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.

October 20, 2021

And It Don't Stop.

Once more unto the mongering, the Stones sans Charlie, baseball avec sabermetrics, grading the second Velvets albums, appropriation vs. appreciation, Billie Eilish vs. Al Green

[Q] Not to be too much of a stickler, but there was a pretty big error in last month's Xgau Sez. One reader asked you about your use of the term "meaning monger," to which you responded that you could only find one use of the term on your website. I'm assuming the error came from differing punctuation of the term, because when I just Googled the word "monger" on your website, with minimal scrolling I found several other uses of the term. It showed up in a review of the Romeo Must Die compilation, in two different pieces about Randy Newman, and in your 1984 Jazz and Pop essay. I stopped scrolling before I found the Tool review, so it's very possible you've used the term elsewhere. So I would say that Austin's "from time to time" seems to characterize your use of the term pretty well. -- Ronan, Salt Lake City

[A] Oxford's "If you take hyphens seriously you will surely go mad" is one of my favorite stylistic and grammatical maxims, although I've always thought "take the hyphen" would be a sharper way to put it. Anyway, that's what happened here--I obviously should have searched my site without the hyphen, although "monger" comes up without "meaning" much more often than with it--those two "ng"s are infelicitous and the main reason I declared "meaning-monger" "not exactly a witty term." For the record, "monger" itself is thrown around very loosely in English. The three most common usages are "fishmonger," where it means "seller," "warmonger," where it means "advocator" or really "stirrer-upper," and "whoremonger," where it means "user" or perhaps even "exploiter." In "meaning-monger," it means some cross of either the first two or all three. As regards Tool, the explanatory and somewhat condescending "for the fantasy-fiction set" narrows it down to what I'm really getting at: a posited crossover between fantasy fiction and the more pretentious strains of metal, neither of which I have much use for. In the early Randy Newman review where it comes up, the "straightforward" meaning-mongers I compare unfavorably to him are probably--though that review was probably written way back in 1980 when I wrote a good chunk of the first Consumer Guide book and so I have to guess a little--the strophic folkies who were still kings of the literaryish-songwriter hill back then, when they were still far from my favorite musical breed though I'd grown to admire and even love a good many of them: the not all that strophic Joni Mitchell and the we-now-know amazingly durable John Prine, for instance.

[Q] Curious to know when you last saw the Stones in person and found yourself impressed by their live show, and if you think they'd be worth seeing again sans Charlie. -- Joe Silva, Athens, Georgia

[A] My last Stones concert was 2005 in Hartford--with my daughter Nina, who's very glad she got to see them that night and at all, as was I, though by then I'd caught them well over half a dozen times, in DC and Toronto as well as NYC/NJ. Mick concluded the show by sprinting back and forth across a huge stage for some 65 yards. But that was enough--I intend to sit out this tour with no regrets. Note however that a younger friend, American Epic auteur Bernard MacMahon, told me recently that he was chuffed to have tickets for their L.A. show and I told him not to miss it--of course you want to see them at least once. So if you have the money I say the same to you if it's a first and maybe not if you've been there done that. I loved and love Charlie, easily my favorite Stone, but he was already off this tour when he died, and Steve Jordan is an accomplished drummer who knows whose shoes it's his j-o-b to fill.

[Q] Professional baseball is rapidly changing. Are you familiar with sabermetrics baseball and its implications? Or is this just too nerdy a thing to ask? -- KBW, South Korea

[A] I was reading sabermetrics pioneer Bill James as early as the '70s, I think--long ago, anyway. Thought all of his analysis was fascinating and a lot of it worth incorporating into the game. It really changed pitching, although not as much as the revised strength training stratagems that have generated so many near-100 fast balls. But if I remember correctly, even then I didn't like how down he was on stolen bases--they're too much fun (I loved how much the Yankees stole late in the past season). And when I watch the game with its radical shifts these days I sometimes get nostalgic for the old days, as well as wishing more players would settle for singles by exploiting shifts. In particular I still prefer human umpires calling balls and strikes even though what was clearly a bad call on a held-up swing prematurely ended the Dodgers-Giants championship game.

