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.

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?

[Q] Today's CD players are a lot better than the old ones, especially when it comes to converters; "a new laser" is not all you need! I've never seen a stranger "product placement": where did you get the idea that Bose qualify as "quality speakers"? (The ones I use cost me $270, so it's not a matter of price.) -- Beppe Colli, Catania, Italy

[A] As I've said before in this space, I am not an audiophile. At 76, I never will be. I actively dislike luxury goods and prefer my couture from L.L. Bean. Perfect sound forever means nothing to me. Vinyl may be "richer" than CDs (and may not), but I love CD convenience. I do have a professional audio advisor who thinks the Boses are fine for my purposes, which he understands well. I have now owned four Sony CDP-CR375 changers (and hence now own four remotes, which is useful, they get mislaid), two or three of which I bought used. My only complaint is crucial, however: after a while they stop recognizing CDs, need to babied into it by manipulating the stop button and other fussy stratagems. That machine fits perfectly in my very cramped workspace, plus I really know how it works. FWIW, I still write when possible in DOS-based WP51, a superb word processing as opposed to self-publishing program that dates to 1991. I convert to Word--7 I believe--for email purposes.) My email service provider is AOL because Gmail insisted my handle be at least six characters. I never have been and never will be on Facebook. Etc. Any practical suggestion regarding how I nurse along my actually existing CD changer would still be greatly appreciated. Or maybe I need to buy a new one I won't like as much.

[Q] Has an artiste ever returned from the limbo of Everything Rocks and Nothing Ever Dies? -- DTL, Toronto

[A] Counting just stuff I've caught and enjoyed--I can't fairly speak for, say, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band or Ruth Brown, who I suspect might have managed to reach fair-minded nonfans better attuned to their skill sets than I am--I note four: Boz Scaggs's moderately astonishing 2015 A Fool to Care, which I've mentioned before here; the terrific 2009 album Asleep at the Wheel did backing Willie Nelson; the first good album I ever noticed David Bromberg making, 2016's The Blues, the Whole Blues, and Nothing but the Blues, which is so much fun I wouldn't be surprised if there were other gems lurking in a catalogue I never paid the slightest mind; and the Lady Gaga-Tony Bennett album, where Gaga is superb but Bennett definitely pulls his weight.

[Q] In your review of Lupe Fiasco's Tetsuo & Youth you end with: "The final interlude is called 'Spring,' only it's not an interlude. It's the end. Nothing follows." My question is why phrase it like that? Is there something you found important about its placement at the end? Something about the cyclical nature of life? -- Tom, Philadelphia

[A] Obviously naming the instrumental interludes after seasons refers to the cyclical nature of life. But this is a dark album, and by announcing spring, the most cliched symbol of rebirth, and then going silent, I expect Fiasco meant to imply uncertainty and possibility simultaneously. The final song of the Winter section is the ambiguous but ultimately positive "They.Resurrect.Over.New," the title a play on the Pete Rock & CL Smooth mourning song "They Reminisce Over You." The "Spring" interlude includes playground sounds, so I'd say it stays positive. But he'd still rather listeners fill in the blank on their own terms.

[Q] You have mentioned W.C. Heinz as an influence and inspiration but I don't recall you ever discussing boxing. Curious as to whether you are/were a fan and if so, which fighters/fights may have been favorites. Also, your fondness for baseball and basketball plus your distaste for football has been documented. Wondering what other sports you follow closely or enjoy watching. -- Jim Chaffin, Melbourne, Florida

[A] A Google search of my site indicates only three hits for "Heinz," all of which concern beans. You're referring to the legendary sportswriter W.C. Heinz, perhaps because the boxing writer in question also has a double-initial sobriquet: A.J. Liebling. I like all of Liebling's writing, but the boxing book you have in mind remains one of my favorite essay collections, and I do love essay collections: The Sweet Science. I was never much of a boxing fan, however. Got into basketball during the Patrick Ewing and Jason Kidd years, then slacked off, and watch tennis occasionally--it was my father's sport and my sister is a big fan. But basically I'm a baseball fan who only recently--basically with the advent of MLB's Gameday feature--stopped listening to every Yankee game on the radio while he also listened to music, which was not a healthy habit. I read baseball books occasionally, but it's been awhile, and read coverage mainly in the Times, which has neglected the sport shamefully in the past few years (unlike Rupert Murdoch's rag, the Post). Football I never liked and hockey I hate, both for the same reason--a glorification and, in a way worse, normalization of violence far exceeding boxing's. And although I'm obviously a Yankee fan for life, I wasn't altogether disappointed when they got whipped by the Red Sox. I had more important things to do last October, in particular paying as much attention as possible to my cancer-stricken wife--who is, to answer another question, in a remission her oncologist calls "better than remission." This doesn't mean there won't be a recurrence--with multiple myeloma, there probably will be unless the cure they say is in sight arrives. But it will be treatable.

