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Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Monday, January 10, 2005

“HANDY MYTH,” SAYS ROBERT CHRISTGAU. HANDY TO WHOM? HANDY HOW?

Via Carl Wilson (who’s fighting the nicotine beast), comes a pdf of lively, thoughtful, interesting pieces on cr-cr-critical issues in music criticism. Sasha Frere-Jones chastens my music-literacy snobbery by arguing that technical musical knowledge (which he possesses) can get in the way of communicating the experience of music, and can lead to the critic valorizing technique above innovation, energy, inspiration -- a useful warning, and I agree that the music illiterates Robert Christgau, Greil Marcus, and Ann Powers have written terrific rockcrit. I’m especially sensitive to the issue because I just read Bob Dylan’s “Chronicles,” and all the way through I was so moved by the sensation that Dylan was writing from *inside* the experience of music in a way that isn’t available to very many people. Sasha is right that you don’t have to know the names of the notes in order to be inside the experience of music, but I still stick with my prejudice, that consciousness of how it feels to make a thing, and consiousness of how the minor seventh chord declining to the flatted-fifth saddens the harmonic stream through which the melody flows -- can enhance writing-as-writing. Good writing does not depend on technical knowledge, but how can technical knowledge hurt a good writer? Amusing coincidence -- just the other day author, blogger, music critic, and political columnist Eric Alterman was complaining at his blog that only people who have written books should be allowed to review them professionally. Ahem. As far as I have been able to discern, Mr. Alterman’s music criticism does not enjoy the benefit of musical literacy.

Illuminating all of this is a handy history of journalistic rock criticism by the self-appointed Dean of American Rock Critics (since ratified by general acclimation), Robert Christgau, which precedes Sasha’s piece at the pdf. Christgau is good on the early history of rock journalism -- I hadn’t known that Richard Goldstein was the first regular rock critic at a major publication, starting at the “Village Voice” in 1965. But Christgau glides over a key event in rockcrit history, and I want some answers, please.

By the late ‘60s, he says, and the advent of the “Rolling Stone” magazine juggernaut, “Blues-and-country-had-a-baby and Sgt.-Pepper-begat-the-concept-album proved handy origin myths.” While Christgau qualifies these and other coins-of-the-rockcrit-realm as “generalizations . . . so sketchy they approach caricature,” he acknowledges that “they sum up the ideology that underlies some gnostic gospel or other at ‘Spin’ and ‘Creative Loafing’ alike, and even in the dailies, where tastes and stylebooks can get pretty hidebound, they pertain big-time.” I should say so.

What Christgau doesn’t quite say is that the myth that blues and country begat rock-and-roll was an American intellectual innovation of the late ‘60s. Music writing before rockcrit started getting institutionalized told the story differently. The liner notes of Elvis’s second RCA album ID rock and roll’s progenitors as blues, country, gospel, and pop. The great jazz critic Martin Williams, in a piece called “One Cheer for Rock and Roll!” from 1965, identified “Negro rhythm and blues” and “Negro gospel music” as rock’s primary “stylistic forebears.” In the first great book on rock (as far as I know, and it’s still one of the greatest), “Rock From the Beginning,” which appeared in 1969, British writer Nik Cohn said that rock ‘n’ roll “was a mixture of two traditions -- Negro rhythm ‘n’ blues and white romantic crooning.”

In these three examples, blues (or rhythm and blues) is mentioned all three times, pop (or crooning) and gospel mentioned twice each, and country mentioned once as the ancestors of rock and roll. This ratio better reflects musical reality than the accepted myth. Sure, rockabilly and Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” wouldn’t have happened without the influence of country, but country isn’t anywhere to be heard in doo wop or girl group, both of which owe a debt to gospel, and both of which were much more influential on subsequent rock than was rockabilly. Motown owes a huge debt to girl group and doo wop, and just about everything since then except metal and punk owes a huge debt to Motown.

The “Rolling Stone” coterie eliminated pop and gospel from the creation myth. Robert Christgau says this was handy. I can think of a few ways why and how it could have been handy, and none of them are flattering, and I’m sure they’re not what Robert Christgau meant.