[Q] You've reviewed many Velvet Underground records, but a search reveals no writing or even mention of White Light/White Heat beyond saying you think "Sister Ray" is better white noise than Metal Machine Music. I know your favourite Velvets record is the self-titled album, but even so--White Light/White Heat, yay or nay? -- Oscar, Johannesburg, South Africa

[A] I don't know exactly what you mean by search, but Googling my site I found the following sentence in the Lou Reed obit I crushed out for Spin one bleak Sunday afternoon in 2013. "What's most remarkable about the Velvet Underground & Nico to White Light/White Heat to The Velvet Underground to Loaded sequence is how drastically these unfashionable New York minimalists changed up their arrantly simplistic sound, getting warmer all the way as they shed Nico and then John Cale and then the pregnant Mo Tucker while picking up the essential albeit much-mocked wimp Doug Yule." And in my big 1978 Voice "Avant-Punk" manifesto there's this: "Detractors labeled [the Velvets'] basic approach monotonous, but the distance within what was a relatively unexplored musical territory proved vast; Emmylou Harris will satisfy your yen for Linda Ronstadt a lot better than--to choose the closest pair I can think of--the Velvets' 'White Light/White Heat' will satisfy your need for the Modern Lovers' 'Roadrunner.'" Harder to find except for owners of my 1998 Harvard collection Grown Up All Wrong is this sentence in "Lou Reed, Average Guy": "We were sophisticated enough to forgive White Light/White Heat the literally sophomoric survival 'The Gift' even if we weren't astute enough to hear that 'Sister Ray' portended more than the Stones' 'Goin' Home' as well as Iron Butterfly's 'In-a-Gadda-Da Vida.'" So as you might have figured anyway, probably an A minus. And although I like the debut more, "Venus in Furs" has aged poorly and was something we tried to rationalize away even at the time.

[Q] Hello Bob! How would you define cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation? -- James Kean, Liverpool

[A] I wouldn't touch that one for anything less than big bucks--it's a landmine requiring broad research, deep thought, many words, and loads of time. But I appreciate your implicit point, which I take to be that the two concepts, one pejorative and one not, are intimately related. And I would go so far as to say that I've been a supporter of hybridity in culture for as long as I've been a critic not to mention alive and seriously doubt I could be talked out of it.

[Q] Billie Eilish is becoming the greatest interpretive pop singer since Al Green. Agree or Disagree? -- Nicholas Auclair, Montreal

[A] I dig her too, but this is monumentally silly. She's 19 for Chrissake.

September 22, 2021

And It Don't Stop.

The rock-critic economy, rumba reading, not sucking in your 70s, Van the Prick, and the meaning of meaning-mongering.

[Q] You've often talked about how the digital age has destroyed musicians' ability to make money off their music alone without touring. Your Substack now has well over 1000 subscribers sending in $5 USD per month so I assume you're making much more than you would as an employee for a professional music publication, and with far less stress and more freedom. Would you say that experiencing this new model has changed your views at all? That if musicians bypass the middleman then they actually stand to make more money than before, say through a subscription model? Or would that still only apply to very well established individuals like yourself who can leverage one of the largest user bases in your field, furthering the inequality in the profession as the 99 music journalists underneath you get nothing at all? -- Alan, Canada

[A] This is flabby reasoning at best. Just as record royalties have shrunk to near-naught because recording artists sign label contracts without which they cannot capitalize their recordings and the labels then license those recordings to streaming platforms and pass but a pittance to the artists, journalists' word rates have shrunk to nearly nothing because the advertising dollars that used to prop up print media are now scooped up by Google etc. This is a relatively recent development. When I got fired by the Voice in 2006, Microsoft, which still imagined there was money plus prestige to be gained in the verbal content business, offered me a generous word rate that in 2010, after corporate concluded that verbal content was actually a loser, cut by 80 percent and four years later offed me altogether. Then the fledgling Medium picked up the prestigious Consumer Guide for an excellent rate only to look at its balance sheets a year later and let me go. A few months later I was hired by Vice's Noisey music "vertical" at a measly word rate informed advisors thought I'd never get though in retrospect I could probably have upped it a bit--and in June 2019, increasingly strapped, decided to expend its pittance elsewhere. Whereupon up popped Substack, about which I was exceedingly skeptical. But Joe Levy convinced me to give it a shot, and subscribers chipped in at a much greater rate than I thought possible. As I've said many times, I'm flattered and gratified by this. But I'm also inspired to put in something approaching full-time hours--I am not a fast writer--so as to give paying fans I didn't know were there content I believe is something like what they want. I see no reason to believe any other writer could provide that particular content. Nor is there any economic model I can conceive that might transfer any meaningful proportion of my take to the shared journalistic weal. And of course, it is inventing new and different economic models, something I have no gift for at all, that might somehow change this inequity if that's what it is--which I'm far too proud of how good a critic I am to believe.

