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Answers From the Dean
Online Exchange with Robert Christgau


Robert Christgau


The second in our hopefully continuing series of online exchanges features Village Voice Senior Editor, Robert Christgau. Thanks to all the readers who sent in questions, to Tom Sawyer for invaluable editorial assistance, and of course to Robert Christgau for answering an astounding number of reader queries (I stopped counting somewhere around 75). On that note, there were, not surprisingly, some identical or very-closely-related questions from different readers. Some of these are answered once and left at that, while a handful of list-oriented questions are dealt with as a special "bonus answer" at the end of this feature.

Pictures of Robert Christgau by Carola Dibbell.

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> >From: Steven Rubio
> >Date: Monday, July 01, 2002 8:59 AM

robertchristgau.com is a terrific resource, and the Consumer Guide lends itself perfectly to such an easily-searchable presentation. But the site is also an attempt to gather together pretty much every word in the published history of Bob Christgau, as if Pauline Kael, confronted with the need to pare down her life's work into the 1,300 pages of For Keeps, said "fuck it, just reprint every book I ever published." How much input does the Dean have into what goes into the web site? To the extent it represents a desire to get everything in one place, is there a conscious philosophy behind the web site, or does it "just happen?"

The robertchristgau.com web site is a co-operative project between myself and my dear old friend Tom Hull, who I met shortly after he queried me as Voice music editor from St. Louis in 1975. Not to put too fine a point on it, Tom is a computer genius as well as an excellent and very knowledgeable music critic, but he'd never done much web site work. The design of the web site, especially its high searchability and small interest in graphics, are his idea of what a useful music site should be, but I concur with them completely--I'm a text kind of guy. Tom is also very involved in Linux and various free software ideas, which I also concur with, but much less knowledgeably and not without a few reservations. I've never been a cyberspace utopian--have my doubts as to the morality and economic good sense of unlimited musical file-sharing, for instance--and since I make my living mostly as a writer, I worry a little about making all my stuff available for free. What does it do to my prospects of publishing another CG book, for instance, or future essay collections? Nevertheless, on balance I'm for it.

The site was set up shortly after September 11, when Tom got stuck here visiting New York from Wichita, where he lives. During the fall, I whiled away insomniac nights preparing old Voice pieces for uploading, but this year, between Pazz & Jop and a couple of big outside essay projects and then a month of hand and hernia surgeries in May, I haven't worked on it much. So I was surprised to see how much old CG material had gone up. How did it get there? I wondered. The answer is that Tom and a small cybercoterie of devoted fans had inputted it by hand (with a fair number of typos, by the way). To be honest, I was honored and touched by this. But if the project was mine alone, I doubt I would have put some of the old material up, especially non-CG. The Playboy columns (which are as I wrote them, not as Playboy ran them) are rarely too deep, and much of the early CG material was rewritten for the book for a reason--I didn't evolve my current high-density stylistic approach until 1975 or so. On the other hand, I'm happy to have my old book reviews up, as well as "Rock & Roll &" columns that didn't make the Harvard collection, which is not to say I think every damn one is an utter keeper--I'm proud of the uniformly high quality of my writing, and never slough anything off, but at the end of the day, some pieces always come off better than others. One thing about cyperspace, however, is that selectivity really doesn't make economic sense there, especially when searchability is an option. In a cardboard-and-paper compendium, that's not how things would work. Make me a decent offer and I'll select and edit away.

I just read my friend Ann Powers's As I Get Old, and it hit very close to home. I'm 49, about midway in age between Ann and yourself, and I'm very interested in what you thought of her piece, and if you see yourself not only as a mentor to those who work with you but also as a role model for readers. I've always relied on rock critics to help me wend my way through the pop culture jungle (being a Berkeley guy, Marcus has been my primary guide, but he's not the only one), but what Ann's essay showed me was how writers like yourself have helped me understand how to get past being a teenager when it comes to pop music. As a teacher, I find "role model" to be a pretty oppressive job description, but here I am, pushing it onto someone I've never even met. (And I enjoy the irony that it took Ann, some years my junior, to explain to me what age means in this context.)

