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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

 

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1979 Pazz & Jop: The Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll (Almost) Grows Up

A few weeks ago two rock critics were gossiping on the phone, something rock critics do more than ever now that there aren’t any press parties. Both were among the many newcomers asked to contribute to the sixth or seventh annual Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll, and both were awed by this responsibility, as is only mete. One of them, however, was apparently overawed, he — I assume it’s a he, since most rock critics are — told my informant he felt like he’d been knighted. A jest, of course, but nevertheless — I mean, I’m obviously not the only one who takes this thing seriously. Every year I am beset by late ballots via special delivery and express mail; messengers and living critics come up to the fifth floor to hand me and my fellow Poobah their lists. And for what? No one is paid, and very few ballots are reprinted. As the poll gets larger the power of any individual to affect the result diminishes. But people actually listen again to dozens of albums, agonize, call long distance to clarify our chronically incomprehensible letter of invitation, all to assure that the tally reflects their deepest convictions. Ain’t representative democracy grand?

Representative of what, you might ask, and I admit I could be happier with the answer. This was to be the year the P&JCP grew up; I vowed that in 1979 I’d start tackling the problems of regional and racial spread early. But that vow, like others before it, went down to defeat. Instead I spent two days in mid-December working phones with co-Poobah Tom Carson. Our method was simple — frantic calls to acquaintances all over the country to ascertain who was actually reviewing records where, never mind how well — and its effectiveness scattershot. We did better in Minneapolis than Chicago and lousy indeed through the southeastern and Rocky Mountain states. It doesn’t bother me that L.A. and Boston are disproportionately represented, or that New York provided 66 of the 155 critics who responded. Those are the cities where the outlets are, and anyway, this is still a Voice poll — all Riffs contributors who hear a lot of records are included in automatically. But nobody from Nashville or Denver or Omaha or New Orleans was even invited, and this is a good time to mention that any regularly published rock critic with access to most of the important releases who’d like in should write now and I”ll file his or her address. Go knight yourself.

Racial balance proved even more difficult to come by. Our informants were useless, and consultation with black journalists around here yielded few new names. Finally, around New Year’s, I resorted to record company publicists specializing in black music, but most of the 30 or so invitations that resulted went out so late that I got only 11 back in time, enough to suss certain patterns but not enough to see them fully realized in the tally. The post office was a big problem in general. A lot of people got our instructions 10 or 12 days after they were mailed, or never, and when no first-class letters were delivered to the paper on deadline day we were forced to postpone the final count for 24 hours. Even so, late ballots kept dribbling in afterwards, including several from black critics and several others from regional punkzines, which were also contacted late. Next year we’ve got to get organized.

As it was, though, I think the poll ended up pretty much what it should have been in a very enjoyable but critically inconclusive year. Four “r&b” acts (the term is returning to favor) made the album list, expanded this year from 30 to 40 in honor of an enlarged electorate and the curly-headed kid in the third row. More black input would have meant more commanding finishes for all four — crossover queen Donna Summer, comeback prince Michael Jackson, disco pacemakers Chic, and elder statesman Stevie Wonder — as well as for Ashford & Simpson (Stay Free, 44th), probably Dionne Warwick (Dionne, 52nd), and possibly Millie Jackson (Live and Uncensored, 55th). More punkzine input would have helped the nouvelle vague concrete of Pere Ubu, the reggae agitprop of Linton Kwesi Johnson, the maximal minimalism of Philip Glass, and the elderly statesmanship of Iggy Pop, as well as pushing Off White (45th) and/or Buy the Contortions (47th) — James Chance’s two albums, which totaled 139 points on a spottily distributed independent label — into the top 40, and perhaps aiding XTC (Drums and Wires, 49th) and Wire (154, 53rd) as well. Both constituencies would have boosted Bob Marley, and either might have gone for the jazz records that got scattered mention: not only the Art Ensemble’s Nice Guys, but also Mingus at Antibes (48th) — three Mingus albums totaled 121 points — Air Lore (51st), and Blood Ulmer’s (excuse me, I mean James Blood’s) Tales of Captain Black (60th). And they would have upped the disco discs and imports on the singles chart.

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But especially if allowances are made for Nashville and Denver and Omaha and New Orleans, it’s hard to imagine any other album cracking this year’s top five: Armed Forces, by last year’s overpowering winner, Elvis Costello; Fear of Music, by Talking Heads, up from fifth in 1978; the confusing American version of The Clash, which in its 1977 English edition showed up on a lot of best-of-the-decade lists; Rust Never Sleeps, generally regarded as Neil Young’s best album since Tonight’s the Night; and this year’s model, Squeezing Out Sparks, by Graham Parker & the Rumour, who placed their first two albums at two and four in the 1976 poll but haven’t made much noise among the voters since.

The 1978 P&JCP’s consensus was, in the immortal words of my editor, a “triumph of the new wave,” with 16 of the top 30 albums falling clearly into the category and lots of others on the fringe despite increased participation by suspected conservatives. Not that I considered the triumph unmixed — my punkophile elation was undercut by my natural distrust of hegemony, especially defensive hegemony based on ressentiment. Commercially, after all, Saturday Night Fever and its trentuple platinum was spearheading its own victorious vanguard, and I detected in the sweep some of the racism and homophobia of “disco sucks,” then a mere slogan rather than an arrogantly out-of-it prefab “movement.” But it did seem that new wave was over the bottom line — that the best artists in the style (or whatever it is and was) were going to make albums for quite a while — and that print media were part of its success. It had always been a truism of the record manufacturers (and of music journalists) that good reviews don’t sell enough product to keep anybody but the reviewers in business. But recently it’s become apparent that between the prestige they impart and the core audience they generate (especially in the absence of adventurous radio), good reviews do keep good bands, in the immortal words of the Bee Gees, “stayin’ alive.”

That was last year. Since then, an arrogantly out-of-it prefab industry has taken a nasty fall, with some blame due both trentuple platinum (and the consequent lure of overproduction) and disco (now regarded once again as a cult music with crossover potential). As a consequence, there are rock and roll propagandists who’ll tell you that new wave’s triumph isn’t just artistic — that last year’s critical consensus is next year’s big thing. As usual, I don’t believe it’ll happen, and furthermore I don’t want anyone else to. I’m delighted that Blondie’s Parallel Lines, which finished 25th in the 1978 P&JCP, subsequently achieved the AM airplay and platinum sales its inspired popcraft deserved, and pleased enough that together with, yes, Get the Knack, (86th), it’s made it easier for similar bands to record. I even find a good many of the resulting power pop albums fairly likable. But a world of Blondies and Knacks would hardly be rock and roll heaven, and I worry about unreasonable expectations, which after a few foolish bidding wars could make new wave a no-no just like disco. Who needs them? Rock’s capital crisis is a drag for would-be Foreigners, but for good bands it’s a blessing. What ought to make new wave attractive bizwise isn’t mass appeal so much as strong regional roots in an era of prohibitive travel costs and strong simple music in an era of studio parsimony. To hell with superprofits. I’ll give you power pop if you’ll give me all the independent labels that have come over from Europe this year — I.R.S., ZE, Stiff, a revitalized Mango, a reorganized Virgin. May they prosper modestly, just like such U.S.-based companies as Alligator, Rounder, and Ralph.

In short, I haven’t spent years learning how and when to ignore the Hot 100 just so I could get all het up when Blondie makes number one or CBS makes a boo-boo. It was a great year for rock and roll — in a class with 1978, which was the best ever for the hard approach I prefer — because of all the good-to-great new records. Admittedly, it’s only over the past month, which I’ve spent in a continual state of desperate delight catching up with stuff I hadn’t found time for, that I’ve become fully convinced. And I think more of my finds are good than great — I’ll probably end up with 50 A or A minus albums from 1979, a few more than last year, but where in 1978 I wished I could squeeze 14 records into my top 10, now I could stop comfortably at seven. My top 10 would be even thinner if I hadn’t given up and included jazz records that enriched my rather inchoate rock aesthetic — that spoke to my shifting ideas about rhythm and electric noise, pop and folk, “accessibility.” (In other words, I eliminated all jazz in the pure music tradition first asserted by my favorite jazz style, bebop, including Thelonious Monk’s Always Know and Ornette Coleman/Charlie Haden’s Soapsuds, Soapsuds, which I love, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Nice Guys, which — to my own discredit, I’m sure, since it came in number 29 this year, the first time an acoustic jazz record has ever placed — I never quite got.) Anyway, here’s my own list, with Pazz & Jop points appended to the top 10. It’s my custom to joke about how permanent the order is, but this year my listening is still in such flux that I won’t bother. Believe me, these are damn good albums, and there are others (by Irakere, Midnight Rhythm, the Heartbreakers, David Bowie, maybe Smokey, maybe Toots, maybe Cleanhead, maybe James) waiting in the winds:

1. The Clash (Epic) 18. 2. Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Rust Never Sleeps (Reprise) 17. 3. Pere Ubu: Dub Housing (Chrysalis) 14. 4. Van Morrison: Into the Music (Warner Bros.) 11. 5. Air: Air Lore (Arista Novus) 11. 6. Graham Parker & the Rumour: Squeezing Out Sparks (Arista) 9. 7. The B-52s (Warner Bros.) 5. 8. Nick Lowe: Labour of Lust (Columbia) 5. 9. The Roches (Warner Bros.) 5. 10. Arthur Blythe: Lenox Avenue Breakdown (Columbia) 5.

