Making book on rock 'n' rool

The dean's list
By MARK MOSES  |  November 6, 2006

Everybody knows that the first rock critics were those sweaty adolescents who got dragged up to American Bandstand’s Rate-a-Record display by Dick Clark. And this was eons before any sort of literary dissection of Blonde on Blonde. However tidy it may seem to match pithy music with a comment as pithy as “I give it a 93, Mr. Clark – it’s a cinch to pony to,” rock ‘n’ roll’s potential (or should I say stomach?) for discourse quickly outgrew such comments. Rock ‘n’ roll’s rather unliterary formal crudity (in flux, as ever) and its assumed status as a “mere” popular music (in decline) seem to warrant exegesis as a phenomenon even while discouraging it as a matter of principle. So, it’s no surprise that the best rock criticism harnesses a lot of rock ‘n’ roll’s best aesthetic impulses. Both performers and critics try to steer clear of elitism; both try to make connections between the music and the rest of the world; both aim for a pointed vivacity, whether brutish or snappy. Gee, it sounds like rock criticism’s only problem is that you can’t dance to it.

A self-avowed bad dancer himself, the Village Voice’s Robert Christgau, of all rock critics, has most directly translated rock ‘n’ roll’s punch and bravado to the page. In fact, he looms over the Land of Rock-Crit with the same impossible force of personality as many a rock ‘n’ roller. If only by the tone of his writing, Christgau means to shake you up. Or, as he puts it, “I’d always believed that rock criticism should piss people off…I hope the result comes across both considered and immediate, like good rock ‘n’ roll.” Although this friskiness often turns abrasive, Christgau also shares a strain of populism that runs gratifyingly through much of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s Christgau’s pragmatism even more than the deliberate inelegance of his style, that’s evident in the format of his monthly Consumer Guide. Since 1969, the notorious Christgau’s Consumer Guide has rated 20 albums a month, devoting a short paragraph to each and affixing a grade from A plus to E minus at the end of each comment. It’s the most consciously broad utilitarian discussion of current rock ‘n’ roll around. Hell, it’s almost as helpful as Rate-a-Record. The selection sprawls purposefully from the top of the pops to critics’ tips, from SoHo’s coffee-table artifacts to suburbia’s. Of course, the choice of records is skewed, simulating a random sample while being anything but.

Compiling as well as rewriting the Consumer Guides of the ‘70s, adding twice again as many evaluations along with introductory essays on the decade and his grading system, Christgau’s Record Guide (Ticknor & Fields, 472 pp., $9.95) manages both a critic’s acuity and a compiler’s thoroughness. That’s not to say that every pop LP of the ‘70s appears here, only that even the book’s omissions and glossing-overs yield their own evaluation. After all, if you intend to present the ‘70s as an endless succession of product, your point of view depends a lot on which product you choose to consider. Only two Barbra Streisand albums (out of … don’t ask) are listed; only one Rush album, and nary a Styx or an Andy Gibb release. Although Christgau writes about his share of purely popular music, these absences tell another story. “Given the inevitable exceptions and time lag,” Christgau notes in an opening essay on the Consumer Guide itself, “the way to find good music in 1969 was the same as in 1954 and 1964 – by turning on the radio and watching the charts… Not all of the most popular rock was good, but most of the good rock seemed to be popular.” During the ‘70s, though, it soon became a critical commonplace to ignore the dross that floated to the top of the charts in favor of the quirkier stuff at the depths.

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