Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Xgau Sez

These are questions submitted by readers, and answered by Robert Christgau. New ones will appear in batches every third Tuesday.

To ask your own question, please use this form.

June 18, 2019

[Q] Here is a list of my top nine favorite African artists:

  1. Youssou N'Dour
  2. Rachid Taha
  3. Tabu Ley Rochereau
  4. Papa Wemba
  5. Orchestra Baobab
  6. Kanda Bongo Man
  7. King Sunny Adé
  8. Étoile de Dakar
  9. Miriam Makeba

With whom shall I complete my top ten? -- Adam S. Fenton, Temecula, California

[A] Whoa, Nellie. You're missing someone I didn't notice at first because I assumed he was there--Luambo Franco, next to if not along with N'Dour the very greatest, start with the two superb Sterns Africa two-CD Francophonic comps and the Rochereau collab Omona Wapi. Moreover, I'd count N'Dour and Étoile de Dakar as one artist--that band was his invention, period--leaving room for another woman. Oumou Sangare or possibly Mariem Hassan would be my picks.

[Q] Do you like "Old Town Road"? -- Alexander Robertson, Wilton, Connecticut

[A] I like "Old Town Road" in the Billy Ray Cyrus remix. But I don't love it. As a song I think it tops Childish Gambino's "This Is America" but not Cardi B's "Bodak Yellow," two previous must-hear this-is-a-phenomenon singles I got on late because I'm so album-oriented in this phase of my life, but found none of the three as culturally or aesthetically compelling as I was supposed to. This may be because I'm 77 and may be because most current "memes," if that's what these are, are less intrinsically compelling than must-hears should be. More than, let us say, "Beat It" or "Hound Dog" (but maybe not the overrated "Heartbreak Hotel"), they are pure functions of an information system less universal than such information systems are credited with being. This is why so many "memes" would once just have been called "hypes." On the other hand, taking "Old Town Road" off the country chart strikes me as racist pure and simple, because country radio remains racist regardless of the Darius Ruckers and Kane Browns it makes room for. And of course, it's also sexist in an era when so many of the edgiest country singers are women: Miranda Lambert, Angaleena Presley, Becky Warren, Margo Price, Ashley Monroe, Mary Gauthier, even Kacey Musgraves, can I mention Lori McKenna, and I know I'm forgetting people.

[Q] Do you still stand by C- for Master of Reality and if so why? -- William Hjelte, Brooklyn

[A] Why wouldn't I, and why doesn't the review I wrote--I believe in 1980, when I was filling out the first Consumer Guide collection, rather than 1971--suffice to explain? Was Sabbath an Important Band that belongs in the Rock Hall? Of course. Did I think the Osbournes' reality show was kinda funny? Indeed I did. But people like what they like, and why you'd expect someone with my sensibility to change his mind about that particular band I can't begin to know. It so happens that when I was doing my radio show for the Voice in 2001 my producer was a Sabbath fan. I liked him a lot, so when he asked me to give them another shot and provided a CD to make it easier, I did, for two-three plays. No go. End of story. Life is short and great music an all but infinite expanse.

[Q] I notice you don't review jazz records much lately, though you used to, notably Ornette Coleman. I know you chewed out Richard Meltzer back in the day for trying to review jazz without having the chops--did you even make him apologize to Gary Giddins?--but I would be curious to hear your views on Kamasi Washington's recent The Epic, especially because image wise it seems aimed at a wider/pop/rock audience. Although he puts a large orchestra plus a female choir into the kitchen sink, I hear rather little emotional substance. -- Simon Hearn, Vancouver

[A] First of all, I've never reviewed jazz much. Instead I followed jazz artists with rock or "rock" connections--Miles Davis's avant-electro-'70s, Ornette Coleman with his harmolodics (both of which claimed and for the most part earned "funk"), James Blood Ulmer and his ilk, the prolific and ever-changing David Murray, Nils Petter Molvaer and a few other trumpeters extending Miles's '70s into dub and techno--plus a few classic favorites, notably Monk and Sonny Rollins, who I had language and experience to explain to rock-oriented readers who'd followed me that far. Plus some overrated '70s "fusion" when that was a thing. These days, the old masters I came up with are gone, and I find I don't have the interest to explore new guys: Joshua Redman in particular clearly has something going for him, but also pretty clearly limitations I don't have the listening experience or critical chops to unravel. The recent Sons of Kemet and Harriet Tubman albums were gratifying exceptions. I hope there are more, but I have no intention of immersing in deep research or going off half-cocked to find them. As for Kamasi Washington and the rest of that LA posse, I think it's soft and all too feel-good. But that's a hunch only, one I'm unlikely to expand on in a format that has no use for Duds. (P.S.: As for Meltzer, there was never any way to "make" him do anything, which is to his credit.)

