Perfect Sound Forever

Talkin' Post-Modern Semi-Popular Blues

Interrogation by Jason Gross (March 1997)
Transcription by Joe Yanosik

If you've done any reading on rock music, you've heard of Robert Christgau, aka The Dean. He was there when nobody was really writing about rock in the mid-60's. He's been the music editor for the Village Voice for decades and written for Playboy, Esquire and Newsday among others. He's taken pot-shots from Sonic Youth, Graham Parker, Lou Reed and Public Enemy with good grace, not to mention the many scribes who've printed cheap shots about him. After all of this he hasn't lost his love of music and his compulsion to write about it and assign letter grades to records and CD's. Years ago when I first caught his Consumer Guide reprinted in Creem, I thought it was a cute novelty. Twenty years later, I anxiously await his monthly column in the Voice to see what gems he's dug up and sop up his hip, none-too-gentle humor which doesn't piss all over the reader (unlike a lot of other music writers). Obviously someone agrees with me- it's been adapted by hundreds of music publications worldwide as a review system. In between all of his other work, he's preparing a history of popular music for publication hopefully soon.

I got a chance to talk with him about an old concern and a new one: the semi-popular music he first theorized about in the late sixties and the rash of what's called 'post-modern' music that floods the market today.

PSF: You talk a lot about 'post-modern' music in your writing. How would you actually define it?

XGAU: It has two different meanings. Post-modern that is the term that the extremely crass trade magazine HITS used to describe what I'd call post-punk or Amerindie. It was around 1990 and I don't know who coined it but I wouldn't put it past Roy Trakin who's a bright guy: HITS is a rather wonderful magazine that probably runs on payola, cost six dollars an issue. You find an enormous amount of good music and a lot of irreverent stuff there. So anyway, in a general way, it's just another word for what's called 'alternative.' I began feeling extremely suspicious of this term and it's become an academic phenomenon, I continue to be suspicious of it. It was around '83 or '84 in academic discourse that it arose and I first noticed it. One of the many vague and sometimes contradictory things it implies is an aesthetic of what Dick Hebdige called a 'bricolage.' Rock critics called it 'eclecticism' back in 1967 though it's become plainly more self-conscious, more complex. It uses far more varied materials. It's the old aesthetic of a smooth integration of these materials into a one whole, slowly giving way to one in which showing the seams of the music is considered pleasurable in itself with a correlative in so-called 'lo-fi.'

In that respect, it seems to me as if both the most vital and the most dismaying aspects of artistically self-concious pop music/rock of today are "post-modern". That is to say, rather than inventing new formal materials ( and I would say probably the last time new formal materials introduced into rock and roll were in the funk era). I would have to think about that generalization more. I could probably think of other stuff, but letís say thatís true for now. Or re-investing old styles with new energy as do two of my favorite records of this year (the Amy Rigby record and the Fluffy record), which are not at all formally adventurous but which I think are 2 of the very best records of this year because theyíre done with such conviction and such talent. What happens instead is that stuff is recombined...most encouragingly itís been true for a long time in hip-hop and hip-hop-related music... this year, the great example being the DJ Shadow album.

On the other hand, this also happens in this rather retro R&B record that I really like a lot by Tone Toni Tone in which they jump from style to style and say they can do them all and mix in other little things. It happens actually in a lot of the modern R&B which could really be a growth area in the years to come, I think. But the other thing that happens and it happens a lot in alternative is that bands become so immersed in the history of guitar, guitar, bass and drums (which is a vast, long, rich, varied history) that what they do is they just try and figure out some way, to their own satisfaction, of carving out a little piece of turf. They take a little bit of this and a little bit of that until they believe that their recipe is different than anybody elseís recipe and believing that that constitutes a kind of musical originality, which as far as anybody besides their best friends are concerned, it doesnít. Part of the reason is because the other stuff thatís supposed to go with those forms such as songcraft and stagecraft are not paid much attention to.

PSF: Do you think itís necessarily a trap if performers are doing "older" styles of music and then seeming to be outdated? Letís say that someoneís doing an old style of blues or country, then itís not kind of regarded as fitting in to this new style if theyíre not I guess doing it ironically or with a nod and a wink.

XGAU: Right, oh, yeah, definitely. Definitely. Although, indeed, itís not easy to take forms which have already undergone 4 or 5 revivals and revive them yet again. Do you ever read Raymond Williams? Heís a literary critic. The greatest critic of the century in my opinion. One of his essays in a book called "Problems in Materialism and Culture", he talks about emergent and residual forms and the point he wanted to make was that some art is residual, that is to say, itís based on already well-explored and utilized forms and that does not, in itself, mean it is not vital.

