by Perry Meisel
I met Robert Christgau in the fall of 1975, fresh out of graduate school at Yale, and teaching as an assistant professor of English at NYU. I had written rock and jazz criticism for Crawdaddy and The Boston Phoenix, and had had excellent editors – John Swenson and Ben Gerson. Christgau, however, was different; he was the Dean of American Rock Criticism. Nor was it, as every rock critic knows deep down, an inappropriate moniker.
As I crossed Eighth Street that afternoon, going from my office at NYU up University Place to the Voice, the autumn air was suddenly fresher. I had left my academic colleagues behind – puffy men gnawing their prejudices with ghastly satisfaction. Real criticism beckoned. We talked mostly about jazz-rock "fusion," a big but dubious thing at the time. Stanley Clarke. Grover Washington. The singing George Benson. "Do you really like this stuff?" he asked.
Not entirely, I replied. I'm ambivalent about it. It regrets its rocking impulses too much. But it's a historical inevitability. It simply hasn't been done right. There's a grammar of pop that demands it. Maybe somebody besides Miles Davis will figure it out.
He kindled. The conversation had begun. He sent me off to review Larry Coryell at the Village Gate. Talk about ambivalence! I sweated like hell, almost as much as Coryell himself did, trying to reconcile his funk drives with his learning. This wasn't just the central tension in jazz-rock "fusion"; it was also the central tension in rock criticism, especially on my end.
I pored over Any Old Way You Choose It umpteen times, languishing in its cadences and doing my damnedest to get "personal" the way Bob did. After all, I was, despite my earlier music writing and even my long experience playing saxophone in paying bands, an "academic" critic who had been taught to keep the hogs out back, where they belong. Now I wanted a snout of my own. God, could that man clear up a sentence! And my own voice more expressive! Hard to believe that I could learn to hit a ride cymbal in stride.
But to think of Christgau as a foil to the academy would be misleading. He reminded me, that first day, of my younger teachers at Yale – scrupulous, learned, but easygoing men with a wink in their eyes. The wink signaled a tacit understanding that the Shakespeare you were discussing today and the Howard Hawks film you'd seen last night were made of the same cloth. "High" and "low" culture were not just continuous; they had complex historical connections so overdetermined as to make your head spin. For all his ambivalence about the academy, and about the new literary theory in particular, Christgau was, at heart, a structuralist, and had been long before structuralism was En Vogue. Whether it was James Taylor or Edward Taylor, performance was performance, scholarship was scholarship. John Milton was as worth your while as Little Milton. Bob called it "democratic culture." I called it "semiotics." Our epistemologies matched, just like our glasses.
Trained at Dartmouth as a New Critic, Christgau joined a tradition beginning with Marshall Stearns at Yale and Martin Williams at Penn of "close readers" who, on their own, working with "pop" materials in a literary rather than an anthropological way, discovered that form was enabling rather than repressive. Literary rather than anthropological. That is key. While Yale drop-out John Hammond may have dabbled in racial stereotyping while promoting the blues, even Hammond was formalist in his leanings rather than moralistic. The "expressions" of black America, charted originally as the "folkways" of the sociologist W.E.B. DuBois and the (let us not forget) anthropologically trained Nora Zeale Hurston, were now a formal system – art, with all its self-consciousness, rather than the raw data of suffering. Ralph Ellison, as a critic, gave particular authority to this new approach. By the 1950s, jazz criticism had thereby prepared the ground for rock criticism.
The Voice was, and still is, an academy in exile. If, as Bob avers, Richard Goldstein had invented rock criticism, he systematized and institutionalized it, using New Journalist techniques to describe its tensions firsthand. In addition to the birthing of the New Journalism, from Mailer to Goldstein, the paper's influence includes that seachange in cultural assumption represented by rock criticism as a whole. The very materials of rock criticism obliterate any presumable difference between "high" and "low." For Christgau, it is not just a question of gentlemanly winks. It is a public intellectual question to be played out and resolved in journalism rather than in the pages of Renaissance Quarterly or Representations.
Invariably operating to the latter's discredit, the divide between "high" and "low" has a long history, from Matthew Arnold, who largely invented it, to F.R. Leavis, who gave his prejudices an avuncular twist so as to make them appear common-sensical and benign. This history's apogee is Clement Greenberg's 1939 essay "Avant-Garde and Kitsch" in Partisan Review. Even T.W. Adorno, friend of the worker, is a brick-headed snob on the subject. The assumption that the "popular" is kitsch," or trash, to use Greenberg's notorious appellation, is the same as the assumption that black artistic production is expression, not craft. Nor is Sontag's "camp" very much better. It assumes that someone still has a "superior" perspective. The elementary lessons of semiotics, apprehended early on by Ellison, a disciple of Kenneth Burke, somehow escaped the doyens of Partisan Review. All human activity is, to use Burke's prescient phrase, "symbolic action" – discourses with dialectical histories. No wonder the murder of the conservative approach to culture had come from "pop" music criticism, from its origins in jazz criticism to its apotheosis in rock.
More and more I understand one of Bob's most singular remarks to me. One day, after I had sung the praises of some half-assed band, he looked at me with a puzzled smile. "You see more in mediocre music," he said, "than anyone I know." I was moved. I took it as a compliment. I love the "mediocre" – not the bad, mind you, or the corrupt, but what the dictionary says the "mediocre" is: the "commonplace," the middle, etymologically, of the mountain; good old MOR. Here you see "genre," or form, at its purest, plus the tug-of-war between capitulation and revolt that comes from making its demands paramount. Hence my delight in jingles, in TV theme songs. Just check out the sequence of the themes to Banacek, Miami Vice, and Law and Order for a very considerable historical dialectic that the shows themselves act out in dramatic terms.
"High" culture itself actually created the problem of "mediocrity" by making the artist's struggle against past forms the center of Romanticism. Keats in particular initiates this tradition; he is rock and roll's original poet, the first Buddy Holly or Brian Jones. The continuity between "high" and "pop" is often exact to a fault.
Originally published in Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough: Essays in Honor of Robert Christgau. Edited by Tom Carson, Kit Rachlis and Jeff Salamon. Austin: Nortex Press, 2002.