent years at Megapop before bailing to conspicuously solvent indies (or, in Prine’s case long ago, forming his own shoestring one). With all respect to The Soft Bulletin, can Built to Spill be far behind?

All this downsizing is one reason P&J’s newbie quotient is dipping as its indie quotient rises. For most of the ’90s, half or more of our top 40 artists were cracking the album list for the first time. In 1998 the total was down to 18 including the Fugees’ Lauryn Hill; this year it’s way down to 14, including Black Star’s Mos Def, Buena Vista’s Ferrer, the two entries from former De La Soul man Prince Paul, and, well, Santana. Seven of a 41-50 that goes Dixie Chicks–Caetano Veloso–Chili Peppers–Le Tigre–Blur–Cassandra Wilson–Latin Playboys–Guided by Voices–Buddy Miller–Joe Henry have been top 40 in the past, as have almost half the 51-100 finishers. Maybe this surfeit of repeaters is just one of our logjams, in which so many known thirtysomethings make honorable records that name recognition prevails until a tsunami sweeps them all away. On the other hand, maybe it indicates that the new game is controlled — temporarily, right? — by cheerleaders, suckups, and hitters. Macy Gray or no Macy Gray, the only 1999 newcomers I can readily imagine establishing new rules are my favorite hitters, Eminem and Kid Rock, both also hip hoppers of sorts. I bet both are too old, and materialistic, to risk it.

Lots of comments, so I’ve farmed out only one mini-essay, in which longtime indie-rock participant-observer Katherine Spielmann advances an encouraging claim: that at long last indie privatism is giving way to polemic and struggle. Since the privatism was a reaction to Nirvanamania, an indulgence of the agoraphobia that’s as bad for semipopular music as racism, heroin, and Germans playing synthesizers, it damn well ought to recede — especially now that the invaders are gone when you stick your head out of the root cellar. And having spent my adult life watching lefties make speeches to people who aren’t listening, I don’t expect any new bunch of white people with more time than money and not enough of either to save many souls or forge many polities. But since Spielmann’s case begins with Sleater-Kinney, whose The Hot Rock was the most undervalued record of 1999 and who this year will release two more projects (one with the Go-Betweens!), and Le Tigre, a top-30 band if more voters had heard them and certain cult heroes if they stick at it, I do expect some of them to lift my soul — and yours, if you’re into it. WHICH I HOPE YOU ARE!

We nerds need to stick together. No matter how many critics share the banal belief that the others are caught up in some banal mesh of herd mentality and genteel taste, our consensus can tell the world something about musical quality. It can also tell us. Looking down my own lengthy list of gooduns, I find scarcely an item that wasn’t originally supported by some species of word-of-mouth. I look forward to hearing and reading about more in the years to come. Maybe I’ll even be wrong about the soul saving. It’s happened before.

[related_posts post_id_1=”572924″ /]

Top 10 Albums of 1999

1. Moby: Play (V2)

2. The Magnetic Fields: 69 Love Songs (Merge)

3. Beck: Midnite Vultures (DGC)

4. The Flaming Lips: The Soft Bulletin (Warner Bros.)

5. Tom Waits: Mule Variations (Epitaph)

6. Rage Against the Machine: The Battle of Los Angeles (Epic)

7. Fiona Apple: When the Pawn… (Clean Slate/Epic)

8. Wilco: Summerteeth (Reprise)

9. Beth Orton: Central Reservation (Arista)

10. Mos Def: Black on Both Sides (Rawkus)

[related_posts post_id_1=”697296″ /]

Top 10 Singles of 1999

1. TLC: “No Scrubs” (LaFace)

2. Eminem: “My Name Is” (Aftermath/Interscope)

3. Len: “Steal My Sunshine” (Epic)

4. Madonna: “Beautiful Stranger” (Maverick)

5. Backstreet Boys: “I Want It That Way” (Jive)

6. Cher: “Believe” (Warner Bros.)

7. Smash Mouth: “All Star” (Interscope)

8. (Tie) Ricky Martin: “Livin’ La Vida Loca” (C2/Columbia)
The Roots: “You Got Me” (MCA)

10. Santana Featuring Rob Thomas: “Smooth” (Arista)

—From the February 22, 2000, 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

1998 Pazz & Jop: La-Di-Da-Di-Di? Or La-Di-Da-Di-Da?

The 25th or 26th Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll was the most closely contested since 1984, when Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. held off Prince’s Purple Rain in another race between rock-solid Americana and visionary funk. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, or, as future Newt Gingrich revolutionary Sonny Bono put it in 1967: “La-di-da-di-di/La-di-da-di-da.” The beat does go on: stubbornly, intractably, the racial polarization that America’s popular music is thought to heal and subsume rises up in new convolutions. Yet God knows the beat changes as well. Recall, for instance, the rhythmic profiles of those classic albums, Springsteen busting loose from his four-square whomp into what was nevertheless only a kickier arena-rock beat (accommodating — were you there? — a dance remix), while Prince showed Uncle Jam and everyone else how a funk band might play rock music. Do their beats — each of which happens to derive from disco ideas about drum sound — go on?

Fact is, neither Lucinda Williams’s upset winner, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, nor Lauryn Hill’s inspirational runner-up, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, is nearly as unrelenting as Bruce and Prince’s benchmarks — and neither are our matched three and four, a rock and roll record Bob Dylan cut 32 years ago and a folk-rock record his godfather had in his head long before that. No matter how it was heard by the folk fans Dylan was “betraying” (riling up?), Live 1966 isn’t “fucking loud” even by the timid standards of the time. It’s on the go and ready for anything, powered up to move a crowd or audience but not — unlike Bruce and Prince — a populace or mass. One great thing about Mermaid Avenue is the way Wilco’s beats re-create the unkempt spontaneous combustion of Dylan’s folk-rock as an ingrained commitment — just as it’s the triumph of Williams’s blues/country to simulate spontaneity itself, a delicate trick she risks drowning in a rhythmic strategy that muffles her old arena-ready snare but not the big bad beat. Hill’s soft flow counteracts the hardcore thrust that’s claimed blackness for years, recapturing and redefining a racial present by reviving and reconstituting a racial past. Yet despite what roots aesthetes and pop-rap utopians might hope, none of these developments equals “progress.”

Last year, our winner was Time Out of Mind, in which Dylan realized his old dream of writing songs so simple-sounding you could have sworn they’d been there forever. But we also homed in on twin “pop events,” as I waggishly designated not just Hanson’s “MMMBop” atop our singles chart but Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music atop reissues. Taking a cue from inveterate Pazz & Jop kidder Chuck Eddy (who became the Voice’s new music editor just as 1998’s ballots were being inputted), I even suggested that Hanson’s Okie fluke was in some respects an heir to many of the oddities Smith canonized into a folk and eventually rock tradition. And I offered but one pronunciamento: “a terrible year for the rock ‘vanguard.’ ”

In 1998, all this came to pass. While our poll certified traditionalist art every bit as committed as Time Out of Mind — or as artist-of-the-decade PJ Harvey’s concert-ready seventh-place Is This Desire? — the “vanguard” vaporized. Pronunciamento or no pronunciamento, 1997’s top 10 had room for proven noizetoonists Pavement and Yo La Tengo, sample-delicate transnationals Björk and Cornershop, indelibly punk Sleater-Kinney and incorrigibly prog Radiohead (now regarded in Britain as potential challengers to the greatest rock and roller of all time — you know, David Bowie). In 1998, with alt mopeburger Elliott Smith convincing the machers at DreamWorks he could be the Beatles, the closest the top 10 came to paradigm shifters was Air and Rufus Wainwright, whose very different projects mine the nonrock past to reconstitute schlock, kitsch, and the masterpieces of Western civilization. And mmmpop’s playful synthesis of past and future was rejected out of hand: although Hansons-with-penises Next and the Backstreet Boys were hot stuff on Billboard’s singles chart, they didn’t get near ours.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692640″ /]

But I’ve been avoiding something. Not black music, not yet, because this year hip hop includes Rolling Stone artists-of-the-year the Beastie Boys, who came in ninth with their first rap album in nearly a decade — and their best album in just as long, according to me if not Pazz & Joppers, who voted 1992’s guitar move Check Your Head fifth. Fact is, I admired Hello Nasty’s beat-driven, old-school/new-internationalist avant-pastiche more than the two hip hop amalgams that topped it. But given the demographic deficiencies of the 496 critics in our largest electorate ever, it’s striking that our respondents preferred not just Spin artist-of-the-year and prepoll favorite Hill but the one top-10 finisher no one was handicapping 12 months ago: Atlanta’s OutKast.

In an exciting year for most critics who were at all proactive about rap — a professional (and spiritual) achievement that remains beyond way too many of them — the desire for a consensus album that wasn’t the pop-certified Miseducation boosted Dre and Big Boi, regional role models whose two previous releases attracted little outside notice. Coastally, New York maintained its dominance, from old classicists Gang Starr to new classicists Black Star, from Hooksta Jay-Z to 67th-place Bigsta-not-Punsta Big Punisher. But there was a bigger reason rap whupped rock commercially (again) in ’98: the Dirty South took it to the cleaners. The behemoth was No Limit’s New Orleans thump-and-thug factory, which put a phenomenal 27 albums on Billboard’s r&b chart (Def Jam had 18, Bad Boy nine, no major more than 12). Laying minimal syncopation beneath minimal socialization and no more liberal with promos than with anything else, No Limit amassed three mentions total, but a precursor of its blackstrap flow got much respect: the sticky muck where Organized Noize root OutKast and 63rd-place Goodie Mob. OutKast’s live slow jams are basically an evolved G-funk with denser instrumental cross-talk, no less street for putting organ rumble or soundtrack keyb where the eerie tweedle used to be. But their Southernness signifies, evoking Booker T., endless Gregg Allman ballads, humid afternoons with horseflies droning over the hog wallow.

Catch is, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a hog wallow, certainly not in the South, and I doubt many OutKast voters have either. For Northern whites, the Dirty South is exotic in an all too familiar way — whenever pop fans seek “tradition” they flirt with exoticism, which often leads them south, although seldom to a drawl as ripe as Dre’s. Hip hop remains disruptive by definition — even at its hookiest, it looks askance at melody and the white man’s law. But in a year when rock noizetoon went, well, south, it’s fitting that our two hip hop chart-toppers pursued versions of organic r&b; Gang Starr and Black Star also went for a smoothness, leaving Jay-Z and the Beasties together to trickerate the spiky stop-and-go with which so much of the deepest hip hop has complicated its booty-bump. In white people’s music, familiar names sang similar tunes. Faux rapper Beck made a vrai folk record. Hole and Madonna impressed critics who disdained Savage Garden and Will Smith with albums designed for radio — albums that with no atheism aforethought I found barely convincing on their own unexceptionable terms. Liz Phair evolved from iconoclastic indie babe to quirky singer-songwriter and sold zilch, Sheryl Crow evolved from lowbrow singer-songwriter to middlebrow singer-songwriter and sold a million. Garbage’s computer-tooled hooks were marketed as sex toys and swallowed that way. And drummerless R.E.M., charmless Pulp, and boundless Bruce all did what they’d always done, only worse. Either this wasn’t a year when critics wanted to get all bothered, or it wasn’t a year when musicians figured out interesting ways to bother them.

