Pop Art by Robert Christgau: In It for the Art
The veteran rock critic explains his approach to music writing, which explains how he can lump both Jason Derulo and Hamell on Trial together.
Anyone wondering how that guy who grades albums like a damn college professor got a column in the bible of the music business should consider one factoid. At 72, that guy has been covering what we'll call rock and roll longer than anyone in America: 47 years, and not bored for five minutes running unless you count three to four hundred terrible opening acts.
There will always be artists who think critics are nitpicking parasites and always be bizzers who think critics are naysaying snobs. But do the math, guys and dolls. You don't review 14,000 albums — 9,000 of them positively, by the way — unless you're having fun. In fact, I promise I'll cover a couple more before I'm through with this. So you bet I love music. But here in the bible of the music business, let me point out that that wasn't exactly why I got into this line of work, and also isn't exactly why I've stuck at it.
As a recovering English major who was deep into Beckett, Antonioni and Thelonious Monk, I started writing about rock and roll under the influence of Pop painters like Andy Warhol and Tom Wesselmann, whose celebrity silkscreens and still-lifes of consumer goods helped me suss the aesthetic legitimacy of my own less highfalutin enthusiasms, from James Bond movies and Roger Craig's pickoff move to, especially, Top 40 radio. Pop, I mused — what's that about? I didn't reject the "serious" stuff — the abstract expressionists the Pop guys superceded, say. But I was so attracted to less pretentious creative endeavors that I reached some incoherent conclusions I was too quick to call a theory of pop.
A lot later Thomas Schatz called his history of Hollywood The Genius of the System, and that was the kind of thing I was driving at — that most music bizzers did actually value music, and that the pressure to tailor it to consumers could be exploitative and beneficial at the same time. But the music business has never been as complex as Hollywood. It has fewer moving parts. So we're right to honor the many independent entrepreneurs, studio meddlers, freelance noodlers, and lucky ducks who've given us records we'll remember all our lives. And we're also right to suspect that without corporatization, we would never have heard many of those records, for lack not just of distribution but of creative motivation.
Where prospective movie makers back then recognized that they were entering a big business, people who wanted to make music often didn't — they just wanted people they'd never met to hear their voices. That doesn't mean they were unaware when they ventured into the studio that the people who could help them be heard had already set up shop — just that they often didn't like how the biz worked when they found out. This contradiction came to a head with the American rock of the post-Beatles '60s, which was dominated by former folkies who distrusted the music business on principle. The same was pretty much true of early rock criticism.
But although the leftward tilt of my politics back then was permanent, and although I figured correctly that too many young artists were getting cheated, anti-commercialism was never my line. I liked hooks and hits and DJ patter; I liked Motown and bubblegum; I preferred The Who Sell Out to Tommy. And because I'd heard a lot of jazz, I was underwhelmed by the cult of the guitar solo. So I firmly believed that rock wasn't about musicianship. It was about concept and short-fast-songs-with-a-good-beat.
Only it turned out this wasn't exactly true, because while I lacked the technical savvy to break it down, I liked musicianship fine. Almost everyone who's attracted to music does, even if they cream for punk naïfs and cheap guitars like me. In fact, musicianship often matters in what seem to be the crudest settings. If you don't believe me, ask some professors: SUNY Albany musicologist Albin Zak on the jazz pros who swung the Crows' "stiff, downbeat-heavy" "Gee," or Long Ryders bassist turned Ohio State theoretician Barry Shank explaining how the Velvet Underground's simplistic rock jelled around John Cale's La Monte Young-schooled proficiency at sustaining a drone.
So of course I love the music of what we'll call rock and roll, which remains the best catchall I know for all the beat-driven popular music of the past 60 years, from Chuck Berry to EDM. I love its profusion of individually distinct grooves and individually vernacular voices, I love its catchy licks and hooks of every description. I love its many lyrics — popular song is our great treasure-house of plainspoken concision and wit. I even love some guitar solos. Moreover, I recognize that no matter how simple they seem, all these attractions are often undergirded by unheralded sleights of harmonic legerdemain as well as unpaid hours of practice practice practice.
But I'm still disinclined to get preachy about how much I love music. It's much too short a hop from there to the kind of soppy rhetoric that dilutes thought whatever its truth value: talk about how music "eases our pain," "brings us together," even — this one is so messed up — "makes us human." Instead I'd rather say I'm in it for the art.
In the '60s, the entrancing notion that "rock" was "art" gave millions of people the wrong idea as vast vagaries of piffle floated our way. And although common sense and capitalism soon brought music down to earth, prog stayed with us in multifarious guises — many of today's alternative bands scorn straightforward beats and song structures in pursuit of a bloodless intricacy. But there's so much more out there.
As I troll through dozens of albums a week, the best of them many times, I almost always find a few more that change the way I perceive the world a little and tickle my pleasure receptors in a fresh way. I hear voices I've never encountered before. I reassess old ones. In short, I find new art. Sometimes I find it in the most calculated, apparently shallow studio concoctions. Sometimes I even find it in what my arrogant younger self would have dismissed as folk music.
Albums accomplish this better than singles, often by exploiting our craving for musical confection to expose us to harder stuff — savories, meat and potatoes, crusty bread, tropical fruit. One of the two I've had on my mind while writing this is a best seller. The other is by a 59-year-old who's been taking his 1937 Gibson on the road for decades. Neither has gotten the recognition it deserves. Say hello to Jason Derulo's Talk Dirty and Hamell on Trial's The Happiest Man in the World.
Granted, Derulo's never all that hard. His third album comprises 11 songs about pragmatically carnal sex so mind-blowing that three times he proposes matrimony behind it. I value both sex and matrimony too much to recommend this life strategy. But compared to the predatory Chris Brown of "Loyal" or the chauvinistic Trey Songz of "Foreign," he's so exuberant and playful he helps me get why guys and dolls fall for it — even share their thrills some, vicariously. And his command of contemporary hookcraft is musicianship aplenty by me.
Hamell's musicianship is of a different order — he's so loud and intense he can rock out solo acoustic as hard as AC/DC. Carnal sexwise, his life experience has been such that two songs celebrate his stripper friend Jennifer with the special needs kid. The lead track lifts a long intro from the great tradition to get us to the point — from "If God is a concept by which we measure our pain, then a-wop-bop-a-lop-ba-lop-bam-boom is my God" to "And I'm an artist in America/I'm an artist in America/I steal I'm real I kneel to no livin' soul."
Believe me, there are still a lot of them out there.
Robert Christgau's monthly column for Billboard does what the author has done nonstop since 1967: say smart things about the art of pop, popular and semipopular music, and sometimes the business, too.
This article originally appeared on Billboard.com.