Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Articles [NAJP]

Full Disclosure

Unlike most of my colleagues, I don't know many musicians. Although I have my small share of '60s stories--hey, Pete Townshend gave me and Ellen Willis a lift to the Woodstock site in his limo, how cool is that?--getting to know the stars has never been a social goal for me. Why? Just say I value friendship too much and leave it at that. Because I value friendship, however, there are a few exceptions--organic relationships I would consider it immoral to sever. I met saxophonist Roy Nathanson when he was Ray Dobbins's teenaged boyfriend, got to know the endlessly friendly Peter Stampfel because we had the same chiropractor, shared early child-rearing with Robert Sietsema of the now defunct Mofungo, and through that connection saw my trumpet-moonlighting brother-in-law join the long-running NYC postpunk band The Scene Is Now. Since the idea of the Consumer Guide is that it's both encyclopedic and concise, so that my readers assume that when I skip something it's a dis, this has meant I've had to write about records involving all of the above without the polite ploy of full disclosure. Stampfel I consider a genius (usually), The Scene Is Now (sorry, guys, hope you don't read this) a worthwhile hobby, and my coverage or lack of it reflects my judgments, which I hope remain responsibly objective.

So what am I to do about Menya? Menya is one of a dozen or more musical enterprises launched by students at NYU's Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music to have given me a demo. (Many others have not. My course is required, so I teach everyone in the program, generally in their sophomore years.) I always listen, just about never relisten. If asked, I proffer my opinion, candidly put as is my professional practice. (This may be why few ask.) REMU profs whose specialties are artistic have different obligations, as I see it--they have to help improve the engineering, the packaging, the marketing, whatever. I teach history and writing, so I don't. What am I to do about Menya?

Menya comprises an NYU '09 whose Missy Elliott paper was way Latinate, an NYU '10 who was one of the most diligent students I've taught, and--graduated from backup singer--an NYU '10 who was was a scholastic flake. The two latter did final papers on Jackson Browne (excellent) and Jefferson Airplane (not so hot), respectively. What would Browne or Grace Slick think of this joyous, raucous, filthy, all-synthesized half-rap half-pop? A hilarious thought.

I love them. My wife loves them. Just to check I had demos sent to three of my editors and they all thought they were pretty great too. So there I was last night in Avenue C's Alphabet Lounge at 8 sharp asking myself why after 40 years I still got to gigs at the announced time. I was the only customer in the place, and remained so for at least 10 minutes. But within 20 minutes there were a few dozen paying customers, half of whom I recognized from NYU. I hadn't pressured anyone to come because I know how crappy baby bands can be. They were anything but crappy. Next time my wife will be with me, and probably an editor friend or two as well. And there will be a next time.

I reviewed Menya's EP--all of which is available gratis at their MySpace page anyway--for the next Consumer Guide at MSN Networks. Made room for some full disclosure. Finding good music is my job, so I feel fine about that. But to be honest, I have no idea what the journalistic ethics of any additional advice or contact making might be. What am I to do about Menya?

1 Comment

By Alex on July 21, 2008 11:00 AM

A year ago, Carl Wilson started to explore this concern at EMP, but the panel got sidetracked when Ann Powers volunteered to be his discussion subject because L.A. has an atypical music scene. The question you face is one those of us who have city-based beats deal with regularly--how do you write about music made by people you know and like? I've half-joked that if you don't know enough people to have a perceived conflict of interest, you probably don't know enough to write.

I'm not sure there's much to do but maintain a regular, fairly rigorous self-examination of responses--what am I reacting to, and would I react the same if someone else cut this?--and even more rigorous self-policing. There is one band that I realized I can't write about anymore because I caught myself thinking about how the band's publicist might use what I was writing in my review. When the potential selling of the CD is in my mind, it's clearly time for me to assign the band's reviews to someone else.

Articles, July 11, 2008

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