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.

January 01, 2019

[Q] Taking into account your own preferences and tastes, are there any artists of a style or in a genre that doesn't usually resonate for you but who are so good that personal preferences melt away and respect must be paid? -- Stuart Rosen, New Jersey

[A] For sure respect can be appropriate--as noted recently, I respect Paul McCartney a lot these days. I really respect Beethoven too--quite a lot, in fact. But the manner in which respect must be paid is an altogether different matter. Except in the pursuit of some larger critical or literary goal, you don't listen to music because you respect it, or at least I don't. I listen to it because I enjoy it. Early in 2018 me and Carola, who has a deeper personal history with classical music than I do, were serially entranced by a long scene in Kyle Stanley Robinson's 2312 in which one character gets another through a life-saving, months-long underground hike (on Mercury, as it happens) by whistling the entirety of Beethoven's Third. So we played a copy of that symphony from the random albeit alphabetized classical LPs squirreled away in the hall. But before side one was through we'd lost interest--a lot faster than we'd lost interest in Robinson's verbal description, which gripped and delighted us both.

[Q] Hi Robert, you've probably been asked this before, but I was just wondering about how your grading system changed a few years ago. Nowadays the letters range from A+ to B+, and are then followed by the asterisks, and there generally seem to be more A+'s and A's than there used to be. What are those of us who want a sense of your entire critical oeuvre (or whatever) to make of this? Is it simply that the asterisks have replaced the lower letters--three stars means B-, one star means C-, etc? Sorry for the long question! -- David Trollope, London

[A] "A few years ago" might also be rendered "since 1990"--that is, for most of the time I've been grading albums. If there are more A's these days, that's because there are more albums, an argument I've been making for all of this century. *** and ** records are B pluses I adjudge unworthy of a full review; so are most of the *'s, but I leave myself hedge room at the very bottom when there's something I feel the need to weigh in on briefly. Briefly in the early '90s I confined my negative reviews--that is B down to D and maybe there were one or two E's--to a monthly Turkey Shoot I've also explained here, but sometime in the early '90s my protégé then friend then editor then benefactor then mentor Eric Weisbard convinced me to include a "Dud of the Month" with the monthly Consumer Guide I published in The Village Voice, which after I got canned there got moved to MSN Music till June I think of 2010. When the Consumer Guide morphed into Expert Witness at the end of that year I stopped writing pans, and I don't miss it. Fact is, I'm too old to pack that kind of authority anymore, and am so glad not to be involved in the fractious trolling, infighting, and ignorameouness of the social media dystopia.

[Q] What do you think about the 1975, arguably the most important band of the 2010s? -- Sean, Denver, Colorado

[A] I think they suck, and having streamed the new one at least three times without retaining anything but the internet skit will only consider explaining why for a minimum of a buck a word--as I just said, I don't do pans anymore. Congratulations, however, for not calling them a "rock band." Rock bands still oughta, you know, rock (for better or worse--here's to you, Foo Fighters and Queens of the Stone Age). I note as well that you are not from the United Kingdom, the spawning ground of the 1975 delusion. Don't let me stop you--stick to what you believe. But don't kid yourself if you find your faith faltering.

[Q] In Is It Still Good to Ya? you included a few lectures you gave at the the EMP Conference that hadn't been published before. Were there others you thought of including, and what do you have in store for the next conference? -- Richard Cobeen, Berkeley

[A] My EMP lectures on Charlie Gillett and Henry Pleasants will appear in the Book Reports collection Duke will publish in April. The one I would have most liked to squeeze into this book is the breakdown of John Mayer's "Waiting for the World to Change," but it didn't fit conceptually. If I ever write a book on the '50s, as some think I should, I'd include a version of the Huey Smith plus incorporating the research I did on both '50s car songs and the class origins of '50s rock and rollers. And the one I did about marriage songs I'd like to preserve in book form too. But for various complicated and not necessarily permanent reasons I don't want to put them on my site yet. Title of this year's scheduled presentation: "All the Time in the World: The Living End in Peter Stampfel and Willie Nelson." Second week of April. Exact coordinates TBA.

[Q] Seeing the rise of the right all around the world (Trump, Bolsonaro in Brazil, etc.) and the popularity of speakers like Ben Shapiro or Jordan Peterson (the intellectual dark web in general), could it be said that the zeitgeist of today is in the rejection of political correctness? -- Cace, Esperanza, Santa Fe, Argentina

[A] Anybody who uses the term "political correctness" so uncritically understands politics differently from me, and I've been referencing it in print since 1979. Of course the right is resurgent, although the pushback in the US has been pretty impressive. But I don't blame that on the "zeitgeist," a vague term long used to justify all kinds of half-baked BS. I blame it on a simultaneously organic and well-plotted counterattack by the rich on the rest of us. If the rich win, which is certainly not impossible, that won't be "the spirit of the times," which is the literal meaning of "zeitgeist." It'll be the boot coming down. Here's hoping you're into sneakers.

[Q] "A tip, folks: great way to get your question answered is to help me promote my books." A tip, Dean: when it comes to sales promotion [REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED] u-press books. [REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED.] you're too shy. [REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED] Greel--an interview so l-o-n-g [REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED] interminable year-end P&J essay [REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED] B-List: Ken Tucker, Henry Carrigan, Steve Futterman, James Collins, Jody Rosen, Lou Glandfield, Keith Harris. Do you have a lively Sez website where commentators interact? [REDACTED REDACTED] Tom Hull clunker that doesn't permit interaction [REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED] -- Chadwick Henley Essex, Greenwich, Connecticut

[A] Having noted that I love Tom Hull's plain site design because it privileges the written word and have no interest in overseeing or indeed countenancing a "lively" chat room gone mega, I will observe that the word is "commenter," not "commentator," and that the only other person ever to spell it "Greel" here har har is the suddenly silent Coco Hannah Eckelberg. I assume that "she" was offended when I failed to answer "her" ignorant question about the Amazon land grab near where "she" supposedly lives. Coco and Chadwick? Could they be the same "lively" "commentator"? Do "she" and "he" have anything to do with the radio show I redacted? Were I more up-to-date we could speculate for weeks. I'm so glad we won't.