When Rock Criticism Found Its Voice

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Newly out from University of Massachusetts Press, Devon Powers's Writing The Record: The Village Voice and The Birth of Rock Criticism—which'll cost you a whopping $80 for its 160 pages in hardcover, making the paperback's $22.95 price tag seem almost reasonable—is the first work of intellectual history I know of whose heroes are a couple of guys I used to see around the office during my own tenderfoot days at the paper in question. Don't blame me for both being uncommonly interested and feeling time's icy fingers do the Charleston on the nape of my neck. Reading Rick Perlstein's Nixonland was weird enough; that Perlstein was too young to have any first-hand memories of the Nixon era demanded a certain, how you say, adjustment. Still, it's not as if I used to run into Tricky Dick at the soda machine.

So let's get my personal acquaintance with Powers's two protagonists out of the way. Richard Goldstein, author of the Voice's seminal "Pop Eye" column from 1966 to 1969, is someone I never exchanged more than a few pleasantries with during my later stints at the paper. On the other hand, Robert Christgau, the Voice's rock-crit colossus for almost 40 years until he got the boot in 2006, not only gave me my start as a reviewer but remains a valued friend, albeit one I'm lucky to see once a year. Fortunately, Powers's time frame—mid-'60s to early '70s, with considerable and shrewd preliminary sussing of the Village's history as a bohemian lodestar and the Voice's Ike-era origins—cuts off well before the punk-crazed batch of Voice contributors I belonged to came into the picture.

That spares you any quarrels between her analysis and my experience. Since I wasn't around then, I can read Writing The Record as a fascinating gloss on my elders and betters before I ended up as one of their youngers and worsers. Not least because my crowd was well aware of climbing aboard a pop-crit bandwagon overseen by the people who'd helped invent the wheel, Powers's claims for Goldstein and Christgau's importance get no dissent from me.

The book is a spruced-up Ph. D. dissertation, and it does show. Powers has a habit of explaining the argument she's about to make, then why she wants to make it, then the conclusions we should draw now that she's finished—leaving the reader, at times, scrambling back to the preceding pages to find the elusive paragraphs where the argument itself is hiding. She's uninterested in atmosphere or dramatic incident, though Goldstein and Christgau—both of whom she interviewed—probably could have supplied her with revealing and colorful anecdotes a-plenty.

She's also dances around private lives, unlike her subjects. In different ways, both Goldstein and Christgau made going public with theirs part of their trick bag. Their intellectual inventiveness may be what lasts, but even more than most intellectual inventiveness, it didn't take place in a vacuum.

Still, that's how it goes with pioneering works—which, in its modest way, Powers's is. At that level, Writing The Record's virtues far outweigh its faults. Her take on the Village as bohemia's 20th-century petri dish (though no more, and thanks, NYU) rightly stresses "the neighborhood's consistent Janus face—alive and moribund, hip and square, an impoverishment of its former self and raging in a way it never had before." She's equally right to emphasize how little intention the Voice's founders, Ed Fancher and Dan Wolf, had of fomenting any sort of revolution, cultural ones included. Even I hadn't known that the paper's coverage of the Village folk scene was stuffily antagonistic until they realized they were blowing it in the wind.

Better yet are the quotes Powers piles up to remind us of how entrenched—not to say rabid—hostility to mass culture was at midcentury among reputable intellectuals. That means not only professional aesthetes, who understantably had other loaves and fishes to fry, but left-wing eggheads. You can only gasp at one Bernard Rosenberg's declaration, in a 1957 volume called Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America, that "No art form, no body of knowledge, no system of ethics [emphasis added] is strong enough to resist vulgarization." Yep, it's all been downhill since the Sermon on The Mount got translated out of the original Aramaic.

Even more remarkable is a cri de coeur from a contributor to a 1961 compilation called Culture For The Millions?, lamenting that "The liberals of today feel terribly gypped." Why? Because "the people" on whose behalf they fought for higher wages, better education, and more leisure time have "spent their newly acquired time and money on movies, radio, magazines. . . "

As if the distinction between "the liberals" and "the people" wasn't telltale enough, then things get truly berserk: "The situation of the liberals is much like that of the high school boy who, after weeks of saving, accumulates enough money to buy a bracelet for a girl, and who then learns that the girl has gone out with another boy to show off her nice new trinket." Poor Penrod Engels, betrayed yet again by that undeserving minx—the masses.