11. Tom Verlaine (Elektra). 12. Donna Summer: Bad Girls (Casablanca). 13. Talking Heads: Fear of Music (Sire). 14. Wreckless Eric: The Whole Wide World (Stiff). 15. The Only Ones: Special View (Epic). 16. Shoes: Present Tense (Elektra). 17. James Monroe H.S. Presents Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band Goes to Washington (Elektra). 18. The Buzzcocks: Singles Going Steady (I.R.S.). 19. Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Live Rust (Reprise). 20. Marianne Faithful: Broken English (Island).

21. Linton Kwesi Johnson: Forces of Victory (Mango). 22. Dave Edmunds: Repeat When Necessary (Swan Song). 23. Fashion: Product Perfect (I.R.S.). 24. James Brown: The Original Disco Man (Polydor). 25. Gary Numan & Tubeway Army: Replicas (Atco). 26. Michael Jackson: Off the Wall (Epic). 27. Culture: International Herb (Virgin Internatioal). 28. Chic: Good Times (Atlantic). 29. Millie Jackson: Live and Uncensored (Polydor). 30. Living Chicago Blues Volume 1 (Alligator).

31. Lene Lovich: Stateless (Stiff/Epic). 32. Tom Robinson Band: TRB Two (Harvest). 33. James Blood: Tales of Captain Black (Artists House). 34. Cory Daye: Cory and Me (New York International). 35. Mutiny: Mutiny on the Mamaship (Columbia). 36. Steel Pulse: Tribute to the Martyrs (Mango). 37. Blondie: Eat to the Beat (Chrysalis). 38. Roxy Music: Manifesto (Atlantic). 39. George Jones: My Very Special Guests (Epic). 40. Elvis Costello: Armed Forces (Columbia).

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But though record albums dominated rock in the ’70s, they’ve never been the whole story, as both new wave and disco have demonstrated. Somewhat belatedly, the P&JCP has expanded to reflect this: In addition to 10 albums, contributors were asked for unweighted lists of up to 10 singles and three local bands. From disco adepts like Mike Freedberg (“it’s impossible to poll disco, or even black slow music, fairly from LPs alone”) to r&b oldtimers like Robert Pruter (“my record-buying friends have always bought singles and always preferred them to albums”), black music fans were enthusiastic, and so were new wavers, many of whom commented that it was hard to keep their lists to 10. “Rock” people, on the other hand, complained (Noel Coppage of Stereo Review: “I’m too old and elitist for this shit”; Blair Jackson of Bay Area Music: “Aah forget it. I hate most singles”). Since I spend most of my working (and waking) hours listening to albums, I had no trouble containing my list, but the following 10 singles definitely weren’t the only ones to make a dent on my life this year:

The Brains: “Money Changes Everything” (Gray Matter); Michael Jackson: “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough” (Epic); the Clash: “1-2 Crush on You” (CBS import); James Brown: “It’s Too Funky in Here” (Polydor 12-inch); Sister Sledge: “We Are Family” (Cotillion 12-inch); McFadden & Whitehead: “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” (Philadelphia International 12-inch); Kleenex: “Ain’t You” (Rough Trade import); the B-52s: “Rock Lobster”/”52 Girls” (B-52s); the Records: “Starry Eyes” (Virgin); Machine: “There but for the Grace of God Go I” (RCA Victor).

The new category in which I had more trouble limiting my selections was local bands, an appellation that was left vague to find out how the voters would define it. For me, there were two musts: the Feelies, whose avant-garde surf music thrilled me frequently before they withdrew to the big time, and the James “Blood” Ulmer Quartet, whose second set at the Tin Palace May 23 rivaled the Clash at the Palladium for intensity and who also fused me at CBGB and Hurrah. But I passed on the Lounge Lizards and In the Tradition — not to mention Joe “King” Carrasco and the Crowns, whose visit from Austin impressed a lot of people, as we shall see — reluctantly, only so I could pay my respects to Richard Hell’s lamented Voidoids.

New York seemed bound to dominate the local band competition — on demographics, if not sheer vitality. And indeed, the winner was predictable, a shoo-in with 14 votes: Anya’s Bad Boy himself, James Chance, a/k/a James White and the Blacks, a/k/a the Contortions. (This year we’re giving out awards with the poll and we’re wondering whether James would prefer his across the backs of the thighs.) But after that the New York vote broke up, so that three out-of-town bands scored more mentions than the local second-runner. Most impressive by far was the aforementioned Senor Carrasco, who divided 10 votes between Texas and New York — his band sounds like a speedy synthesis of every Farfisa group that ever tripped over a hook, and you’d better listen up or they’ll pass you on the left. After that, with six mentions, came X, from Los Angeles, and Human Sexual Response, from Boston (though as a sexually responsive human I must register my doubts about the latter). New York’s Fleshtones strolled in fifth with five. Other strong showings included four votes for New York’s Feelies and L.A. Alley Cats, and three for Curtiss A (Minneapolis), the Beat (San Francisco and CBS), Greg Kihn (Berkeley and Beserkley), Robin Lane (Boston and pretty soon now Warners, plus an indie EP that scored on our singles chart), the Lounge Lizards (New York), the Naughty Sweeties (L.A.), the Nervous Eaters (Boston), Prince Charles and the City Beat Band (Boston), the Speedies (New York), Blood Ulmer (New York), and the Zippers (L.A.).

It may say something about local-band consensus or lack of it that although I spent more time seeing groups in clubs in 1979 than ever before, my most unforgettable moment was not provided by Blood Ulmer or the Feelies or even Pere Ubu. It came one frigid night in February when three of us slogged uptown to catch the Only Ones and instead stumbled upon a seething mass of well-kempt youths who were dancing to rock and roll. Mercy day, I said to myself, this ain’t no Mudd Club, or CBGB — this is the “rock disco” Hurrah, only it has normal rock and rollers in it. Straight weekend escapists, on leave from Fordham and Farleigh Dickinson and high school, they danced stiffly, except for a few scattered punks, but there they were, shaking ass to Cheap Trick and the Cars and Devo and the Ramones. Suddenly I believed yet again that rock and roll was here to stay.

This wasn’t the punk-disco fusion I had posited wistfully at the end of last year’s P&JCP roundup, but it was a start — a primitive one, as it turned out. Six months later art-punk and electropop were melding into dance tracks as empty as the most soulless Eurodisco, and if you wanted to step out to Cheap Trick you had to go to Brooklyn, or anyway Heat — suddenly rock discos were all over the place. But by that time the B-52s had proven that they really were “a tacky little dance band from Athens, Georgia” — it was on the dance floor rather than in my living room that they made my top 10 — and white people were once again catching up with the black music of an earlier time, in this case James Brown funk. Bizzers began talking about DOR — dance-oriented rock — instead of disco, and a real punk-disco fusion was achieved by two notable records, which oddly enough ended up on top of the first P&JCP singles chart: Ian Dury’s “Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick”/”Reasons To Be Cheerful, Pt. 3” and M’s “Pop Muzik.”

I must now interrupt this program to explain how singles were counted. P&JCP contributors are asked to limit their album choices to domestic releases so as not to split support for the many new albums released in different years on different sides of the Atlantic. But singles are about immediate impact, and critics who care about them usually buy (or trade for) imports. So rules were kept to a minimum, and we got votes for all kinds of stuff — not just EPs and disco discs, which were encouraged, but promos, even album cuts, the latter of which were expressly forbidden (and not counted). Multiple editions, configurations, and mixes presented worse problems. In the end we decided not only to add all versions of a song together, but — as a tribute to the ancient concept of the two-sided single — to combine the votes for two songs that appeared on the same record. This is how Ian Dury beat out Robin Scott (a/k/a M), whose “Pop Muzik” was certainly our song of the year. Not everyone who voted for “Rhythm Stick” or “Cheerful” has even heard the 12-inch that included both songs; some may (foolishly) disapprove of the disco mixes. But it seemed fairest to consolidate all of Dury’s votes.

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Although singles actually played and possessed by critics would have been preferred, we got a lot of lists of radio favorites. This was fair enough. Both the r&b trend in disco and the popularization of new wave have once again “made the radio fun” (J.D. Considine); 1979 was the year when Donna Summer heated up her stuff and Nick Lowe produced pure pop for real people. But even the best radio stations don’t play all the most interesting music, and away from the likes of BCN and PIX it’s still hard to hear imports and indies. Which is why the showing of the Brains’s privately produced and distributed “Money Changes Everything” — a little too slow for DOR, much too obscure for AOR, and tied for ninth anyway — is doubly significant. And why the Pretenders, who without a U.S. release got more votes than any singles artist except Donna Summer (in addition to “Stop Your Sobbing” and “Kid,” “Brass in Pocket” was on seven ballots), can be expected to make considerable noise with their debut album.

I must admit that I found the singles chart more interesting than the generally unexceptionable album selections. That’s what’s so great about the singles — they’re quirky. I especially enjoyed the tie for sixth — “My Sharona,” which brightened the radio as surely as Fantastik takes the enamel off your refrigerator, and “Tusk,” the weirdest 45 issued by any megagroup since the defeat of George McGovern. I was pleased that Funkadelic, who dipped almost as precipitously as Ian Dury in the album voting (Dury went from 13th to one mention, Funkadelic from 27th to 89th), could score in its long suit. I was glad so many high school intellectuals manque admitted their crush on the grown-up teen schlock of Peaches & Herb. And I found the five-way tie for 22nd laudable in five different directions.

