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.

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.