Grown Up All Wrong

Mark Athitakis reviews 'Grown Up All Wrong: 75 Great Rock And Pop Artists From Vaudeville To Techno' by Robert Christgau

Published December 1, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

There are a few jobs with worse ethics than rock criticism -- lobbying for tobacco companies, maybe, or clubbing baby seals -- but writing about pop music is still an ugly business. Granted, it's evolved since the '70s (when record label honchos would rent prostitutes for rock-mag scribes in return for a good review), but only into subtler forms of whoring: writers who won't pen a negative piece for fear of losing their steady stream of free (and eminently sell-able) CDs, publicists who won't let you talk to that Big-Time, Just-Out-of-Rehab Rock Star unless they approve your softball questions. In a perfect world, though, music journalists are the knowledgeable intermediaries between a money-grubbing industry and a cash-strapped consumer.

Robert Christgau has earned his title as the dean of rock journalism by being honest -- a critic who criticizes, go figure. As the longtime senior editor and pop music columnist for the Village Voice, his essential monthly Consumer Guide celebrates the brilliant and excoriates the mundane. A first-person eyewitness to rock's rise to glory, Christgau pens hundred-word mini-essays that leap sublimely from rock to rap to punk to soul to world music. Diving deeper into his favorite artists, the lengthy essays compiled for "Grown Up All Wrong" -- culled mostly from Voice columns -- reveal a depth of understanding about the workings of pop music, both as art and commercial proposition.

The breadth of the book's rock and pop obsessions comes off as authoritative, and because Christgau prizes what the music means over what it sounds like or how well it sells, nearly every essay is readable, regardless of how well you know the artist. His lengthy 1981 essay on John Lennon (co-written with John Piccarella) is essential for its precise account of how Lennon's music sprung from his personal identity crisis (and vice versa). In prose that's both offhandedly colloquial and rigorously academic, Christgau sheds new light on his subjects, whether he's defending Neil Young's sketchy '80s records, scrutinizing the questionable history lessons of KRS-One or making the foreignness of South Africa's Mahlathini and the Czech Republic's Pulnoc seem less strange.

Christgau's pieces date back to the early '70s, and in many cases he's done little or nothing to bring a particular artist's story up to date. Often, that's an asset: His 1976 piece on Stevie Wonder wrestles with the artist's worth at his "Songs in the Key of Life" peak, giving the piece an edge that would be dulled by confronting his recent recordings. If good journalism is about capturing the moment, the good music journalist knows that the perfect moment isn't always 1998. Occasionally, though, he loves too deeply to convince: His fact-filled appreciation of the New York Dolls, his acknowledged all-time favorite band, is more doting than critical.

But would that we had more rock critics who doted -- who wrote not because they fell victim to the record industry's hype machine, but out of love. For $29.95 you can get "Grown Up All Wrong," or a few years' worth of some music magazine filled with interviews with Big Time Just-Out-of-Rehab Rock Stars drooling over softball questions. The cash-strapped consumer has an easy choice.

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis is a regular contributor to Salon.

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