It’s worth pointing out that the singles list is hardly a triumph of the new wave. Given the presumed bias of the electorate, it’s more of a triumph of disco, with two consciously compromised (and quite enjoyable, don’t get me wrong) punk-disco fusions beating out two irresistible examples of the real thing — except, of course, that “Hot Stuff” is as much a conscious compromise as “Pop Muzik.” The real new wave triumph goes to the Pretenders, who did it with a Ray Davies song. Hmm. Perhaps after triumph comes growth, consolidation, and some looking around, eh? That’s the way the album vote looks to me.

First of all, despite (or maybe because of, as they say) the plethora of new wave albums released in 1979, the number of them in the top 30 is down from 16 to 14 — not a big dip, but enough to make room for Michael Jackson and the Art Ensemble. Moreover, even the staunchest new wavers seem to have broadened their listening this year — Donna Summer and to a lesser extent Chic got votes from all over, and it was the hard-core punks who brought Linton Kwesi Johnson home. Also, the new wave grows older. Of the nine debut albums in the top 30 last year, seven were outright new wave, an eighth was David Johansen, and a ninth was the Cars (who fell to 61st this year, which may say more about the fickleness of pop fans than the fickleness of the Cars). This year’s eight debuts include the Roches, Marianne Faithfull, Rickie Lee Jones, and Linton Kwesi Johnson as well as the B-52s, the Buzzcocks, Lene Lovich, and Joe Jackson (hurray for all the women in that catalogue, by the way — last year we were down to Blondie and Patti Smith). And if the widespread support for Pere Ubu’s gruesome, funny, resolutely experimental, subtly hooky Dub Housing is a shot in the arm for the futurists among us, the equally strong showing of Tom Petty’s Damn the Torpedoes is a shot in the mouth.

Petty got this year’s Bruce Springsteen Memorial Rock and Roll Verities vote. Damn the Torpedoes is a pretty good record, but a measure of its appeal is that of 18 first-string daily critics, always the conservatives, 12 voted for it. (None, by the way, selected Pere Ubu; one of them, in fact, is reputed to have once — literally — pulled the plug on the band.) Damn the Torpedoes is a breakthrough for Petty because finally the Heartbreakers (his Heartbreakers, this Live at Max’s fan should say) are rocking as powerfully as he’s writing. But whether Petty has any need to rock out beyond the sheer doing of it — that is, whether he has anything to say — remains shrouded in banality. And in this he establishes himself as the fave rave of those who want good rock and roll that can be forgotten as soon as the record or the concert is over, rock and roll that won’t disturb your sleep or your conscience or your precious bodily rhythms. It’s fun in small doses — about three minutes is right — and it beats state-of-the-studio smuggeries like those of Supertramp (tied for 66th) or the Eagles (69th). But if Tom Petty ends up defining rock and roll heaven, then Johnny Rotten will have died in vain.

I don’t mean to imply that the 1979 P&JCP is a triumph of let’s-boogie revisionism, and a good thing, too. But as a 37-year-old pro, I’ll trade insults myself with any ageist putz who claims it’s impossible for other aging pros to make exciting rock and roll, and I think that, basically, this happened to be a year when old guarders — from artists like Neil Young and Van Morrison to craftsmen like Ry Cooder and Fleetwood Mac — managed to translate their vitality and courage to vinyl again. Morrison’s return was especially auspicious; he shows signs of turning into Ray Charles with lyrics. But the voters pretty much knew it wasn’t happening: Old guarders who made tired albums, like Randy Newman, were rewarded in kind (43rd), and those who flubbed altogether, like Joni Mitchell, got theirs (two mentions). And I believe the great El Lay hope of Rickie Lee Jones is a chimera, the same goes for the great post-punk hope of Joe Jackson. There are no stylistic rules; lots and lots of good records are being made; collectively, the critics have a pretty accurate idea of what they are.

And so, upon reflection, I think that Squeezing Out Sparks is an entirely apposite winner. Graham Parker is a genuine transitional artist. Surfacing a little earlier than fellow pub-rock veterans like Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello, he never assumed the kind of protective pop irony they’ve perfected. Though his lyrics are knotty, their passion is palpable — Parker speaks directly. And his music, while a long way from Robbie Robertson, isn’t reticent about its blues and country roots. Rhythmically and dramatically he’s not above corn, but it would be risky to call him safe — he might [spit] in your eye. I found that the masterfully hooked-up Squeezing Out Sparks wore thin after a powerful initial impression, but the memory of its craft and commitment stayed with me, and apparently many felt the same. The kind of critics who voted for Rickie Lee Jones or Ry Cooder often picked it number one, but those of us who preferred Neil Young or the Clash (both of which got as many first-place votes) still felt inclined to pay our respects, which is how it amassed its solid margin. If this be compromise, I just might settle for it myself.

The Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll has grown quite a bit since its semi-official quasi-beginning in 1974. Once it was a survey of a few writers I especially respected; now I’ve never read half the people whose ballots I tabulate. It’s based on what may be a naive belief — that people who listen long and hard enough to formulate their opinions on paper have special judgments to make. That assumption is holding up pretty well so far.

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Selected Ballots

ADAM BLOCK: Ian Dury & the Blockheads: “Beat [sic] Me with Your Rhythm Stick”/”Reasons To Be Cheerful, Pt. 3” (Stiff/Epic 12-inch); Roxy Music: “Dance Away” (Atlantic 12-inch); Records: “Starry Eyes” (Virgin); Nick Lowe: “Cruel To Be Kind” (Columbia); Jacksons: “Blame It on the Boogie” (Epic 12-inch); M: “Pop Muzik” (Sire); Pearl Harbor & the Explosions: “Release It”/”Drivin’ ” (415); Sister Sledge: “We Are Family” (Atlantic 12-inch); Ray Charles: “Some Enchanted Evening” (Atlantic); James White and the Blacks: “Contort Yourself” (ZE 12-inch).

TOM CARSON: M: “Pop Muzik” (Sire); Lene Lovich: “Lucky Number” (Stiff/Epic); Ian Dury & the Blockheads: “Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick” (Stiff/Epic); Dave Edmunds: “Girls Talk” (Swan Song); Marianne Faithfull: “Broken English” (Island); Sister Sledge: “We Are Family” (Cotillion); Sid Vicious: “My Way” (Virgin 12-inch import); Talking Heads: “Life During Wartime” (Sire); The Kinks: “Superman” (Arista 12-inch); Anita Ward: “Ring My Bell” (T.K.).

GREIL MARCUS: Essential Logic (Virgin import EP); Brains: “Money Changes Everything” (Gray Matter); Donna Summer: “Hot Stuff” (Casablanca); Pretenders: “Stop Your Sobbing” (Real import); Blue Oyster Cult: “In Thee” (Columbia); Marianne Faithfull: “Broken English”/”Why D’Ya [sic] Do It” (Antilles 12-inch); Moon Martin: “Rolene” (Capitol); Foreigner: “Dirty White Boy” (Atlantic); Public Image Ltd.: “Memories” (Virgin import); Delta 5: “Now That You’ve Gone” (Rough Trade import).

JON PARELES: Brains: “Money Changes Everything” (Gray Matter); Ian Dury: “Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick” (Stiff/Epic); Fleetwood Mac: “Tusk” (Warner Bros.); Donna Summer: “Hot Stuff” (Casablanca); Elvis Costello: “My Funny Valentine” (Columbia promo); Gang of Four: “At Home He’s a Tourist” (EMI import); Pop Group: “We Are All Prostitutes” (Rough Trade import); Robin Lane & the Chartbusters: “When Things Go Wrong” (Deli Platters); Machine: “There but for the Grace of God Go I” (RCA Victor 12-inch).

GEORGE ARTHUR: Blondie: Eat to the Beat (Chrysalis) 15; Dave Edmunds: Repeat When Necessary (Swan Song) 12; Rickie Lee Jones (Warner Bros.) 12; Lene Lovich: Stateless (Stiff/Epic) 12; Nick Lowe: Labour of Lust (Columbia) 10; Kinks: Low Budget (Arista) 9; Rachel Sweet: Fool Around (Stiff/Columbia) 8; Jerry Lee Lewis (Elektra) 8; Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Damn the Torpedoes (Backstreet/MCA) 8; Get the Knack (Capitol) 6.

LESTER BANGS: Van Morrison: Into the Music (Warner Bros.) 25; Marianne Faithfull: Broken English (Island) 20; The Clash (Epic) 20; Talking Heads: Fear of Music (Sire) 5; Lou Reed: The Bells (Arista) 5; Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Live Rust (Warner Bros.) 5; Charles Mingus: Mingus at Antibes (Atlantic) 5; Miles Davis: Circle in the Round (Columbia) 5; Heartbreakers: Live at Max’s Kansas City (Max’s Kansas City) 5; Patti Smith Group: Wave (Arista) 5.

