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.

July 20, 2022

And It Don't Stop.

Francophone bias, loving the '90s without loving grunge, quoting a misogynist without endorsing a misogynist, B sides, don't stop can't stop won't stop, and a few words from the estimable C.D.

[Q] Hi Bob, hope you and Carola are doing well, back here with another question: is there any reason why you've never reviewed Jacques Brel? To me at least he seems to be one of the major artists of the 20th century and one of the greatest live-performers, aside from being a vocal powerhouse. Please don't tell me that's just my Belgian bias. -- Arthur Hendrikx, Brussels, Vlaams-Brabant, Belgium

[A] It's not your Belgian bias, it's your Francophone bias, only calling it a bias would diminish it egregiously--that's not a bias, it's a power or capability. You speak French, but though I can read a little French when necessary, I can't hear it. So while my wife's great ear extends to foreign languages, not just French but also Spanish and even once when we were lost south of Rome Italian, I can't begin to hear Brel's lyrics. Hence I've never even played her Brel because I've tried a few times and know I don't get him. In French chanson especially, this is a major deficit, because French chanson is more logocentric than any other popular music I'm aware of. I have little doubt he's the titan you say he is--certainly his reputation is absolutely tops. But not in my physical and hence intellectual experience.

[Q] Why do you hate grunge and early '90s music in general? The only alternative artist that you've bestowed an A rating on is Nirvana, which of course is not controversial. Does this stem from being a crotchety old man by the time the Gen Xers began to take over the content or is it more related to being a New York hipster who predictably favours the children of the CBGB scene? I think it's time to give credit where it is long overdue. -- KG, Oslo

[A] I certainly don't hate early '90s music. Skipping hip-hop and for purposes of argument overlooking snobby New Yorkers like Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo, how about Pavement, PJ Harvey, Archers of Loaf, Los Lobos/Latin Playboys, Liz Phair, L7, the Chills, My Bloody Valentine, Hole, the Pixies? True, there are many wimmin in there, not to mention, ulp, Latinos. "Early '90s" they all were, however. As for grunge, I don't hate it, I just don't like it that much, which is different--it tends too dark, too melodramatic, and even so I was always OK with the grunge-adjacent Pearl Jam. But as I put it in my Lenny Kaye review a few months ago: Seattle was "an overcast burg with a 'metal undercurrent' and more heroin ODs than a primal animal can stand." I had many good times there when it was the home of the pop conference. But I'll never love the Melvins.

[Q] Will you be reviewing the Harry Smith B-sides box set that came out in late 2020? Although it's certainly an historic archival release, I question its playability as compared to the canonical Anthology of American Folk Music which got a rare A+ from you. If you've played it through a few times, I'd be curious how you enjoyed it. Thanks. -- Chris, New York City

[A] I bought it, for big shekels, and played it several times without ever being moved to write about it. I may yet, of course. But its word-of-mouth in my tiny corner of the musical universe is nothing special. They don't call 'em B sides for nothing.

[Q] I have been a fan of your music criticism for decades. As a pro-life political conservative (with libertarian leanings on immigration), I don't expect to agree with hardly anything you say about politics, but I do expect you to have some awareness of the facts. Your slam at Justice Alito for citing Matthew Hale in your Lookback is incredibly ignorant. As many have pointed out, liberal justices whom I assume you would never accuse of tolerating misogyny have cited Hale quite recently. A lot of his views are unacceptable to many people today. I am confident your advocacy of unrestricted abortion on demand will be regarded by virtually everyone as barbaric in the not-too-distant future. But in that future, it would be stupid to assume that, because of your grave errors on certain topics, you shouldn't be cited about any matter. -- Stan Greer, Fairfax, Virginia

[A] That a few of what I presume is the usual phalanx of radical-right disinformation warriors have spread the news that the likes of Justice Kagan has been known to cite the same prominent 18th century British misogynist jurist Alito quotes in his barbaric abortion decision doesn't mean she was endorsing said misogynist. It means that Kagan is doing what debaters do: saying "See, even this famous 18th-century proto-ultracon agrees with me, so why don't apprentice proto-ultracons like Brett and Clarence do the same?" She's pretty sure it won't work, but anything is worth a try and maybe she'll even make them so mad they'll flash their dicks and she can snap a quick pic and get them in trouble. FWIW, as the boyfriend of organizer Ellen Willis I attended the inaugural March 1969 abortion speakout at Washington Square Methodist Church (without, you bet, opening my mouth). A month or so later I helped Willis sign out a young woman who'd recently had an abortion from Bellevue, where a young internist with an Italian surname fought to detain her, presumably until he could get her in trouble with the law. Willis prevailed--she was tough. The woman slept on our couch that night and was fine next morning. Researching Going Into the City, I found in my files a sheet of yellow paper listing doctors who'd do abortions in the Northeast. I know many women who've had abortions. As it happens, every one my wife and I could think of also raised children and did a great job of it too.

[Q] Given your Substack title And It Don't Stop, what's your favourite "don't stop" song? "Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough"? Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop"? "Don't Stop Believing"? "Don't Stop Me Now"? Just a silly little question. -- Liam, Johannesburg, South Africa

[A] "And it don't stop" was an early hip-hop usage--a rhythmic device, a kind of readymade early rappers used to pull out to keep the beat going until they figured out what should come next. Raquel Cepeda once called an anthology of hip-hop journalism she put together And It Don't Stop. Both those things said, however, "Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough" is very much my favorite Michael Jackson track and always has been--it's quite the thematic title, after all. So when Kit Rachlis, Tom Carson, and Jeff Salamon assembled a festschrift for my 60th birthday, that's what they called it. Still for sale at my site.

[Q] I'm going to follow up on last month's Xgau Sez reply to the question about taste differences between Bob and his wife Carola, who is me. At the time he wrote his answer, I was not in a mood to pin down what I thought Bob got wrong but afterwards found it bugged me, so I'd like to get this straight. Bob pointed out that I like singer-songwriters less than he does, explaining that I respond more to music than lyrics, which he connected to my musical training. I don't think four years of piano lessons in elementary school did this to me. I think I just crave something I'm more likely to find in bands or groups, not just sound and beat and danceability but attitude--fuck you, don't let them get you down, hallelujah I'm a bum. And I get something from the group identity. When I hear Parquet Courts, who project some kind of political alertness, I feel like I'm part of something, but even an idea-free group like Chai fills a space no individual could. (It's true some singer-songwriters do these things too. I'm thinking Todd Snider.) Bob and I have our arguments but rarely about music. I can't even think of anything he likes that I hate. But he has his own rules for listening--he has to like all the cuts on a record to give it an A, and I will love a record based on the lead cut. Of Bob's recent A's, I've gone for the Ukrainian band Selo i Ludy and that South African dance record from DJ Maphorisa. Thanks, Erin, who wrote the original question, for remembering my old Go-Betweens review and for reminding us to relisten to the sweet and soaring sounds of Aztec Camera, what a treat. Here's another modest piece I'm proud of: "Esther Phillips With a Twist." -- Carola Dibbell, New York City

[A] When Carola told me she was going to write this I told her I had the perfect riposte: "Yes dear." But as usual she worked so hard on it she took the wise guy right out of me. So I'll just say that four years of piano lessons puts her well out of my league in itself--after all these years my formal knowledge of music is still approximately zero. And I'll add as well that that Esther Phillips piece is a winner. But then, they pretty much all are.