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.

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.

[Q] Say you could choose one language, and you magically gain perfect listening comprehension of all lyrics in all songs written in that language. Which language do you choose? -- Sam, UK

[A] What an interesting question. My first thought was Spanish, and that might be best--vast quantities of major music (albeit also dreck) in that tongue, from Los Van Van to Ruben Blades to Victor Jara. But then I thought Portuguese even though I'm not a big samba guy. I'd get my beloved Tom Zé to start, and finally connect to Veloso, and many of the other tropicalia legends were renowned lyricists. And hey, how about Lingala? Or French, which I supposedly speak but actually only read (some). So I say . . . Portuguese! (I think.)

[Q] Do you enjoy any of the Mountain Goats early, lo-fi recordings? How do you feel about "lo-fi" music in general? -- Jake Neilson, Vancouver

[A] I greatly prefer medium-fi to lo-fi and think the fetishization of certain lo-fi recordings--Beatles in Hamburg is my usual example--is for obsessives and professionals only. On the other hand, Ramones cost $6400 to record, Have Moicy! less than that, and both sound great. As for early Mountain Goats, I delved around in there a fair amount and never found anything as compelling as John Darnielle's later work. I love the guy, but not quite that much.

[Q] Do you consider your own writing lucid? -- Me Again, Tel Aviv

[A] Lucidity signifies clarity as a transcendent ideal, which like most transcendent ideals ain't for me. But I do believe I'm clear while both cracking wise, sometimes via jokes those who don't share my context or grok my sensibility won't get, and exploring complex ideas that are nevertheless far more accessible than those of "theory," in which clarity is regarded as a lie by definition, because the world truly understood is such a recondite place. Also, I deploy a rather large vocabulary, which insofar as clarity requires precision and entertainment thrives on variety, as I believe they do, can be daunting for some but doesn't in my opinion make me less clear.

[Q] How do you feel about the fact that many famous musicians have been credibly accused of doing horrible things (R. Kelly and Michael Jackson being the two most obvious examples, at least to me)? Do you think it is possible to separate the artist from their work, and to keep listening to their music without endorsing the artists' actions? Or do you think it is necessary to stop listening to their music entirely? -- Jinkinson Smith, Atlanta

[A] This is both an impossible question to answer and a dangerous question to answer, and I can say right now that in the case of Michael Jackson I'm just gonna have to wait and see, while in the cases of R. Kelly and Ryan Adams the abuse was something I already heard or at least sensed in their art, which I never much cared for much anyway, in part for that reason. (My Kelly piece in Is It Still Good to Ya?, written in 2005 and selected for that book long before he finally got a small portion of what he deserves, addresses this question.) But I will say this. James Brown and George Jones both abused women, as I've specified in critical appreciations of each. That did not and does not stop me from admiring and indeed loving their music. For that matter, John Lennon wasn't always so great to women either.

March 26, 2019

[Q] Sorry if this question has been asked recently, but how do you keep up with the most recent music releases these days? With so many sites covering only certain genres of music and the influx of new artists releasing music on Soundcloud, Bandcamp, etc, how does an avid music listener such as yourself make sure he is at the very least exposed to as wide a swath of new music as possible? -- Kyle E, Richmond, Virginia

[A] It's all too catch-as-catch-can. I'm on plenty of PR lists and always check my email, still get things in the mail (the Americana business remains very CD-oriented, also jazz and world), and regularly get tips from a few friends who know my tastes. The way Pitchfork organizes its reviews render it a useful source--I regularly check 'em out, locate anything that sounds vaguely promising on Spotify, playlist it, and then listen either on my phone at the gym etc. or when I don't feel like getting up and loading and programming my wonky changer. Fewer than half of these get more than one play, but the Diana Gordon EP in this week's Expert Witness, for instance, started that way (the Amber Mark was a friend's tip). Nonetheless, I miss a lot of stuff, and Carola's illness in 2018 had a distracting effect. Just from the most recent batch of Xgau Sez questions, for instance, I found out that not only did the Cloud Nothings have a 2018 album but that--somehow, some way--I missed Nicki Minaj's Queen. I'm streaming it as I write.