BRIAN CHIN (all 12-inch disco discs): Fern Kinney: “Groove Me” (T.K.); Jackie Moore: “This Time Baby” (Columbia); Love De-Luxe: “Here Comes That Sound Again” (Warner Bros.); Don Armando’s Second Avenue Rhumba Band: “I”m an Indian Too”/”Deputy of Love” (ZE); Bionic Boogie: “Hot Butterfly” (Polydor); Machine: “There but for the Grace of God Go I” (RCA Victor); Claudja Barry: “Boogie Woogie Dancin’ Shoes” (Chrysalis); Carrie Lucas: “Dance with You” (Solar); Black Ivory: “Mainline” (Buddah).

TOM CARSON: David Bowie: Lodger (RCA Victor) 14; The Clash (Epic) 14; Elvis Costello: Armed Forces (Columbia) 14; Pere Ubu: Dub Housing (Chrysalis) 12; Graham Parker & the Rumour: Squeezing Out Sparks (Arista) 10; The Roches (Warner Bros.) 9; Nick Lowe: Labour of Lust (Columbia) 8; Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Live Rust (Warner Bros.) 7; Lou Reed: The Bells (Arista) 7; Iggy Pop: New Values (Arista) 6.

DAVID JACKSON: Millie Jackson: Live and Uncensored (Polydor) 15; Talking Heads: Fear of Music (Sire) 10; Art Ensemble of Chicago: Nice Guys (ECM) 10; Steppin’ with the World Saxophone Quartet (Black Saint import) 10; Van Morrison: Into the Music (Warner Bros.) 10; Miles Davis: Circle in the Round (Columbia) 10; Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Live Rust (Warner Bros.) 10; Robin Williamson and His Merry Band: A Giant at the Kindling (Flying Fish) 9; James Blood: Tales of Captain Black (Artists House) 8; Bread and Roses (Fantasy) 8.

GREIL MARCUS: Van Morrison: Into the Music (Polydor) 20; Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Rust Never Sleeps (Reprise) 15; Fleetwood Mac: Tusk (Warner Bros.) 15; Peter Green: In the Skies (Sail) 15; Tonio K: Life in the Foodchain (Full Moon/Epic) 10; Graham Parker & The Rumour: Squeezing Out Sparks (Arista) 5; David Johansen: In Style (Blue Sky) 5; Pere Ubu: Dub Housing (Chrysalis) 5; Randy Newman: Born Again (Warner Bros.) 5; Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Damn the Torpedoes (Backstreet/MCA) 5.

REGGIE MATTHEWS: Brenda Russell (Horizon) 15; Heath Brothers: In Motion (Columbia) 13; Ron Carter: Parade (Milestone) 12; McCoy Tyner: Together (Milestone) 11; Kinks: Low Budget (Arista) 11; Michael Jackson: Off the Wall (Epic) 10; Donna Summer: Bad Girls (Casablanca) 10; Graham Parker & the Rumour: Squeezing Out Sparks (Arista) 7; Ashford & Simpson: Stay Free (Warner Bros.) 6; Jeff Lorber: Water Sign (Arista) 5.

MARIE MOORE: Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants (Tamla) 10; Chic: Risque (Atlantic) 10; Ashford & Simpson: Stay Free (Warner Bros.) 10; Crusaders: Street Life (MCA) 10; Cameo: Secret Omen (Chocolate City) 10; George Benson: Live Inside Your Love (Warner Bros.) 10; Dionne Warwick: Dionne (Arista) 10; Stephanie Mills: What Cha Gonna Do with My Lovin’ (20th Century-Fox) 10; Michael Jackson: Off the Wall (Epic) 10; Commodores: Midnight Magic (Motown) 10.

JON PARELES: Pere Ubu: Dub Housing (Chrysalis) 15; Talking Heads: Fear of Music (Sire) 15; James White and the Blacks: Off White (ZE) 15; Philip Glass/Robert Wilson: Einstein on the Beach (Tomato) 15; Art Bears: Winter Songs (Ralph) 15; David Bowie: Lodger (RCA Victor) 5; XTC: Drums and Wires (Virgin) 5; Police: Regatta de Blanc (A&M) 5; Wire: 154 (Warner Bros.) 5; Tom Verlaine (Elektra) 5.

DOUG SIMMONS: Iggy Pop: New Values (Arista) 25; The Clash (Epic) 15; Buzzcocks: Singles Going Steady (I.R.S.) 10; Pere Ubu: Dub Housing (Chrysalis) 10; Linton Kwesi Johnson: Forces of Victory (Mango) 10; Nick Lowe: Labour of Lust (Columbia) 5; Dave Edmunds: Repeat When Necessary (Swan Song) 5; Inmates: First Offence (Polydor) 5; Heartbreakers: Live at Max’s Kansas City (Max’s Kansas City) 5; The Boston Bootleg (Varulven) 5.

TOM SMUCKER: Gino Soccio: Outline (RFC) 20; Chic: Risque (Atlantic) 20; Tom Robinson Band: TRB Two (Harvest) 14; Merle Haggard: Serving 190 Proof (MCA) 11; Donna Summer: Bad Girls (Casablanca) 8; Tammy Wynette: Just Tammy (Epic) 6; Sylvester: Stars (Fantasy) 6; Shoes: Present Tense (Elektra) 5; Blondie: Eat to the Beat (Chrysalis) 5; Arlo Guthrie: Outlasting the Blues (Warner Bros.) 5.

Top 10 Albums of 1979

1. Graham Parker & The Rumour: Squeezing Out Sparks (Arista)

2. Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Rust Never Sleeps (Reprise)

3. The Clash: The Clash (Epic)

4. Talking Heads: Fear of Music (Sire)

5. Elvis Costello: Armed Forces (Columbia)

6. Van Morrison: Into the Music (Warner Bros.)

7. The B-52s: The B-52s (Warner Bros.)

8. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Damn the Torpedoes (Backstreet/MCA)

9. Pere Ubu: Dub Housing (Chrysalis)

10. Donna Summer: Bad Girls (Casablanca)

Top 10 Singles of 1979

1. Ian Dury & the Blockheads: “Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick”/”Reasons To Be Cheerful, Pt. 3” (Stiff/Epic)

2. M: “Pop Musik” (Sire)

3. Donna Summer: “Hot Stuff” (Casablanca)

4. (Tie) Sister Sledge: “We Are Family”/”He’s the Greatest Dancer” (Cotillion)
The Pretenders: “Stop Your Sobbing”/”The Wait” (Real import)

6. (Tie) Fleetwood Mac: “Tusk” (Warner Bros.)
The Knack: “My Sharona” (Capitol)

8. Blondie: “Dreaming” (Chrysalis)

9. (Tie) The Brains: “Money Changes Everything” (Gray Matter)
The Flying Lizards: “Money” (Virgin)

— From the January 28, 1980, issue

 

Pazz & Jop essays and results can also be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published last year.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Wide Awake: Song of Summer

I was born the summer Nixon resigned. I know this because in my family it was always spoken of as if the two events were somehow related. My ex-hippie mother used to say, “Thatbastard Nixon” (he was always Thatbastard in our house, never Richard)… “Thatbastard Nixon got what was coming to him. And we got you.”

I always took a kind of pride in this. Not so much because I thought he resigned because of me, but because we were both the results of one long, hot summer when everything changed.

For Nixon, the summer of 1974 was an ending. For me, a beginning.

It was a heady time for music, a summer when new genres were just taking form and competing for national attention. In the cities, disco was rearing its head for the first time, at the same moment the Ramones were making their CBGB debut. Outside the cities, “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Annie’s Song” by John Denver dominated jukeboxes and car radios.

Classic rock, folk, disco, and punk were all facing endings and beginnings that summer.

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Ironically, the song that dominated the pop charts that year was the treacly Barbra Streisand ballad “The Way We Were.” No matter your opinions on Streisand, the song was huge and the movie of the same name — a love story about a Marxist Jew (Streisand) and her WASP-y writer boyfriend-then-husband (Robert Redford) attempting to find love in the face of idealism, betrayal, and McCarthyism — inspired one perfect line that applies as much to the summer of 2018 as to the summer of 1974, as we once again find ourselves caught in the brouhaha of presidential scandal:

Streisand: Wouldn’t it be lovely if we were old? We’d have survived all this. Everything would be easy and uncomplicated, the way it was when we were young.

Redford: Katie, it was never uncomplicated.

I like to imagine those words reverberating quietly behind the public longing for simpler times, an echo of past sins mocking the idea that a once-slave-owning country longs to be “Great Again.” It’s just the kind of willful ignorance at which America excels.

The song that was everywhere in the summer of 1989 had no such rheumy-eyed notions of the past. “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy was as angry, sweaty, and claustrophobic as the Spike Lee movie (Do the Right Thing) that made it famous.

I had just finished ninth grade at Westchester High School in Los Angeles, where I would hide out in my Morrissey T-shirts and twelve-hole Docs in hallways dominated by Bobby Brown (“My Prerogative”), De La Soul (“Me Myself and I”), and the few white kids belting out “Love Shack” by the B-52’s.

“Fight the Power” was a revelation, a glimpse into something forceful. With one righteously pissed-off line after another, the song inspired phrases that survive to this day in the modern lexicon of resistance. To wit: “Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps.”

The heroes in question — Malcolm X, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver — found themselves brought by the song into the American mainstream 25 years after their heyday. Tragically, that same summer, Huey Newton was gunned down in cold blood, a victim of a drug crime as much as the white racism he spent a lifetime fighting. 