Thereís no reason why Robert Cray, say, canít make really good blues records, which are not exactly like old blues records but which certainly utilize a lot of the materials of old blues records, and which sound very much like old blues records to people who arenít really attuned to the tradition heís working in. Nevertheless, theyíre wonderful records cause heís wonderful- this guy figured out how to do it, and it means something to him in some way, and, you know, in theory, thereís no reason this canít happen forever. In practice, there does seem to be a diminishing return on any set of formal usages. The blues are extremely durable ones and so are the formal useages of punk, which are not dissimilar.

PSF: I was wondering, also as regards to this, do you think part of this phenomenon is related to pop cultureís insistence on constant new styles and new artists?

XGAU: Sure. But I donít regard that by any means as an altogether unhealthy thing. I think if it wasnít that pop culture insisted in just that way, a lot of stuff would never have happened. I think that there are some more specific and less salutory marketing reasons right now that the search for novelty is producing some pretty disposable art which is MTV, or MTV used as shorthand for the visualization of Rock and Roll and also a certain confusion within the record industry about artist development and what it means. Iím not a businessman, but it doesnít seem to me this is pre-ordained. The economics of the record industry are that if you can find yourself one "Jagged Little Pill", and if Alanis Morissette or Hootie never sells 2 million copies of a record again, youíre ahead of the game. Thatís the way to do it. Thatís where you make your money. And thatís not to say I think "Jagged Little Pill" is a bad record because Iíve come to like it more and more. I think itís a rather good record.

Where you make money is by looking for either a novelty or a big score. I mean I could be wrong, because I havenít researched it in any sort of way, but I bet that nobody at Maverick nor Alanis Morisette herself believe that sheís gonna mean shit in 3 years. They will recognize her as a generational phenomenon, which is clearly what she is. One reason Iíve gotten to like the record is that my daughter over the last year and a half has gone from 10 to 11 and a half and asked me to get her the record for xmas and so forth so she could have her own copy and play it in her room. But just for that reason, BECAUSE it has such a generational focus, those people will get older and Alanis Morisetteís gonna be some place else. I mean, sheís a savvy person. Sheís putting her money away. Iím sure she has a long term career plan- sheíll become an actress again. But I suspect thatís what everybody thinks and it doesnít make for a kind of catalogue artistry in which people who really like pop music tend to revel, luxuriate.

PSF: What do you think might be the implications of all this or where it might be heading? It could turn in on itself, it could create new vital forms. What do you think could be happening with it?

XGAU: I donít know. I honestly donít know. Iím not feeling very optimistic about guitar bands these days. I mean certainly shitís gonna have to shake out and to me it seems pretty clear to me that the whole notion of alternative as itís been defined in the wake of Nirvana doesnít have a lot of juice left. Itís at the end of its string.

That doesnít mean some other kind of alternative wonít continue to exist. Thatís the thing I would never say. Guitar bands have been around for too fucking long for me to tell you theyíre gonna go away next year, I mean as an artistic force, clearly as a commercial force theyíll be around. But somehow I donít expect Nirvana is gonna arise but then, you know, no one thought the first Nirvana was gonna arise either. I didnít, and there I was, watching that music like a hawk. Just as they began to break, I wrote a piece about the CMJ Festival Conference of that year in which I said that Gerard Cosloy would be alternative soundbite king if alternative was important enough to get on television. Well, you know, four months later, there it was. And I knew about that record, I knew it was a good record, you know. I didnít miss that record. I played it, I liked it the first time I played it, reviewed it early before I knew it was gonna be a hit. But who knew how good it was? I didnít know how good it was, I just knew it was good.

PSF: I wanted to ask you a couple of questions about semi-popular music, a term you coined. I was wondering what was your original thinking behind this, when the idea came to you?

XGAU: I was sitting there stoned at a party for the Young Lords (laughs) and I began to argue with somebody about Iggy Pop. I just began to think about what it was I was listening to. A lot of things you probably never heard of like Nolan Porter and the first Flying Burrito Brothers album which I loved and which, at that point, had made very little impact. And I could just see what was happening. My thinking was that, inevitably, it was becoming self-concious and purely aesthetic. Did you ever see the essay in which this was first discussed? Itís in "Any Old Way You Choose It". You ever see it?

PSF: Iíve been looking for that for a while. Is that gonna be reprinted?

XGAU: (Laughs) It was supposed to be and then the academic house that was gonna reprint it insulted me by refusing to give me an advance and I withdrew the deal. It wonít be out for a year and a half. But thatís where I talk about it at length in that essay. Itís called "Rock is Obsolescent, But So Are You."

