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.

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.