This was also the summer of the Bensonhurst riots in which Yusef Hawkins, a sixteen-year-old African-American boy was killed by a white mob because the mob (mistakenly) believed he was dating a local white girl. (The Public Enemy song “Welcome to the Terrordome” includes a dedication to Hawkins.) The race riot came just two months after the release of Do the Right Thing, which itself featured a race riot in Brooklyn in response to the killing of an innocent black man. 

So here’s Chuck D and Flava Flav broadcast into the bedrooms of the American suburb (in a video directed by Spike Lee), angrily pointing out the history of “nothing but rednecks for 400 years if you check,” as the white kids raised their skinny white fists, timidly placing a toe into the raging waters of American racial anger while quoting Spike Lee’s powerful lines: “Hey, Sal, how come you got no brothers up on the wall here?”

It was a long, hot summer when everything changed. It was never uncomplicated.

In fact, had social media existed in the summer of 1989, there no doubt would have been a series of righteous hashtags (#myheroesdontappearonnostamps) followed by an inevitable backlash (#Elviswasntracist) followed by the backlash to the backlash (#FuckJohnWayne), in which we would organize ourselves into the neat camps of allies and adversaries that are the trademark of modern political discourse. 

When I posed this question to my Twitter feed, with just these ideas in mind: “What is the all-time best Song of the Summer?” I was surprised to find an inclination toward, well, sunnier songs.

People tended to view the question in one of three ways: Any song that has the word “summer” in the title; a song that dominated the charts and airplay for a summer; or a song that simply evokes the feeling of summer.

“Summertime” by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince was the most popular answer, and it was probably because it checked all three boxes. As one commenter put it, the song puts the listener mentally and emotionally into “a perfect summer day.”

Other songs that fulfilled all three requirements: “Hot Fun in the Summertime” by Sly and the Family Stone and “Summer in the City” by the Lovin’ Spoonful. These songs share the idea of summertime as holiday — both literal and figurative — from the existential grind of the fall and winter.

“Cruel Summer,” the 1984 hit from the all-woman pop band Bananarama, was a popular choice, an angsty take on heartache amid the heat of summer. (For my money, the summer of 1984 belongs to “When Doves Cry” by Prince, when His Purpleness blessed us with the best bathtub vocal performance until “Stay” by Rihanna).

“Smooth” by Santana/Rob Thomas and “Summertime” by Janis Joplin seem to share a spiritual connection to “Fight the Power,” a kind of slinky, sweaty feeling about summer that eschews the explosiveness of explicit politics but embraces the anxiety of heat in close quarters.

It’s hard to talk about these songs outside the events, both personal and political, which surrounded them. There’s a necessary nostalgia to such things. Where were you when you first heard “Brown-Eyed Girl”? And who was the brown-eyed girl that loved you for loving it? Were you dancing at your cousin’s wedding to “Crazy in Love?” in the summer of 2003? Do you remember your date? The smell of the spilled champagne on your tux, the mud you noticed on the heel of your shoe from dancing in the grass because your brown-eyed girl was too shy to go to the dance floor?

Were you belting out “Free Fallin’” in the front seat of your best friend’s tattered old Plymouth as you made your way to another lazy summer day at the beach, the park, the river, the lake, the shore, the parking lot of the Dairy Queen one shoeless summer before Everything Changed?

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I like to think of the talk I would have with my past self if I could. I like to imagine just what I’d tell me about the future. “It’s totally different than you think it’s going to be. You turn out all right, man. But you don’t get jetpacks, and there are no flying cars.”

Instead we get this. We get social media and computer screens. We get a worldwide metaphor in which we pose these questions to each other, the ones we, as humans, really care about: Who am I and Who are you and What do I like and What do you like and Do you like me and Do I like you and Are we on the same team? Like the beak of a hummingbird, our adaptation to the world is this networked computer metaphor in which we’ve all agreed to participate, an extension of our freakish brains that we use to pose and solve the social questions we really care about.

So instead of flying cars, we got social media. Instead of jetpacks, streaming pornography. How disappointing.

But maybe there is hope in this because at least, perhaps finally, we see ourselves clearly for the cloying, needy, angry, imperfect things we are. Nixon resigned. He resigned because he broke the law and got caught and still people forgot, choosing instead to wrap themselves in American flags, to long for an American innocence that never existed. And despite the utter morass of immorality, the racist, thieving, lying shitshow that is the long, hot summer of 2018 — the disappointment with American promise, with American discourse, with American tribalism, with America — the effect of all this daily conflict is that we no longer have to carry the burden of a past innocence betrayed.

Perhaps this is why the song that best defines this particular fucked-up summer — the one we’ll remember forty years from now — is likely the viral phenomenon “This Is America” by Childish Gambino, which is as violent, tragic, contradictory, and angry as the country at which it takes aim.

Maybe it’s the summer we finally realize it was never uncomplicated. We were just young.

 

“Wide Awake” is a new column from Mikel Jollett, who you should be following on Twitter.

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Health THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Dying to Entertain Us: Celebrities Keep ODing on Opioids and No One Cares

When mid-century matinee idol Rock Hudson appeared alongside Doris Day at a press conference in July 1985 looking glassy-eyed and skeletal, the scattered members of the early AIDS activism movement cautiously rejoiced.

“We were thrilled, in a really kind of awful way, because we thought maybe this is it, maybe this is AIDS,” says David France, director of How to Survive a Plague, the Oscar-nominated documentary about the influential New York City–based AIDS activist group AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) that would form in 1987.

Early AIDS activists such as France certainly weren’t celebrating the prospect that Hudson might suffer from a highly stigmatized disease and face a swift and horrific death. Rather, in their desperation, as they watched fast-increasing numbers of their friends and lovers suffer such a fate, they had been praying for the power of celebrity to finally thrust AIDS into the national conversation.

They got their wish. After Hudson disclosed he had AIDS later that summer, the nation finally woke up to an epidemic that had been ravaging gay communities in major urban areas. During the short remainder of Hudson’s life, the beloved movie star and friend of first lady Nancy Reagan took to the activist pulpit, praising the sudden surge of public interest in tackling the burgeoning epidemic.

“That death began research,” France recalls of Hudson’s passing in October 1985.

The next year, the notoriously parsimonious President Ronald Reagan allowed a significant increase in the National Institutes of Health’s budget — for research into AIDS, a disease about which Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) scientists had first sounded the alarm five years earlier.

Flash forward three decades: Thanks in large part to a massive, sustained governmental investment, currently to the tune of more than $26 billion in annual federal dollars, the U.S. HIV epidemic is now increasingly being brought under control. At the same time, several city and state governments, such as those in San Francisco, Seattle, and New York City and State, have waged expensive, multifaceted campaigns to help control their own local epidemics.

Consequently, HIV is effectively crossing paths with the contemporary opioid epidemic, as that particular scourge follows a devastating upward trajectory and the governmental response remains woefully inadequate.

According to CDC estimates, the number of new annual transmissions of HIV declined by 14.8 percent between 2008 and 2015, from 45,200 to 38,500, while during that same period annual deaths among people diagnosed with AIDS declined from about 16,000 to 12,800; approximately 1.1 million people now live with the virus. Meanwhile, at least 2.1 million U.S. residents have an opioid addiction, according to government estimates, with those recently struggling with the condition including a long roster of boldfaced names: Macklemore, Demi Lovato, Rush Limbaugh, Cindy McCain, Matthew Perry, Jamie Lee Curtis, Eminem, Charlie Sheen (whose 2015 disclosure about his HIV status led to soaring testing rates), Courtney Love, and Steven Tyler. Some 42,000 Americans died from an opioid overdose in 2016, a rate that has soared fivefold since 1999. During the current century, opioids have already cut short the lives of more than 350,000 Americans, including such celebrities as Glee’s Cory Monteith.

This year, the federal government is ponying up some $27 billion for overall drug control efforts, including $16 billion for enforcement and interdiction and $11 billion for treatment and prevention. Much of this spending is earmarked for tackling the opioid epidemic. But public health experts believe such figures remain paltry given the scope of the opioid crisis, particularly because of insufficient support for what an increasingly widespread consensus says should be at the core of the U.S. response: evidence-based addiction treatment.

“We’re spending too little to address the epidemic, and you get what you pay for,” Caleb Alexander, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Drug Safety and Effectiveness, says of the federal government’s “anemic” efforts so far. Looking to the future, he says, “Treatment costs are going to be enormous, but so is the cost of inaction.”

***

In April 2016, the legendary musician Prince died of what was eventually revealed as an accidental overdose of fentanyl, the extraordinarily powerful synthetic opioid painkiller that has swept through the U.S. drug supply in recent years. Eighteen months later, the same drug killed singer Tom Petty. Both entertainers fell prey to opioid use disorder the same way many Americans do: They were prescribed painkillers in this class — or in Prince’s case, he apparently got at least one physician to write prescriptions for him in someone else’s name — to treat chronic pain resulting from workplace-based physical trauma. For Prince, who had weathered long-term hip pain, dancing in heels for decades was his rarified version of a factory worker’s repetitive strain injury. Petty had recently concluded a nationwide tour he carried on with despite a hip fracture, on top of knee issues and emphysema.