Right right right, the “year” is arbitrary. In 1996, for instance, we had five Brit finishers, in 1997 a whopping 16, in 1998 six — statistics whose cumulative predictive value is approximately zero. And since I’m oversimplifying as usual, let me grant exceptions to the conservative trend. Massive Attack’s mixed-up slow grind Mezzanine and Cornelius’s tripped-out spinfest Fantasma filled in, soulfully or giddily as was required, for two techno heroes I had judged, whoops, “certain to return in 1998” — morose 70th-place Tricky and pretentious 59th-place DJ Shadow (d/b/a Unkle, or UNKLE, told you he was pretentious). The Eels and Vic Chesnutt scored with concept albums, which may not be progress but I guess is art. The worked-over lo-fi songsmanship of Neutral Milk Hotel convinced alt diehards that maturity can be just as weird as growing up. The straighter, craftier Quasi and Belle and Sebastian kept up good subcultural fronts; Mercury Rev and the Pernice Brothers conjured pretty from sad; iconic indie babe Chan Marshall was lauded for being less miserable than she used to be, rather than happy or something shallow like that. Black Star were so underground they debuted at 53 in Billboard, subbasement for hip hop even if Air and Rufus never breached the top 200. Ozomatli’s kitchen sink made the world safer for, if not rap-in-Spanglish or rock-en-español, at least rap and salsa on the same CD. Nas’s trumpeter dad Olu Dara performed a similar feat for, omigosh, jazz and r&b. Robert Wyatt schlepped. And Marilyn Manson cracked our chart in the very year he first sported prosthetic breasts.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692636″ /]

Nor was our traditionalists’ fondness for the old ways the stuff of William Bennett’s dreams. Recognizable emotions, tunes you can count on, and a little continuity don’t add up to a blueprint for revanchism. In rock, these preferences — which have no politics no matter what Adorno types think — naturally combine with a chronic attraction to outsiders. So we end up with a faith that what glues the semipopular audience together (and maybe the big one too) is that we’re all a little lost, in life or in love as a synecdoche for same — and our will to defeat that dislocation, in fun first and then, as the fun comes to know itself, art or even community. The terms of this faith may be simplistic — I’ve been kvetching about self-pity and outlaw romanticism since the Beatles said yeah-yeah-yeah, and I still hope Lucinda Williams outgrows her weakness for guys who die before they get old — but they’re not reactionary. As I’ve said before, this is what another Williams, Raymond, called residual culture, preserving as art democratic usages whose human value outlasts their economic fungibility. The techno, alt-rock, and hip hop sectarians who suspect otherwise are kidding themselves. But if people didn’t kid themselves, nobody would ever try anything new — which would mean, oddly enough, that not only would the innovations of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and (in its time) Live 1966 be impossible, so would the reinterpretations of Mermaid Avenue and Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.

No matter how conservative they are or aren’t, our top four all change the world just by adding something good to it. Hill and Dylan’s flaws as product — the schoolmarm skits that can’t be programmed away, the mannered acoustic set you buy to get the historic electric one — are external to their musical achievement, which is epochal even if Hill doesn’t yet sing or write in Williams’s class. The other two are even better: democratic art music whose very clarity is uncannily evocative. The Bragg-Wilco-Guthrie is a miracle so undeniable it didn’t catch a single dis, the Williams an album-of-the-decade candidate whose perfectionism made my heart swell long after it should have started annoying me instead. And while I also love the way Sonic Youth — who finished a tragic 41st because I shifted two of the points they deserved to a late-breaking Afrocomp that deserved them more — married their restlessness to their concord and made domesticity sound like the adventure it is, I note that even as they refurbished their avant-gardism they were doing a solid for family values. That was the kind of year it was. And though she presents herself as Other, popwise and racewise, Hill expresses thematically, or maybe I should just say verbally, a felt need that’s pursued formally, or maybe I should just say musically, by Williams, Bragg & Wilco (not Guthrie), and Dylan’s faithful (not Dylan, not in 1966).

Perhaps it is finally time to mention what once would have been headline news, which is that our complementary standard-bearers are both women. The 10 female finishers, including nine repeaters and three former poll-winners, fall within what is now Pazz & Jop’s normal range, but the one-two punch is a first. With Williams, always pleased to be one of the boys, gender identity takes the retro taint off — her fanatical integrity, her undaunted autonomy, and the ready empathy she extends to her female characters all testify to the elasticity and life of a deeply male-identified form. But it’s Hill who talks the talk, a talk that wouldn’t have the same knowledge or moral authority if she were a man — Hill whose family values begin with single motherhood, who doowops so sexy as she breaks down that thing, who links her passion for specifics to a cultural tradition she’s proud to name, and who, unfortunately, gives it up to God.

Though the latter has a more honorable history in black pop than in white (Madonna, this means you), that doesn’t mean an atheist has to like it — Al Green she ain’t. But as Madonna knows and Courtney may be figuring out, God sells — a lot better, these days, than the secular aesthetic of homely fact and nailed particularity that make Car Wheels on a Gravel Road such an inexhaustible pleasure for a this-worlder like me, who would really much rather the best record of the year or decade pointed toward the next one instead of time gone by. In fact, maybe God is the aptest shorthand for that felt need — if you crave something stable to hold onto, many would say there’s none better. For the rest of us, however, the question remains: Why is the need there at all?

[related_posts post_id_1=”692633″ /]

Media overload is a reliable excuse. A newer bromide fingers premillennial tension: rather than gliding into the 21st century, some hold, we’re sailing sheets to the wind and scared shitless back toward the 19th. Another would echo William (not to mention Tony) Bennett and blame the very ’60s others resent Lucinda and the rest for reminding them of — after [subtract 1967 and insert result here] years, it is said, even rock and rollers have seen through countercultural license and futuristic foofaraw and long for bedrock values. A less ideological second cousin of this theory would point out that the older the music gets the more adults love it, creating a deepening pool of fans capable of identifying with all the adult rock and rollers who’ve gone before. Having watched I don’t know how many punks and hip hoppers and alt-rockers (although not — yet — techno babies), both personal acquaintances and poll respondents, learn to hear the parent music they once dismissed, I buy that one to an extent. But I would add the less benign corollary of formal exhaustion. Rock and rollers end up recycling the musical past because they have so much trouble conceiving a musical future that doesn’t repeat it — not without trusting experiments so unsongful or sonically perverse that calling them rock and roll will put off the core audience of snobs who might think they’re cool.

Yet although the Monster Magnet thingy is cute, although Pearl Jam and Rancid and Local H did what they’d always done only better (41–50: Sonic Youth, Willie Nelson, Local H, Pearl Jam’s Yield, Marc Ribot, singles champ Fatboy Slim, Tom Zé, the underappreciated Alanis Morissette, Nick Lowe, and all them McGarrigles), although Alanis’s grand gestures may yet be heard, although some fantasize about glam, although you never know, guitar bands got nowhere looking backward either. By January, corporate revanchism was sending dozens of them scurrying back to the indies. And while a few alt ideologues with long memories (that’s Kurt with a K, chief) noted the structural advantages of this development, none of the aforementioned indie-rock chartbusters provided hope commensurate with their pleasure. Conceivably, the oddball populism of the four-CD Nuggets box that tops our typically product-driven reissues list will bear fruit. When it happens, I’ll let you know.

History did have other uses, however. Elvis Costello’s Burt Bacharach collaboration proved not a fussbudget’s wet dream but his liveliest album since his James Burton collaboration. And while Bacharach is rock and roll by association, our retro progressives unlocked altogether alternative pasts. In the process of concocting the techno album and/or flavor of the year, the flâneurs of Air performed the amazing trick of making loungecore signify for its aperitifs, while Rufus Wainwright went ahead and reimagined American popular song just so he could avoid echoing his famous forebears. And though he hasn’t brought the rehab off yet, I’m predicting that this piano man, opera queen, and born comedian will never front a guitar-driven four-piece — and trusting that our voters will cut him that slack. For even though neither Air nor Wainwright has anything to do with rock and roll, it wasn’t the children of Sondheim and Jonathan Schwartz who cheered them on. It was the rock critic cabal, on the lookout for hot fresh novelty. That’s why I take as a hopeful portent the scant 10 mentions our voters afforded the entire recorded output of the “swing” “movement” art directors so adore.

There is, however, a simpler way out of this latest (not final, surely?) installment of the rock-is-dead saga, and after 20 years of bitching I’m still bummed that our novelty hounds don’t access it more freely. I mean black music, but with Maxwell, Seal, and Kelly Price disappointing their constituencies, black music meant hip hop, at least albumwise. Whatever conservatism the rap on our chart shares with the rock, none of it — including the Big Pun, Goodie Mob, Method Man, Redman, Coup, Public Enemy, and DMX entries that trail down to 100 — evinces comparable cultural desperation or fatigue. This goes beyond the recombinant r&b of Hill, whose great idea was to lively up Afrocentric pieties from gospel to Stevie Wonder into a polyrhythmic pop fusion too beat-savvy for hip hop to resist, and the ATLiens, whose urban swamp boogie is rap-rock every bit as heavy as the bohrium and dubnium compounds hardheads hyped circa 1993’s Judgment Night soundtrack. The spare old-school beats of Black Star, for instance, proceed from a first-convolution self-consciousness that suggests not raw punk minimalism but the elegant intelligence of artists secure in a broadly conceived heritage, kinda like early Bonnie Raitt. DMX would be the punk, in the anthemic mode of Sham 69. Pun and Method Man are vocalists first, stylish soul men delivering the goods over new grooves for the ages. Public Enemy’s prophecies are undiminished by their lack of honor in their own country; the Coup’s tales of living unlarge are as thought through and old-fashioned as their beats. Gang Starr are patently proud to show off their skills again. And Jay-Z is as deadly a New Don as rap has ever thrown up.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692630″ /]

Not that I still hope rock critics will take a cue from rock fans and master such distinctions themselves. That would involve enjoying hip hop, in all its…well, its nastiness, its materalism, its sexism, its…socially regressive tendencies! As a proactive white listener for 18 years, I’m not claiming it always comes naturally. Gang Starr’s beats are too subtle to suit me and when Big Punisher guns down two “bitch” “niggas” in his “Packinamac” skit, I hope he gets punished big, though I’d trade that for one less teenager packing a MAC. But even so Capital Punishment stakes a more virtuosic, full-blooded claim for its subculture than, to choose a funereal jape that gets my goat, Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Over and over I’m drawn to internalize a world that’s only central to me insofar as I love music (although it would be of concern to me as a citizen regardless) — a world so rich musically, in terms the pop charts make clear many Americans understand, that that’s enough. Granted, it was only a final bout of Pazz & Jop relistening that pushed me up close and personal to OutKast and Jay-Z albums whose skills I’d resisted even after I learned to hear them. But hard-won pleasures are sweet, as I’m doubly aware because the same thing happened with Air, and with so many voters complaining they didn’t know where their next thrill was coming from, their failure to avail themselves of these didn’t just seem, er, racially unadventurous. It seemed critically irresponsible. It seemed chickenshit. It seemed deef.

Or maybe it was merely refined. Just because our panel was more inclusive than ever — up another 12 percent after leaping from 236 to 441 in ’97 — doesn’t mean it was any less refined. No sir. Glom our singles chart, which in the greatest year for pop cheeze in memory ignores such wizzy delights as Savage Garden’s “Truly Madly Deeply” (biggest lies, biggest airplay, one vote) and Next’s “Too Close” (biggest boner, second biggest sales, five votes) in stalwart defense of the high seriousness delivered to the masses by Fastball and Semisonic (albeit typified by Sobmaster Shawn Mullins, whose lament for a rock princess tied for 36th). No point moaning about Public Enemy and Aretha Franklin lingering just below our top 25. My beef is the critics’ hostility to kiddie pop as a site of the artistic excitement that’s so often coextensive with bizmanship. The beat changes, the beat goes on: Dismissing “Too Close” in 1998 is the precise equivalent of dismissing “Yummy Yummy Yummy” in 1968, and loving the Spice Girls without considering the Backstreet Boys is the most condescending kind of pop-feminist p.c.