[Q] Stumbling (or steered) into Xgau Sez while searching for the original source of a comment you made about Nina Simone, I saw your complaint about CD changers failing and, more specifically, failing to recognize CDs. I have had this problem. A citizen of austerity ever willing to mess with a seemingly broken gizmo (although with increasingly less success as the gizmos become less mechanical), I've found the most common reason for a changer failing to read CDs is that dust and dirt have obscured the lens of the laser that does the reading. A Q-tip and gentle solvent, such as what you use on eyeglasses or a computer screen, have (so far) solved the problem for me. Of course, you have to be willing to open the device and get at the lens. That may not be your thing, but I'm sure you know someone willing and able to make the attempt. I have been a great admirer of your writing for (yikes!) four decades; you are an exemplary critic. -- Chris Breyer, Los Angeles

[A] Thank you three ways. One, for the compliment. Two, for an exceptionally well-written query sans question mark--I deleted one unnecessary word but otherwise ran it as is. Three, for your advice, which I hope to try whenever I have the time and gumption to extract my changer from under the preamp I never turn off and the tuner I never use. I also expect to enlist an advisor who can instruct me on laser location and access.

[Q] Hi Robert. Since you have no album entries for this artist, are you familiar with the English folk singer Nick Drake? Drake garnered little critical or commercial success in his short life, but has since accrued significant acclaim. His three albums move through what one might describe as tasteful folk-pop, culminating in Pink Moon, a stark collection recorded with Drake mostly alone on his acoustic guitar. If you find a spare 28 minutes in your day, that last album in particular is worth a listen--in this humble listener's opinion. -- Alex Crisp, UK

[A] In the Subjects for Further Research appendix to the '70s Consumer Guide book, findable on my site, appears the following entry: "Nick Drake: I'm not inclined to revere suicides. But Drake's jazzy folk-pop is admired by a lot of people who have no use for Kenny Rankin, and I prefer to leave open the possibility that he's yet another English mystic (romantic?) I'm too set in my ways to hear." This was fairly audacious in 1980 and I'm certainly aware that it's a lot more unconventional now. Drake is admired and beloved by many, so many that I'm sure he was an artist of real originality and, for many, appeal. Last time I tried to improve my attitude was when he was reissued to some fanfare I think in the '90s, but to no avail. Although there've been a few exceptions, I've never been attracted to hypersensitives or depressives, and Drake is both. I make no claim for the objective aesthetic value of these tastes. If you enjoy and admire him, go to it with my blessings--you have lots of intelligent company. Just not me.

[Q] In your review of the Black Panther soundtrack you state Kendrick has "the least regal of the great rap flows." This brings up a few questions: 1) Who else belongs in the "great rap flow" pantheon? 2) Which is the greatest of all? and 3) Which is the most regal? -- Ian Carroll, Skerries, Ireland

[A] It's a long list. I'd put Rakim first to this day, but there are so many others--off the top of my head, Chuck D, Biggie, Jay-Z although it took me a while to hear how brilliant his offhandedness is, both members of OutKast, Eminem, Lil Wayne in his highly unregal way, probably both Nicki Minaj and Jean Grae (although she's faded in recent years), for a while I would have said Mr. Lif but he's faded too, the highly unregal ODB. Most regal would be the early masters, Rakim and Chuck. What makes Kendrick's unregality so striking is that, unlike Wayne or ODB, there's nothing weird or goofy about him--not close. Both his accent and his timbre are so unprepossessing--he always sounds like an ordinary guy with a knack for rapping. Getting more specific would take hours of straight listening and lots of comparison--the kind of thing I reduce to a sentence or two or maybe a graf after most of a day's listening and checking with my gifted vocal consultant Carola Dibbell.

[Q] I'm originally from Southern California and your Record Guide: Rock Albums of the '70s, which came out when I was 18, helped me prioritize and qualify and fill in the gaps for the decade of music I'd grown up with. But thanks to this book I also found myself listening to a lot of music my friends weren't. Lou Reed, Television, New York Dolls. Anyway, good music can come from anywhere, but can your aesthetic develop equally anywhere? How different do you think your taste in music would be if you had spent your adult life not in New York but in L.A.? Or Memphis? Or, I don't know, Sioux Falls? -- David Tindall, Petaluma, California