Minus the masochism, contempt for the opiate-happy sheep who just don't appreciate how much Bill Moyers cares about them still sometimes rears its head in liberal circles today. But the larger consensus that rock music and popular culture in general didn't merit serious consideration was doomed as soon as a whole lot of bright post-collegiate boomers not only figured out that having been raised on Mad magazine wasn't so bad, but had their lives transfigured by Bob Dylan and the Beatles. Along with movies, whose own newly aggressive critical champions had a cross-pollinating effect on early rock criticism that Powers underestimates.

True, Pauline Kael is cited as an influence on Christgau's style. But Andrew Sarris—who was, sometimes literally, just down the hall, making the case for heretofore disdained "commercial" Hollywood directors and genres in the Voice's own pages— isn't even in the index. While Dwight MacDonald, who is mentioned, was famously no fan of "Masscult," his ghost may rebel at the information that he "expressed some fascination with film." Not only was he Esquire's film reviewer from 1960 to 1966, but his book Dwight Macdonald on Movies is 492 pages long.

Nonetheless, even Macdonald saw his movie criticism as putting on a different hat than the one he wore as a political essayist or even a big-picture cultural thinker. What made rock criticism new—certainly rock criticism as conceived by Goldstein and Christgau—was the assumption that writing about the music meant incorporating everything from improvised sociology to generational politics to confronting its (and their own) vexed relationship to the workings of capitalism, all in a constant flux whose center was rock's prismatic relationship to the counterculture's (and their own) whole sensibility. For them, "participatory" journalism wasn't a choice. They were participants, and it was up to them how honest or dishonest they wanted to be about it.

That's where the Voice's tradition, such as it was, came in handy. For all their conservatism, Fancher and Wolf had an original notion of how a newspaper could express its community. They couldn't have known that their version would end up comprising not only readers with the right zip codes but kindred spirits several thousand miles away. Decades before the Internet, the kind of journalism Goldstein and Christgau practiced, as Powers says, went "beyond representing or inspiring community to the fractious process of actually creating it."

The difference between the two men is that the Goldstein of 1967 would have most likely embraced that as a mission statement. Temperamentally more skeptical—not only about rock-crit's ability to do any such thing, but the transcendental value of community itself—Christgau almost certainly would not. That's just why Powers is at her most astute in recognizing Goldstein's importance.

He was and presumably still is a man whose capacious enthusiasms leave him vulnerable to big disappointments. He was so disenchanted with Utopia's failure to materialize that he bailed on being a rock critic six months before Woodstock. Not many people today even remember he was one, let alone the earliest influential one. Voice readers of my generation probably associate him far more with the paper's determined and valiant pro-gay advocacy in the '70s and '80s, his main beat after he came out himself.

Yet Goldstein did a lot to define and articulate not only rock's most radical aspirations, but—crucially—the abiding terms of disenchantment. The vexed concepts he wrestled with—"authenticity," "commercialism," and so on—were still bedeviling Kurt Cobain two decades later. I'd never realized how much he created the template for the trajectory of idealism and disillusionment I and many others retraced when, in our case, the Great Punk Rock Revolution went pffft. But you can just as easily fill in "When the Beatles broke up," "When Al Green found Jesus"— or "When Kurt Cobain died," come to think of it. Later generations would learn to disguise how much it hurt every time by making jokes about jumping the shark.

Christgau, by contrast, formidably was and is in it for the long haul, exemplifying the bigger trajectory Powers celebrates: rock criticism's progress from derisory job description to guerilla intellectual endeavor to, eventually, foundation for a good deal of how educated people think about pop culture—not only music—today. Predictably, for her, that apotheosis includes rock crit's arrival at academic respectability. But she's fairly sweet in voicing her hope that academics like her are Christgau and Goldstein's latter-day allies, not competitors, in the same great endeavor.

Not that she's unaware that said endeavor's nature and purpose are both currently on the amorphous side. That's thanks partly to the precarious state of paying arts criticism in the Internet era and partly to the debatability of the music's own consequentiality—"the Mattering," as Christgau puckishly calls it. But the larger metamorphosis Writing The Record describes will be significant as long as there's any such thing as pop culture worth arguing over. No matter what form it takes, does anybody doubt there will be?

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