Lauryn Hill lost out here as well. “Doo Wop,” her radio-readiest cut as the single continued its evolution toward promotional fiction, was edged out by a hunk of cheeze rather than a work of art, but there’s a crucial similarity. Just as Lucinda Williams’s matrix is the blues, Norman Cook’s is the rap-rock cusp — both are white artists reinterpreting and recycling what they don’t hesitate to identify as black music. “Right about now the funk soul brother,” repeats and repeats and repeats a distinctly black-sounding voice in the greatest techno sucker punch of all time. If you want to unpack the beaty fun of the thing, call Fatboy Slim’s “Rockafeller Skank” an innocent celebration of rock and roll race-mixing — and note that all but one of the few black voters who were charmed enough to list it were what most would call rock and rollers, as opposed to black music specialists. As Miles Marshall Lewis and the “Cracking the Code” comments file illustrate, they often hear these things differently.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692625″ /]

With new hip hop mags everywhere, we didn’t attract enough black voters this year. We never do, for much the same reasons general elections don’t, but 1998 was a little worse. That’s why I didn’t enjoy our neck-and-neck race as much as you might have expected from the 10 bucks I bet back in August on what I still consider a battle between sui generis aesthetic triumph and button-pushing pop-political smarts. Lucinda won clean with an album that deserves every push it can get, but I worried that her victory might be unrepresentative anyhow — even if only of rockcrit’s illusions. And eventually, longtime Pazz & Jopper J.D. Considine’s complaint that there couldn’t possibly be 500 critics who heard as much music as he did inspired me to run a minipoll of a 125-voter panel chosen with three criteria paramount: well-integrated (21 rather than 8 percent black), well-exposed (mostly committed full-timers), and, well, insightful (people I actually want to read). Never mind who was on it. Just believe me when I say that beyond a hip hop surge I had no idea what to expect of their consensus.

Right, Lauryn won. What amazed me, though, was how big she won: so big that when I reduced the black vote to a pre–Civil War zero, she still won. Top 10: Hill, Williams, OutKast, Bragg & Wilco, Air, Dylan, Smith, Harvey, Wainwright, Jay-Z (with Madonna 11th). On the chart: Big Pun, Goodie Mob, Public Enemy (90th on the real list), Saint Etienne (55th), Tricky, Tori Amos (73rd). Off: Mercury Rev, I-did-too-mention Gillian Welch, Wyatt, Monster Magnet, Pernices, please-don’t-hit-me Marilyn Manson. Despite Mercury Rev, a serious glitch, I prefer this vision of pop ’98, not just because it gave hip hop the hope and respect it earned, but because the writers I want to read usually feel the way departing music editor Eric Weisbard does in his essay — they care about pop. So of course they loved Lauryn Hill.

The problem with this is that critically, as opposed to journalistically, caring about pop is kinda rearguard itself, because pop’s consensus has been seriously weakened by market forces. I’ll continue to bitch about it myself, and conceivably the beat will change yet again. It’s more likely, however, that the monoculture is history. In an era of millisecond information dispersal and electronic boutiques, it’s no surprise that progressive artists whomping the so-called mass into some semblance of unity have fallen from view, or that insinuating pieties play the role of visionary funk, the progressive way to move the populace. But that doesn’t mean Hill’s pop-rap will count for more than any other kind of realized democratic art music in the end.

So la-di-da. Or as the later incarcerated Slick Rick put [it] back when he was billing himself M.C. Ricky D, la-di-da-di.

[related_posts post_id_1=”572924″ /]

Top 10 Albums of 1998

1. Lucinda Williams: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Mercury)

2. Lauryn Hill: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Ruffhouse/Columbia)

3. Bob Dylan: Live 1966 (Columbia/Legacy)

4. Billy Bragg & Wilco: Mermaid Avenue (Elektra)

5. Elliott Smith: XO (DreamWorks)

6. OutKast: Aquemini (LaFace)

7. PJ Harvey: Is This Desire? (Island)

8. Air: Moon Safari (Source/Caroline)

9. Beastie Boys: Hello Nasty (Grand Royal)

10. Rufus Wainwright: Rufus Wainwright (DreamWorks)

[related_posts post_id_1=”697296″ /]

Top 10 Singles of 1998

1. Fatboy Slim: “The Rockafeller Skank” (Skint/Astralwerks)

2. Lauryn Hill: “Doo Wop (That Thing)” (Ruffhouse/Columbia)

3. Beastie Boys: “Intergalactic” (Grand Royal)

4. Madonna: “Ray of Light” (Maverick/Warner Bros.)

5. Aaliyah: “Are You That Somebody?” (Atlantic)

6. OutKast: “Rosa Parks” (LaFace)

7. Hole: “Celebrity Skin” (DGC)

8. Fastball: “The Way” (Hollywood)

9. Jay-Z: “Hard Knock Life” (Rock-A-Fella/Def Jam)

10. Natalie Imbruglia: “Torn” (RCA)

—From the March 2, 1999, 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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692594″ /]

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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692594″ /]

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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692583″ /]

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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692580″ /]

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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”572924″ /]

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.)

[related_posts post_id_1=”697296″ /]

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 From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1989 Pazz & Jop: New Kids on the Block

Somewhere nearby you’ll find 1989’s cash crop, the list of 40 albums that has long been the leading export of the Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll. Give it the once-over — you’ll be glad you did. Judiciously employed, the critics’ top 40 will serve as a dandy consumer guide, and not only that, it’s got a hook. The obvious-in-hindsight winner and the unprecedented top 10 tell a story about shifting tastes in American popular music, a story that’s just beginning even though it’s been brewing for a decade. It’s the story of a new beat, a new sound, a new aesthetic. It’s the story of racial nightmares and crossover dreams — of dysfunctional prejudice, resurgent Afrocentrism, cultural desegregation. And it’s also the story of rock and roll eating itself and then rising from its own leavings like some mutant bottom-feeding carp, a giant goldfish with a yen for the sun.

I’ll tell the story as best I can, but I’ll tell it more briefly than has been my custom. No, I’m not written out after the decade opus I recently dropped hereabouts; in fact, having plowed through the voter comments, which are excerpted in chunks and snippets throughout the supplement, I feel compelled to clarify my views on the album, which this poll still honors among rock concepts and artifacts. But for some years a related story has also been emerging from Pazz & Jop — about consensus, or fragmentation, or pluralism. It’s become increasingly obvious that no one voice can sum up the poll with the kind of authority that was plausible a decade ago, and thus I’ve invited three additional essayists to usurp my space. Voice columnist Nelson George is the most prominent African-American rock/pop critic (and critic of African-American rock/pop); Arion Berger edited the LA Weekly music section for most of 1989; and chronic nonparticipant Tom Ward joins a great rock critic tradition by denying that he’s any such thing.

Given my space limitations, I’ll dispense with the details posthaste. The 16th or 17th poll was our biggest ever: 255 critics nationwide made our deadline. The P&J affirmative action program showed moderate progress among African-American voters (19 to 29, near as we can tell) and none, taking into account the increase in voters, among women (39 to 45). But there was a major generational leap: spurred in part by 25-year-old Poobah (and Voice music editor) Joe Levy, we got ballots from well over 30 professional/semiprofessional critics aged 25 or younger. What’s more, 12 of the kids’ top 15 acts were 25 or younger themselves. But even without the youth vote, the five under-25 artists in the top 10 would still have finished top 11, and this is news. Only once before has the poll been so top-heavy with whippersnappers — Prince–Replacements–R.E.M.–Run-D.M.C. in 1984 — and somehow De La Soul–Neneh Cherry–N.W.A.–Soul II Soul–Pixies has a fresher look. It’s not just their haircuts, either — it’s their professional experience, or lack of it. Run-D.M.C were 1984’s only newcomers, to the racks or the poll. This year young artists put four debut albums in the top 10. With an indie EP and album behind them, the Pixies are veterans by comparison.

Oddly enough, De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising isn’t the first debut album ever to finish on top — nor, strictly speaking, the first teenaged winner. It shares both distinctions with 1977’s No. 1, identified with its 21-year-old front man but also showcasing a memorable young bass player: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. Amerindie loyalists please note, however, that it is the first winner not distributed by a major label. Whether these are significant parallels, cheap ironies, some strange amalgam of the two, or none of the above remains to be determined, with generational disagreements at least as intense as racial ones. Without the black vote, De La Soul still would have won; without the youth vote, they would have finished behind old farts Neil Young and Lou Reed. And when I toted up a minipoll of the 26 over-40s I could identify, I was surprised to find De La Soul down in eighth place, substantially behind not just Reed and Young but gangsta-minded bad boys N.W.A.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692586″ /]

Then I thought again and realized that I’d handicapped De La Soul to win myself — until I played the record a couple more times and decided it was just too slight to go all the way, knocking it out of my own top 10 in the process. I wonder how many of my fellow graybeards went through something similar. Very much like the Neville Brothers’ fourth-place Yellow Moon, which topped the 40-plus tally while finishing 17th among the 25-and-unders, 3 Feet High and Rising is so smart, so warm, so musical that only a pigfucker and/or stick-in-the-mud could dislike it. These three suburban kids rapped without swagger or inferrable threat; their dumb humor and original sound were out there for all to hear. But though they won handily, they did so with the weakest general support (the lowest points-divided-by-total-voters quotient) of any winner in P&J history, because they were also arch and obscure. Three- to four-minute song lengths looked like pop moves and sounded like deconstruction, the title evoked the music’s childlike growing pains but turned into a dick joke, the beat didn’t go on, and oldsters who don’t tumesce at the drop of a sample found themselves enjoying the group at a distance. I mean, Yellow Moon has a groove, Jack. Let po’-boy purists complain that the production’s cold not cool — this is essence of second-line, the rhythm of the spheres. True, I wasn’t sure it belonged on my list after it barely left my cassette case all summer. But faced with a lousy year, I remembered the Wild Tchoupitoulas and gave it the nod.

The big Pazz & Jop story is clearly black artists — only three times have blacks placed even three albums in the top 10, and this year suddenly they jump to five, adding the six top singles for good measure. But there’s more, because those darn Negroes have more than one groove, and these grooves don’t all mean the same thing. If once, to adapt a notion from Pablo Guzman, the punk groove jolted pop to its roots, by the late ’80s white rock settled for stasis as it raced through its forcebeats (or marched through its power chords or slogged through its grunge or tiptoed through its funk lite or trotted through its jingle-jangle-jingle or rocked through its rock and roll). At the same time, Prince and various Jacksons and Yo! MTV Raps were reminding forgetful bizzers that white Americans love it when colored people sing and dance. And slowly, painfully, a lot of rock criticism’s left-leaning ex-/quasi-bohemians learned to think on their feet — with them, even. But they didn’t all think to the same beat, or agree on how much a beat could mean. In the ’60s we called this different strokes for different folks.

De La Soul’s rhythms were the most dissociated in the top 10, the Nevilles’ the steadiest. And so voters raised on TV quick-cuts found truth in De La Soul, which won with the weakest general support (the lowest total-voters-to-points quotient) in P&J history, while baby boomers anchored to the big beat since childhood held fast to the Nevilles’ line. Accustomed to rhythmic signification, black voters came on strong for the easy, house-inflected world-funk of Soul II Soul’s Keep On Movin’, which except maybe for The Raw and the Cooked was the most meaning-free album in the top 40, adding just a patina of Afro-universalism to an affirmative groove believed to speak for itself. Cross-demographic fave Neneh Cherry put varied rhythms in the service of varied messages, and cause célèbre N.W.A. was juiced by both mastermixer Dr. Dre and the Federal Bureau of Investigation — and came in second with the oldest voters as well as the youngest, a lesson in who cares about rebel attitude around here. In the short run, rock criticism is a fun gig; as lifework, it favors hardasses.

Not that all critics have rewired their sensoriums for future shock, or abandoned literary concerns; not that the straight four-four has suddenly lost all force or appeal. Granted, the poetic women who loomed large in 1988’s music headlines took a tumble this year, from Tracy Chapman (third to 37th, though she was fifth among black voters) to Michelle Shocked (sixth to 64th) to 10,000 Maniacs (29th in ’87 to four mentions) to the Sugarcubes (35th to one mention). And even if the Chapman and Shocked followups were objectively disappointing, as one might say, I smell the fickle media in this shortfall: although it was like Kate Bush never went away, at 92nd Laurie Anderson gets my most-underrated nomination, and the last time the tied-for-90th Roches made such a good album it finished 11th. Instead journalists got their literary four-four from the folks who took out the original copyright — for sheer news value, old white guys (with one woman allowed in the club) rivaled young black ones. Last January you could have gotten 100-1 on a hall-of-fame exacta of Neil Young, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones, and upped the odds astronomically by throwing in a secondary legend like Bonnie Raitt, Aerosmith, Don Henley, or 23-year-old P&J debut band NRBQ.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692583″ /]

None of these records is as automatic as jam addicts complain, but half of them are as boring as John Cougar Mellencamp’s or Graham Parker’s, neither of which made top 100. So I’m proud that my fellow 40-and-overs put only the two best in their top 15: Young’s Freedom, as masterful a total album as he’s ever made, and Reed’s New York, praised for its clunky politics as it gets over on its cannily tossed-off music. Like Tom Petty, who turned in the most undeniable record of his life by accident, they proved that rhythms don’t become extinct and grace isn’t always something you strive for. And like the ever craftier Mekons, plus maybe the ever tamer Replacements and conceivably the ever more lapidary Elvis Costello (just not, please, the terribly tortured Bob Mould or the fatally fussy XTC), they also demonstrated that the old rockcrit ideal of the good song, with a tune you can hum and a lyric you can put your mind to, will still sustain the occasional long-playing phonogram. But rock and roll future they ain’t. Rap is.