I'm not just flattered by Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough, I'm impressed--a lot of writers pushing the envelope and writing at the top of their game. Ann's piece showcases her strengths, which I think made her the best rock critic working during most of her Times tenure: range, thoughtfulness, and enormous heart, plus an ability to relate her personal experience to what she's writing about without just rattling on cleverly about her life, as too often happens in autobiographical criticism that assumes way too much about how interesting the reader finds the writer. And she's come through (and is still undergoing) personal health crises that as her good friend I care about a lot. Nevertheless, I will point out that she's in the age range that's always seemed to me the worst for this particular rock and roll question, 35-40, which is really when your physical mortality and loss of youthfulness tends to impinge on you--a crisis that's much worse for the generations after mine, because they've been able to observe the various grotesqueries that too often ensue when aging rock and rollers try to pretend to be something they're not.

I recently did a phoner with some radio ham who was just old enough to be pleased that the Stones were touring again (which I'm not) and wanted me to tell him that 60 wasn't old. I laughed in his earpiece. It is old, three quarters or two thirds of most people's effective lives if not much more (two of my best friends died at 65 and 60), and Jagger hasn't handled it very well. But Dylan and Lou Reed and many others have, brilliantly if not always consistently. And so have some critics, myself included--it's easier for us, of course, because criticism requires second-level creativity while making music is first-level. I hope Ann keeps writing about all kinds of music. For somebody with her spiritual wherewithal, it's just a matter of wanting to do it, and she'll do it in some kind of original way for sure.

As for being a role model, nobody with a public identity however modest has any choice. It's part of the job; there's no way to rid yourself of it. Does that mean fans should fuck teenagers on tape like R. Kelly or for that matter go to an ashram like Leonard Cohen? I hope not. But Kelly and Cohen are kidding themselves if they don't think they're putting the idea in people's heads.

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> >From: Charles Bromley
> >Date: Monday, July 01, 2002 11:45 AM

You've said the Rolling Stones used to be your favorite band, but they aren't anymore. Why did you lower your opinion of them, and where would you rank them now?

I still like the Stones a lot as a band, but as individuals, compared to such contemporaries as Dylan or Reed or Young, I find both Jagger and Richards--especially Jagger, of course, although Keith's blood changes are an exercise of economic privilege every bit as dislikable as Mick's posturing--harder and harder to suspend disbelief over. I can no longer go to the work and avoid what I know of the man. And this calls the realism I once prized in their work into question. I played Sticky Fingers not long ago and my wife said she couldn't hear them anymore without snickering a little (that's not how she put it, she's no snickerer, but they just don't mean much to her now). I enjoyed Sticky Fingers a lot myself. But its power was certainly diminished

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> >From: John Monger
> >Date: Monday, July 01, 2002 12:02 PM

When it came up, what did you think of your fellow rock scribes jumping on stage and performing (say, John Mendelssohn or Patti Smith)? Ever get the urge yourself?

Christopher Milk was a bad band, but many other critics, notably Chrissie Hynde and Lenny Kaye (did Neil Tennant actually write criticism? if so, him too), have been in good ones. I don't think of Patti as a critic myself, just a creative person with some Creem bylines, but I obviously approved. In alt-land these days that kind of crossover happens all the time, but most of the critics involved are of small consequence, ditto the bands. I never saw that Marcus-Marsh-King thing and suspect I would have been embarrassed if I did. Me, I don't want to play--I wanna have a radio show, for money. Although I did have some dreams about leading a successful band as a hobby five years or so ago. I also have dreams that I can stride 20 or 30 feet at a time.

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> >From: Nigel Bartlett
> >Date: Monday, July 01, 2002 12:52 PM

When the 2000 Pazz & Jop poll results came out in the Voice, they were quickly blasted by Mike Doughty from Soul Coughing in the New York Press for attempting to critically "quantify" music.

I have two questions: What are your thoughts on Doughty and his diatribe against music criticism in general and Pazz & Jop in particular? And do you feel that the Pazz & Jop poll is a valid indicator of critical appeal, popular appeal, musical success, or any other factor(s)?

I don't expect artists to like or understand my criticism, although it happens--nobody likes to be judged, and making music and writing criticism are radically different creative endeavors. The anti-quantification argument typifies the difference. I believe in quantification, obviously--as one useful method among many. Specifically, I believe it is an essential component of democracy--all electoral systems quantify value. Pazz & Jop is based on a notion of consensus that capital in its nasty rationalizing way is doing its darnedest to render obsolete, and is therefore not as useful as it used to be. What it measures, obviously, is critical appeal. When a lot of people who hear a lot of records agree on one, that means something. A lot of records have surfaced in Pazz & Jop and gone on to gradually accrue various kinds of status, including sales--most recently in the case of Moby's Play, which won the poll long before it broke.

