Christgau and his contemporaries were not New Journalists, slyly challenging the strictures of objectivity by writing in the first person. They were participant observers in the musical insurgency they were covering, and their aim was to translate, amplify, and argue its messages. From a journalistic perspective, this meant that to write pop-music criticism was to break cultural news. The audience, and the artists, paid attention. Billy Joel, who Christgau once called “a force of nature and bad taste” (note the backhanded compliment), tore up his detractor’s reviews onstage. And Sonic Youth, who he dubbed a band of “impotent bohos,” upped the ante with a song called “I Killed Christgau With My Big Fuckin’ Dick.”
Almost from the outset, however, there was a problem with Christgau’s view of pop music as a transformative force in the democratic equation. The pop-music industry was not only hugely profitable but also crassly commercial. And as the 1970s wore on, it ever more transparently capitalized on the mythology that pop music was authentically anti-authoritarian.
Punk helped to solve this problem. Political, angry, unromantic, and funny, it was an astringent for the countercultural conceit that it was possible to be both radical and broadly popular. More significant to the critical enterprise, it was flagrantly anti-commercial. And this awakened a new type of pop-music critic who, though grounded in the gospel of Christgau, had lost interest in transforming the mainstream.
In 1980, Ann Powers cut out the lyrics of “Waiting for the Clampdown,” the Clash’s screed against betraying youthful idealism, and hung them inside her Seattle high-school locker. She didn’t consider herself part of the counterculture. Rather, Powers imagined herself inhabiting a compartmentalized pocket on the edge of the mainstream. Here was an anticipation of the identity politics that would shape cultural criticism over the next decade or so. “We thought,” she told me recently, “that we were making a world that was a world within the world.”
Powers and her husband, eric Weisbard, landed at the Voice in the early 1990s. The paper’s music section, which Christgau envisioned as a public square for writers to declare pop’s significance in all of its varied guises, was the perfect home for her. “We assumed,” Powers told me, “that our identities were our politics”—an assumption she put into practice at the Voice, along with such kindred spirits as Erik Davis, Greg Tate, and Lisa Jones. Pop music, to her, was political theater, and writing about it was political advocacy. While Powers didn’t limit herself to covering women, at the Voice her feminist politics were transparent in her coverage of the Riot Grrrl movement, P J Harvey, and Tori Amos.
It wasn’t only at the Voice that the emerging subgenres of pop were considered proxies for the social and political sensibilities of various subcultures. This ethos was common to the prominent national music magazines of the 1990s. Spin was the home of the indie rock and hip-hop generation. Sassy was aimed at feminist girls. Vibe targeted blacks, and The Source was for hardcore hip-hoppers. The writers for these magazines socialized together, and the Voice continued to be a place where they aired their ideas in print. This is not to suggest that every piece of writing—or even most of them—viewed the music as a political cudgel to forge and defend subcultures. But many of these writers seemed to put the melting-pot philosophy firmly behind them. As they saw it, pop music didn’t dissolve the boundaries between listeners; it reminded them of exactly who they were.
Now, thirteen years after Powers left the Voice, this equivalence of personal identity, pop culture, and politics seems both overheated and out of line with how Americans listen to music. For one thing, identity politics have fallen out of intellectual vogue. For another, the idea that one must relate to Eminem’s fantasy of killing his wife in order to enjoy the song “97 Bonnie and Clyde” never made complete intuitive sense. Still, the more elusive question is why the critical establishment failed to find a new argument for the importance of pop music (let alone its own role as interlocutor). And that discussion must begin with the alternative press and its ubiquitous successor, the Internet.