[Q] You've spoken before about how Johnny Griffin's tenor sax solo on Monk's Misterioso represents your favourite piece of recorded music. Are there any other segments of music that give it a run for its money? -- Adam, London

[A] The one parallel to that "In Walked Bud" solo I can think of I've written about before: the first, non-hit side of Bill Doggett's 1956 "Honky Tonk," its second side the biggest rock instrumental of the '50s, which I listened to for an hour straight on the living-room rug at 14 and came out a different person--my conversion to the blues template, which I replay occasionally to this day, although I listen to both sides consecutively now. That was life-changing. So it makes sense in a way that the more recent alternatives that come to mind are both death-related: Willie Nelson's "September Song," which my bedridden mother-in-law listened to over and over in the last months of her life (although often we played more of Stardust than that), and the Beach Boys' "Darlin'," which brought my wife and me to tears in the early days of her stem cell transplant sequestration last September. Those are obviously not strictly musical judgments, wonderful though the music has to be to make such an impression. Nevertheless, when I replay them now, and I do once in a while, the impact recalled remains.

[Q] You periodically reference requiring a certain mood/circumstance to completely appreciate an album--"Granted, its uses are limited--best for late nights alone," for Leonard Cohen's Songs of Love and Hate, "I'd have to be in a very special angry mood to play it," for an Idles album. It strikes me as the critic in conversation with the listener, the critic toward the "objective" (I know) end of the spectrum, the listener adding a necessary dose of subjectivity. I'm curious about how an album's "usefulness"--its ability to match or mold a mood--figures into your evaluations. Does a narrow range of commensurate moods make for a lower grade? -- Dustin Lowman, New York City

[A] What I really listen for is the kind of thrill that at its most intense feels like love. But on the earthly plane the fact is that I care much more about use value--a term Google reveals comes up dozens of times in my reviews over the years--than "objective" aesthetics, especially since a chief virtue of the latter is that they boost the former: the better executed or made an album, the more likely its use value is to endure. Indeed, it's rare for me to play an album without being something like "in the mood" for it, which is use value enough. And this goes way back. I've published precisely one poem in my life unless my rewrite of "Short People" counts, at Dartmouth when I was 19. It begins: "I will make poems/for my own uses/musical as hurdy-gurdies/and sad as the old man whimpers." Still sounds like me, I'd say.

May 28, 2019

[Q] Do you consider Pitchfork's 8.7 review of Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music trolling? Your own C+ I can sort of get, but come on . . . 8.7? Ok, to be fair I have only heard the "A 1" track myself, but this is a mind game, right? I would have more fun with the drumbeats on the live "Waiting for My Man" than listen again. Next up we have 9.2 for 1973's Dylan because it's actually a masterpiece. Right? -- Ian Sommers, Manchester, England

[A] I don't know if I'd call it trolling, but in general I think this particular P4K feature/gimmick is more about repositioning the mag and recalibrating the canon than anything systematic or serious. Since this particular extreme example was written by Mark Richardson, who was the editor at the time, it's fair to assume it was done with some sort of editorial strategy behind it, but that's not to suggest that I think he did it solely to shock and be contrarian--he's always been a more judicious critic than that. Instead I'd surmise that the prog side of him had always believed (or, less propitiously, recently decided) that this provocative album had gotten a raw deal and thought it would be nice positioning for Pitchfork to play around with its own hard-earned stature as the established critical voice of the thoughtful young music fan by saying so in print. If you think that's trolling, a term I've never been comfortable with unless it involved anonymous, fictional personas, then you have a right, I guess. But my assumption is that the ideas expressed in that review are truly Richardson's. Not that they'd ever move me to relisten just to make sure. My 1977 review was based on multiple plays I have no desire to repeat. And I would also add that Metal Machine Music is a far cry from Dylan. It has a conceptual rationale and is original in that respect, which Dylan does not.