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> >From: Steven Ward
> >Date: Monday, July 01, 2002 1:47 PM

Many critics have admitted giving a particular band or album a critical thrashing, but later changing his or her mind. Any albums out there that you love now but dissed back then when first released?

If I change my mind much, it's in the other direction. The whole point of the Consumer Guide method, which the Voice lets me get away with and most timeliness-obsessed mags wouldn't, is that I don't write about something until I know what I think, and one of my biggest skills as a critic (which took years to learn) is that I know when I know what I think. So while it happens occasionally that I'll overrate something, get entranced and then tire of the tricks over the space of a year or a decade, it almost never happens that I underrate something (as opposed to missing something and then catching up later). In the '90s, the only big example I could find was the second Shania Twain album, the 1995 pop breakthrough The Woman in Me. Too bad, my pan was pretty convincing.

Many former and present Voice writers who have been interviewed at rockcritics.com cite your editing style. Something done line by line and word and word. They say you can smell bullshit a mile away and that you always make their copy better while retaining the writer's spirit and intention. My question is, who did you learn the skill of editing from; or, who was your Robert Christgau?

If I had a Robert Christgau, it was Ellen Willis, but then, if she had an Ellen Willis, it was Robert Christgau. When we lived together 1966-69, we edited each other more stringently than any of the pros we worked with, many of whom were pretty good (I especially recall Don Erickson at Esquire). We just worked harder at it (and interfered more) than the pros did. It's really not such a mystery--certainly Tom Carson and Kit Rachlis, to name a couple who say they learned it from me, are as good at it as I am. You just have to care a lot, and really want the writer to say what the writer wants to say, which for many writer-editors is psychologically impossible. I'd also like to mention the wonderful man who edited my first book in 1972, Harris Dienstfrey. A very good line editor who taught me a lot. One other thing I should mention--I'm not a spewing kind of writer myself, like Lester or early Meltzer or even Greil Marcus sometimes (he told me he wrote the introduction to the Stranded reprint, a brilliant piece of writing, in...was it 40 minutes? or 25?). I edit myself, painfully and continually. Obviously that helps me edit others.

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> >From: Scott Woods
> >Date: Monday, July 01, 2002 6:27 PM

A few years ago, Rock & Rap Confidential started their own International Music Writers Poll. Though I think their version is incredibly ill-conceived, the one interesting thing they've tried to do is give their poll more of an international reach, with voters coming in from as far and wide as Argentina, Hong Kong, Chile, Brazil, South Africa, et al. I note, however, that Pazz & Jop itself has recently extended ballots to critics in such exotic locales as Australia, Britain, and Canada. How is it decided who gets a ballot? And do you see Pazz & Jop opening up its geographical borders to any greater degree in the future, or do you want it to retain a uniquely "American" flavor? (And does the fact that the Voice garners new readers on the Internet affect your thoughts on this at all?)

The thing with Pazz & Jop is--it has to stop somewhere, and the U.S. of A. is a reasonable demarcation point. Since the dream of consensus continues to haunt the democrat in me (which is a pretty deep part of me), the idea that everyone can in theory share the same frame of reference (while obviously deteriorating ever since I wrote my first Voice column in 1969 and by now an utter chimera in a time when nobody's on all the mailing lists or could listen to everything that came in the mail if s/he was) is one I'd like to leave open theoretically. The only way the Internet changes this is that it's easier for critics to work in America from overseas. I think that's how that Australian guy got in there. My rule is, once we invite you, however mistakenly, we can't disinvite you (and also his comments were pretty good). Canada's a different story--I've always made a few exceptions for Canada. It's at least as American as Berkeley (not to mention Manhattan), don't you think?

It's safe to say that no other rock critic has ever covered as wide a range of music as you have. In terms of genres or significant artists, what--if any--do you think are your blind spots as a music critic?

