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GROWN UP ALL WRONG: 75 Great Rock and Pop Artists from Vaudeville to Techno;\o7 By Robert Christgau; (Harvard University Press: 496 pp., $29.95)\f7

May 30, 1999|JON WIENER | Jon Wiener, who teaches history at UC Irvine, is the author of "Come Together: John Lennon in His Time."

Rock criticism once seemed as ephemeral as the '60s underground press that nourished it. But it turns out to be one feature of that era that has not just survived but flourished in the subsequent three decades. It has now achieved a new kind of cultural status with the publication by Harvard University Press of a nearly 500-page collection of work by Robert Christgau of the Village Voice, one of the greats of the genre.

Until the mid-'60s, the only place you could read about rock 'n' roll was in teen fan mags. Then a few rebellious young types--guys mostly--became convinced that the music merited more serious reflection and that you could write about it with brains and style. In the Village Voice and the San Francisco Express-Times and early rock mags like Dave Marsh's Creem and then in Rolling Stone, this new kind of music writing was characterized by "wild verbiage, polemical disputation, and lofty thoughts." These excesses were journalistic no-nos for the mainstream magazines, but as Christgau explains, "the '60s were ripe for all of them."

In a fascinating introduction to this collection of 25 years of his writing, Christgau reflects on the beginning of rock criticism, when rock and revolution seemed obviously related. "I saw pop as class warfare," he writes; "I told myself that because it was anti-hierarchical, pop was not merely anti-authoritarian . . . but also democratic, communitarian, and even (propelled by that big beat) militant." Today he sorrowfully concedes that these are "progressively more dubious propositions."

But long after the dissolution of the utopian hopes of the '60s, Christgau is hardly alone in expecting rock to be at least subversive and preferably transgressive and that it can even "play a role in making change happen." He still believes rock to be a music in which "one's hopes for democracy are fortified against all the instances in which they've been smashed or distorted or cynically manipulated." If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem: Christgau firmly believes that "bad music is bad for you"--all the more reason for a critic to help readers find and hear the "good stuff."

So this volume includes 75 essays on the good stuff. All were previously published, mostly as weekly journalism in the Village Voice and mostly pegged to a live concert or new album. The earliest date is from the early '70s, the most recent from last year. They are arranged by decade, starting before rock with a wonderful Nat King Cole essay, and go on to cover the '50s and '60s classics, then the punk revolution, funk and black dance music, world music, the more recent semi-triumphs of P.J. Harvey and Sam Phillips, ending with essays on three "noblemen" of pop--funk-meister George Clinton, soul man Al Green and rock survivor Neil Young.

Serious writers on rock these days fall into one of three camps. The '60s survivors and the punk rebels both see music as an unending struggle of the authentic against the commercial. The postmodern crowd in contrast sees all previously existing sounds, whatever their style or substance, as equal fodder in providing material for mixing, for bricolage. Christgau holds to a third world view, the paradigm of the great schism. According to this analysis, American music changed forever around 1955, when Elvis, Little Richard and Chuck Berry challenged bland pop crooning and safe show tunes, and rock helped unleash "powerful new racial and sexual forces." Advocates of the great schism theory--most of whom were teenagers in the late '50s--knew there was something authentic about those voices of rock but didn't see the world of commerce corrupting their music; on the contrary, commerce provided the field on which rock 'n' roll contended for victory over soft pop. Topping the hit parade or going gold provided the criterion for success.

Christgau has a lot of respect for the intelligence of his readers. He takes seriously many of the issues raised by recent scholarship in cultural studies: that pop music is a collectively produced cultural practice; that it involves not just individual artists expressing themselves but a nexus that includes record execs, video makers, radio programmers and, above all, fans, all of whom shape and define the experience of the music.

Christgau writes about that nexus, but his focus is on understanding the music rather than advancing the theory. His real interests are the artists and their personas. In the end, even though he knows about deconstructing rock as a text, Christgau is an old-fashioned humanist who happily concedes that "artists create art." He also affirms the "utopian suspicion that justice has something to do with fun" and looks for music that can "help a person do the dishes or stay awake on the interstate, get through a bad night or a good marriage"--and he's not ashamed to add that he's also looking for music that can help us "know beauty and feel truth."

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