These men’s awesome celebrity notwithstanding, the overall reaction to Prince and Petty’s overdoses — and to the opioid-driven losses before them of such other popular performers as Philip Seymour Hoffman and Heath Ledger — has amounted to nothing much when it comes to awakening Americans to the scope of the national crisis. By comparison, Rock Hudson’s death, as well as Magic Johnson’s announcement in 1991 that he had HIV, utterly jolted the national conversation about that epidemic.

Melissa Moore, deputy state director in the New York office of the national advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance, reasons that Americans are disinclined to file a celebrity overdose in the same mental folder where they place personal worries that addiction, or HIV, may hit them where they live. Such drug-driven deaths are “looked at as a part of the fast and quick lifestyle of celebrities that isn’t for an average person,” Moore says.

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The public’s perception of the HIV and opioid epidemics — which do, of course, overlap given that injection drug use is a major risk factor for HIV transmission — have historically diverged in various other key ways. “People aren’t shocked by drug deaths or overdoses in a way that they are about a new and emerging infectious disease that they don’t understand,” says Kenyon Farrow, the former U.S. health policy director at the ACT UP offshoot nonprofit Treatment Action Group.

While AIDS was brand new during the Reagan era, the nation’s ebbs and flows of mass addiction to opioids date back more than 150 years. Today’s epidemic was brought on in part by excessive prescription of opioid painkillers after Purdue Pharma brought OxyContin to the market in 1995 and then aggressively promoted the drug as a pain-relieving godsend that boasted a low risk of addiction.

The current crisis actually represents history repeating itself. Following the Civil War, the United States saw a surge in the prescription of opioids such as morphine, codeine, and heroin, in part for battle wounds. The advent of modern chemistry in the early nineteenth century had given rise to the synthesis of such drugs, and the advent of hypodermic injection use for medications later that century fanned the flames of the epidemic. By 1900, 1 in 200 Americans were addicted to opioids, about the same rate as seen today.

Better training of the younger generation of physicians — older doctors were notorious for overprescribing opioids for a wide swath of conditions, from pain to diarrhea — helped contain that early epidemic, as did a series of major acts of Congress passed between 1890 and 1924 that progressively taxed opium and eventually banned its importation, required manufacturers to identify the components of medicinal products, and ultimately regulated opioids.

During the first few decades after World War II, addiction to opioids — particularly heroin — largely afflicted inner-city populations, in particular New York City’s. Throughout this period, occasional entertainer overdoses helped remind the general public of the dangers of opioids. Hank Williams, who suffered chronic pain due to a spinal condition, accidentally overdosed on morphine in 1953. During the post-counterculture era, heroin was behind the deaths of Janis Joplin and John Belushi.

***

Today, the stigmas associated with each epidemic powerfully mediate how people react to news of either HIV or opioid addiction. These involve not only deeply ingrained attitudes regarding race and class, but also by the question of whether individuals are seen to have brought HIV or addiction on themselves, and the perceived degree to which free will dictated their high-risk behaviors.

Early HIV activists moved mountains to combat the hostile attitudes society initially levied against those living with the virus. Media reports of celebrities such as Magic Johnson or Ryan White, the HIV-positive boy whose harsh discrimination at the hands of his middle-American town propelled him into the national spotlight, helped lend humanity to those living with the virus. White, in particular, seemed custom-made to inspire a more caring attitude toward people with AIDS: a sweet-faced boy who had contracted HIV “blamelessly” through hemophilia treatments and whose poetic last name, in tandem with his pale skin tone, projected a nonthreatening image of angelic purity to the nation’s racial majority.

Stigma toward those with HIV is generally driven by two main factors: fear of contagion, and judgment about what stigmatized behaviors an individual may have engaged in to contract HIV, including various forms of condomless, non-missionary-position, non-heterosexual sex, as well as injection drug use. Sex between men is, of course, much less stigmatized today than in the 1980s, when it was still illegal in half the states. But ignorance still abounds about how HIV is and is not transmitted, and that ignorance certainly drives people’s fear of contact with those living with the virus.

The predominantly white face of the opioid epidemic has helped drive a more forgiving public reaction to that crisis — a fact that invites painful historical parallels, given the harshly punitive response to people of color affected by the the heroin scourge of the 1960s and 1970s and the crack epidemic of the 1980s.

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Additionally, the American public may be more sympathetic toward those addicted to opioids because they tend to perceive the epidemic as largely driven by doctors prescribing painkillers to individuals with legitimate medical conditions. The truth is, most of those who misuse opioid pills obtain them without a prescription. Additionally, droves of those who initially became addicted to prescription painkillers have migrated to heroin, which can be cheaper and easier to obtain.

All this said, drug addiction remains one of the most highly stigmatized human conditions, a fact that significantly limits the ability for celebrity narratives to help inspire the nation’s reaction to the opioid epidemic.

“Katie Couric getting a colonoscopy and everyone going to check their colon is not the same as Katie Couric coming out and saying she struggles with heroin addiction,” says Kassandra Frederique, New York State director at Drug Policy Alliance. “Celebrity can only carry you so far when it comes to stigmatizing behaviors.”

***

Perhaps the most crucial difference between the AIDS and opioid epidemics lies in how each has inspired troops of activists to fight for the respective causes. David France notes that, compared with today’s population of individuals addicted to opioids, gay men provided a much richer pool for potential activist foot soldiers during the 15-year crisis period of the AIDS epidemic, because such men were often either facing death themselves or thought they were.

“My study of ACT UP has led me to believe that self-interest was [AIDS activism’s] major component and major driving influence,” France says.

By comparison, those addicted to drugs like heroin or Vicodin, France argues, may not see overdose as a clear and present danger — and so may be less inclined to fight for their lives and those of others by, say, joining an activist movement or howling at their elected representatives. Additionally, the everyday lives of those in the throes of addiction may be so chaotic or otherwise compromised that these individuals lack the wherewithal to commit themselves to activism and political organizing.

Oftentimes, however, family members are indeed motivated to advocate for change. According to France, it’s such moms, sisters, daughters, and nieces who contact him pleading him to make a documentary about the opioid crisis. 

“But they’re also not leaving their ordinary life to go full bore in the opioid movement,” he adds.

The comedian Russell Brand is one of the rare celebrities who has a history of opioid addiction and has thrown himself into advocacy work — although his is quite a problematic voice. In Brand’s 2012 documentary on addiction treatment, he is sharply critical of opioid substitution therapy such as methadone or buprenorphine. In the face of competing scientific evidence that supports such medically based treatment as an effective, if imperfect, means of reducing the risk of opioid-use relapse and overdose, Brand clings stubbornly to the abstinence-centered dogma of Narcotics and Alcoholics Anonymous as the preferred route to fighting the opioid crisis.

Celebrated photographer Nan Goldin, who suffered a recent bout of active opioid addiction that took hold after she was prescribed OxyContin for chronic wrist pain, has waged a vociferous and creative activist campaign against the Sackler family, the wealthy owners of Purdue Pharma. Calling for nonprofits to refuse donations from the highly philanthropic dynasty, she has orchestrated colorful, headline-grabbing protests at various art institutions, including in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Sackler Wing.

Having started her own opioid-addiction-related advocacy group, Goldin is among those pushing for a massive, multipronged federal investment in combating the opioid epidemic, to the tune of $100 billion over the next decade. Called the Comprehensive Addiction Resources Emergency Act, or CARE, the proposed legislation is not as pie-in-the-sky utopic as the extraordinary price tag may make it sound. Importantly, CARE is modeled after the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act, itself a multipronged federal program that passed with bipartisan zeal in 1990 — during a Republican presidency — and which has been reauthorized enthusiastically ever since. Today, that legislation provides about $2.3 billion annually in vital healthcare-based response to the HIV epidemic.

Repeating the success of the Ryan White Act on the opioid front would require a massive advocacy movement in the coming years. Longtime activist Jennifer Flynn Walker, director of mobilization and advocacy at the Center for Popular Democracy, argues that with a continued accumulation of grassroots organizing against the epidemic, such a corps of foot soldiers could harness the publicity generated by a future celebrity overdose and channel it into considerable progress.

“If Prince died next year, I think you would see the same kind of response,” she says, referring to the kind of impact that Rock Hudson and Magic Johnson had on the HIV movement, with “everybody going wearing overdose ribbons to the Oscars.”

If Walker is right, the next famous person to overdose on opioids could yield a tipping point. “The celebrity death,” she says, “only becomes the watershed moment because there was the base organizing happening first.”

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Tom Petty

You know who Tom Petty is. What you might not know is that he made appearances on both The Simpsons and King of the Hill. Having penned and performed countless breakthrough singles, Petty could have called it quits a long time ago if it weren’t for his dedication to proving rock & roll’s staying power. Catch the rock veteran and his Heartbreakers at Beacon Theatre for a dose of old school covers and long-loved hits.

Mon., May 20, 8 p.m.; Tue., May 21, 8 p.m.; Thu., May 23, 8 p.m.; Sat., May 25, 8 p.m.; Sun., May 26, 8 p.m., 2013

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The Men Get Out of the Gutter

Five men walk into a Brooklyn bar. Some have beards. Some wear plaid. Some sport tattered leather jackets adorned with one-inch band buttons. Some have thick rimmed glasses. You know the type.