Critically speaking, hiphop is the new punk, nothing less. Not merely because it put six homies plus dabblers Neneh Cherry and Quincy Jones on the album chart and three others among the top six singles artists, but because the youngest writers — and I don’t just mean specialists like those at The Source, the national hiphop mag founded by Harvard undergrad Jon Shecter — are behind it so passionately. For sure a general rhythmic reorientation has been crucial to its upsurge, but that’s only the root: as has long seemed inevitable to anyone with a sense of how pop forms evolve, rappers are finally positioned to pick up where the Clash left off (and Bruce remains). Stressing the verbal while taking care of music more diligently than their punk counterparts, so competitive that artistic one-upsmanship is an obsession, sharing rock’s immemorial boys-into-men egoism, and committed to the kind of conceptual in-your-face that Nelson George thinks is overrated and most rockcrits live for, rap has gotten serious about its fun. Arion Berger may be right to consider its world-shaking pretensions delusory, but not many in her critical generation are inclined to give up on the dream.

A peculiar aspect of rap’s new status is that it implies spectatorship rather than participation. Though many of the new rap-oriented critics are African-American, more of them are white. And though the Beastie Boys and now 3rd Bass (who finished 50th, just ahead of Ice-T, and were preceded from 41st by Soundgarden, Rickie Lee Jones, Beleza Tropical, the Bats, the B-52’s, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and late-’88 holdovers Guy, Bobby Brown, and Lucinda Williams) won’t be the last white rappers of distinction, the genre is no more likely to be taken over by Caucasians, as we’re sometimes called, than bebop. Formulating an Afrocentric ideology certainly won’t be any worse for young whites than slipping into a Eurocentric one; probably it’ll be better. But until cultural desegregation is in full effect (sometime after the revolution, that is), I foresee a bifurcated music subculture, unwieldy no matter how essential. A similar audience structure didn’t do bebop much harm. But bebop never had a broad-based black audience; it was boho music, critics’ music, rarely even hinting at any politics beyond the black self-determination of its creative practice. In contrast, rap is activist and street-directed, and it’s already won over as many white fans in this country as punk (or bebop) ever did. This could get very interesting.

In fact, it’s plenty interesting already. Boys-into-men is putting it mildly — not counting metal (and I still don’t see why I should), rap is the most sexist and homophobic subgenre in the history of a music that’s always fed off male chauvinism. This excites critical concern, as it damn well should — N.W.A. can play at fucking tha police all they want, but Eazy-E has the symptoms of one sick case of short man’s disease, and if there were any justice Roxanne Shanté would add his jimmy to her pickle jar and start a collection. Rap’s friends as well as foes attacked its sexism plenty in this year’s poll — almost as often as they went after Public Enemy’s much better publicized anti-Semitism. Both topics — often counterbalanced by potshots at the even viler ideology of former crit heroes Guns N’ Roses — are aired in the “Public Enemies” section, but given bifurcation, I’m struck by the virtual absence of complaints about rap’s more sweeping racial chauvinism. When in “Black to the Future,” to choose just one example, Def Jet tells an audience he assumes is black, “But the enemy is not your brother/It’s that other motherfucker,” he’s articulating a healthy solidarity while leaving the “other” dangerously vague — the context disses racist whites going back to the slavers without specifying whether there’s any other kind. Such complexities often get lost in full-fledged political discourse and must be nearly impossible to pin down in a few lines of rhyme. Hiphop critics have their work cut out for them.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692580″ /]

I assume it’s the hope of avoiding this work, and the useless guilt and whiteskin arrogance it will surely entail, that steers critics to role models like Queen Latifah and Boogie Down’s KRS-One, whose standing I take as a mixed omen. Chuck Eddy is always too reluctant to believe that consciousness comes naturally to human beings, but he has reason to mock rap’s “plethora of literate, well-meaning, eclectic, professional, ambitiously conceptual albums-as-artworks” — if there were any justice, 67th-place Shanté would have topped Latifah (and I didn’t think so at first myself). As usual, Eddy is overstating. Rappers are pretentious in a fairly rude way when they’re pretentious at all, which Tone-Loc and Young M.C. and even N.W.A. aren’t; in rap, artistic advance is as likely to mean house effects (a specialty of both Latifah and Shanté) as Malcolm X or Langston Hughes or Sun Ra (83rd, by the way). But now that it’s attained both commercial and critical respectability — meaning acceptance in a white world that can’t be trusted to care for the music’s long-term cultural vitality — you have to wonder when it’ll get eaten up. Just because it’s stayed healthy longer than any rock subgenre ever doesn’t mean it’s discovered the gift of everlasting life.

One of the failed white rap groups to come down the pike in 1989 (three mentions) has a name for this dilemma: Pop Will Eat Itself, a classic middlebrow-deconstructionist misprision of the sampling that underpins rap’s historical intonations and seemingly indefatigable vitality. For art-student types like PWEI, this extreme dependence on the past, however irresistible, portends the music’s ultimate doom. And indeed, it’s certain that the professional musician’s eternal complaint — “What will they have left to sample after they’ve put us all out of work with their thievery?” — will find a correlative in rappers who adjudge it cool to work with a band. It’s also conceivable that sometime in the intermediate future sampling will just wear out — that for reasons we can’t yet fathom, listeners will get sick of it the way many are now sick of the straight four-four. But assuming (and praying) that the soundbite method isn’t stymied by legalisms, I’d guess that there’s enough material out there to keep rap going past the intermediate future — whereupon the world may be ready for another round of James Brown rips. To be honest, I’m not bored by them yet. Of course, the right four-four still rings my chimes too.

Rap’s “naïve” (Berger’s word, in a more limited context) assumption that it will overcome — affirmed rhythmically and vocally even when the words are as hyperreal as N.W.A.’s or Public Enemy’s — has got to light up critics whose subcultural representatives are as dolorous as the Cure or the Jesus and Mary Chain or even Galaxie 500, the closest Amerindie got to an up-and-comer in 1989. For rock and rollers who came up with the Sex Pistols, postpunk/garage crunch/chime constitutes a groove with the same compelling personal resonance that the Nevilles’ smooth syncopations or Charlie Watts’s rock and roll essence has for their elders, and many young critics voted for more guitar bands than rappers. But beyond the Pixies, who except for Sonic Youth are the only Amerindie band to rise in the poll (much less enter the top 10) since the Replacements and Hüsker Dü, these preferences tended to be local and/or personal. At this point, postpunk is so vast, so various, and so devoid of focus or leadership that fastening on a guitar band is like picking a world-beat album — a lot of them sound pretty good, with more precise decisions up to happenstance. And if not everyone in the lineup of college-radio-type 51-to-100 finishers — Jayhawks, Camper Van, Voivod, Faith No More, Syd Straw, Indigo Girls, Exene Cervenka, Stone Roses, My Bloody Valentine, Frogs, Masters of Reality, Yo La Tengo, Walkabouts, Young Fresh Fellows, Mudhoney, Smithereens, Pogues — is altogether bummed out or defeated, none could be called confident; the good humor that’s their version of positive rarely lasts more than a song or two. No wonder their contemporaries spectate elsewhere.

The confidence factor cuts both ways, however. The main reason some critics still don’t get rap is — well, call it rhythmic, or cultural. Hooked up to the straight four-four, they don’t understand rap as music — they have trouble thinking on their feet. But rap’s positivity puts another kind of cap on its critical consensus. Because we’re usually serious and often dour ourselves, critics aren’t as ready as the average culture consumer to buy rose-colored glasses or happy feet. Drunk on romance, a rock critic will still refuse a steady diet of love songs, preferring to savor one or two. Defiance is our meat — as extreme as we knew the Sex Pistols’ rage to be, few of us were inclined to deny its conviction and truth value. And today, ridiculous though most may find the gloom of gothic or industrial, a modest pessimism is regarded as seemly — in a world whose salvation is in doubt, musicians are allowed to mix just a few smallscale epiphanies into their existential confusion, nothing grander. Hence, most of rap’s boasts and calls to action bounce off critical skeptics, and silliness takes De La Soul only so far.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692572″ /]

But rap does at least retain “underclass” credentials — despite the middle-class heroes it’s generated, and unlike dance music, which rarely gets the same respect even though it’s quite popular among poor people. Together with goofy-to-organic reinterpretations of Public Enemy’s deep mix, house borrowings — standard keyb and piano hooks, diva soul, fuzzed-out bass, looser beats — dominated rap’s musical development in 1989. But while Janet Jackson and Quincy Jones and pomo poet Madonna all brush up against dance music good as any rapper, only Soul II Soul and, as it happened, Neneh Cherry came out of the club world. Even on the singles chart there’s a paucity of dance flukes — unless you count Digital Underground, the Oakland electrorap crew whose forthcoming album handicaps as a Pazz & Jop sureshot, they begin and end at Inner City’s 24th-place “Good Life,” which finished a crucial two places ahead of the undeniable current crossover “Pump Up the Jam” (hope it shows up in 1990). Instead, as if to put their imprimatur on rap’s seriousness, the critics sorted rap singles out from rap albums — of the seven in our top 25, only one appeared on a charting LP, or longform, or whatever the synonym is these days.

This is a major omission. Most house hits are irreducibly cultish, but I still put three of the poppier ones in my top 10, and given the chance might have gone higher (I didn’t find out what “This Is Acid” was till six months after it imprinted itself one hot Bronx Zoo Saturday, and I’ve yet to lay hands on a copy). There’s really no question that insofar as the new rock aesthetic is rhythmic and sonic it’s happening at least as much in the clubs as at the intersection of Mean Street and Yo! MTV Raps. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean J. D. Considine’s call for a new dance-music criticism will set off any stampedes — if rock critics mistrust rap’s positivity, they feel something approaching contempt for house’s. And while contempt generally demeans the beholder, it’s not as if the disdain is gratuitous. Hard-core dancers whose minds still function in the daytime infer a social vision from the communal ecstasy (and sore tootsies?) of the dance floor, and they’re not just jiving. But they are jiving a little. Because if on the one hand (foot?) utopian fantasies are always revolutionary, on the other they’re always escapes. And despite the pomo bromide that every little escape helps breach our invisible prison walls, this apparently unsavable world is currently offering plenty of contravening evidence.

The claims I’ve made for rap may sound old to nonbelievers — I’ve rooted hard for the stuff ever since making a Sugarhill best-of my top album of 1981. But as far as I’m concerned I’m just reading the tea leaves. Though as usual I’ve voted for plenty of rap this year, I gotta tell ya — between the trans-stoopid “Pump Up the Jam” and the mysterious “This Is Acid,” it’s the dance records that feel extraordinary on my singles list this year. Too much of the rap breaks down into sustaining pleasures (Tone-Loc and “Fight the Power”), forbidden sojourns (2 Live Crew and “Terrordome”), and album cuts without albums (Digital Underground and A Tribe Called Quest). What’s more, at the top of my album chart itself you’ll find something I never expected to put there again: three phonograms anchored to the straight four-four.

