It's Only (Capitalist) Rock 'n' Roll

But I like it ...

Your humble writer has been covering pop and high culture for a variety of publications since 1975. During this tumultuous tenure — particularly in the world of popular music — critical and journalistic attitudes within this particular industry have been decidedly polarized between pro-capitalism and downright redistributionist.

On one hand are the critics who pooh-poohed the rise of so-called “corporate rock” of the 1970s and 1980s — performers with a penchant for melodic hooks, ear-worms and perceived homogenized “product” that appeals to the masses and, therefore, tremendous commercial success. On the other are those critics who champion the obscure, the counter-culture and lyrics that defiantly run contrary to free-markets and representative democracy.

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Reconciling these two distinctive camps is no easy feat, but now comes “The Dean of Rock Critics,” Robert Christgau, with a salient analysis of rock music as a commercial enterprise in an interview conducted by Brett Anderson. Christgau, a self-avowed socialist, is also the author of a series of reviews collectively acknowledged as “Consumer Guides.” His rationale for the brief reviews of rock albums that made his reputation is stated thusly: 

The idea was that there is more product, let’s call it, than there is space and time to write about it. This is high hippie era and the hippie movement was anti-consumption. So I decided I would call this column where I did these capsule reviews of records the Consumer Guide. And that I would do another thing that hippies weren't supposed to do and offer letter grades at a time when pass/fail was at its peak.

And both these things were quite specifically intended to get in the face of my supposed confrères in the counterculture. It was just a way to be contrarian. But it was also to acknowledge the breadth of what was there, and that has always been my interest.

Just so. The moment an act moves their Fender Champ amplifiers out of their respective garages, lofts and basements to perform live and record their music it is with the intent of finding an audience — preferably one prepared to lay down some filthy lucre for the pleasure of listening to everything from Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Clash and Bruce Springsteen to more obscure acts such as the Mekons, the Velvet Underground and Wire.

The first group listed above recognized tremendous critical and commercial success while the second mostly enjoyed cult status and critical approbation. As has been noted elsewhere, not many people purchased the Velvet Underground’s work, but those who did went on to form their own bands. Where each group succeeded, however, was in the recording and performing of product that their fans either purchased in concert tickets or recordings.

Some, of course, were more successful financially than others by tapping into the public’s consciousness with toe-tapping music, radio play and, in some instances, use of their songs in advertising campaigns. Other artists have been more than happy to have recorded documents of their outbursts of anarchy and creativity or simply to perform a couple of gigs prior to relegation to cult status inspiration for subsequent artists, cut-out bins and nine-to-five jobs.

Both are equally valid in a free-market. Leaving aside for the purposes of this essay the artists who suffered ignominy at the hands of unscrupulous management and record-company contracts and band infighting over royalties and creative control, there’s not much to differentiate the sheer pleasure experienced by musicians of either status when they’re hitting the note or working a groove regardless the eventual fiscal payoff or perceived worldview.

It’s this last that Christgau nails in his interview with Anderson. If, as H.L. Mencken noted, art criticism should be a work of art completely new and separate from the work it covers, Christgau achieved just this end with short and to-the-point essays over the past 50-some years that present readers with an informed opinion of what warrants a customer’s purchase and what doesn’t.

While this cultural writer has often disagreed, sometimes vehemently, with Christgau’s analyses, he shares with him the recognition that what benefits readers most is exposure to well-written, knowledgeable assessments that either encourage the immediate purchase of musical product or, at best, delayed gratification. In other instances through the years, a negative review by Christgau has indicated that it may behoove the reader to delay a music purchase until an album is on sale, marked down or cut-out, if not a purchase avoided altogether.

Thus Christgau has performed a valuable service on behalf of music fans over the years by recognizing that critics work alongside musicians in the artistic marketplace wherein winners and losers are never guaranteed regardless the aesthetic quality of the product and both within a respective commercial format:

When I say push the envelope, when I say push the parameters, when I say pop forms are good for people, that’s the market, right? So what do I do with the Consumer Guide? I gave them, early on, brevity and some laughs. That was the idea…. I got to express ideas that were not popular ideas. And I was working in a newspaper [The Village Voice] which at that time was conceived to do that very thing, to serve a market, get advertising, but put out provocative and unconventional opinions. Moreover, what publishers are there to do is to tell you what the market wants. What editors are there to do is to protect you from publishers, and try to get you to do good work. Then there's also the question of advertising, and the limitations of basing your journalistic business model on selling advertising.

And this:

I work for the Barnes & Noble Review these days, and Barnes & Noble used to be a bête noire among book lovers because they were killing the independent bookstore. I'm a socialist. But does that mean I think capitalism is bad? No. I always tell my socialist friends rock 'n' roll would not have happened without capitalism. It is a capitalist form, and it’s [one of] the best things about capitalism. Being socialist doesn't mean there’s nothing good about capitalism, far from it. But I will tell you one thing I really like about capitalism: The people who make things and really care about what they make. And the guy who owns Barnes & Noble cares about books. Similarly, the people who own magazines and newspapers should care about words.

There you have it, straight from the 70-year-old Dean of American rock critics: Capitalism helped give birth to the predominant popular art form of the past six decades, and it is that same economic structure that continues to provide succor to both the best and worst of the genre. The best things in life might still be free, but it's money that most rock artists — and the critics with whom they’re symbiotically involved — want.