One of the bearded men wearing plaid asks his bearded companion in leather (or maybe it’s the other way around?) if he’s seen the lineup for this year’s Bonnaroo, the four-day music festival held in June in Manchester, Tennessee.

Smiles. Head nods in the affirmative. Happiness.

“Petty,” one of the men says. “Yes. That’s right. Tom Petty. Need I say more?”

The answer, for these men, is no. The rest of the lineup doesn’t interest them. Because Tom Petty is the Greatest of All Time, they agree.

What’s the big deal? This is just another night of men looking like this, talking like this, and dressing like this in a bar in Brooklyn. But that these men in particular have such affection for Petty is a surprise. These men are a band, the Men. And, until now, nothing about the Men’s music has suggested they would think Petty is anything other than a sad, aging, Billboard-charting bastion of Sellout Dad Rock.

That’s because the Men’s first two full-length albums are glorious high-water marks of post-hardcore, new-millennium “pigfuck” (a term coined in our pages by Robert Christgau in a 1987 Pazz & Jop essay), a noise-addict’s speedball of exuberant cacophony topped with a healthy helping of spazz. Just two short years ago, they sought to rewrite indie rock’s playbook using guitars covered in filth, songs with titles like “Shittin’ With the Shah,” and phlegmy coughs as lyrics. They were brazen enough to cop an album title from the Ramones, Leave Home, for a second album that managed to capture the aggression of the Stooges, the canned mechanics of Neu!, the bombast of Touch and Go–era Butthole Surfers, and the pure, unbridled gutter-slime splendor of SST’s apex, put them all in a blender and set that blender on fire. They hit every entry in the index of Michael Azzerad’s book Our Band Could Be Your Life.

Or that’s how it played to the music critics, at least. Of course, this stuff is practically programmed to light up the synapses of the kind of pasty white guys who sob quietly to themselves when they remember Amphetamine Reptile closing up shop. Men drummer Rich Samis jokingly remembers those critics “flipping their wigs” and saying that Leave was “the dirtiest record, man. New York City underground dirt!”

And so the glowing reviews from Important Outlets like Pitchfork (which bestowed its vaunted Best New Music stamp of approval on Open Your Heart) and SPIN naturally followed. We at the Voice were fans too, describing Leave Home‘s “atonal downtown splatter” as “brawny, muscular bludgeon that’s one generation removed from metalcore”—and on the forefront of pigfuck’s coming revival.

Which is all to say: Tom fucking Petty?

The Men’s fourth LP, New Moon (which shares a title with something a little less badass than the Ramones: a book in the Twilight series), comes out March 5 on Sacred Bones. And New Moon contains, for the Men, some very new, classic, Petty-esque sounding tunes. How they got there isn’t too hard to see. There is a lineup change involved. And a cabin in the Catskills. And a campfire, too. Of course there is.

“Do you have earplugs?”

Ben Greenberg, 28, is the Men’s multi-instrumentalist/producer/engineer/everything-er. And a lot has changed about the band since he joined.

He walks down the stairs of a rundown building on Grand Street in Williamsburg, ducking by the landlord who’s replacing the entryway’s linoleum floor. Through a door is a tight 20-by-20-foot space full of too many amps to count, cords dangling on the walls, a collection of instruments, and the rest of the Men.

Sitting at a piano is the shaggy Mark Perro, one of the group’s founders and principal songwriters. Next to him towers another original member, guitarist/vocalist Nick Chiericozzi, a soft-spoken dude in boots and tight jeans. A grinning Samis sits behind the drum kit. By his side, Kevin Faulkner, the band’s bass player and newest member, stands at attention. Greenberg, who wears black-framed glasses and swooping bangs, grabs his guitar. At Samis’s drum kick, they launch into “The Brass,” the violent, volcanic song full of aggression and frustration that kicks of the b-side of New Moon. The Men wail.

In “The Brass”—although it’s a punk song at heart—there are strains of country, Americana, and classic rock. They were there in traces on Open Your Heart, too, but New Moon takes the band further into that realm, off the hard-bitten city streets (of Williamsburg) and onto dusty back roads. In the middle of the audio chaos stands Greenberg, singing “I’m not rich, but you know I coulda been.”

It wouldn’t be entirely accurate to call the Men Greenberg’s band now—they insist they’re a pure democracy, and that there is no Leader of Men—but it wouldn’t be entirely wrong, either. Greenberg joined the band permanently in November 2011, first as a bass player and now a guitarist. Growing up in New York, he graduated from the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music and made his name as a musician in Pygmy Shrews, a revered underground post-punk duo. During that time, he’d worked on both Leave Home and Open Your Heart, as well as the Immaculada EP and various Men tapes before them. Based on his work with the Men, other bands came calling, seeking his production help.

He says he’s engineered countless punk records that probably won’t ever see the light of day, and members of the New York scene speak of him in exalted platitudes. Jamie Morrison, bassist of Pale Angels, says he e-mailed Greenberg after reading the liner notes for Open Your Heart, looking to get some of his magic producer dust dumped on his band’s songs. “[The Men’s music] is more human,” says Morrison. “There’s a lot of bullshit in this world.” Greenberg, and the Men, says Morrison, believe in what they’re doing. No bullshit.

Ric Leichtung, curator of 285 Kent, has been booking shows in New York for almost seven years, and says Greenberg’s addition to the Men “brings it from something that’s sloppy, raw, and visceral to something with purpose. Before shows, you’ll see Ben in the back doing scales and exercises with his fingers to prepare.” Doing scales to warm up for a punk show? Sounds like the setup to a joke.

Since his addition, the Men find themselves approaching a whole new level of mainstream popularity. “It’s weird. This is all new to us. I’ve had friends do this,” Greenberg says of press interviews, while he digs into a two-and-a-half-pound steak at Aurora, an Italian restaurant in Williamsburg. He recalls getting photographed for an article in SPIN where they shoved the group in a bathroom—trapping them inside the shower stall, trying to get them to laugh. “I hate that shit, man, when people act disingenuous. Just let us be us.”

But maybe getting goofily photographed for a major music publication is something they’ll just have to get used to. Two days after the release of New Moon, on March 7, the band plays a sold-out Bowery Ballroom. After that, they begin road-dogging it through Europe and then back here on the home soil, an exhaustive tour which will keep them busy into early summer playing far-flung exotic locales like Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Greece, and Cleveland.

Of course, tours of this length at this time in a band’s come-up are, best case, break-even propositions. All the love and ink spilled about a band, no matter how euphoric, doesn’t necessarily translate to dollars. And that financial conundrum could even be considered one of the reasons for the band’s transformation. Chris Hansell, the group’s big and bald original bassist—and champion of the pigfuckery—was, in his words, “kicked out” (and over the phone) because he couldn’t afford to go on tour.

“They were probably the most successful band I ever did, so I had the reaction that anybody would,” says Hansell. “We had just put out a record that was doing amazing, and then, you know, you’re not in that band anymore, so there’s that sense of, ‘Well, fuck, this sucks.’ ” (Hansell and the Men say they’re on good terms now, even if Perro does describe the relationship as “a little awkward.”)

New Moon was recorded over “two weeks and change” in a cabin in the Catskills in upstate New York. Yep. One of those band stories.

“We were touring a bunch before that,” recalls Samis over a few beers. “So to go and live in this house wasn’t that radical of an idea. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh my God, this is so crazy.‘ It was natural.”

So natural, in fact, that on top of recording the entire album up there, they set up some microphones by the campfire and made a six-song EP titled, aptly, Campfire Songs. They’ll give it away for free on their tour. Perro, who proudly learned how to chop wood (“So badass,” he says) during their Catskills idyll, cites New Moon‘s first track—a bouncy, piano-driven song filled with harmonies and acoustic guitar riffs called “Open Your Door”—as an example of how recording there inevitably affected the outcome. “That song wouldn’t have happened if we weren’t up there,” he says.

That’s not the only song that wouldn’t have happened if the boys didn’t lock themselves up in the middle of nowhere. “I Saw Her Face,” New Moon‘s second single, carries a Neil Young & Crazy Horse swagger indicative of the album’s push toward pop. It launches with massive crashes and strums from the guitars of Greenberg and Chiericozzi, eventually breaking down into galloping classic rock that sounds like 1972, but somehow retains a youthful vibe. This is not to say the Men have completely changed. “Supermoon,” the record’s closer, is a sprawling, grimy collection of noise that builds to a nice punch to the mouth. They’ve still got one foot in the scratchy, dirty punk foundation into which they were born.

“It’s so often that bands have to have a ‘sound,’ ” says Chiericozzi. “We’re not afraid to write one weird song that might be a lot different than the record before—or even the song before. All of it comes from the same place. That’s what the Men are.”

The one sound they’re perfectly happy to play over and over, though, is Tom Petty, who’s become the soundtrack of their tour van. Back at the Williamsburg bar, the members talk further of their Petty influence beyond New Moon. “Wait till you hear the next one,” says Greenberg of the album’s follow-up, which is already recorded but has yet to be named (hopefully it won’t be Eclipse). Perhaps soon, they’ll share a stage with their hero.

In fact, they’re kinda bummed they’re not playing Bonnaroo—and can’t, having already committed to a show here in New York. It’s with Black Flag, at Greenpoint’s storied punk venue, Warsaw. The Men don’t regret agreeing to the show with the punk stalwarts, but they can’t decide how it reflects on them.