Since I’ve been misconstrued as proclaiming “the death of the album” or some such, I want to be very clear. It’s the “great album” I have my doubts about, and by that I do not mean a Consistently Realized Work of Art Demonstrating Revelatory Literary Depth and Sonic Imagination. Taking different strokes into account, those will continue to manifest themselves — for all I know, Spike qualifies. But as I once said about great artists, a great album demands a great audience, and in view of rock’s galloping fragmentation, the idea that any album can invoke much less create such an audience seems increasingly chimerical. It so happens that 1989 saw the release of two Consistently Realized Etc. albums tailor-made for the different folks in my generational and racial fragment, who cannot in themselves constitute a great audience. Never mind that Neil Young’s Freedom did better with the electorate at large than with Neil’s fellow 40-and-overs, who didn’t even find room for The Mekons Rock ’n’ Roll in their top 15 — those two records summed up the traditional rock sensibility, in which the need for continuity equals the longing for a steady groove. Yes, it’s true that one merely rearticulates longstanding frustrations, confusions, and limitations while the other proclaims the imminent death not just of the great album but of the traditional rock sensibility. That still doesn’t mean there won’t be more.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692493″ /]

But it may suggest that, great or not, they won’t mean much, and here’s where this “death of the album” business starts making sense. Put it this way: even in popular music terms, albums are epiphenomena. What they’re really about is consistently realized careers — nothing less, but nothing more. I uncovered pretty much the usual number of gooduns in 1989, and those who find my tastes reliable can use this annual Dean’s List as still another consumer guide. Enjoy, because I did; I love my albums, don’t hear enough of them. But over the past decade I’ve stopped understanding rock history in their terms. Granted, they’re such tidy artifacts that it’s possible 100 years from now rock history will be written in their terms if it’s written at all. Like all great-man theories, though, that history will be a gross distortion. Anybody with a modicum of pop sense has always known this, but in the ’80s, multiplying media as well as galloping fragmentation have made it inescapable — even as the convenient annual construct generated by this poll, the album summary may well merit more disbelief than anyone should be asked to suspend. Right, at some level “hip-hop is the new punk” seems both statistically justifiable and poetically just. But even if you think albums mean more than I’m ready to claim, it was a lousy year. The numbers say so —  prorated, never have the leaders gathered fewer total points. And so does the poetry.

Initially, it was a sense of poetry that moved me to break precedent and list a commercially unavailable item as my No. 1. Pulnoc’s Live at P.S. 122 (the title handwritten on the inset card of this soundboard cassette) was in fact my leisure longform of choice in 1989, but that was no more my criterion this year than it ever has been — what made the difference was that not even Young or the Mekons sounded, well, great in quite the same way. And when Eastern Europe exploded in December I felt as if maybe the four-four had something to do with history after all. More phoenix than carp, Pulnoc are an amalgam of three of Prague’s Plastic People — who started a year after NRBQ and suffered lots more than the road for the rock and roll life — and four of that seminal Czech band’s 25-ish fans. They don’t seem any more explicitly political than Charlie Parker — I don’t understand Czech so I’m not certain. But they mesh trancelike vocals, hypnotic hooks, draggy drones, and guitar work not unreminiscent of Neil Young all into an ineluctable four-four that could make you believe in rock and roll future yet again. I trust that their cleverly orchestrated publicity blitz will win them an official U.S. release in 1990, and I’m betting that in their way, which is naïve in one respect and wiser than you’ll ever be in another, they believe in the great album. They are contravening evidence that walks and talks and plays the guitar. I have not the slightest doubt that sometimes they long for escape just like any other human beings. And achieve it too.

[related_posts post_id_1=”572924″ /]

Top 10 Albums of 1989

1. De La Soul: 3 Feet High and Rising (Tommy Boy)

2. Neil Young: Freedom (Reprise)

3. Lou Reed: New York (Sire)

4. The Neville Brothers: Yellow Moon (A&M)

5. Neneh Cherry: Raw Like Sushi (Virgin)

6. N.W.A.: Straight Outta Compton (Ruthless)

7. Elvis Costello: Spike (Warner Bros.)

8. The Mekons: The Mekons Rock ’n’ Roll (A&M)

9. Soul II Soul: Keep On Movin’ (Virgin)

10. Pixies: Doolittle (4AD/Elektra)

[related_posts post_id_1=”697296″ /]

Top 10 Albums of 1989

1. Public Enemy: “Fight the Power” (Motown)

2. Neneh Cherry: “Buffalo Stance” (Virgin)

3. Soul II Soul: “Keep On Movin’ ” (Virgin)

4. Fine Young Cannibals: “She Drives Me Crazy” (I.R.S.)

5. Tone-Loc: “Wild Thing” (Delicious Vinyl)

6. Young M.C.: “Bust a Move” (Delicious Vinyl)

7. Madonna: “Like a Prayer” (Sire)

8. The B-52s: “Love Shack” (Warner Bros.)

9. Tom Petty: “Free Fallin’ ” (MCA)

10. Rolling Stones: “Mixed Emotions” (Rolling Stones)

—From the February 27, 1990, 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
BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

New York’s Finest: Paying Tribute to the Beastie Boys in the Pages of the Voice

Though we may never again be treated to new music from the Beastie Boys — those three impish young New Yorkers, Adam Yauch (MCA), Adam Horowitz (Ad Rock), and Michael Diamond (Mike D), who went on to become one of the most original and longest-lasting groups in the history of rap — fans this week were treated to some new material from the group with the release of its Beastie Boys Book. A Beasties-style oral history, the book features the Boys’ two remaining members, Ad Rock and Mike D, swapping written reminiscences that span their pre-Beastie days growing up in New York to MCA’s death in 2012, at the age of 47, from cancer. Interspersed are a mini-cookbook, a graphic novella, and essays from numerous famous writers and artists, including several Voice contributors, such as Colson Whitehead, Luc Sante, and Ada Calhoun.

The Voice itself also features in the book’s 590 pages, having played an important part in the group’s formation, with Mike D describing their early days as a hardcore band:

We also read everything we could find about punk and hardcore, which wasn’t much: The Face magazine and the NYC free weeklies SoHo Weekly News and the Village Voice. The last two were particularly useful because in addition to articles, they contained concert calendars, and in the back pages were ads for all the upcoming shows. It was in one or both of those weekly papers that, sometime in late 1980, we found an ad announcing a Bad Brains show at Botany Talk House, a tiny dive bar in Chelsea. By this time, I’d already spent countless afternoons alone in my bedroom dancing like an idiot to “Pay to Cum.” We were in. 

But at the heart of the book is the Beasties’ transformation from three boys fighting for their right to party — boys whose stage personas, however ironic, championed homophobia and misogyny — to enlightened elder statesmen of rap who spent years atoning for their past sins. And in the yellowed pages of the Voice, we can see that growth as well.

The Beasties first appear in the Voice in the April 15, 1986, issue, in an preview for their opening slot for Run-D.M.C at the Apollo Theater. (It’s interesting to note that their famous gig opening for Madonna on her 1985 Virgin Tour did not appear in our pages; apparently, Madonna’s New York City shows were so completely sold out that her management didn’t even bother taking out a token ad.) The writer, R.J. Smith, has little of worth to say about the nascent group, which at the time had yet to release more than some singles, merely saying that its current radio hit, “Hold It, Now Hit It,” “doesn’t suck eggs.”

Almost a year later, the Beasties’ standing had changed; by the time Doug Simmons tackled them in a short item in the March 31, 1987, issue, their album Licensed to Ill, released in November 1986, had already become the fastest-selling debut in the history of Columbia Records. The Voice’s opinion of them, however, remained the same. The Beasties were making a name for themselves not just with their rapid-fire rhymes, but also with their fratty stage personas — always explained away as “ironic” and “satirical.” Simmons notes the group’s “chronicled excesses” — being banned for life from Holiday Inns, for instance — calling them “road warrior clichés.” But, he writes, “sometimes the persona slips in front of a notebook, and the fiction gives way to something dangerously earnest and reactionary.” Calling out some homophobic comments made by Ad Rock in an NME interview — “[Greenwich Village] is the gay area and I’ve lived here all my life and I hate faggots” — and MCA’s clumsy attempt to explain away his bandmate’s words, Simmons writes, “This is wack. The Beastie Boys have always tempered their studied disgustingness with the justification that they’re only three jerks in search of a good time. It’s just a goof. As MCA assured the Los Angeles Times, ‘Kids know we’re joking.’ Not anymore.”

In June of that same year, the Beasties appear in our pages again, this time in Simon Frith’s Brit Beat column. The English music journalist reported from overseas on the Beasties’ “welcome” by the British tabloids, which had detailed all manner of nasty behavior on the part of the boys — some of which turned out to have been “fake news,” or at least misreported. As Frith writes, “The Boys themselves…had discovered what’s bred in the bone of British pop stars, that when it comes to bad taste, there’s no one as irredeemably sleazy as the tabloid British journalist.” He goes on to review their performance in Birmingham, where they were once again opening for Run-D.M.C., on the groups’ Together Forever Tour, saying of their specific brand of rap: “I realised it isn’t a rip-off of black culture but something more locally familiar, a boys’ takeover of the girls’ skipping rhymes, dirtying them up because that’s what boys are supposed to do.”

Jump ahead to 1989, and we see that the Voice is starting to come around, thanks to the Beasties’ second release, the now-legendary Paul’s Boutique. Fans of the group, or even of the genre in general, may enjoy reading this real-time review of an album now universally described as seminal, groundbreaking, and a masterpiece. While critics today will stress the heretofore unseen sampling genius the Beasties and their producers, the Dust Brothers, employed on Paul’s Boutique, Christgau notes the samples almost in passing, saying they’re exploited “less as hooks than as tags.” Instead, he chronicles the Beasties’ unexpected success as obnoxious white boys in a “genre invented by and for black teenagers whose racial consciousness ran deep and would soon get large,” and explores how the Beasties are, even here, beginning to grow away from that frat-boy persona: “One of the most impressive things about Paul’s Boutique is what can only be called its moral tone. The Beasties are still bad — they get laid, they do drugs, they break laws, they laze around. But this time they know the difference between bad and evil.”

As for the album itself, Christgau declares that Paul’s Boutique isn’t as “user-friendly” as Licensed to Ill’s pop metal: “I don’t hear a rock anthem like ‘Fight for Your Right,’ or street beats like ‘Hold It, Now Hit It’’s either. But give it three plays and half a j’s concentration and it will amaze and delight you with its high-speed volubility and riffs from nowhere.”

By the time they appeared in our pages again, five years later, the Beasties had released 1992’s live instrument–heavy Check Your Head, along with 1994’s Some Old Bullshit, a collection of early independent releases; they had formed their record label/lifestyle magazine Grand Royal; and, particularly in the case of MCA, they had undergone some serious soul searching and repudiation of their old misogynist and homophobic ways. In the June 14, 1994, issue, in which Joe Levy reviews the band’s fourth album, Ill Communication, we see the Voice treating the Beasties as Serious Artists, with Levy describing the group circa Paul’s Boutique as “prescient, brilliant, matching bottomless wit with bottomless musical invention.” In his write-up, Levy describes the Boys’ growth and transformation, both personally and musically: “Ill Communication is where the Beastie Boys try to grow the music up — the first track and single, ‘Sure Shot,’ boasts proudly of gray hair (MCA), marriage (Mike D.), and hard work (Mike D.) before offering this shout-out from MCA: ‘I want to say a little something that’s long overdue/The disrespect to women has got to be through/To all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends/I want to offer my love and respect to the end.’ ” “You have to admire the Beasties for wanting to show they can have as much fun as responsible adults as they did as stoopid kids,” he continues, “but growing the music up is perilously close to maturing as artists, as big a rock cliché as calls to eco-action — bigger. It’s the superficial story of Ill Communication,” he says, further theorizing that the album’s more complicated story is one of “balancing disruption and coherence, a way of illing and checking your head at the same time.”

Levy closes out his review with a description of the Beasties as the influential rap icons they had become. “For all their hard work and emergent craft, the Beasties are no longer about making records — today they make culture. In the ’90s…no other major-label act works as hard to make their fans into a community.… You might even think that was their plan from the very beginning.”