[Q] Hi Bob, I wanna thank you for putting me onto so much great African (Victor Uwaifo, Thomas Mapfumo, Orchestra Baobab, E.T. Mensah, King Sunny Ade, and many others) and World musicians (notably Tom Zé & Coupé Cloué). Being especially fond of the great Congolese rumba and soukous music (Le Grand Kallé, Franco, Docteur Nico, Tabu Ley, Papa Wemba, Koffi Olomide), I wondered if you could recommend me any good books about Congolese music in general or the major artists in particular. -- Paulino Kubala, Brussels

[A] Graeme Ewens's Franco biography Congo Colossus is an excellent start. And in Is It Still Good to Ya? there's a piece called "Forty Years of History, Thirty Seconds of Joy" based partly on Bob W. White's more academic Rumba Rules, which is quite terrific even though it was researched in the '90s, after soukous's various golden ages. That piece also recommends several other books about Zaire worth checking out. Most useful is Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost, which has no music in it and should but is damn good anyway--better, I should add, than documentary of the same title, which is nonetheless a properly grueling experience any soukous fan owes the music and was available on Amazon Prime when we watched it a few months ago.

[Q] You called Billie Eilish's When We All Fall Asleep "the most impressive debut album by a teenager" since Elvis's Sun Sessions. That got me thinking--what are your favorite releases by older musicians? People in their 70s, 80s, even 90s? -- Nick, California

[A] As it happens, I not long ago published here an old PopCon lecture that addressed this very question with special emphasis on Peter Stampfel and Willie Nelson. Right behind Stampfel and Nelson, I'd single out the 2018 Blue Lu Barker tribute Maria Muldaur did at 75--and except for the less remarkable Tuba Skinny collab that came out in 2021 also the only album she's released in her seventies.

[Q] A little while back in the introduction to your resurfacing of an old piece about Biz Markie, you wrote that you were boycotting Van Morrison. I've felt similarly disappointed and disgusted by him of late. (Same goes for Eric Clapton.) Short of him renouncing things he's said--which seems unlikely--is there anything that would bring you back to his music? I have so much love for so much of his work, and I'm tempted to justify continuing to listen with the belief that the man singing "Into the Mystic" or "Everyone" is not the old crank talking harmful nonsense today. But that leap can feel awfully forced on some days. Should I be making it at all? Does it make an ethical difference if I'm listening to CDs and albums I've already bought and not listening to streams? I.E., not putting more money in his pocket. I guess I'm just curious to know more about how you draw--and might redraw--your lines in a case like Van's. -- David Marchese, Brooklyn

[A] Ever read Barney Hoskyns's excellent Small Town Talk, about the Woodstock "scene"? Van's not a major player there, but he gets what I presume is his due, which left me with no doubt that he's long if not always been a major prick. When I read it back in 2018 this did not stop me from listening to Moondance or Into the Music or "Jackie Wilson Said." Nor has the ignorant, reactionary, racist-to-anti-Semitic blather he and his homeboy Clapton have been spewing during the pandemic turned me off their music (though the only Clapton I actively like is half a century old) because, yes, the music has its own reality. You could even say that the guy who's making the music is not the prick--that he inhabits or creates some other reality when he sings and plays. So my boycott is about Morrison's current Latest Record Project, which Greil Marcus did review and thought sounded pretty good until it approached the Protocols of the Elders of Zion part. But Greil's a big big Van fan, where I've merely found some value in his ceaseless recent output. So it's easy enough for me to say fuck that shit.

