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.

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.