Elevating country to be one of two primary parents inflates the apparent influence of white people on the rock and roll style. I can see how this could be handy for white people’s self image and for sales, but it doesn’t actually increase knowledge -- in Christgau’s terms, it’s something worse than “pretty dumb.”

Less immediately insidiously, elimating pop and gospel from the story is “handy” because it allows “rock criticism [to embrace] a dream or metaphor of perpetual revolution,” as Christgau rightly says rockcrit did. Pre-rock pop, with its middle class yearnings, is not a revolutionary mode; gospel, with its religious mandates, isn’t either -- at least not according to white people who aren’t hip to the history of the civil rights struggles. Now, I know that Christgau happens to be hip to the church’s centrality in the civil rights struggles, which makes it particularly disappointing that he lets this myth slide. (And hey Mr. Professional Writer, envying the blogger’s unlimited word count isn’t going to win you any sympathy in this discussion, should you choose to discuss -- it’s no excuse.)

Country and blues aren’t particularly revolutionary modes either, but -- aha! -- they are blue-collar identified, as pop isn’t, and without benefit of clergy, as gospel is a blue collar genre too. And the “Rolling Stone” coterie pinned their revolutionary metaphor on class imagery. Not actual class struggle (at least not in most cases), but class imagery.

As a result of this revolution in class imagery, men no longer have to wear hats in public, women no longer have to wear dresses, blue jeans are no longer the sole property of outdoor laborers, and rich people can easily pass themselves off as middle class. While I enjoy casual Fridays as much as the next hippie, the biggest beneficiaries of this revolution in imagery have been the wicked oppressing rich. Meet John Doe, baby, I’d rather have a beer with (that alcoholic) George Bush than that snob John Kerry, Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich talked about a revolution too, and Fox News is so far the only broadcaster to abandon the traditional brass & drum sound for a wailing electric guitar.

The biggest loser in rockcrit’s embrace of revolutionary class imagery and blue collar myths of origin has been music criticism. When the origin myth flies in the face of the musical facts, maintaining the boundaries of the genre becomes more about policing the imagery and ideology than about listening to the sound. This pertains to the recent blog-discussion of misogyny in hip hop -- as I said then, Rock Loves the Bad Boy. In music history, about the time of the launch of hip hop (or shortly after -- my history is amateurishly fuzzy here), techno and house were taking off too. The ideology police of “Rolling Stone” and its stylistic descendants embraced rap as the new rock bad boy and left the true musical “revolutionaries” have their hedonistic all-night dance parties without nearly as much glare of media attention. Techno and house had it all over hip hop in the rhythmic innovation department, and were its equal in the sonic (or tone color) innovation department too -- and they were both equally the children of the funk (and the grandchildren of Motown, and the great-grandchildren of gospel). The ‘50s rock-and-roll explosion was all about the hedonism, but the late ‘60s rockwriters fell in love with rebellion, and so stay-at-home-on-my-butt radio listener and magazine reader me knows the big names of hip hop, but all I know about techno is the scraps I’ve heard in coffee shops and on the radio and the occasional all-ages rave I crashed as a chubbifying 30-something. (“Not bad,” a very well-dressed 16 year old stranger once said as he patted me on the shoulder as I sweatily and sloppily left the dance floor -- a compliment I will cherish till the grave.) Nobody to blame for that but me, but a rockcrit as interested in music as much as ideology and imagery could have helped me out here.

If “blues-and-country-had-a-baby” was a “handy myth” in other ways, I sure would be interested to know just how.


UPDATE Jan. 11, 10:00 pm: Further thoughts here, including a confession regarding my confusion about the difference between acclimation and acclamation. I meant to say the latter, not the former.

Comments:
Country music was a definite influence on early rock and roll, via Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and other Sun Studio artists. The country inflected rock and roll fell out of favor after Elvis joined the Army, to be replaced by the white crooners (Pat Boone, Fabian).
 
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