Published Feb 01, 2000There are many reasons why rock criticism isn't the serious pursuit it once was. Yes, the marketing departments of major labels have stolen much of the critic's power to break an artist, but the dominance of urban music since "The Message" nearly 20 years ago also drew a line that the old guard white rock intelligentsia was too often unwilling to cross. Although fine studies such as Tricia Rose's Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America have recently been published, the fact that many critics choose to give rap and hip-hop a cursory mention when extrapolating on the history of rock'n'roll shows a clear ignorance or unwillingness to accept the effect the music has had in the past 20 years.
Craig Werner is a peer of the first generation rock critics, but as a professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin, he has been intimately aware of black music's continuing role in American society as a reflection of personal struggle (what he terms the blues impulse), an outlet for free expression (the jazz impulse), and a source of community (the gospel impulse). In his latest book, A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race & The Soul Of America (Penguin Canada), Werner gives equal time to pre- and post-1980 artists everyone from John Fogerty to Wu-Tang Clan who embody the three impulses, and the result is probably the most comprehensive survey of American music to date.
What makes the book even more engaging is Werner's obvious interest in exploring sociological links; the tone has more akin to British rock-crit realism than American myth-making. "I think it's true that a lot of American rock critics have avoided taking this approach," he says. "I think of my intellectual models as being Ralph Ellison and LeRoi Jones. The African-American people who have written about music have generally seen the links between the social aspects and the aesthetics. They tend not to separate them as mainstream writers tend to do."
Especially in the sections on the Reagan era, he offers plenty of evidence on how that regime laid the groundwork for today's most vital sounds: "From their name on down, Wu-Tang was fully aware that the creation of community required profound acts of imagination," and, "the fact that [Lauryn Hill] is better known for her passable cover of Killing Me Softly' makes about as much sense as Sam Cooke going down in history for his cover of Ol' Man River.'"
Although Werner admits that ending the book in 1998 did not provide a typical resolution, he embraced the notion as part of the ongoing call-and-response that has always been a part of black music. Segregation may have been the impetus for the best black music of this century, but he believes the reason why everything from blues to hip-hop has translated to other cultures is the lack of a specific political agenda. "One of the lessons of the black arts movement of the late 60s and early 70s is that the ideology doesn't necessarily help the politics. Of course Public Enemy and Rage Against The Machine are making great music with an agenda, but what music does so well politically is tap the emotions that are implicitly political in peoples' lives."
Werner is also aware of hip-hop's influence outside of the U.S. and a recent trip to Toronto confirmed ideas he's had since completing the book that class distinctions within the black community are breaking down and pushing the music to greater heights. "I've had a number of students who are DJs and they are really working on an international level," he says. "When I was in Toronto a couple years ago I saw an amazing show with DJ Vadim, DJ Shadow, and several Asian DJs, and it was there that I got the clearest sense of the fluidity of that scene. It's the first one that I can think of that is truly multi-racial, and that's bringing back a lot of the gospel impulse to music."
But when it comes to hip-hop, the terms Werner defines in the book preclude "multi-racial" societies like Canada or Britain from producing anything up to the standard of American artists. It's a question he treads on lightly. "I think there is something in the edge that hip-hop and the Delta blues had that probably is tied to living in such a starkly divided class, racial and economic structure. But every time I think I can predict the future, something really interesting happens."