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.

September 17, 2019

[Q] I'm curious about the decision to make so much of your writing freely available. It's been an amazing resource for me as a listener, musician, and aspiring critic, and it's only as an adult that I've realized what a coup it is that I never had to pay for any of it. Was this an intuitive (i.e., not extensively considered) decision? A principled one? I hope my asking doesn't make you reconsider. -- Dustin Lowman, Chicago

[A] Funny you should ask, since I've just announced And It Don't Stop. On that Substack-hosted "newsletter" (I guess by now "blog" suggests "free" a little too unavoidably) some of the writing will indeed reach the reader free of charge--which I've actually done before, when as a board member of the by-then-unfunded National Arts Journalism Program I was active on the ARTicles blog we began to help keep that entity alive. But the record reviews to which I assume you're referring will cost consumers five bucks a month. That's because I never wrote for free--I was paid by various publishing entities, first at the newsprint Village Voice, which for its last two decades was distributed free because it made its diminishing profit from advertising, and then at various online entities whose business models I never fully understood, although at least in the case of Noisey I assume some arcanely calculated payment by advertisers for clicks and screen time was involved. But in all these cases most of my value to the publication was presumably exhausted shortly after I posted even though the work remained online (which it didn't at Microsoft after it axed all its content providers--for reasons I've never begun to grasp, they presumably own a zillion servers). After that, why not make it free? (As indeed the archives will continue to be.) It's good for my professional profile and my ego and makes it so much easier for me to look back at my old work, although everything post-1988 is on my home computers in the vintage-1991 WP51 I still work in. As I never tire of saying, writers write for money, especially if they're not rich to begin with. But they also write to be read. There's deep spiritual satisfaction in knowing that I have such an engaged fanbase--feels something like love. Plus, I'm pleased to help the often struggling musicians I admire by sharing their work with others whose interest and financial support will ease the musicians' struggles and also feel something like love.

[Q] I noticed that in the Consumer Guide you never reviewed a Bobby Darin album. And there is scant mention of Dean Martin. Given your obvious love for Sinatra, how do you rate Darin and Martin as gentlemen of song? -- OldFart, New York City

[A] Not high. Martin was a gifted comedian whose admitted mastery of what we'll call the relaxed tone has its contrarian admirers, but I've never warmed to his simulation of warmth, and I've tried; Darin aimed so hard to please he had nothing to say even when he covered Dylan and went political for a while, and I never believed a word he sang after "Splish Splash." Comparisons to Sinatra are silly. Technically, Sinatra was the greatest pop singer of the 20th century--feeling little attraction to the persona he projects, I'm awed anyway by his purely musical subtlety and power. There are other male pop singers I actively enjoy in a more than campy way, Bing Crosby especially, but note most of them are black, starting with Nat King Cole. A compilation I admire in this vein is Rhino's Closer Than a Kiss.

[Q] Recently I've been listening to Aftermath by the Rolling Stones quite a bit. I'm curious what you thought of the album when it first came out and how you view it today, especially given its lyrics. -- Ian C., Minneapolis

[A] I see you haven't read my memoir, Going Into the City, where on pages 168-171 a reader can find an essay on Aftermath, which for a while in the '60s was my favorite album of all time and my partner Ellen Willis's too. (The American version, of course; the essay accounts for both.) By what I think of the lyrics I assume you mean "Look at That Stupid Girl," a title I stole for a 1970 Voice piece reprinted in Any Old Way You Choose It and credited by several female readers who wrote me about it back then as the first feminist essay on rock and roll, and "Under My Thumb," off which Willis spun what some call the Willis test for sexism in rock and roll--"Under My Thumb" passed, Cat Stevens's "Wild World" did not, on the grounds that in "Under My Thumb" you can switch genders and the song still makes sense and in "Wild World" you can't. As I explain, I'm not so sure that argument holds water--Ellen loved the Stones, and always had a knack for transmuting her personal preferences into universals. My favorite track on the album is "Going Home." These days I prefer Exile, The Rolling Stones Now!, Beggars Banquet, and others.

[Q] Longtime online reader here (well, relatively long, I'm 25 years old). You've been rather favorable of Conor Oberst's output ever since Lifted, so I've been wondering, how do you feel about his earlier output with Bright Eyes, especially Fevers and Mirrors? Also, do you find his whole trajectory and evolution as a songwriter as impressive as I do? Greetings from Germany! -- Lukas, Hamburg

[A] Many years ago Kelefa Sanneh, who has since moved on to grander things, made me an early Bright Eyes mixtape. I played it a few times and still have it in my A shelves just in case--it was certainly OK. But it never grabbed and held. Unless an artist deeply moves me--Professor Longhair comes to mind--going back to catch up with the early stuff is seldom time-efficient. So much good pop has a historical specificity to it, especially if you want it to last longer than a sure-shot single you somehow missed.

[Q] Why do you still bother buying CDs? Why not just save yourself money and shelf space by streaming everything? -- Jake L, Montreal

[A] As I've said before here, I believe that streaming dematerializes music as well as depriving it of economic reality. It makes music harder to perceive as work and also as something with an existence outside of the listener's head. I suspect that's one reason why I find it difficult to write more than a few dozen words about a streamed album. For me streaming is preliminary processing; psychologically, to listen deep I need an object I can see and handle. Plus packaging does often add dimension to the experience and comparison listening, in which I use a changer to sneak up on my ears with a related album, is much easier to manage with physical product.

[Q] Given that many music critics consider writing about politics to be part of their job, which political pundits have you admired (or would you read) the music criticism of? (Setting Nat Hentoff aside.) -- Chris Reeder, Cambridge, Massachusetts

[A] I can't think of any except for The New Yorker's David Remnick, who on 11/9/16, while the rest of us reeled in the 24 hours after Trumpnacht, wrote a cogently impassioned attack on the president-elect his mag has lived by ever since and has also written definitive profiles of Springsteen and Leonard Cohen. I've read Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo daily since Bush II won in 2004--policywise he's a little to my right, but his command of the possible is unmatched and he's been not only superb but politically effective on such matters as social security privatization and voter suppression. I also love Esquire's Charles Pierce, a waggish old rad of the younger part of my generation who recently observed with some glee that "Senator Professor Warren," as he's always fondly called her, was finally beginning to act like she thought politics was fun and that this was a very good thing. But while both these guys really care about music, neither makes any visible attempt to keep up. Marshall is a Dylan nut who was so moved by the boxed set or whatever it was of his Xian phase that he wrote an unconvincing screed about it. Pierce is a real fan, deeply into New Orleans and the likes of Derek and the Dominoes. But while Remnick has spruced up The New Yorker's music coverage considerably with the likes of Carrie Battan, Amanda Petrusich and Hua Hsu, neither Marshall nor Pierce has ever shown any discernible hip-hop consciousness or sense of movement in the alt-rock world. Kind of sad.