Grown Up All Wrong: 75 Great Rock And Pop Artists From Vaudeville To Techno
Among the first wave of rock journalists, Robert Christgau is the only critic whose job description remains largely unchanged: He still churns out his semi-regular “Consumer Guide,” presides over the annual Pazz & Jop critics poll in The Village Voice, and, on occasion, doles out an extended essay. The downside of this commitment to journalism is a dearth of long-form publications — there’s an out-of-print collection of essays published in the mid-’70s and two decade-spanning “Consumer Guide” compendiums. Thus, the late-1998 publication of Grown Up All Wrong is something of an event, if not a cause for celebration.
As the book’s subtitle makes clear, Grown Up All Wrong focuses upon the lives and works of 75 artists, organized into ten roughly chronological sections. What’s most immediately impressive about the book is the sheer scope of the music covered — from the minstrelsy of Emmett Miller to the sun-baked rai of Cheb Khaled, from the “untranscendent” boogie of Lynyrd Skynyrd to the lesbian-identified thrash of Sleater-Kinney. In an era of increased specialization and audience fragmentation, Christgau is one of criticism’s few remaining generalists.
Amazingly, the breadth of his interests rarely compromises his take on the contemporary music scene. Though rarely cutting edge, Christgau is quick to jump on emergent trends and talents; he was among the first mainstream critics to write perceptively about rap and techno, and he has championed Lucinda Williams ever since 1980’s Happy Woman Blues. In addition, he approaches such disparate musical styles as South African mbaqanga and British post-punk with an equally keen insight and a seemingly limitless store of knowledge.
This taste for variety is further reflected in the book’s range of critical approaches. Despite a preponderance of career overviews in its opening sections, Grown Up All Wrong offers Christgau plenty of room to flex his analytical muscle; you’ll find close readings (DJ Shadow), tour diaries (the Clash), studies of label politics (the Mekons) — even grapplings with religion (Iris DeMent). Unfortunately, his critical rigor and dense prose sometimes prove impenetrable to the uninitiated, a criticism at least tangentially addressed in the collection’s construction. The original articles have been “tightened, pruned, trimmed, and tightened again,” and though the edited pieces sometimes lack the bite and play of the “ungainly” originals, they do reflect a desire for outreach and a respect for limits all too appropriate for a rock critic in his mid-50s.
Sometime during the early ’70s, when he and his colleagues were inventing rock criticism, Christgau appointed himself the “dean of American rock critics,” a flippant broadside against academia’s sense of elitism and entitlement. Ironically, as pop journalism has become an institution laden with its own canon and jargon, the title has lost much of its transgressive value. Similarly, over his 30-plus-year career, Christgau has developed a more sanguine critical approach, treasuring music for its entertainment value first and taking revolution as it comes.
As he notes in the book’s introductory piece, “rock and roll turns out to have a lot to say about aging…about retaining and refining flexibility and responsiveness as your emotions are weathered by loss and your physical plant decays.” Grown up all wrong? Guess it all depends upon how you look at it.