[Q] Hello! I wonder if there are any musicians of the rock age that you love but your wife can't stand, or vice versa? -- Robin Ingman, Upplands, Väsby, Sweden

[A] Basically, the answer is no, which is kind of miracle, isn't it? As I recall, she didn't like how Idles sounded, but first five times through neither did I, and though I came to admire that record I'd have to be in a very special angry mood to play it. In general, however, as we've gotten older I've been less inclined to play abrasive new music for her, though she has no trouble with the old stuff: Clash, Pavement, etc., and the fact is that I don't hear much abrasive new music that I like myself--never really liked the Fat White Family, say, though I intend to try again soon. Ditto for the more aggressive strands of hip-hop, although she actually worries that she doesn't hear enough recent stuff in that vein. And for sure I often play old favorites for her--just recently Steely Dan, who we listened to a lot when we were first together, and Bobbie Cryner, whose debut sounded so strong in the car this past Saturday. As I wrote in my memoir, Carola is as aesthetically responsive as anyone I've ever known, and that's without being any kind of sop or sponge. For a critic, she's such a gift, not a shit detector but a divining rod--when she notices something new that she likes I'm usually a lot further on my way to an A or at least a high Honorable Mention.

[Q] If you were a TED Talk, you'd be Chuck Klosterman. Any opinion on the guy? -- Rene Ortega, Fallbrook, California

[A] If I'm supposed to understand what the TED talk reference means, sorry, I don't. Does Klosterman do TED talks? For that matter, do you watch them? Wha? Anyway, Klosterman's obviously a very bright guy who I bet isn't as facile as he makes it seem. I like Fargo Rock City but have never worked up any interest in his other books or understood why he was declared an "ethicist" (wasn't that it?) by the NYT. That's in part because I've never credited what moral judgments of his I've encountered. He always seemed clever and contrarian for their own sake, the kind of guy who'd generate a "theory" he'd forget six months down the road. I will add, however, that he can be very funny. I once did a reading with him for some function I've long forgotten and he blew me off the stage--I enjoyed what he read more than what I wrote myself.

[Q] Good day, Robert. Please share your opinion of John and Yoko's "Woman Is the Nigger of the World." -- Wayne Timmins, Ontario, Canada

[A] The whole Some Time in New York City album sounds better to me now than it used to, and "Woman Is the Nigger of the World" was always the best song on it. Problem is, of course, that even in 1973 white people appropriating the word "nigger" was not just problematic but beyond the pale. And it still is. But as protest music goes, the detail and analysis of the rest of the lyric remain of unusual intelligence and complexity. Good tune, too.

[Q] Are you pussy-whipped? Do you review straight white males with guitars anymore or are they beholden to the patriarchy? You're worse than NPR. -- Drew Hirsch, Sweetbrier, California

[A] I am a white male heterosexual who has identified publicly as a feminist since 1970. Since then I have written thousands of positive reviews of bands consisting entirely of straight white guys with guitars. So far in 2018 I've added albums by Idles, Pedro the Lion, Todd Snider (solo, true), Robert Forster, Jason Ringenberg, and, er, Bruce Springsteen (also solo, hmm), not one of whom is stupid enough to think "pussy-whipped" a striking or witty term. Facts: African-Americans have always been the prime creative motor of American music, I've had an active interest in African music since it began to become more available in the mid-'80s, and most of today's interesting younger guitar bands are led by women, freed up by the confidence that they won't attract ginks like you to their shows.

[Q] Have you decided what album you will listen to on your deathbed? -- Rob, Pittsburgh

[A] Not yet.

May 07, 2019

[Q] Hey there. Mongo hasn't written in a while been busy making pigs happy this spring, they only settle down with Fox news on in the barn. Go figure. Anyway, I want to say I just can't wait to read your forthcoming collection Book Reports. (Thank you btw for the discount code too.) Mongo wonder, do you have a favorite book that you've read more than once in your life that can generate laughter from you. Mongo love Confederacy of Dunces for this very reason. -- Mongo, A Warm Muddy Midwestern Pig Farm

[A] Of novels I've read twice--I keep a record of sorts, believe it or not--the ones that make me laugh are Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo and Roddy Doyle's The Commitments. But that's not why I look them over again. I do that because they loom large in my life. So after reading your note I got on a stepladder and pulled down George Ade's Fable in Slang and More Fables in Slang, which I have in one volume that cost me a buck in 1962 or so. That made me laugh yet again. And when I reread Dave Hickey's Air Guitar, which I do often, in bits and pieces, I always laugh. A hilarious as well as a brilliant critic. His slept-on 2017 Perfect Wave is recommended.

