To a certain degree, Christgau’s critical method was self-referential. He had no aesthetic or political litmus test to determine that Cat Stevens’s Buddha and the Chocolate Box was terrible and that Van Morrison’s Moondance was great (although he was allergic to nostalgia and the creeping pretension of the rock-and-roll auteur). Instead, he figured out why he liked a given recording, put that process into words, and then hashed it out with his readers and fellow writers.
Yet this personal approach by no means excluded broader social and political ideas. In fact, listening and reacting often became an exercise in social criticism for Christgau, because he conceived of pop as engaged with mainstream culture. “Rock-and-roll was a medium that insisted on individual freedom, on pleasure, and, at the same time, created social connections among disparate people,” he told me recently. He went on to say: “Carried to its emotional conclusion, [the music] put pressures on capitalism. I looked for writers who could elucidate the details of these tendencies and their contradictions.”
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.