[Q] Who are some of your favorite writers? -- Will, Atlanta

[A] Funny you should ask, because it's the perfect excuse for me to link to the Book Reports intro Duke just put online. But because you were generous enough to give me this opening, I'll add that I think everybody should read a little Dickens--Bleak House and David Copperfield are the masterpieces, but if you want something a little shorter Great Expectations is wonderful--and that in the last 16 months or so I've read seven long novels by science fiction titan Kim Stanley Robinson. His Mars trilogy is magnificent and I just got knocked out by Aurora, a big chunk of which is narrated by a computer that/who learns what love as it learns to write. Now here's that Book Reports link. I hope the table of contents is of interest too.

February 12, 2019

[Q] Will there be a Pazz and Jop 2018? Will you be involved in it? -- John Burns, Brooklyn

[A] Anyone who doesn't know that the dormant corporate Village Voice, which still has a skeleton staff, decided that Pazz & Jop was worth keeping alive should follow me on Twitter, where I announced my non-theme essay last Thursday. You can find the poll results and a bunch of other recommended essays there.

[Q] What is your opinion of the band Unwound? Given your admiration of their labelmates Sleater-Kinney (not to mention the band's occasional Sonic Youth worship) I'd guess that you've heard one or two of their records. I don't think you ever reviewed any. Any thoughts on their relation to other 90's underground rock bands? PS: On the 90's underground theme: Seems like you aren't a fan of The Jesus Lizard. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on them as well. -- Tim, Tucson, Arizona

[A] Because I review so many albums people assume I hear everything I might take a shine to. This isn't close to possible, not just because by now the number of hours of popular music released in a year greatly exceed the number of hours in a year (by how much? anybody know?) but because you don't review an album properly by listening once and jotting down your thoughts but by immersing over time and then spending hours finding words to convey your response, all hours in which you can't listen to anything else. These days Spotify etc. makes it possible to hear almost anything, although of course I won't and don't want to. But in the '90s I had to own a physical copy, which meant that almost all the albums I reviewed came to me in the mail, and while I did review a fair number of titles on Kill Rock Stars, Unwound's label, and Touch and Go, Jesus Lizard's for most of their career, I don't recall hearing either. (One reason I never became a Fugazi scholar is that the few of their albums I had to buy on word-of-mouth because Dischord had a strict no-promos policy just didn't inspire me to aim for completism.) I did get to hear Jesus Lizard Lollapalooza 1995 and my review of that event can be found in a dependent clause in Is It Still Good to Ya?, which while I've got your attention I'll mention is now one of five 2017 criticism nominees in the National Book Critics Circle Awards, which I'm proud and happy about. That clause appears on page 102 and reads as follows: "who I'd never seen before and will never see again." The kind of dark, melodramatic sludge I hate is what I recall a quarter century later. Meanwhile, I streamed Unwound's A Single History comp on Spotify while writing this. Faster and punkier than the Jesus Lizard, and good for them. But good enough to explore retrospectively? Doubt it.

[Q] I've noticed a lack of reviews on some popular millennial rappers such as Logic, Mac Miller, J. Cole, and ScHoolboy Q. Just not impressed enough to write about? Would like to hear your thoughts on any of these guys. -- Aaron A, Minneapolis

[A] There are plenty of J Cole reviews on my site (drop the period when you search) although I thought his latest way too bland. Mac Miller I always found a complete bore, ScHoolboy Q toxically sexist without enough payback. Logic I've tried several times without connecting. Maybe someday--his profile remains intriguing.

[Q] Seems like you would've made a good producer. Has any artist/band ever reached out? And have you ever pondered the idea yourself? -- Ian

[A] I don't think I'd make much of a producer. There certainly have been major exceptions, but I think producers are better off having more technical command of music than I do. The one person I can recall asking me to try is Todd Snider; I was even more flattered by his question than by yours. But what I told him is also what I've told NYU students seeking comments on their demos. My gift is being able to listen to a finished product, whether it's as untutored as early Bikini Kill or Coathangers or as skilled as Randy Newman or Thelonious Monk, figure out exactly how much I like it, and then being able to figure out why. Telling artists how to better perfect themselves is a different skill. Not that I mightn't come up with something useful or insightful. But most likely I wouldn't.