First of all, I don't think I cover more kinds of music than any other critic. I think I'm remarkably enthusiastic and knowledgeable about African music and that confuses people. Jon Pareles and Chuck Eddy, to cite just two colleagues who jump to mind, have as broad a range as I do. As for my limitations, they're public and they're legion. Metal, art-rock, bluegrass, gospel, Irish folk, fusion jazz (arghh)--all prejudices I'm prepared to defend and in most cases already have, but prejudices nevertheless. I pretty much lost reggae with dancehall; my acquaintance with most techno is a nodding one (zzzz); I've never really liked salsa even though Puerto Rico is one of my favorite places on earth and my daughter loves salsa and my niece and nephew run a fucking music club in San Juan. (Admittedly, all my rels share my fondness for older Cuban-influenced styles.) Mostly the salsa thing is a matter of brass tuttis--I've never liked most '30s jazz because I don't like tuttis. I also don't like flutes or vibraphones most of the time. As I said, I'm prepared to argue these prejudices--even the tuttis. I oppose shows of virtuosity and undisciplined outpourings of self-regarding emotion on deeply held aesthetic grounds. But since I'm always ready to make specific exceptions to any such generalization, it would certainly be fair to argue that in all the above styles I'm not ready enough.

Oh yeah--classical music. Did I mention classical music?

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> >From: Cachay Alegre Raul
> >Date: Tuesday, July 02, 2002 5:40 PM

Rock music is now a powerful way of expression for thousands and thousands of poor and angry young nonconformists in Latin American countries like mine, Peru. Do you think that, maybe, only maybe, the true, revolutionary spirit of rock music subsists in those places where the record industry is extremely weak like the occidental Third World countries?

Also, do you think all this media hype surrounding the garage rock revival of the Strokes, the White Stripes, and the Hives is creating some kind of animosity against those bands? I mean, do you really like them?

I must begin any answer to these questions, which I see as one question, by saying that I've long hated the rock-critical misuse and overuse of the terms "hype" and "revolutionary." "Hype is a term often applied to someone else's promotion," I wrote in 1972, which I'd now amend to the snappier "hype is a bad word for someone else's publicity." And in a 1970 essay called "Rock 'n' Revolution"--collected in Any Old Way You Choose It and on the web site--I explained why I wasn't revolutionary and rock wasn't either. I expand on this in the introduction to Cooper Square Press's Any Old Way reprint.

All artists promote themselves; if they didn't, you wouldn't know who they were. The mysterious Hives took me by surprise, but I was well aware of both the Strokes and the White Stripes long before they got real publicity, much less major-label muscle, and I'd swear on penalty of perjury that their musical attributes had New Yorkers who'd seen them excited as soon as they first gigged (Strokes) or hit town (White Stripes). Maybe the Hives were as constructed as 'N Sync, not a bad group in my book, but I doubt it. I like their record even more than White Blood Cells or Is This It.

As for revolution, Christ, what can I say? As a vocal and explicit leftist for my entire professional life, I want to see a radical redistribution of wealth and an end to racism, sexism, and homophobia. But that won't make me pretend there's anything inherently communist or socialist about rock and roll--at its inception, it was an expression of democracy at its American best and capitalism at its entrepreneurial best. Forgetting Eastern Europe for the moment and Afghanistan longer than that, the most successful radical changes of power in the past few decades have been in South Africa and, God help us, Iran. In the case of South Africa, the beat music I love best from the apartheid period, r&b-inflected mbaqanga, was at best a sustaining social force; it had no political content or thrust except as an expression of identity and pride. The revolutionary music, which really did serve a political function, was a cappella mbube as exploited by the ANC and the union movement, not any kind of "rock." You want a revolution, which in Peru is understandable, forget rock and roll and get involved in the union movement, which was certainly the most effective internal force in South Africa and has the advantage of improving the lives of the poor incrementally just in case the revolution doesn't kick in. You want a revolution, make sure it isn't like Iran's, which banned music. That means doing your damnedest to keep the Senderos out of it. Revolutionaries tend to be puritans. Rock and rollers tend not to be. I prefer rock and rollers. And I've always argued that one reason revolutionaries start so few revolutions is that puritans are a pain in the ass.