PSF: What about with relation to today, do you think that thatís still a valid point about a lot of music you hear?

XGAU: Yeah, I think now itís what happens. The only problem is that in the current alternative environment, the whole notion that this has anything to do with popular is often lost sight of, stupidly. But my assumption that you start with the charts and work from there is certainly not shared by a younger generation of rock fans or rock critics.

PSF: With relation to that again, I was discussing with somebody about the dBís, an he insisted to me that he didnít think they were pop music because they were an underground phenomenon. Does your thinking about that go against his idea then?

XGAU: Well, I think itís an arguable point. It depends on how you define pop music. If you wanna define pop music as music that sells a certain number of copies and reaches a certain audience, then they werenít pop music. But their formal ideas came from pop music and they themselves, Iím sure, would describe what they do as pop music. And you know, for instance, Peter Holsappleís subsequent career as an advisor to both R.E.M. and Hootie & the Blowfish suggests that he must have had some insight into this sort of thing, right? (laughs).

To me, I think pop music at this point has come to be more a formal than a sociological or commercial description. In so far as it is, to say the dBís arenít pop music is nonsense. But commercially, they werenít pop music. One other thing that might be said however, is that then you look at the numbers of how many records they did sell. Now if they were an avant-garde group, they probably sold 20,000 copies of each of these albums and if any so-called avant-garde performer were to attract an audience of 20,000, theyíd be in hog heaven so thereís that too.

PSF: Before I was talking to you about semi-popular music and you were talking about how it kind of applied today, and I was wondering if you thought that if what they kind of term alternative music has kind of changed the field for this kind of music at all?

XGAU: Well, alternative is semi-popular music that has forgotten its roots. Alternative inherits the semi-popular aesthetic without understanding where itís from, thatís forgotten that it was ever popular, without really understanding. I think emotionally, sensibility-wise, the whole idea of alternative is that it isnít popular; in some sense, itís anti-popular music as opposed to semi-popular music.

PSF: Isnít that kind of a contradiction though since a lot of it in the last few years has managed to sell well?

XGAU: Well, not as far as the people who take the idea seriously are concerned. The bands are obviously faced with a certain philosophical dilemma. But I actually think that the bands do continue to understand it in an emotional way because in fact they want to sell a lot of records, or at least they think it might be cool to sell a lot of records. You know the song on the Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments record about "The Rock Ďní Roll Hall of Fame"?

PSF: Oh, yeah. Where they say theyíre gonna see Eric Claptonís dead baby and David Crosby's liver?

XGAU: Thatís right. You know, thatís a good take on that. Itís more the fans than ideologues though. And I just think thatís the reason we get a lot of lame music. It gets hyped to the skies besides in fanzines and lower level alternative press. Iím not saying that this isnít a genuine dilemma or that bad things canít happen to your music when the wrong people like it but itís part of the danger of doing it.

PSF: But the things youíre talking about arenít necessarily new. The fact that there are fanzines around that dig up these lesser-known bands, that even if these bands are small time, they eventually do, at some level or another, want to be accepted by a larger audience.

XGAU: Some of them do, some of them donít. Some of them donít give it much thought, I think. Some of them are genuinely surprised when it happens.

PSF: But what do you think has been different about alternative or semi-popular music recently?

XGAU: Well, I mean, everything changed with Nirvana. Thatís all. Before Nirvana, there was REM, a very important phenonemenon. The other thing I would say is that there has been no diminuition in the number of obscure releases or marginal print or on-line journals in which such consumer items are discussed. I would say thereís probably more now than there were 5 years ago.

PSF: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Just look at our zine...

XGAU: And that isnít entirely because there are thousands of bands trying to jump on the gravy train, forming bands like Better than Ezra. I actually think itís just that a certain level of action was occasioned by this explosion and a lot of people just fall in between. Maybe people who arenít especially bright or creative or driven to create music are more likely to make music whereas the truly bright and creative people are turned off by the whole process. It seems less hip to them so theyíre not gonna participate in the same certain numbers.

PSF: Do you have any examples in mind about this?

XGAU: Silverchair is the perfect example. I have no personal contempt for them. They're too young. What can you fault them for? They just went out and wanted to make a record and they're totally unoriginal. They probably won't be around for too long. They epitomize what I'm talking about. On the other hand, they are a lot of people who form bands who know a lot, who are more subtle and they're more imaginitive than Silverchair and they're are of a little more value to me. You know, it's stuff that's not so horrible but I hope that I never had to play again. Luckily, it's possible to buy another record instead.