These are questions submitted by readers, and answered by Robert Christgau. New ones will appear in batches every third Tuesday.
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August 18, 2021
Pleasure without guilt, inspirational verses, the generosity of Sonny Rollins and David Bowie (et. al.), bridging the language gap (or not), and the selling of bridges and other products of capitalism
[Q] Hi Bob, I was wondering if there is any music/album/artist that you thoroughly enjoy personally but as a critic wouldn't feel comfortable defending or recommending to anyone. I suppose the common term for it is "guilty pleasure," although I would want to object to the insinuation that it has to be associated with the idea of guilt (or even shame). Another way to ask this question would be: Is there a difference between you as a human being who enjoys music and you in your role as a critic, and if the answer is yes, what does it look like? -- LD Schulz, Hamburg, Germany
[A] I don't believe in guilty pleasures, as I explain in the prologue to my Is It Still Good to Ya? collection, which began its life as a lecture at a PopCon devoted for better or worse to the guilty pleasure idea. And as far as I'm concerned, any critic who doesn't write as a human being who enjoys the art form at hand--although "cares about," "is interested in," and other less hedonistic verbs could be subbed in there--is doing a disservice to criticism and indeed humanity.
[Q] Anyone addicted to your website has undoubtedly come across the "Inspirational Verse." Sometimes it's clear you deem the IV the crown jewel of a record, and other times, like in your slightly harsh review of the Prince side project The Family, it is hilariously sarcastic. How did the IV come about and when do you choose to deploy it? -- Joe, U.K.
[A] I don't have the fortitude to come up with an exact date, but it seems to me I've been using the Inspirational Verse device since very early in the Consumer Guide's history even though I don't find it in any of the scant CG material I included in my 1973 collection Any Old Way You Choose It. It serves two functions: a) a readymade way to single out lyrics worthy of note for better or worse that can also be b) a quick way to end a review I don't have a capper for. A Google search of my site suggests that I've put it in play something over 200 times. Glad you enjoy it--that's the idea.
[Q] Listening to Saxophone Colossus this unseasonably rainy morning reminded me that you recently referred to Newk as an artist of a certain "generosity" (also Coltrane, Parton, Aretha, Lamar, among other inveterate favorites of mine) and you seemed to suggest that this quality of generosity (or "spirituality") exists distinctly from anger and wit. A Google Search led me to a few other instances where you've made reference to a musician's generosity--Young Americans was Bowie's "generosity of spirit" renewed, for instance. What a lovely turn of phrase--it almost sounds utopian--but I can't seem to grok what you mean. In what ways is Rollins's generosity like Bowie's? Is it qualifiable or hopelessly nebulous? Personal note: I've been reading your work since I was 17 (I'm now 30) and your anger, wit, and (dare I say?) generosity has shaped how I listen to and think about the world around me. Engaging with you in this forum is a tremendous privilege. Thank you and stay safe out there. -- Daniel Tovar, San Antonio
[A] "Generosity" can mean many different things, and while it's generally distinguishable from both anger and wit, most of those things can certainly coexist with anger and wit. In Rollins's case, however, I'd say generosity, along with facility and the more closely related ease, is at the center of why we care so much about him. (Spirituality, I should add, seems to me a rather different thing.) Love of music and the sounds he can make with his horn is discernible or maybe just imaginable in every phrase he plays. Bowie is far more a poser and ironist plus someone whose rather European aesthetic sense stopped hitting me anywhere near where I live in the mid '80s. But on Young Americans in particular, which was much earlier, it felt like he was reaching out to his rapidly expanding fanbase and hence embracing his own stardom head on rather than holding it at an ironic distance. This impulse soon engendered Station to Station, which remains the only album of his I love wholeheartedly and play for sheer pleasure. To which let me add that the idea that I can convey any of this to listeners half a century my junior is an equally tremendous privilege.
[Q] You once answered a question about which foreign language you'd like to master saying it'd be Portuguese. Given that you're a big enthusiast of Tom Zé's work and have also reviewed other Brazilian big names such as Gil, Veloso, and Elza Soares, I'd like to know why haven't you reviewed any other Jorge Ben album except his collaboration with Gil (which you liked)? Do you have any thoughts about his music? Thanks a lot! -- Mateus Paz, Rio de Janeiro
[A] No, but I admit I haven't tried that hard. A friend once gave me a copy of Africa Brasil, which I played dutifully more than once at the time and replayed again when I read your query only to find myself once again unable to breach the language barrier--or maybe I just don't get Ben, a rhythm artist for whom lyrics aren't necessarily paramount, due to some glitch in my general response mechanism. There are clearly great lyricists in African music--Franco and Youssou N'Dour by all accounts and some translations come to mind. But the musicality of those two artists and so many others subsumes the verbal content. In contrast, Brazilian music tends more pop in the Tin Pan Alley sense, which means among other things that it's designed to accompany or even showcase lyrics and thus can't fully connect with those who don't understand them. There might well be other negative factors as well--there's a classiness about the Brazilian pop ideal that's not my kind of thing. But the language differential makes it harder for me to bridge that gap.
[Q] In your review of Wanna Buy a Bridge? [younguns: legendary 1980 Britpunk comp], you singled out Delta 5's "Mind Your Own Business" as one of the highlights, and I'm wondering if you have any thoughts on the song's recent appearance in an iPhone commercial. (Greil Marcus praised it in his June Real Life Rock column.) And/or any thoughts in general on the practice of using punk songs to shill for corporations? (The Buzzcocks, Iggy, Sonic Youth, Jesus & Mary Chain, and Gang of 4 have all authorized such spots.) -- Scott Woods, Toronto
[A] This goes back to the vexed circa-1969 question of whether Aretha should do a Coke commercial, which neither I nor my more Marxian then-partner Ellen Willis had any problem with. Let artists we loved shovel up more money--this was capitalism, and rock and roll was a product of capitalism. So I've seldom moralized about such machinations, though these days I guess it would depend on the corporation: no fossil fuels, no big banks, probably not much international agribusiness either. But much as I distrust big tech, that's a much closer call. I mean, I own an iPhone myself, albeit one I inherited from Nina. And drink loads of Diet Coke too. There are so many graver economic injustices and disconnects to address.
[Q] FROM AMAZON: "Vintage presents the paperback edition of the wild and brilliant writings of Lester Bangs -- the most outrageous and popular rock critic of the 1970s -- edited and with an introduction by the reigning dean of rack critics, Greil Marcus." Gee, maybe "rock" critic Christgau should have a pissing contest with "rack" critic Greel? Whip 'em out, boys! Us ladies are waiting! -- Coco Hannah Eckelberg, Key West, Florida
[A] Gee--what faux-female commenter could be so interested in Lester Bangs books that s/he peruses Lester's Amazon entries for typos and so overawed by the Greil-Xgau cabal that s/he wants to check out their dick size? I wonder.