[Q] You occasionally mention socialism, and at times you've referenced critiques of capitalism. Meanwhile, the pop-music business spectacularly recapitulates capitalism's inequitable relations between labor and capital, and also provides escapist fare which serves to obscure or justify those relations. Any comments from you on these (apparent) contradictions, with or without references to Raymond Williams, would be appreciated. -- Chris Reeder, Watertown, Massachusetts

[A] I've written about these matters so often for so long that I wonder why anyone who knows my work is asking such a vast, simplistic, broadly worded question. The "pop-music business" doesn't "recapitulate" capitalist economic relations. It engages in them like any other enterprise where goods are bought and sold. There's nothing especially spectacular, by which I assume you mean something like extreme, in how it does this; in fact, the years 1970-2000, approximately, were unusually good ones for popular music artists because in those years recordings were relatively profitable, a profitability greatly diminished not by capitalism per se but by technological innovation--the streaming economy has forced most musicians back to earning their livings almost exclusively on the road via personal appearances, since the time of the troubadours a hard life with unfortunate ideological consequences. (I mentioned technology. Now let me mention crime. Neither is identical to capitalism; both are often exploited by capitalists.) As for "escapist fare," popular musicians have always sold escape, which properly experienced and administered is essential to a decent life for most working people--for most sane ones, in fact. I could go on; I could literally write a book were I so inclined, which I'm not (no one would pay me enough for my time--writers have problems under capitalism too, always have and it's getting worse). But the central answer to your question is simply that some corporations find it profitable to sell art that mitigates/palliates/undermines/contravenes the capitalist order, as indeed do some artists, with greatly varying degrees of intentionality. I know I haven't organized this especially well. But I'm not getting paid, so why should I allow myself to be exploited any further? Instead I'd humbly suggest that anyone who genuinely cares about what I think about such matters, but especially Chris Reeder, obtain and read in order both Is It Still Good to Ya? and the forthcoming Book Reports, where they arise again and again and again, albeit often at an angle rather than head-on.

[Q] I'm enjoying my advance copy of Book Reports (thanks!) and have a question about the Paul Nelson/Ellen Willis essay. It's a terrific piece of criticism, but near the end you say something I'm hoping you could unpack. You refer to yourself as "someone who spent fifteen years extricating himself from [Ellen's] politics and is so glad he did." I grew up reading you and Ellen, but can't really figure out what part of Ellen's politics you felt compelled to pull away from. Any chance you could spell that out? -- Jeff Salamon, Austin

[A] It's mostly about her feminism--not the fact of it, obviously (I'm so sorry she's not around to kick ass today), but its single-mindedness. This began with the very personal question of marriage. Willis and I were a committed couple from early 1966 to late 1969, and I wanted to marry her, but though she agreed to a lifetime relationship, she was so firmly against the legal institution of marriage, and such a brilliant polemicist, that she convinced me (until she proposed to bring another man into said relationship, which sent me thataway). I spent at least two years extricating myself from that position, married Carola Dibbell in 1974, and am now a fervent pro-marriage, pro-monogamy propagandist, while Willis spent the rest of her life formulating a left radicalism centered on the oppression of women. She was always good on class and remained so, but Wilhelm Reich was her hero and her own brand of Reichian feminism her core ideology. For me, class--the concentration of wealth--is always key, but as a rock critic I engage continually with racial issues Ellen seldom had much to say about. Moreover, I always maintained an active and rather hopeful interest in electoral politics and as of Bush-Gore became fairly passionate as well as active about them, with a deep hostility to Ralph Nader that soured me permanently on third-party politics. Ellen's lifemate Stanley Aronowitz, in contrast, ran for governor of New York on the Green ticket in 2002--which is hardly to equate him with the egomaniacal spoiler Nader, and I like to think Willis would have seen through the Russophile spoiler Jill Stein and had her doubts about Bernie Sanders, whose sexual politics continue to suck. I will say this, however. Before the turn of the century Willis was warning from her Reichian-feminist perspective about a resurgence of fascism. I thought she was blowing smoke. She wasn't, and moreover, I agree with her that gender more than race provides most of the emotional energy fueling the fascist wave here and in Europe.

January 29, 2019

[Q] Since early on in your writing, you've made explicit distinctions between "Major" and "Minor" artists. Can you elaborate on what, for you, makes an artist fall into either category? Is there a third category of "Non-Artist" or something similar? And can someone move between them, falling or rising? I think of PJ Harvey, who you deemed major back in the '90s, but since Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea doesn't seem to have done work that's impressed you very much. -- Patrick Brown, Denver

[A] Major and minor aren't mathematically precise terms (and also not terms I'd set apart by capitalizing). Nor do I use them in any consciously systematic way, though they're the kind of trope a critic can slip into unawares. Certainly many artists who arrive as major lose their mojo--run out of conviction, find themselves incapable of freshening up ideas and virtues that once took us by storm. But since you mentioned Harvey, I looked back at those reviews and saw that with her I'd imbued the term with more meaning than is generally advisable but in her case makes sense. Harvey has put out two records I gave a full positive review since 2000's superb Stories From the City. But as regards one of them I also say she isn't major anymore, because she's lost so much emotional generosity. To put it another way, as of 2011's pretty good if overpraised Let England Shake she's on her way to becoming a crank. And as of 2016's Hope Six Demolition Project--which because she's such a talent still merits a *--she's rendering moral judgments there's no internal evidence she has any right to. I hope she recovers.

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