“Beastie Boys: How Ya Like ’Em Now?”
By Robert Christgau, August 15, 1989

On the rap report card Kool Moe Dee stuck into How Ya Like Me Now back in ’87, the old-schooler proved an easy marker — only two of the 25 pupils fell below Public Enemy at 80 B. The token nonentity Boogie Boys got 7 or 8 in teach’s 10 categories for a 77 C+, and way below that were the perpetrators of history’s best-selling rap album, the Beastie Boys, with a 10 in sticking to themes, an 8 in records and stage presence, and a 6 or 7 in vocabulary, voice, versatility, articulation, creativity, originality, and innovating rhythms. Total: 70, barely a C.

You can laugh off these grades, but with Moe Dee’s archival L.L. Cool J tied for fifth at 90 A, they did represent his sincere attempt to formalize the values of his fading artistic generation — values upended by Public Enemy and the Beasties. A career nondropout who earned a communications B.A. while leading the Treacherous Three, Moe Dee idealized upright manliness; having come up in a vital performance community, he didn’t consider records important enough to mark for hooks, mixing, sampling, pacing, innovating textures, and what have you. Like most rock pioneers, he couldn’t comprehend the upheaval he’d helped instigate: a music composed in the studio by copycats so in love with rap that they thought nothing of stretching it, mocking it, wrecking it, exploiting it — going too far, taking it up and over and out and around, making it better.

If Public Enemy was a threat — collegians with a radical program, arrogantly burying their pleasures deep — the Beasties were an insult; they dissed everything Moe Dee stood for. Sons of the artistic upper-middle class (architect, art dealer, playwright), they laughed at the education Chuck D made something of and Moe Dee strove for (two years at Bard, a term at Vassar, two hours at Manhattan Community). Like millions of bohos before them, they were anything but upright, boys not men for as long as they could get away with it. As born aesthetes, they grabbed onto rap’s musical quality and potential; as reflexive rebels, they celebrated its unacceptability in the punk subculture and the world outside. And of course, they were white in a genre invented by and for black teenagers whose racial consciousness ran deep and would soon get large.

The way the Beasties tapped the hip-hop audience says plenty for the smarts and openness of their black manager and the black kids he steered them toward, but also testifies to their own instinct and flair. From Anthrax to Maroon, those few white imitators who aren’t merely horrendous don’t come close to the Beasties’ street credibility. We were probably right to credit Rick Rubin with all the what-have-you that as of late 1986 made Licensed To Ill history’s greatest rap album, but in retrospect one recalls the once-fashionable fallacy that George Martin was the fifth Beatle. Certainly the Beasties’ unduplicable personas and perfect timing were what Rubin’s expansive metal-rap was selling, and most likely a fair share of the music was their idea. We didn’t think they could top themselves not because they were stupid or untalented — except for a few cretins in the Brit tabloids, nobody really believed that — but because their achievement was untoppable by definition. Outrage gets old fast, and rap eats its kings like no pop subgenre ever.

Lots of things have changed since late 1986. The Beasties’ street credibility dimmed as “Fight for Your Right” went pop and Public Enemy turned hip-hop to black nationalism. Due partly to the Beasties and mostly to how good the shit was, Yo! MTV Raps brought black rap to a white audience. History’s biggest-selling rap single (and first number-one black rap album) was recorded in L.A. by a former repo man. After feuding with his black partner, Rick Rubin transmuted into a metal producer, and after feuding with their black manager, the Beasties became Capitol’s first East Coast rap signing since the Boogie Boys. Chuck D. and Hank Shocklee undertook to mix up a since-aborted album of the Beasties’ Def Jam outtakes. And if the Beasties’ Paul’s Boutique doesn’t top Licensed To Ill, though in some ways it does, it’s up there with De La Soul in a year when L.L. Cool J is holding his crown and Kool Moe Dee is showing his age.

Avant-garde rap, Licensed To Ill was pop metal, foregrounding riffs and attitude any hedonist could love while eliminating wack solos and dumb-ass posturing (just like Kool Moe Dee, metal fans think David Coverdale has more “voice” than Johnny Thunders). Paul’s Boutique isn’t user-friendly — I don’t hear a rock anthem like “Fight for Your Right,” or street beats like “Hold It, Now Hit It”’s either. But give it three plays and a half a j’s concentration and it will amaze and delight you with its high-speed volubility and riffs from nowhere. It’s a generous tour de force — an absolutely unpretentious and unsententious affirmation of cultural diversity, of where they came from and where they went from there.

For versatility, or at least variety, they drop names: check out the names they drop: Cezanne, Houdini, Newton, Salinger, Ponce de Leon, Sadaharu Oh, Phil Rizzuto, Joe Blow, Bob Dylan, Jelly Roll Morton, Jerry Lee Swaggart, Jerry Lee Falwell. Or the samples they exploit less as hooks than as tags: Funky Four Plus One (twice), Johnny Cash, Charlie Daniels, Public Enemy, Wailers, Eek-a-Mouse (I think), Jean Knight, Ricky Skaggs (I think). For innovating rhythms, there are countless funk and metal artists I can’t ID even when I recognize them. For vocabulary, start with “I’m Adam and I’m adamant about living large,” or maybe “Expressing my aggressions through my schizophrenic verse words” (rhymes with curse words), then ponder these pairings: snifter-shoplifter, selfish-shellfish, homeless-phoneless, cellular-hell you were, fuck this-Butkus. Not what Moe Dee had in mind, of course. But definitely what all avatars of information overload have in mind, or some of it: “If I had a penny for my thoughts I’d be a millionaire.”

These Beasties aren’t as stoopid or stupid as the ones Rick Rubin gave the world (or as Rick Rubin). In fact, one of the most impressive things about Paul’s Boutique is what can only be called its moral tone. The Beasties are still bad — they get laid, they do drugs, they break laws, they laze around. But this time they know the difference between bad and evil. Crack and cocaine and woman-beaters and stickup kids get theirs; one song goes out to a homeless rockabilly wino, another ends, “Racism is schism on the serious tip.” For violence in the street we have the amazing “Egg Man,” in which they pelt various straights, fall guys, and miscreants with “a symbol of life”: “Not like the crack that you put in a pipe/But the crack on your forehead here’s/A towel now wipe.” Hostile? Why not? Destructive? Not if they can help it without trying too hard. They’re not buying.

Just to dis Def Jam — check “Car Thief,” which also takes on the presidency — the Beasties couldn’t have picked more apposite collaborators than L.A.’s Dust Brothers, one of whom co-produced the aforementioned number-one rap album. But where Loc-ed After Dark is simplistic, its beats and hooks marched out one at a time, Paul’s Boutique is jam-packed, frenetic, stark. It doesn’t groove with the affirmative swagger of Kool Moe Dee or L.L. Cool J, and its catholicity is very much in-your-face — as is its unspoken avowal that the music of a nascent Afrocentrism can still be stretched (mocked? wrecked?) by sons of the white artistic upper-middle class. Having gotten rich off rap, the Beasties now presume to adapt it to their roots, to make Paul’s Boutique a triumph of postmodern “art.” Their sampling comes down on the side of dissociation, not synthesis — of a subculture happily at the end of its tether rather than nascent anything. It impolitely demonstrates that privileged wise guys can repossess the media options Moe Dee was battling for back when they were still punks in prep school. After all, this deliberately difficult piece of product will outsell Knowledge Is King. One can only hope Moe Dee is race man enough to take satisfaction in its failure to overtake Walking With a Panther, or Loc-ed After Dark.

[related_posts post_id_1=”471175″ /]

“The Portable Lower East Side: Beastie Boys”
By Joe Levy, June 14, 1994

From the very beginning — goofing on Tom Carvel and rapping over AC/DC riffs like bedroom stoners who wished they were dirtbags — there was no difference between how they sounded and what they were, or at least what they projected. The voices, whiny and young, communicated in seconds a worldview it had taken a short lifetime of cathode-ray overexposure and pop-culture over-consumption to develop, a teenboy fantasy as fully formed, detailed, and endlessly explorable as any that Robert Plant’s witchy, hip-melting howl ever conjured. High and tight, their spiel spoke of the maturation of immaturity, of the years it took to go from sucking helium out of balloons at bar mitzvahs to sucking nitrous outside of whippets at dorm parties. They couldn’t stop talking, either — the restless energy, the legacy of boredom that knew no bottom, threatened to shred their throats. There was something like confidence in all that talk, but it was too eager, too unearned to be a real thing. This was the invincibility of pranksters who needed to hide behind the telephone, of practical jokers who knew they’d get their asses kicked if they got caught. Not, What are you rebelling against? What have you got? but, What are you making fun of? What have you got?

Even at the beginning, though, there was more than beer spray and gun smoke, metal riffs and hiphop beats. There was love, too — the love of risk and difference, a vital attraction that drew them like a magnet away from the comforts of Brooklyn Heights, Greenwich Village, and the Upper West Side to the Lower East Side, where like every generation of bohemians before them they set about reinventing themselves. It was the early ’80s, a moment when the original punks were consciously abandoning their own whiteness to dig deep into black rhythms — albeit the sounds of the past (James Brown) or the future (Grandmaster Flash) rather than the dance music of the present. It was a time when suburban new wavers could learn about reggae from Elvis Costello and about rap from the Clash, when punks and Studio 54 celebs and Bronx MCs and the rest of the world besides were all in orbit around the same music: the bassline and unbelievably springy guitar of Chic’s “Good Times.”

“When we were 13 and 14 and went to clubs and heard the DJ mix Big Youth and Treacherous Three with James White or Delta 5,” Mike D. recently told Simon Reynolds, “it wasn’t, ‘Hey, now we’re finding out about what people from another culture are about.’ It was just great music. All the kids at my school were into Led Zeppelin and the Eagles and that was what I defined myself against. So it was more a case of cool music versus uncool music.” This is wishful thinking, of course, the reductive cool-versus-uncool approach raised to the level of high theory by another set of B-boys, Beavis and Butt-head. More likely it was a little of both — great music and a way of finding out what people from another culture were about — but that wish counts for something. Because early on, the Beastie Boys made that wish come true.

Listen to the juvenilia collected on Some Old Bullshit and you can hear that wish taking form. They dive into hardcore, the strain of punk that reasserted the whiteness of the wail, and come out the other side as the rappers whose wanton disregard for boundaries — social, racial, moral, and musical — would win them so much notoriety on Licensed To Ill. The wish was not just that it was as simple as good music versus bad music, but that the good music created a way of belonging, a “Beastie Revolution” (as Some Old Bullshit’s ragamuffin track puts it), a place where cultures could interact dynamically and unceasingly as in the Manhattan the Beastie Boys continue to claim as home years after going off to Cali. Specifically, it is an integrationist wish, one aptly summed up by the name of the tour the million-selling Beastie Boys of Licensed To Ill embarked on with the million-selling Run-D.M.C. of Raising Hell in 1987: Together Forever.

Again, wishful thinking — as the ’80s became the ’90s, neither the music nor the group’s careers would earn the boast. Once hiphop entered the age of identity politics with another 1987 event, Public Enemy’s debut, performers who made a point of blurring the lines between audiences and cultures faded faster than suede Pumas left out in the rain. By 1989, the Beasties’ Paul’s Boutique couldn’t have been more out of step. Abandoning Licensed To Ill’s gangsta cartoons in the year of N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton, they approached hiphop as pop art, or “B-boy Bouillabaisse,” as they named the suite that closed out the album. They sampled Johnny Cash five years before Rick Rubin got to him, a bong hit two years before Cypress Hill made dope a cause célèbre, and the Sweet and the Isley Brothers four years before Lenny Kravitz brokered the marriage. They were prescient, brilliant, matching bottomless wit with bottomless musical invention. All they lacked was an audience.