[Q] The subtitle for Book Reports I can only suppose is an allusion to some 18th- or 19th-century bildungsroman--what's the story? And in light of the recent challenge to a similarly high-profile university press, any balming stories of editorial support at Duke, re the subtitle or otherwise? -- L.R., Washington DC

[A] I thought the subtitle was cute, precise, and bracingly unorthodox, end of story--certainly not a literary reference, in case that question wasn't an obscure joke. As for university presses, the Stanford story you link to is utterly unsurprising in a political environment where profit maximization at all costs is assumed almost everywhere to increasingly disastrous effect--including the book industry, natch, where "midlist" authors like me can no longer get decent advances. This is not to imply that I've ever made much money off any of my books. I publish books because I love books and read as many as I can--somewhere in the Jonathan Lethem piece in Book Reports the permanently book-mad Lethem puts this motivation better than I ever could. And into the midlist vacuum have stepped various university presses. Robert Gipe, who's published two terrific novels set in Kentucky coal country that I like a lot, did it with Ohio University. The Why TK Matters series to which my friends Donna Gaines and Tom Smucker have contributed 40,000-worders on the Ramones and the Beach Boys was dropped by a disintegrating University of New England Press and picked up by University of Texas. And my Duke editor Ken Wissoker published collections by Chuck Eddy (two) and Greg Tate before he did my two. As I'm telling audiences on my far-flung promotional tour, which will bring me to all the way to Word Books in Greenpoint May 23, Ken and I made literary history. Never before, to my knowledge, have two journalism collections by the same author appeared within the same six-month span, or indeed in successive years.

[Q] Have you ever had a show on a college or community radio station? If not, is it something you ever thought about doing? -- Nick

[A] I did do an hour-long show briefly in 2001 when some genius at the Voice thought maybe we could right the ship by getting into internet radio. To the paper's dismay, I insisted on being paid for it, only $100 as I recall but I earned it and then some. Doing radio right is work--fun, interesting, sometimes even exciting work, but work. (Doing playlists at Rhapsody was work too, and that I did for free as part of my licensing deal there, 2007-2009 if I recall. Much less fun, too.) Eighteen years later, I'd probably accept a job offer were one offered but wouldn't consider doing it for nothing. I'm a writer and not getting any younger or more energetic. I love writing. And writing is HARD work.

[Q] What percentage of your listening is not new releases? Oh often, for instance, do you listen to your A-graded albums from earlier than, say, 2018? -- Howard Litwak, Seattle

[A] Not enough. Probably not even five percent. More when we go out of town, from the iPod 160 whose battery I just had replaced. Looking over my to-shelve nook, where there are currently 36 CDs, I see the Beach Boys' Smiley Smile/Wild Honey, Best of the Chantels, the Coathangers' Nosebleed Weekend, The Very Best of the 5 Royales, the Go-Betweens' Oceans Apart, Skip James' Blues From the Delta, the Mekons' Ancient and Modern, Mast's Thelonious, Nicki Minaj's Pink Friday, Noname's Room 25, The Very Best of Bud Powell, Homeboy Sandman's Kindness for Weakness, Billie Joe Shaver's Long in the Tooth, Sleater-Kinney's One Love, Sneaks' Gymnastics, David Toop's Sugar and Poison comp, Big Mama Thornton's Hound Dog: The Peacock Recordings, and Tierra Whack's Whack World. But several of these are 2018s, a bunch more put on (enjoyably) to contextualize stuff I may review. On the other hand, I also listen from my iTunes for convenience sake, and that's almost all stuff I've got in my shelves.

[Q] A lot of promising artists petered out quick or seem to have given up too soon--life, and its thirst for income or companionship, I suspect, came calling--I'd cite as examples Elliott Murphy (petered real quick); Elizabeth Elmore (legal eagle); Leah Archibald (family, causes, home, maybe?); a couple years ago I would've added Boots Riley but boy was that premature and plain wrong. Anybody you wish would have kept it up, kept at it, or would come back to favor us with his or her art? -- David Poindexter

