Christgau's Consumer Guide: Albums of the '90s
(St. Martin's Griffin)
By Kevin John
Robert Christgau began his writing career in 1967--the same year Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band solidified the status of the album as the primary bearer of meaning in pop music. It didn't take him long to formalize this development in his Consumer Guide column for the Village Voice, where he doled out letter grades for a pack of new releases every month. As he parlayed the template into a series of guides--one for the 70s, then one for the 80s--the album remained king, with only a minor challenge from the ill-fated Personics system on the cusp of the 90s. Today, however, the Internet seems poised to do what even Sony couldn't, and you don't have to read a word of Christgau's new Albums of the '90s to feel that threat--it's in the very design of the book.
In late 1990, Christgau revamped the Consumer Guide column by augmenting the letter-graded reviews with several subsections: Honorable Mention, Choice Cuts (off crappy or so-so records), and Duds. Of the three, only Honorable Mention includes commentary, usually a brief quip like "autumnal Austin" (about Terry Allen's Human Remains) and the identification, without justification, of the two or three best tracks. In the paper these addenda are aligned neatly off to the side of the main column, but in the new book, along with a previously unpublished category called Neither (encompassing ho-hum albums that don't fit into any of the other categories), the opaque tidbits are scattered into the spaces between the reviews. Compare this mess to the 70s and 80s guides, which were as straightforward as the dictionary, with neat columns of alphabetically organized album reviews in the front and various lists and one-liners relegated to the back as appendices.
The chaotic layout of the 90s tome reflects the LP's precarious position in the digital era, which Christgau himself sums up decisively in his review of the James Brown box set Star Time: "If James Brown is the greatest popular musician of the era, how come he's never put out an album this convincing himself--not even Sex Machine?" he writes. "Does he know something about records that we don't? Is it possible they're not so important after all?" Like Napster, his Honorable Mention and Choice Cuts categories crumble the album into discrete units.
In other ways, though, the book reads as an argument for the album's continued hegemony. Christgau contradicts conclusions he's drawn elsewhere--namely, in the annual Village Voice Pazz & Jop issue, of which he is the longtime grand pooh-bah--turning a blind eye to the increasing import of the decontextualized song. In the introductory essay to Albums of the '90s, he chooses Faith Hill as an example of how country music failed to "revitalize the formularistic in the '90s." Yet in 1998 he named Hill's "The Secret of Life" one of his top ten singles. The implication here is that even the best single doesn't have the revitalizing power of an album.
And then there's the case of Jaydee's "Plastic Dreams"--a Booker T.-gone-house fantasia released stateside by Epic in 1993. Christgau named "Plastic Dreams" his favorite single in the '93 Pazz & Jop poll, yet the only place it shows up in the 90s guide is in an Honorable Mention quip for Epic's Welcome to the Future compilation. Why is this single--the shining example of how the supposedly inorganic rhythms of 90s dance music could ooze grease as audaciously as an A-plus jazz record like David Murray's Shakill's Warrior--any less worthy of a whole paragraph than, say, an A-minus album like Yo La Tengo's Painful? Especially to a man who described one of his favorite singles of all time, T.S. Monk's "Bon Bon Vie," as "worth the price of an LP"?
Christgau is one of a small coterie of academics who took it upon themselves early on to elevate rock writing to the level of art in its own right, or at least an undergraduate approximation thereof. Hence Christgau's nickname, the Dean; hence the letter grades. The album, with all its potential for the development of themes, lent itself well to this approach. But over the course of the past decade, the aesthetic and economic focus of the industry has begun to shift back to the single, and not just on-line--witness the phenomenal commercial success of Virgin's K-tel-style Now That's What I Call Music comps. The single, unfortunately, doesn't always give up its secrets so easily. Christgau's analysis of Chuck Berry's oeuvre in a 1972 essay--collected in the recently expanded version of his first book, Any Old Way You Choose It--shows the strain of his effort to squeeze meaning from the lyrics:
"The reason Berry's rock and roller was capable of such insightful excursions into the teen psyche--'Sweet Little Sixteen,' a celebration of everything lovely about fanhood, or 'Almost Grown,' a first-person expression of adolescent rebellion that sixties youthcult pundits should have studied some--was that he shared a crucial American value with Brown Eyes ['the black half of his persona']," he writes. "That value was fun....Fun was what teen revolt had to be about--inebriated affluence versus the hangover of the work ethic. It was the only practicable value in the Peter Pan utopia of the American dream." And that's with the benefit of nearly 20 years of hindsight. In Albums of the '90s, about the Backstreet Boys' "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)," he can muster only "guaranteed pop classic."
Fun is cheaper and faster than it used to be, and the old-fashioned role of rock critic as heavy contextualizer will only get harder as the music industry learns to codify the aesthetic and economic value of MP3s. Christgau himself has admitted that it's not easy to keep up; in a recent interview, he told Perfect Sound Forever's Jason Gross that a year ago he considered trashing the Consumer Guide concept altogether. Instead, he's attempted to remodel it for the times--and though Albums of the '90s may not be the most complete or comprehensible guide to current music, it is certainly an interesting snapshot of a tense transitional period.