Or so it seemed. Much is made of the musical woodshedding that went into 1992’s Check Your Head — the album where they played their instruments! — but the three years between Paul’s Boutique and Check Your Head were more notable for the quality of their demographic research. Having found an audience that no one knew existed and then lost it to “real niggas” and pop fakes, the third time out they satisfied true loyalists and new recruits by satisfying themselves. In the process they found the emerging archetype of ’90s stardom, as crystallized by antistars from Nirvana to Ice Cube: the refusal to compromise. “Be true to yourself and you will never fall,” Mike D. advised on Check Your Head’s first single, “Pass the Mic.” No one seemed to mind that the songs seemed longer on ideas than wit or musicianship, because the Beasties had found a way to flaunt the old together-forever wish without selling out. From the title — back-in-the-day phraseology for “think it over” that alluded to Dischord’s crucial DC hardcore compilation Flex Your Head — to the grooves, here were two musics, two cultures, one people. There was a Sly Stone song done up hardcore stylee, there were backing tracks that imagined Curtis Mayfield riding with the James Gang, there were skateboard on-ramps to stoned soul picnics, and cable channels that showed nothing but Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off and Suburbia over and over again. But the Dischord reference hinted at a problem as well. Having made two of the greatest albums of the ’80s, the Beasties were in danger of turning into Fugazi — a band honored more for its principles and past accomplishments, a band loved most for what it represented, not how it sounded.

Sure enough, at a surprise Artists for Tibet benefit at the Academy two Fridays ago, Mike D. lectured the crowd on the politics of moshing, just like Guy Picciotto and Ian MacKaye at Fugazi concerts. “You can watch MTV at home and do that shit,” he said, later dedicating “Tough Guy” — one of three hardcore slammers on the new Ill Communication (Capitol/Grand Royal) — to the bully boys stepping on other people’s heads: “Now you’re poking me in the eye/Bill Laimbeer motherfucker, it’s time for you to die.” Ill Communication is where the Beastie Boys try to grow the music up — the first track and single, “Sure Shot,” boasts proudly of gray hair (MCA), marriage (Mike D.), and hard work (Mike D.) before offering this shout-out from MCA: “I want to say a little something that’s long overdue/The disrespect to women has got to be through/To all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends/I want to offer my love and respect to the end.” MCA — who got to California and kept going west until he discovered Tibetan Buddhism — is at the center of Ill Communication as surely as Ad Rock, the only unrepentant wiseass left in the bunch, was at the center of Licensed To Ill. Repudiating his fascination with firearms in the superb, full-service Beastie-zine Grand Royal, giving respect to hiphop’s African descent on “Alright Hear This,” or calling for eco-action with Rastalike intimations of apocalypse on “The Update,” he’s atoning for past sins. Just as he’s smart enough to know he’ll never swing like the funk and jazz journeymen the Beasties now idolize (“Playing the bass is my favorite shit/I might be a hack on the stand up but I’m working at it”), he’s smart enough not to sound like a prig (“I’m not preaching bullshit/Just speaking my mind”). He concludes “Sure Shot” with this album’s version of the old wish: “Send my rhymes out to all nations/Like Ma Bell, I’ve got the ill communications.”

You have to admire the Beasties for wanting to show they can have as much fun as responsible adults as they did as stoopid kids, but growing the music up is perilously close to maturing as artists, as big a rock cliché as calls to eco-action — bigger. It’s the superficial story of Ill Communication, the way learning to play their instruments was the superficial story of Check Your Head. A more complicated version of the story starts with the title — which seems to refer less to the feedback on Sonic Youth and Pavement records or the “Can I take your order, sir?” squawk boxes they’re now enamored of than to a way of balancing disruption and coherence, a way of illing and checking your head at the same time. Whether it’s guest star Q-Tip interrupting one cipher session with “Phone is ringing, oh my god,” Ad Rock getting silly with “I’ve got a Grandma Hazel and a Grandma Tilly” (the most Jewish rhyme these Jewish rappers ever popped), or Mike D. babbling about his golf game, Ill Communication freestyles till it very nearly combusts. It aims to take whatever’s on their minds and make it signify.

The music, too, works an off-the-top-of-their-heads vibe, though much more carefully. A determinedly futuristic album designed to crackle like an old LP, Ill Communication uses technology to push forward and backward at the same time. As with Check Your Head, it offers vinyl-only thrift-store bargains on ’70s styles: blaxploitation percussion, skunk-rock fuzz bass, disco flute, punk loudhardfast, and general dub madness. The Beasties have found their own sound among their obsessions — elegantly fucked-up hiphop that brings a work ethic to indie-rock accidentalism — but still get by on their DIY cred. Often they’re after the metallic skank, accidental funk, and haphazard rhythmic inventions of Miles Davis’s On the Corner, and they may never have enough command over their instruments to capture its falling-apart-at-the-seams-but-in-the-pocket grooves (personal to drummer Mike D.: since knocking off Ben Davis designs worked so well in the shmatte trade, why not just sample beats?). But they’ve got more than enough rhyme skills — they can be loose and in control at the same time, moving with the physical power, championship drive, and awkward authority they could just as well have learned from their beloved Knicks. The endless flow of freestyle verbiage makes Ill Communication seem more like the result of partying than woodshedding.

And it goes deeper than that. For all their hard work and emergent craft, the Beasties are no longer about making records — today, they make culture. In the ’90s — when every new star climbs up on the cross to tell us about being afraid of, revolted by, or victim to the pop audience — no other major-label act works as hard to make their fans into a community. The magazine they started to answer write-in requests for the lyrics to Check Your Head offers both aesthetic and spiritual guidance, as do the hardcore and art-funk records they release on their label of the same name; Mike D.’s X-Large stores are only too happy to see to his audience’s clothing needs. Their records need only function as a portable Lower East Side, an East Village of the mind, a place where the 14-year-old kids who’ll flock to see them at Lollapalooza this summer — and who were in kindergarten when “Fight for Your Right” hit MTV — can go to hear good music and find out how people from another culture live. They’ve become the DJ, mixing Big Youth and the Treacherous Three with the SS Decontrol and Luscious Jackson. You might even think that was their plan from the very beginning.

Categories
BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

What Do Madonna, Ice-T, and the Ramones Have in Common?

You can read a lot of record executives’ memoirs and, between the boasting and humblebragging and score settling, the usual courses through which the genre hops, you’ll have a hard time finding much that feels like real passion for music. Making hits, achieving success, counting awards, sure — but music itself, less so. Of course: The music industry hardens people. Even the likes of the late Warner Bros. PR genius Stan Cornyn (2003’s Exploding: The Highs, Hits, Hype, Heroes, and Hustlers of the Warner Music Group) or Nirvana manager turned Atlantic Records president Danny Goldberg (2009’s Bumping Into Geniuses: My Life Inside the Rock and Roll Business), two of the biz’s sharpest observers and most eager fans, couldn’t quite overcome the format’s limitations — both clearly loved music itself, but by each book’s end the spark had dissipated, whether via disappearing into minutiae, à la Cornyn, or blanding out some, à la Goldberg.

This happens as well with Siren Song: My Life in Music, the new memoir of Sire Records founder Seymour Stein, who signed the Ramones, Talking Heads, and Madonna to his label, as well as being a founding member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee. But it’s equally clear that Stein cares more about music than anything else. That’s a reason the book’s finale retreats to earth — he’s accounting for the costs of that fanaticism: not only a failed marriage to Linda Stein, who became the Ramones’ co-manager with Danny Fields (and was brutally murdered in October 2007 by an assistant who’d been skimming money from her), but also guilt over his admittedly absent fatherhood and the grief he felt at the death of his elder daughter, Samantha. Not to mention Stein’s own frequent hospital visits (heart problems exacerbated by his prodigious cocaine use) and his own lack of foresight to the costs of doing business with Warner Bros. — a great office overlooking Rockefeller Center, but a diminished stake in his own company, which would be folded into Elektra during Warners’ Nineties merger mania before being unfolded back into a freestanding label.

Seymour Stein (4th from right) with The Ramones, Iggy Pop, and his wife Linda Stein

If the downfall of most music-biz books is keeping the suits straight, Stein sidesteps that neatly; his portraits of his colleagues, in and out of Warner Bros., are indelible. His co-writer likely contributed as well: the Irish music journalist Gareth Murphy, author of 2014’s Cowboys and Indies, a lively if occasionally shaky record-biz history, whose broad strokes match well with Stein’s sure-footed historical grasp and crisp phrasing.

[related_posts post_id_1=”567736″ /]

Seymour Steinbigle grew up in postwar Brooklyn, a melting pot where, he notes, “Going to university was not what people did or expected of their children.” Like many city kids of the time, he became an ardent fan of R&B — which, even before Elvis, was a “fast-growing craze among white teenagers.” A rabid follower of the charts, teenaged Seymour finagled his way into the Billboard office, copying out charts by hand and eventually finding himself interning for Syd Nathan, the imperious founder of King Records — one of the greatest postwar indies, with equally important rosters of country (Moon Mullican, the Delmore Brothers, Hank Penny) and R&B (Wynonie Harris, the “5” Royales, Little Willie John) before signing James Brown — who insisted the kid lop off half his surname.

Stein also gives it up for David Geffen, whom he calls “the smartest record boss of us all,” singling him out for praise for having paid for the funerals of so many AIDS victims: “For this alone, I will not tolerate a bad word about David Geffen.” He’s a lot meaner, and funnier, about Clive Davis, who joins the table of Stein and his boss, Mo Ostin, one morning for breakfast at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Davis claims with a straight face that his label, Arista, won’t release a Barry Manilow best-of because, since he had chosen the singles, “it should really be called Clive Davis’s Greatest Hits.” In response, Stein reports that “a muscular spasm in my left leg kicked Mo under the table”; showing the subsequent bruise, Ostin admonished him, “Look what you just did to me!” after Davis went to take a phone call.

Stein was born April 18, 1942, and grew up “on Dahill Road, just off King’s Highway near a predominantly Syrian corner of Bensonhurst that was otherwise Brooklyn’s Little Italy,” he writes.  His parents had him at comparatively late ages for the era, she 36, he 41; the family was in the grocery business, with one great-uncle a successful olive oil importer. His father was Orthodox, but lenient; they left Seymour to his obsessions: “collecting stamps, bottle caps, and trading cards, anything interesting and flashy.”

Seymour Stein

Growing up, Stein knew he was gay but wasn’t entirely sure what to do about it; he knew, like so many of the people he’d come to know, that “the coolest thing about me was my record collection.” Though Stein is quite comfortable with his sexuality, he retains an unfashionable discreetness about it, with no qualms about having never come out to his parents: “Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think we become more enlightened by kissing on subways or by talking the life out of our quirks and kinks.” In one of the book’s clear money stories, he’s not merely discomfited by the sexual advances of Dee Dee Ramone — who waltzed into Stein’s apartment after Linda had left and displayed himself, ready to go — but caustic about it: “For a prostitute, Dee Dee obviously hadn’t progressed very far up from public toilets.”

Stein founded Sire in 1966 with producer-writer (and occasional performer, as with the Strangeloves of “I Want Candy” fame) Richard Gottehrer, initially the company’s in-house producer and A&R man. Sire’s early releases were primarily imported British blues-rock; Stein scored his first major hit with Dutch prog-rockers Focus’s “Hocus Pocus,” which went top ten in 1973. Another early British signing, Climax Blues Band, went to number three (thanks in part to some grease, as Stein notes) with “Couldn’t Get It Right” in 1977. That success helped to finance Sire’s signing up many of the mid-Seventies bands playing downtown.

[related_posts post_id_1=”587862″ /]

It’s refreshing to read such a clear-eyed account of the CBGB’s era, even one written from a Midtown office. In the fall of 1977, Sire released debuts from Talking Heads, the Dead Boys, and Richard Hell and the Voidoids along with the third Ramones album, Rocket to Russia, through a new deal Stein had made with Warner Bros. Initially, Sire was looking for distribution; Mo Ostin instead suggested a partnership. For Warner Bros., Stein surmised, getting on the New York punk train was “a way to get hip and to do it pretty damn quickly.” Warned of Ostin’s Machiavellian ways, Stein nevertheless entered into what he’d later term as “about as joint a venture as a whale swallowing a fish” with Warner Bros., reveling for a few years in near-unlimited power to sign whatever he wanted.