[A] This is not exactly a mystery in a world where inspiration waxes and wanes in every art form. And were you aware of what a strange list you'd concocted? Murphy made one fine album almost 40 years ago and parlayed that into a well-supported career as he blew through the record-company advances that ensued throughout the '70s and then faded from view because he just couldn't duplicate Aquashow ever again. Elmore was a supersmart indie-rocker who never had even an indie-scale commercial breakthrough. Archibald was a working mom with a music hobby that generated several fine early-'00s albums too straightforwardly rockish for the indie circuit that I don't recall any critic but me noticing. (Google suggests that her band name, Wide Right, has since been adopted by several other bands, at least one from Buffalo like Archibald.) And Boots Riley is a long and widely renowned alt-Marxist rapper whose career leading the Coup dates back to the early '90s so what he's doing on this list I have no idea. There's no mystery here. In every field of artistic endeavor there are flashes in the pan, people whose ideas are exciting for a while and then tucker out or start repeating themselves at a lesser order of inspiration, people with more rewarding things to do like Elmore (and I don't just mean economically rewarding, although sticking with the indie circuit when you have other personally stimulating skills makes sense to me, which doesn't stop me from I hoping she comes up with a surprise album some year). Creativity tends to arc, and in pop music two different patterns are common--the skyrocket that burns out fast and the craftperson who gradually gets better (but may well peter out after that). In three of the four cases you've named--Riley was always plainly a dynamo, though he's also so political I can imagine him going into politics fulltime as well--three different kinds of natural creative cycles were clearly at play. Nothing strange about it at all.

[Q] Huge fan of your work! Just wanted to know what is your opinion on the Grammys? I am asking this because as a critic, I expect your judgment on the overall quality of a record to be based more on its social impact and overall personality rather than technical prowess, which is what I believe the Academy focuses on, seeing as its members are not journalists, but rather music industry insiders/professionals. -- Daniel Groza, Satu Mare, Romania

[A] Since you live in Romania, it's no surprise that you're not familiar with what a joke the Grammys are to most critics--much more than the Oscars, which is saying something. "Technical prowess"--sure, to an extent. Respectable, undisruptive aesthetic with a patina of creativity and BIG SALES--really the point. Also, the voters are mostly white and old in an art form still commercially dependent on the young and beholden artistically to over a century of disgracefully, scandalously, exploitatively under-rewarded black creativity. As it happens, I've written two 21st-century pieces on the Grammys, the first of which I might have crammed into Is It Still Good to Ya? if I'd had a good place to put it (toward the end of the first section might have worked fine). Here's a 2001 Voice one. And here's a live-blogged 2009 thing I did for the ARTicles blog of the National Arts Journalism Program.

April 16, 2019

[Q] Have you considered that you have probably listened to more music than any other person on Earth? -- Alan, Canada

[A] Here the distinction between "listened to" and "heard" comes into play. My hours are far more impressive if we equate hearing, which requires little or no mindfulness, with listening to, which requires concentration and engagement. I'm willing to guess that I've heard more different albums than any other person on Earth, but that's a far more limited claim. Anyway, people in radio and at record companies also hear a tremendous quantity of music. And never underestimate how much music musicians hear in their lives. Classical musicians practice for hours a day and hear every note they play, but pop and jazz musicians' lives are soaked in music as well. Obviously I'm unusually voracious, and I've probably reviewed more albums than anyone. (There are about 15,000 reviews on the site.) And yes, I'm proud of these things. But musicians live music, and consumers like me and you are in debt to their dedication.

[Q] As the Dean of All Things Monk, please weigh in on the decline of the jazz audience. Terry Teachout wrote "Can Jazz Be Saved?" ten years ago now, but does the lack of appreciation for classical and jazz signify a problem with our education system or rather a problem with classical and jazz? Do you believe in the "education fallacy" of foisting musical genres onto young people when the genres are acquired tastes to begin with? -- Underemployed Jazz Musician, Vernon, New Jersey

[A] First, all musicians these days are underemployed, with the decline of studio recording more than the live scene the key reason by me; for that matter, musicians have been underemployed approximately forever. Second, having written one fine Thelonious Monk essay and some good briefs does not render me an expert (and btw, I couldn't have written my description of that Johnny Griffin solo, which I've recently learned is more legendary than I'd dreamed--there are jazz musicians who've committed it to memory, I'm told--without detailed coaching from my trumpet-playing brother-in-law, a retired attorney who plays out frequently in a variety of styles and makes little or no money doing so). Third, I never believe anything Terry Teachout says, for reasons I explain in the Armstrong piece which (like the Monk) is in Is It Still Good to Ya? and go into further in an NAJP ARTicles blog diatribe findable on my site. Fourth, Nate Chinen has a new book on 21st-century jazz that you should probably read. Fifth, I don't think there's a fallacy in any kind of public-school arts instruction (work for musicians, after all) and see no reason not to believe that it will plant a few seeds, but I also very much doubt it will reverse larger historical tendencies--such as, just as an instance, the decline of the jazz audience.

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