Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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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 21, 2022

And It Don't Stop.

Spotify praxis, a stupid feud, the greatness of the Funk Brothers, a sense of destiny that comes out in the sound, pop queens filed under 'B,' and right-wingers lie about everything (including punk)

[Q] I can see why Spotify is essential to doing your job--free streaming of selected songs for members of your audience who don't pay for music. Why don't you offer your audience that pays the option of streaming via Apple Music? After all, those who pay, especially Apple users, tend to be higher value users. -- John Gitelman, Stow, Massachusetts

[A] Since I receive very few promo CDs or DLs, Spotify is how I get to hear all the albums I don't have in my possession--a tiny proportion of the total available, of course, but hundreds a month. After multiple plays I decide which ones sound good enough to review and eventually buy, preferably as physicals, because for various reasons technological, psychological, and journalistic I prefer to review physicals--those I'm compelled to merely download I then burn. The Spotify songs included with the CG, which play at full length for readers who are Spotify subscribers and 30 seconds for those who aren't, leaves what readers then do with these albums up to them. I hope they buy some themselves, which is why I almost never publish pre-release reviews. But I have no control over that.

[Q] What do you think of Drake's hateful DMs to music reviewer Anthony Fantano? Have you ever received hate from a famous artist after an unflattering review? -- Juan, Paraguay

[A] Just what I've always wanted--a stupid feud between two public figures I'm supposed to care about and don't. As I explained several years ago when a question alerted me to Fantano's existence, I'm too busy listening to music--an oldish hip-hop album that seems destined for a CG review as I write, but definitely not one by Drake, who's bored me for many years now--to listen to podcasts much less album reviews much less Fantano's album reviews. Instead I read, and from what I read Drake's DMs are considerably less than hateful while his need to call attention to a reviewer he doesn't like is considerably more than stupid because it enhances the critic's fame. Fantano is right to make this point while milking Drake's attention for all it's worth. But he's not anything close to right to call correspondents he doesn't like "thirsty bitches" because it's vile to use "bitch" as an insult unless you're female yourself, at which point my male judgment becomes pretty much irrelevant.

[Q] Mongo wrapping up treating several beautiful suckling piglets that came down with exudative dermatitis. Mongo try new treatment for them--antibiotics and Motown music. Pigs seem to respond best to music. It sure had Mongo stomping around the pens when "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" came on. Then Mongo think this damn Jamerson sure play purty bass, and damn why don't people talk about the Funk Brothers more often? Aren't they the best band of all time that nobody know? Hell, maybe they better than the Beach Boys? Mongo try to think of better bands but nothing happens for awhile. Then he remembers some other candidates for best "unknown" bands of all time. The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section Band, the Stax house band (Booker T. & the MGs), and the Wrecking Crew (natch). And Mongo throw in one more duo because he smoke too much weed--Sly and Robbie for they are multitudes in reggae. What you say? Is this silly parlor game? P.S. Mongo realized after he pressed send with meaty fingers he forgot to add the Hi Rhythm section band to his list of "unknown." Is anyone in there listening and can edit my question to add them? -- Mongolfier, Pig Farm, Ohio

[A] There are no parlor games anymore because there are no parlors. Instead there are internet timesucks, a category that includes neither your musical musings nor, I hope, my response. And for sure I've got one. Much as I admire Sly and Robbie especially, your first impulse was your best impulse. The winner is Motown's Funk Brothers hands down, though it must be said that they benefited immeasurably from their workmates: not just world-class vocalists the Temptations, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, and Smokey Robinson, to reference just the top tier, but extraordinary songwriters and producers, starting with Holland-Dozier-Holland of course but much as you might want to don't forget Berry Gordy, and I could go on. In my opinion none of the others you name are quite in their league, although Hi Rhythm with Al Green on board come close and L.A.'s Wrecking Crew also belongs in the mix (as indeed might the mid-'60s Rolling Stones). In this connection I highly recommend the 2019 Showtime documentary Hitsville: The Making of Motown, where I learned not only that drummer Benny Benjamin OD'd in 1968 and that nonpareil bassist James Jamerson, whose every lick Paul McCartney committed to memory and good for him, moved to L.A. in 1972 but never found his footing there. Race couldn't have helped, although the wondrous New Orleans drummer Earl Palmer did more than OK on the same scene. Neither could alcohol: Jamerson died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1983.

[Q] I've been benefiting from your pop-cultural optimism for nearly a half-century now, but I wonder if you share any of my current concern about the innovation slowdown (perhaps even a complete "stoppage") in pop music over the past three decades. For a good amount of recorded music's history, each decade brought a few breakthroughs unthinkable in the previous decade: Little Richard would have probably caused collective fainting-spells in the 1945 Coconut Grove, Are You Experienced? would have had people huddling in their bomb shelters in 1956, the Sex Pistols would have been placed on a mental-health watchlist in 1967, and Public Enemy's sampladelia would have caused hemorrhages on the 1975 Studio 54 dancefloor. As a post-Nevermind indie-rock agnostic and a post-Illmatic rap atheist, I don't think I've heard any pop music in the past 30 years that would have raised a conceptual eyebrow in the summer of 1989--if anyone can convince me otherwise, it's probably you. -- Petra St. Mu, New York City

[A] If you've really become a rap atheist then you've bowed out of the game. I mean, I have my doubts about most trap-identified contemporary hip-hop myself, but none whatsoever about Jay-Z, Eminem, pre-megalomaniac Kanye West, or Kendrick Lamar: unmistakably great and singular artists all, with many lessers making excellent and individually distinguished music in their wake, often off on the alt side (Homeboy Sandman, R.A.P. Ferreira). In alt-rock, meanwhile, the rise of the female factor has been a tremendous shot in the arm: Big Thief, Sad13, Chai, Illuminati Hotties, the Paranoid Style, Dry Cleaning, Wet Leg, I could go on, not always formally sui generis (though the first three sure are) but each markedly different and each imbued with a sense of destiny that comes out in the sound. Plus stuff that's going on in dance music that for a record nerd like me and perhaps you is too, as I like to say, site-specific, but as Beyonce likes to say is grist for the mill. Meanwhile try Phelimuncasi or DJ Maphorisa over in South Africa. Never heard anything much like 'em before.

[Q] Beyonce may reign supreme as today's pop queen but for the two decades between Madonna's heyday and Queen Bey, it was Britney bitch who held the throne. Your Britney reviews show Glory to be your favorite even though her earlier classics like Britney and Blackout rock much harder. And you never even reviewed her hits collection called The Essential Britney Spears which has got to be one of the great pop albums of all time. Did you miss that one when it was released in a limited edition or do you not agree it's her own personal A+ best? -- Gary K, Augusta, Maine

[A] The Essential Britney Spears is a three-CD set that came out during a twixt-CGs hiatus in 2014. I don't own it and have no desire ever to hear it; I mean, it's three CDs. As elsewhere noted, I seldom think the word "bitch" is funny or cool or ironic or whatever you believe it to be in this context. I suggest abjuring it in perpetuity. [Correction: it seems to be a two-CD set. I still don't feel I need to hear it.]

[Q] Why do you think Johnny Ramone said punk was inherently right-wing? Is it true? -- Dave Darren, New Jersey

[A] Because Johnny himself was a right-winger and right-wingers lie about everything. Obviously the vast majority of punks who had politics were lefties--to choose the most obvious, the Clash, the Dead Kennedys, riot grrrl, on and on and on. You are aware, right, that Joey wrote "The KKK Took My Baby Away" about Johnny?