Stein’s attitude was simple: Get there first or don’t bother. “I thought bidding wars were pointless,” he writes. “Why waste a pile of money on one act when half as much money could get three up and running?” That philosophy put Sire near the top of independent rock at the turn of the Eighties, as Seymour found gold in artists like Echo and the Bunnymen, the Smiths, and the Cult. It helped that Stein was nearly alone in going after these prime post-punk and alternative acts: “The weird thing about the early-to-mid-Eighties was how unadventurous nearly all the American majors had remained,” he writes. But Stein certainly noticed when Ostin stole the B-52’s right out from under him, the band’s manager mollifying Stein by insisting the Sire label go on the LP anyway.

Stein with David Byrne and Madonna at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction in 1996

As any A&R person would, Stein spends an entire chapter detailing his biggest catch ever — “the record man’s equivalent of Florence Nightingale,” as he describes Madonna, walking into his hospital room shortly after his open-heart surgery. Stein’s initial interest was in her producer, Mark Kamins, a Danceteria DJ he admired: “He already had a sound.” Kamins brought Madonna the evening Stein heard the cassette: “I told her you were sick, but she really wants this,” he explains to Stein, who asks the nurse to “send me in a hairdresser as quickly as you can. … Of course, Madonna took one look at the tube stuck into my skin and squirmed.” Though he was impressed with her forthrightness, Stein writes, “there was no reason to believe I was looking at a female Elvis.” Indeed, Ostin refused to sign off on Madonna, figuring her music, Stein writes, as “a downtown dance experiment … pointless twelve-inch bullshit.” Stein quickly learned better: “Madonna was always the smartest person in the room, even when she wasn’t physically there.”

In Stein’s life, the highest moments invoke the true fellowship music can bring. He doesn’t puff up his signees’ talent, instead highlighting great moments like a fan: Writing about the Pretenders’ “Back on the Chain Gang,” he pinpoints its opening line, “I found a picture of you,” as its center: “Isn’t that how bereavement feels?” Stein takes pride in his place on the committee for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; with honorable candor, he dubs the latter “some kind of mausoleum for our own community.”

One of Siren Song‘s most indelible moments comes when Stein is trying to sign Ice-T to his label. Accompanied by his manager, the L.A. gangsta rap pioneer and actor sits in Stein’s office and asks the old record man straight out why Seymour wants him. Stein’s inspired answer is to play him the Mighty Sparrow’s calypso classic “Jean and Dinah,” about Trinidadian prostitutes left without work in the wake of the island’s U.S. military bases closing. A bawdy social satire, this song sounded absolutely nothing like the records Ice-T had already made or would make for Sire, but was totally on target as an assessment of the kind of public truth-telling role Stein saw in his gangsta rap. “I want to sign with you!” Ice-T exclaimed. Who wouldn’t?

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Best April Fool’s Stunt of All Time

It was mine, two years ago.

I broke from our general rule of not pulling such pranks, only because it was just too delicious. (And not only did the editor love it, but readers were screaming with laughter after realizing they’d been had.)

Enjoy.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

What Would Lourdes’ Book About Her Mother Be Titled?

Assuming she sat down one day and wrote a scathing recollection a la Shirley MacLaine‘s daughter, Sachi Parker.

I bandied this around on Facebook yesterday, and my pals came up with some real goodies:

Live To Tell All

La Isla Ain’t Bonita

Rescue Me

What It Feels Like For a Daughter

This Didn’t Used To Be My Playground

Neurotica

But I’ve got a few hot suggestions of my own:

]

Mama Don’t Preach

Oh Mother

Like a Parent

Borderline

Where’s The Potty?

Kabbalah My House

Lourdes’ Prayer

Madge of Honor

Ciccone Bras

Any other bright ideas, folks? Make it sale-able.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Deftones’ Chino Moreno and Sergio Vega on Album Leaks: “Fuck That Shit!”

Thanks to Hurricane Sandy, Deftones’ sold out show tonight at Terminal 5 has been canceled. (A new date, says the band’s management, will be announced soon.) The California alt-metal (whatever that means) outfit drops its seventh studio album, Koi No Yokan, on November 13. Following last year’s superb Diamond Eyes, it’s Deftones’ second release since a car accident left bassist Chi Cheng in a coma. The bassist Sergio Vega, of the New York post-hardcore band Quicksand, appears on both albums, and is currently touring with the band. On Sunday night, a few hours before Deftones crushed a 20-song-set at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia, I chatted backstage with Vega and frontman Chino Moreno.

See Also:

Deftones: Here Comes the Rain – Offering a master class in outperforming a storm
How To Make A Crowd Not Mind That They’re In The Middle Of A Torrential Rainstorm, By The Deftones

A storm is coming, but hopefully your New York show won’t be canceled. Having been on the road for over 20 years now, are you used to this sort of shit happening?

Chino Moreno: Yeah. I think it makes it more interesting. It puts a bit of fire under our toes. The show is always the highlight of our day, but all the stuff around it can become very routine. A storm like this provides something uncertain, something unpredictable for us to think about and talk about.

H.R. of Bad Brains came out on stage a few days ago in Baltimore to play a song with you. Was that the first time he’s done that?

Moreno: He’s actually done it with us before. I got an email from one of his guys a few weeks ago asking if we wanted to do it. He asked if we were covering “Right Brigade,” which we hadn’t done in like 15 years. So we re-learned it real quick and did it. H.R. is one of my biggest influences; he’s one of my favorite frontmen. I love the way he sings and his style and he just transcends so many different genres. His vocal delivery is very rhythmic and dynamic. He’s always just doing his own thing.

H.R.’s a trip, man. The trippiest thing is hanging out with him before the show–just hanging out with him backstage, sitting on the couch, like we’re doing now. He’s a man of very few words, and everything he says can be taken in many different ways. A lot of times you don’t know if he’s mad–he wears his sunglasses and stays in this kind of meditative state all the time–so you don’t know if he’s praying or sleeping or what. And then all of a sudden he’ll just start talking. He’s definitely an interesting person to be around.

Back in high school, when you first started playing music, did you ever think you’d one day be sharing a stage with someone like H.R.?

Moreno: I actually had the chance to meet him even before our first record came out. We got a spot opening for them when they reunited for the God Of Love album. It only lasted like 10 shows because H.R. ended up getting thrown in jail in Lawrence, Kansas. So I met those guys pretty early on. The first famous people I ever met were H.R. And Madonna. I met Madonna a few months before H.R. It was the first time I went to L.A. and I got pulled into her office because she wanted to sign us. It was such a crazy thing to be sitting there talking to a woman whose posters I used to have up in my room as a kid.

Koi No Yokan is about to drop, and there’s some incredibly vague information floating around on the Internet about how it’s inspired by the apocalypse. Is that true?

Moreno: I think somebody made that up. But we actually do sit around and talk about post-apocalyptic type of stuff a lot. We’re way into those theories and conspiracies. When we were making this record we were talking about the Mayan end of the world thing, but we would never take it so seriously that we’d make a concept album or something. We’re not really capable of doing that. For me, I get too confined creatively; I can’t do something that has to stay within the boundaries of a preconceived idea. I automatically turn left from that because it makes me feel trapped.

Sergio Vega: Yeah, the concept ends up taking over the music. We just want to be free to do whatever we want, and wouldn’t want to be locked into a concept record.

What does the title mean?

Moreno: It’s a Japanese term that roughly translates to “a premonition of love.” It’s slightly poetic, I think. The word to me sounds intriguing. When you’re trying to pick the name for an album it’s always hard because you have to pick something that somehow blankets the entire project. It’s about the feeling of love at first sight, or that tingly feeling–whoever’s been lucky enough to feel that way knows this feeling. And I think the music has a connection to that. The music’s not necessarily built around that idea, but when I look at the album now, I see a lot of warmth in it.

Vega: There’s something cool about the subtlety of the premonition of love versus love at first site. It’s more restrained, and there’s more of a sense of anticipation. It really resonates with these songs, I think.

Have either of you personally experienced this feeling?

Moreno: Yes, I have. I don’t want to get too personal, but I’ve definitely had that feeling before. Like Sergio was saying, it’s something to look forward to. When you feel something like that, there’s an excitement that there’s something new in the future. It’s optimistic, I guess. I don’t really know how to explain it. Along with the music, it’s a perfect marriage of an idea and melody.

This sounds nothing like the apocalypse, and much more uplifting.

Moreno: We just made a batch of songs that capture a moment in our existence; I feel like we were all in a very good place in our lives. We’d just gotten off a year and a half of touring the Diamond Eyes record, which we were all really excited about. We got a lot of positive feedback and the tour was successful. We’d been on a roller coaster for quite some time–with Chi’s accident and other things going on. This felt like we were just trying to get comfortable again and have fun making a record.

I think that we rebuilt that foundation completely when we did Diamond Eyes; it felt like we reached the peak of feeling good again. When we got off the tour, we didn’t want to stop. We took a few months off and went right back into the studio to write new music. We wanted to capture that whirlwind of energy. The music came out very easily, unlike in the past, where we’ve had to really sit down and work for a long time. There were so many good ideas, it was hard to pick which ones to use. We just followed our guts and this is where we ended up.

Vega: Diamond Eyes really galvanized us. We went into the studio and were really excited. We had so many cool ideas, and it felt like the wind was behind our backs and we had to keep going. The songs bubbled up very organically. There’s definitely an uplifting feeling to the songs, but not overtly talking about how great everything is.

Did you have more of an active role in the creative process on Koi No Yokan, or did that already happen with Diamond Eyes?

Vega: Everyone in the band was open to new ideas right from the beginning, back when we did Diamond Eyes. We just started jamming. It was very comfortable. I hold these guys in such high regard as people and musicians; they have such great energy, and it’s very exciting to be around them.

Moreno: Sergio was involved in the process from day one. We didn’t hand him these finished songs to play when he first joined the band. He came in and we were like “What’s up dude, glad you’re here, let’s play.” We started writing new music that day. When we decided we were going to carry on as a band, Sergio was one of the deciding factors. We’d played together before, and he’s a great bass player with great energy and ideas. It was very natural; we just started playing. There wasn’t even much talking involved and we just started making sounds. Diamond Eyes and the new album were both very much a collaborative effort.

I haven’t heard the full album yet, just the two songs you’ve released online, “Leathers” and “Tempest.”

Moreno: The label didn’t get you a copy?

No, they didn’t want to share it with me. They must not think I’m cool enough.

Moreno: They’ve been really tight about it, but you know what? It hasn’t fucking leaked yet. Two weeks out, and no leak. That’s crazy. It bugs me out, because even albums I really like, I find them online months before they come out. Every morning I wake up to see if our album has leaked. There are a bunch false leads, but it hasn’t happened yet. I’m impressed.

When I was 16-years-old listening to Adrenaline, I didn’t even know computers existed. How has leak culture and declining album sales impacted the band?

Moreno: It’s definitely changed things, but we were never really a band that relied on album sales. We’ve always relied on going out on tour and doing shows; that’s always been our livelihood. Downloading and stuff has definitely impacted us; our finances have definitely been cut in half, if not more. We did it right in the beginning, though, by going out and building a strong fan base out on the road. We do that with every record, and we’re still able to make a living because of it. We never had to rely on just record sales. We still make money from sales, but we make much less now.

Would it piss you off if the new album leaked tomorrow?

Moreno: Yeah, it would definitely upset me. I can understand the excitement of people wanting to hear it, but I don’t think people understand what they’re really taking for free. The album is six months of my life, and I put a lot of hard work into creating it. I was at the studio every single day, singing parts 15 or more times to make sure it’s correct, you know? It does piss me off. And it’s not so much about the money, but it’s like “Who the fuck is this motherfucker giving away my shit for free?” It’s like somebody going into your house, stealing something, and then giving it to someone else.

Vega: People try to act like it’s taking some sort of political stance against the opulence of the music industry, but that’s bullshit.

Moreno: But once it’s out, it’s out, and people are gonna share it. Our music is meant to be shared, so I don’t really mind. I want people to buy it, of course. But it’s that one motherfucker who leaks it that’s ripping us off. Fuck that shit!

Vega: Yeah, fuck that shit!

Deftones show tonight at Terminal 5 has been cancelled. We’ll let you know when a rescheduled date has been confirmed.