They cut themselves off before they can get too down about it.

“Dude, it’s cool,” Greenberg assures the rest of the guys. “It’s Black Flag.”

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Dave Grohl and Other Rockers Toast L.A.’s Sound City

Here’s something you don’t get to say too often: It’s a shame when Paul McCartney turns up. Before McCartney arrives, rasping, puppy-eyed, and eager to have a go at the hot new grunge sound of 1993, Dave Grohl’s Sound City is an exciting, sometime illuminating documentary about how a squad of technicians and engineers in a hole-in-the-Valley music studio helped great rock ’n’ rollers make great rock ’n’ roll. Grohl treats us to just more than an hour celebrating the history of Sound City, the Van Nuys dump where a clutch of rock’s great records were bashed out—but the movie’s 107 minutes long.

First, in the ’70s, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks were lured there by a new $75,000 recording console custom designed by Rupert Neve; later, visiting the studio, Mick Fleetwood heard the resulting Buckingham Nicks LP, and soon the guitarists and singers were all balled up together like mating snakes, recording Fleetwood Mac on that Neve console—and establishing Sound City as the source of one of rock’s most glorious drum sounds.

Banging beautifully on a kit, Grohl demonstrates the quality of that Sound City bottom end: that stellar console wired to a drafty room where drums—for whatever reason – boom out loud and alive. The Mac might have made Sound City a name, but much of the music later unleashed there comes from noisier artists: Fear, Dio, Pat Benatar, many ’80s hair bands, Nirvana. “It was like Fleetwood Mac all over again,” Sound City owner Tom Skeeter exclaims of the boomlet he enjoyed after Nevermind dropped, probably the only time anybody linked those two acts. The highlight, both of the studio’s history and the movie, is Tom Petty, whose Heartbreakers rehearsed for the first time and later recorded the urgent Damn the Torpedoes at Sound City.

Damn the Torpedoes exemplifies the crisp, live-band rock sound that room and console excelled at capturing. We see Petty and the band in grubby old video, talking each other through take after take. (“Refugee” alone, we’re told, took 150.) We also see Petty today, top-hatted and Muppet-bearded, warmly and weirdly talking up the place and the sessions Rick Rubin held there with the Heartbreakers backing Johnny Cash, years after other studios had gone digital.

Where we don’t see Petty is in those jam sessions that take up the film’s final half hour. Stevie Nicks, Trent Reznor, Jim Keltner, and Rick Springfield all turn up to play new songs into that vaunted Neve console, now in the possession of Grohl, who purchased it from the now-defunct Sound City. Save McCartney’s song, the new stuff isn’t necessarily bad—Lee Vigner’s is strong, and Reznor’s, a collaboration with Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age, is inspired. But it all follows too much chestbeating about how “real musicians” and “real men” eschew today’s digital recording techniques. Grohl and the band laugh with McCartney about how musicians shouldn’t overthink the craft and performance of rock ’n’ roll—why, then, did Petty do 150 takes? Why does the best surviving Beatle jamming with the survivors of Nirvana not sound as good as Oasis? Great drums, though.

Directed by Dave Grohl. Written by Mark Monroe. Starring Dave Grohl, Tom Skeeter, Stevie Nicks, Butch Vig, Tom Petty, Lee Ving, Rick Rubin, and PaulMcCartney.

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PETTY APPROVED

Does anything say America more than a good ol’ Tom Petty song? Of course, the trouble with being a great American troubadour is having to stop all the crazy Republicans from using your ballads at their rallies. In the past, Petty’s management team has had to put a stop to both Michele Bachmann for the using “American Girl” and George W. Bush for using “Won’t Back Down” without his permission (which, obviously, he wouldn’t have given). But at the two-night Petty Fest, he won’t likely have a problem with all those who’ll be paying tribute to him in song. Norah Jones, Will Forte, Justin Long, and Sammy James Jr. will be among the dozens of performers at this fundraiser for Doctors Without Borders.

Wed., Oct. 5, 8 p.m., 2011

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Jarrod Gorbel

New York-based Gorbel used to play with post-Dashboard emo also-rans the Honorary Title; now he’s touring in support of a recent solo disc he recorded in L.A. with Blake Sennett of Rilo Kiley. The vibe? Tom Petty meets Bright Eyes. With Hurricane Bells and Kaiser Cartel.

Fri., Jan. 28, 9 p.m., 2011

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Tom Petty’s Super Bowl Halftime Show: Thoroughly OK

Now watch the iTunes-chart spike

Most years, the insane level of pageantry is as much the point of the Super Bowl as the actual game. That wasn’t the case last night. Even people who wouldn’t ordinarily give a damn about football understood that this shit was a big deal: an undefeated team working to maintain unprecedented perfection, an unproven underdog fighting to shock the world. For once, nobody’s going to remember the ads or the halftime show nearly as vividly as the Giants’ insane last-minute drive. And the actual pacing of the game seemed to deflect attention from all the noise surrounding it; we’d get long drives, followed by furious barrages of ads, followed by long drives. And even though Fox built up to the game with a maddening, endless four-hour pregame show that forced its team of hyuk-hyuk commentators to share airtime with Ryan Seacrest, the spectacle part of the evening was conspicuously dialed down. Rather than a pregame tribute to the basically nonexistent musical legacy of host-city Phoenix, we got a quick medley from Starbucks-pop megalith Alicia Keys. And rather than an eyeball-melting halftime show from anything as divisive as an actual pop star, we got a quick set from Tom Petty, an unruffleable pro who barely seemed to notice that he was standing on the biggest stage of his life. Petty wasn’t a reason to keep watching at halftime; he was a reason not to change the channel.

Since the whole Janet-Jackson’s-nipple thing, of course, organizers of every major sports event have worked hard to find big musical names who will absolutely not offend. (Seacrest during the pregame: “Word is Tom Petty’s wardrobe is functioning. Thank goodness.”) And Tom Petty fit the bill beautifully. He’s a classic-rock radio mainstay with a ton of great songs. He’s only liable to court controversy when he’s talking about the music business. Nobody hates him, and everybody at least likes “Free Fallin'”; Bill Simmons even has a great column today partly about how that song came to symbolize the Patriots’ Icarus moment. Before the halftime show, Seacrest and assorted other commentators kept calling Petty and the Heartbreakers “one of the greatest rock and roll bands of all time,” but that’s both off the mark and beside the point; it’s more that they’re one of the most solid. And they did exactly what they were supposed to do. They chugged through four pretty great songs, they sounded relaxed and competent, and they offered nothing to complain about beyond the big rushing drums on the “Free Fallin'” bridge going inexplicably missing. Still, as far as showmanship went, this halftime show was a wash almost by design; the only moment of actual spectacle came before Petty even showed his face, when the enormous neon flying-V guitar collided with the enormous neon heart to form the stage on some Voltron shit. (Tom Petty, it should be noted, has probably never picked up a flying-V in his life.) I liked the show just fine, and there was something almost refreshing in seeing someone play four individual songs rather than piling as many choruses as possible into a claustrophobic medley. Still, I wish a great sports moment could’ve had a comparably great pop soundtrack. Last year, Prince proved that it’s actually possible to stage a great Super Bowl halftime show. Tom Petty never tried for greatness because greatness isn’t a part of what he does.

As for the rest of the music on the show, eesh. Alicia Keys’ pregame show was just a remarkable pileup of bad decisions and failed spectacle: the beehive hair, the cameltoe-inducing pantsuit, the stiff banter, the obvious lip-syncing, the randomly rising and falling piped-in fake crowd noise, the awkwardly robotic choreographed dancing. Earlier in the pregame, Willie Nelson and Sara Evans did a version of “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” so sleepy and withdrawn that it barely existed. Jordin Sparks’s national anthem was weirdly subdued by the inflated standards of these things. In the ads, Justin Timberlake and Busta Rhymes and Alice Cooper all made appearances that collectively amounted to pretty much nothing, and I still have no idea why Naomi Campbell and a bunch of CGI lizards were doing the “Thriller” dance. Worst and strangest of all: Paula Abdul. It makes sense that Fox would want to find some room for an American Idol crossover in its broadcast, but I can’t for the life of me imagine why that took the form of the first Abdul performance in forever. Abdul is way too much of a basket case to do an actual live performance, so they were smart to tape her thing on a soundstage somewhere. Still, the thing made it clear that Abdul is maybe the wrong person to judge a televised singing contest. For one thing, she was blatantly lip-syncing, as the headset mic and the T-Pain filter-effect made clear. And she’s not much of a dancer anymore, either; her whole act was elaborately but haphazardly choreographed. She just sort of looked like someone’s drama-nerd mom hosting a high-school talent show, and I was profoundly embarrassed just watching the thing. (Also, the big reveal near the end was Randy Jackson pretending to play guitar, which was at least funny.) The erosion of the monoculture means that the organizers of the Super Bowl, one of the last remaining events that everyone watches, are going to have a hell of a time coming up with music names that everyone knows in future shows. This year, that meant Paula Abdul. God only knows what we’ll get next year.

Voice review: Max Berry on Tom Petty’s Highway Companion
Voice review: Sean Carruthers on Tom Petty’s The Last DJ
Voice review: Matt Ashare on Tom Petty’s Echo