[A] For sure where you grow up affects your tastes, as do all kinds of other biographical details. The South seems especially sticky musically. Moreover, I'm very much a New Yorker. But the thing about New York in particular is that the city's culture isn't just strong, it's broad--multicultural, both Hispanic and, especially, Jewish long before the post-1965 immigration wave that has gradually been making white people a minority here. And not only is it broad, it's aggressively cosmopolitan. For that reason especially, it's a magnet. Lou Reed and the Dolls were native New Yorkers, but Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell were not. They were arty rebels from cultured families who were drawn to New York and made their own New York music from what they found here. Ditto for Kim and Thurston and Sonic Youth. Would I have come here if I'd been brought up elsewhere? Who knows--as I explain in Going Into the City, being stuck in a class full of smart Jewish kids in 1953 was a revelation for me. Then again, one reason it was so earthshaking is that I was the rare white New Yorker who was brought up in a fundamentalist Christian church. Which in turn probably attunes me to non-cosmopolitan American musics as other New Yorkers are not. And so it goes.

[Q] What did you admire about Pauline Kael and how did she influence you? -- David Springer, Fairfax, Virginia

[A] You and me are lucky fellows, David Springer, because you give me the chance to simply quote a few sentences about Kael's 1965 I Lost It at the Movies from the introduction to my forthcoming Book Reports, due from Duke mid-April. Ahem. "Not yet at The New Yorker when it was published, Pauline Kael was deeply into movies for love alone. I met her once at the Algonquin and didn't dig her queen bee act. But her secular intellect and honed prose, her brassy candor and democratic gusto, her nose for the laugh line and love affair with American English, her ideas as juicy as her descriptions, and her enthusiasm for artworks from The Grand Illusion to The Sugarland Express all rendered her an earthshaking critic. And except for Raising Kane, initially a very long New Yorker essay, every one of the dozen-plus books she published was a collection. I'm no Kael--nobody is. But I've always figured that if collections were good enough for her, they're good enough for me."

March 05, 2019

[Q] Let's say you could put together a fantasy rock band the way some people put together fantasy sports teams. If you could pick your favorite rock singer, guitarist (or two if you like, for lead and for rhythm), bassist, drummer, and maybe keyboardist--without picking twice from the same band--what would Dean Christgau's resulting lineup be? (Also, since this is a fantasy, feel free to include deceased musicians here--we can always practice necromancy if need be.) -- Elijah, Sacramento

[A] I'm going to overlook the fundamental silliness of this question--bands are among other things about personal synergy, which is why supergroups suck--and also stretch your guidelines because, I admit, you got me musing anyway and I thought it would be fun to answer, only answer my way. I'll start with bass because it's easiest: James Jamerson. His great disciple McCartney probably ended up knowing more about harmony, but he's the man and always will be. Drummer: Charlie Watts on the one hand and Ziggy Modeliste on the other plus let us not forget Jabo Starks and Clyde Stubblefield, so to subsume them all I'll choose an LA studio drummer who cut his teeth in New Orleans: Earl Palmer. Lead singer: John Lennon, who will also play some rhythm guitar, only on rhythm guitar-plus we also want Lisa Walker, who by the way we'll also let sing, although not so as to get in the way of Carola's nominee, the fetching Etta James. Lead guitar: Robert Quine. And since you granted me keyboard space I'll pick a piano man who might also sing and even pick up a guitar now and then, quite possibly overwhelming all our other guitarists in the process. Fellow who goes by the moniker Prince.

[Q] I have been an avid reader of your guide since 1978, and you have been a great influence on my musical selections. Although I still have guilty pleasures like Thor, you hipped me to genius like P-Funk, John McLaughlin, Terry Riley, etc., whose CDs I avidly purchase at the discount/used bins. Question: approximately how many questions do you receive each week? I ask because I figure you probably get so many that you must pick and choose for Xgau Sez. -- Chris Schneider, Long Branch, New Jersey

[A] It's less now than at the beginning, but generally several a day, many of which seem too specific to bother with, although what I choose can be pretty impulsive--if an answer just pops into my head I'm liable to pursue it. I cut down to once every three weeks not because there weren't enough to engage my interest but because I work pretty hard at my Noisey column, am promoting two books, have lots of the kind of health and family obligations that accrue to the elderly, and just spent a year in which I didn't see enough of my friends. So now I'll ask you a question. Who the hell is Thor?

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