That said, I agree that white middle-class American males have a harder time revitalizing rock and roll than people who need to struggle for its musical prerogatives. But on the other hand, white American males are generally better-versed in its prerogatives, which is how we get inspired neoclassical formalists like the Strokes and the White Stripes. To me, rock en espanol, so-called, almost always looks better on paper than it sounds coming out of my speakers, for reasons I assume are personal matters of taste, as I explain in the Subjects for Further Research section of the '90s CG book. I'm not saying I'm right, but I don't get it; speaking Spanish would probably help. And though rock en espanol has its own formal approach, a lot of the "progressive" music I hear from so-called Third World countries (Sepultura from Brazil, Junoon from Pakistan) seems locked in to arena-rock notions of grandeur that I haven't had any use for since punk--although one exception to that generalization (every generalization I'm making here and elsewhere has exceptions) is Pulnoc from Czechoslovakia, where rock did promulgate social change. Go figure.

Finally, what I figure is this. The fact that white middle-class American males have a hard time revitalizing rock and roll leaves a lot of work open for white middle-class American females. You go grrrls.

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> >From: Stanley Whyte
> >Date: Wednesday, July 03, 2002 10:15 AM

Do you ever look back at your 30+ A lists, scan the lower reaches for discs that you gave an A- to at the time and think, "I have no idea what that record sounds like anymore"?

I just looked over the bottom reaches of my '70s A lists and had no trouble recalling the general sound and feel of every record there. Do I remember all or most of the specific songs on those records? Probably not.

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> >From: Jeff Hamilton
> >Date: Wednesday, July 03, 2002 3:08 PM

Do you still perceive rock 'n' roll as at the vanguard of cultural and social formation? And if so, on what basis can you claim the significance of what you write about (i.e., pop music)? Obviously, there's a premise here about the relation of rock 'n' roll to popular music, and in recent years you've been involved in opening up the term pop to musics you once more or less disdained (Richard Rogers, non-Anglo-American pop, world music, etc); so, too, I assume that since your politics have not considerably repudiated the New Left, the cultural vanguard remains a desirable claim on which to stake your intellectual labor. But do you ever worry about the way pop (and particularly pop music) rescales emerging cultural vanguards? Do I have your work on pop (and semi-pop) music right in describing it as a corrective for the distorted--perhaps even grandiose?--claims about the cultural and especially political significance of rock 'n' roll decadence and liberation that founded rock criticism as a journalistic beat?

Since I find both the tone and terms of this multiple-part question confusing if not contradictory, let me make a few necessarily unfocused points. Did I ever perceive rock and roll as being "at the vanguard of cultural and social formation"? Not in such jargon, that's for sure. At this point I don't feel any need to claim significance for what I do--the proof is in the pudding. People find what I do interesting, I find what I write about interesting, everything else is a bonus. My fundamental political conviction about rock and roll has always been that it's democratic. For all the complications that term involves, complications that in my view I've explored for hundreds of thousands of words and have no need to expand upon here, that continues to be true in countless different if not apparently contradictory ways--pop is democratic in one way, alt/indie is democratic in another, hip hop is democratic (sometimes even at its most bling bling) in another, Africans playing electric guitars are democratic in yet another. For a long time I thought rock and roll was proof that capitalism was or could be democratic too--not a fact that ever made me happy in itself, just one that any realistic progressive had to take into account. In many ways it still is. But I'm appalled by the evolution of megacorporate structure, and even though there's still good work done by good people who make their livings within that structure, the structure itself is much worse than anything I fully envisioned 30 years ago, although John Brunner's Stand On Zanzibar certainly presaged it, scarily enough. As far as "rock 'n' roll decadence and liberation," well, the notion that "decadence" is "liberating" has always been a bugbear of mine. But I don't think it "founded rock criticism as a journalistic beat," whatever that means--I don't even find the idea in Bangs or Meltzer, who I suppose are who you're thinking of. (Nick Kent, maybe. So what?)

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> >From: Brent by God Sanders from Chattanooga by God Tennessee
> >Date: Wednesday, July 03, 2002 10:30 PM

Why do you hate Rock and Roll so much?

Why do you think southern born rock performers are only worthwhile when they conform to your bumpkin specificities (hey, if you can make up words, so can I)? And why do you think that using derogatory slurs against them is okay?

Who died and left you boss?

Do you really think that your intimate relations with a thesaurus so easily masks your obvious clueless frame of reference for the subject you write about?

And isn't Greil kind of a pussy name?

Fuck you too, asshole.


Click here for part 2 of the Dean