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.

August 27, 2019

[Q] In your various commentaries on The Who Sell Out, you have referred to it as "the Who's finest album" and "their only great album." Your 1969 Jazz & Pop ballot marks Tommy at number one for its year, however. Given the motivic as well as conceptual connections between the albums--play the end of "Rael 1" back to back with one of the rock opera's instrumentals if you don't know what I mean--is there any basis for claiming Tommy as another great album? Are rock operas destined to fail? -- Timothy Getz, Vernon, NJ

[A] First of all, I have little interest in motivic relationships among rock and roll songs. Such matters as flow, pace, mood, and groove are far more important to the success of good song collections, which is what most good albums are. Hence, rock operas come to us from behind the eight ball at best. That said, I think I overrated Tommy slightly when it came out--was somewhat hornswoggled by Townshend's tremendous intelligence and ambition, actually. I don't think Tommy's plot is compelling or coherent enough to merit the adulation it continues to inspire. An A minus, sure--a pretty good one. Masterpiece, ridiculous. In 2012 I wrote a review of Townshend's autobiography that didn't quite make the Book Reports cut. Check it out if you're so inclined. I stand by it.

[Q] You've reviewed every Lucinda Williams album since 1980 except her two most recent ones--This Sweet Old World and Vanished Gardens. Have you heard them? Have you soured on her? I would've thought you'd be interested in the former, since it's a track-for-track re-recording of an album you awarded an A. As for Vanished Gardens, Jon Pareles has already dubbed its improbable fusion of genres jazzicana. -- Robert M., New York City

[A] Artists run out of steam, good ones included. It's natural--they start with a good angle or three only then the ideas themselves lose pizzazz for them or they run out of the song material that's a slightly different part of their vision. I've stuck with Williams longer than most--many feel she started repeating if not parodying herself early in this century. But for me her last A was West in 2007. Rerecording classic albums is usually a desperate measure, and though I gave This Sweet Old World a play or two found the differentiation from the excellent Sweet Old World all too marginal--re-recording great albums is a perilous ploy (and please please please don't do them in concert). As for Vanished Gardens, ah man. Her famed collaborator is flower jazzer and rock pickup artist Charles Lloyd, who I had marked as a lightweight 50 years ago.

[Q] Robert! Love your writings and views. You should be proud of your accomplishments! One question. Where did you get the cool guitar T-shirt (the grey one with all the pictures of guitars)? -- Steve, Humboldt County, California

[A] It was a present from the lovely aunt of my daughter Nina's dear friend Val, who was visiting for Christmas from the Philippines and bought it for me at fashion hot spot Old Navy. In truth, it's a little scratchier than I prefer my T-shirts--which should never be scratchy at all, right?

[Q] Has your opinion on retrospectively offensive songs--say, "Bad Detective"--changed over the years? To what extent do you think historical context should be valued in the appreciation of music? -- Jake, Los Angeles

[A] I don't believe in reading things out of the canon; distorting history is counterproductive in the long and usually medium run. You've probably never read George Eliot's philo-Semitic Daniel Deronda, which among other things is way long, but in fact the portrait of the Jewish character there can be intensely embarrassing even though Eliot was doing sincere albeit her rather awkward best to undermine British anti-Semitism in that novel. I do find certain songs offensive in retrospect--"Brown Sugar" in the Stones' original always had an ironic anti-racist edge to it, but that edge disappears in a much changed historical context and I don't think it should be performed today (an opinion I formed when I heard Dylan do it in 2002 and continued to hold when the Stones themselves closed a generally excellent 2005 show with it). But "Bad Detective"? I think that's silly. Do you know the Coasters' original? Classic Leiber-Stoller pop-culture burlesque. So naturally the Dolls ran with it. To me it seems much healthier to remember and mock the longstanding and in some respects quite healthy American tradition of ethnic humor than to act like it was never there. Listen to Bing Crosby's "McNamara's Band" sometime and try to pretend that wasn't there either. There is such a thing as affectionate and even celebratory satire, and what exactly that can mean is crucial to our understanding.

[Q] I've noticed that your reviews have begun to reflect a lot of political thought in the days of Donald, beginning with ATCQ's most recent album (and your most recent A+). The questions I wish to ask are these: how do you perceive art unbiased when you have a political view? Do you believe in having an obligation, as part of a publication, to highlight certain a political agenda? -- Henry Glover, Australia

[A] I've always written about politics--take a look at the Rock & Roll & section of my first collection, Any Old Way You Choose It. I was on Bush II's Iraq war a lot, too. But politics have been a constant of my work throughout. More to the point is why people keep saying critics should be "unbiased." Of course we're biased--everyone is, and should be. Aesthetic judgment is idealist bullshit unless it's spiked with emotional commitment and moral passion, yet on the other hand sometimes a strong or beautiful expression will shift or even overwhelm your values, even move you to change your mind or adjust your feelings about something in a relatively enduring way. But at another level is that this is the age of Trump, which even in Australia you should be able to see is a crisis by definition. I've said many times that my aesthetics are those of a small-D democrat, and Trumpism's fetishization of cruelty and fealty to the superrich puts that kind democratic values are under an attack so sustained and extreme it could put them out of reach not just for the few years I've got left but for much longer. As I said in that recent Hendrix at Woodstock piece, the threat of F-A-S-C-I-S-M is real and present. For all of us, politics are no longer discretionary. That doesn't mean we can't continue to take delight in musical passion, pleasure, and silliness. Those things help keep us human. But any critic who pretends politics have nothing to do with his or her work is a coward or a fool.

[Q] A few questions for you.

  1. Calling Dr. Freud: What was it about the Progressive rock of the 1970's that made you feel so threatened by it that you had to single it out for ignorant snark?
  2. Were you afraid that ELP, King Crimson, or Genesis were going to steal record sales from your beloved Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, or all the other crap that you fawned over in your reviews?
  3. Did you ever realize that your schoolmasterly handing out of letter grades was infinitely more pretentious than anything Peter SInfield ever wrote?
  4. Do you still feel that anything you don't understand must ipso facto be bad, or have you finally outgrown such parochial fatuity?

As you get outfitted for your drool bucket, I urge you to ponder these questions. Oh, and say hi to Griel Marcus for me the next time you see him, and tell him for me that he understands the Surrealist movement about as well as Donald Trump grasps quantum physics. -- Kevin, New York

[A] It's Greil, actually.