[Q] The phrase "meaning-mongering" shows up in your reviews from time to time. How exactly do you define this term? Is it always a bad thing? If not, how does one successfully pull it off? -- Austin, Missouri

[A] "From time to time," I read. Gee, I thought, not exactly a witty term, why would I do that? So I Googled my site and got precisely one hit: a 2001 Turkey Shoot pan that read:

TOOL: Lateralus (Volcano) What am I supposed to say about the latest in meaning-mongering for the fantasy fiction set? That they are not as good as King Crimson? That I do not like my Billy Cobham comp even less? That this is not progress? That I am not a virgin? All of the above. Plus I never liked Crimson much to begin with. C

All of which I take to indicate that, for reasons I no longer remember, Tool was my post-9/11 choice to symbolize the ever-burgeoning pretensions of metal, which by then my readers presumably knew I didn't have much use for unless Led Zeppelin or Motorhead counted. What I'm really insulting in this very terse review is fantasy as opposed to science fiction, the overstatements of jazz fusion, and rock's eternal "progressive" tic. The virgin crack, I should add, I don't get. Were Tool deep into phallic sexism? Can't recall, don't much care. Hate that shit in hip-hop too.

[Q] Have you ever written a hit record, or any record for that matter? -- Brad Ballantyne, Richmondshire, England

[A] Nope. Have you ever published a record review? Murdered anyone?

August 18, 2021

And It Don't Stop.

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.

July 28, 2021

And It Don't Stop.

Generalizations too vast to swear by, instrumentals worth hearing, the algorithm vs. the people, and Frank Zappa vs. George Clinton.

[Q] Re: "Combating the Sound of Whiteness." In reading the piece I came to wonder if you've read Heartaches by the Number (Cantwell and Friskics-Warren, 2003). Specifically how they choose to define a "country song"? -- Clifford J. Ocheltree, New Orleans

[A] I was certainly aware that I was generalizing swiftly and broadly in that piece, and if I owned Heartaches by the Number I would have checked it out, as I did David Cantwell's excellent Merle Haggard: The Running Kind. I was also aware that there were revised editions of Bill C. Malone's Country Music, U.S.A. to which Geoff Mann referred in his essay; I'd read the 1968 version shortly after it came out and have never seen either of the newer ones. But since I wasn't claiming to do anything but review those two essays and had plenty to say about them, with deadline approaching I went with what I had. My generalizations are obviously too vast to swear by, but as more-than-plausible argument starters I stand by them.

[Q] The irrepressible Alfred Soto recently posted his favourite 20 instrumentals in rock. Seems like he had a lot of fun doing it. How about yours? -- Christian Iszchak, Norfolk, England

[A] Without committing to play till the ninth inning, I did what I could to check out most of Soto's picks and was surprised at how few of them worked for me. To choose the biggest disappointments because my tastes clearly run more r&b-let's-call-it than Soto's, neither Sly's "Sex Machine" nor JB's "Time Is Running Out Fast" made me say anything like "How the fuck did I forget that"? The Neil Young, the Bowie, even the Sugar just didn't reach deep enough. But "Tel-Star," "Frankenstein," and not quite as undeniably the Stooges' "L.A. Blues" certainly qualify, as of course does Funkadelic's indelible "Maggot Brain," which Carola and I recall first grokking while we were parking our car in an Akron driveway in 1978 and staying in our seats till it was over, enthralled. Almost as crucial is the Meters' "Cissy Strut." I'd never registered Yo La Tengo's "Spec Bebop" and loved it. I'd replace Eno's "Becalmed" with his "Sky Saw." Pink Floyd's "One of These Days" would probably place. Rush's "YYZ," which it's quite possible I'd never heard in my life, also might. But I think Soto was wrong to leave out all "jazz"--Miles Davis's 27-minute "Right Off," which leads Jack Johnson, is extraordinary and indelibly rock-derived, and not just because it builds off bassist Michael Henderson's "Honky Tonk" riff. Which brings us to the '50s, which Soto ignores altogether. As I've written more than once, it was the hour I spent as a 14-year-old playing side one of my Bill Doggett 45 "Honky Tonk" on repeat that transformed me into the person who became a rock critic. Side two was the hit, one of the best-selling instrumentals of all time, but I always insist that both sides form one composition, still one of my favorite tracks ever. One of Soto's commenters mentions that he also omitted Link Wray's equally influential "Rumble," where you can hear noise guitar being born. And from the '50s I'd add New Orleans sax man Lee Allen's "Walking with Mr. Lee"--and also, just to be contrary, Count Basie's 1956 hit version of "April in Paris," another 45 I bought, which Billboard calculated peaked at number 28 but was bigger in NYC I guess.

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