Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough Cover

An Essay on Criticism

By Simon Frith

1

In his introduction to Grown Up All Wrong, Robert Christgau describes his return to New York from California in 1972 and the launch of his career as a full-time rock writer. "I was out of academia," he writes. "And glad enough of it."

I started my life as a full-time academic the same year, and Christgau's throwaway satisfaction here is to me disingenuous. Christgau has been, after all, happy to be billed as the Dean (I think he first claimed the title--"the Dean of the Long Island Rock Critics"--in Newsday in 1972), and in the very first line of Grown Up All Wrong he takes care to remind us that he was once a professor. The account of his life as a rock critic which follows is different from the account which kicks off his 1973 collection, Any Old Way You Choose It if only because in 1998 he is making sense of a critical life that in 1977 was still being sketched out. "I want to do other things in the world than write rock criticism," he had written in Any Old Way You Choose It. Grown Up All Wrong explains why he didn't need to, and in this can only be understood as a conversation with the academic he might have been.

Given what rock criticism has since become, this may not be surprising. We are well used now to academics who dabble in rock criticism and rock critics who dabble in the academy. There are schools of rock criticism which are clearly "academic," even if written by journalists with no academic credentials at all, and classes in rock criticism taught by instructors who have never written a critical line in their lives. But only Christgau has had the determination--and the brains and the spirit--to take the academy on directly.

Why bother? Most critics still have no interest in academic work at all; most academics know that scholarly work on popular culture, particularly theoretical work (the kind Christgau finds interesting) is a matter for journalistic derision. Christgau writes that he was temperamentally suited to be a journalist, a "wordslinger for hire in a world half bohemia and half media." But this doesn't explain his ongoing interest in the academy and is, anyway, misleading. Christgau is not a bohemian as a matter of fact--his life as loving husband and father is crucial for his critical persona--nor as a writer. He lacks the narcissistic mischief making and sheer self pity of a Richard Meltzer or, come to that, Lester Bangs.

Christgau is, rather, an intellectual, a public role to which, in the name of modernism, the academy long ago laid exclusive claim. This claim has only been challenged effectively by journalists of a certain sort, and Christgau's life mission, one could say, has been to be a journalist of that sort. He has, with enviable obduracy, used day-to-day rock criticism (rather than the classroom or the learned tome) to reflect on where we're coming from and where we should be at.

2

Consumer guidance might be thought the lowest form of criticism, and grading the week's pop output (now the UK arts page norm) has certainly debased the serious record review in Britain (Q editors are reputed to impose their own grades, for marketing reasons, on their hapless review staff). The consumer guide and the letter grade were introduced to newspapers' rock coverage by Bob Christgau. This was in part a joke. He called his record review column Christgau's Consumer Guide in mockery of over-earnest Marcusian lefties--in his words, "to annoy left-wing cheese-heads." And his letter grades could also be taken as a dig at the academy. If we can confidently grade students why not artists too? But this is not just a joke. The Consumer Guide and the mock-college marking scheme were also answers to an intellectual's question. What is a popular culture critic for?

Christgau's position here was straightforward. In a capitalist society in which culture has been more or less completely commodified, consumer choice is all most of us have got. The critic's task is not to denounce music in the marketplace (where else can music be?) but to make market choices matter. Consumption is a social situation in which we can (even if we mostly don't) articulate utopian values and create certain kinds of solidarity. And if the equality of free individuals under market liberalism is illusory (some folk are just better resourced than others), it nevertheless refers to a proper democratic principle. All individual market choices are equal, a professor's dollars worth the same as a photo lab assistant's. And just as people's lives are changed by their college letter grades so, Christgau suggests, evaluation matters in our cultural lives. Of course it's provocative that a record gets a B+ rather than a B-, but what's at issue here, what makes a record more or less valuable, matters very much indeed.

Still and all there's a difference between Christgau as a consumer guide and the average magazine hack. He describes his work in simple terms: find good stuff and lay out a way to like it. I can't think any critic would say different. But he doesn't really come across like other reviewers. To read Christgau is to enter an argument, and Christgau argues with just about everyone. He's not in the business of explaining why a record should be on your coffee table or how it might fit your way of life. His interest is indeed simple: is this record worth a listen?

Christgau's determined pragmatism has one odd consequence. The influence of his criticism is not dependent on the particularities of his taste. Of the critics I read regularly he's the one with whom I most disagree-as a consumer guide. But he is also the one who makes me question most often what criticism is for. This is not accidental. As a public intellectual, Christgau's position is that cultural authority is exercised in order to be challenged, and his reviews are punctuated by challenges-to readers, to musicians, to music itself. There's been a kind of epic energy fuelling Christgau's thirty year mission, and, as with the radical preachers who mount their soap boxes in London's Hyde Park Corner Sunday after Sunday, I sometimes wonder whether the people steadfastly ignoring the promise of revelation are really worth the faith that's being placed in them.

3

Whatever the claims he makes for himself in Any Old Way You Choose It, where he notes that he resisted the term "criticism" and thought of his rock writing as, rather, journalism and amateur sociology, Christgau's critical approach is rarely sociological. He does not account for music in terms of audience or industry; he is singularly uninterested in fashion. The meaning of music lies in the music itself and in the critic's response to it. Criticism is necessarily objective and subjective. Objectively the music itself-what you hear, the melodies, instruments, voices, words, and, above all, personas-must be described. This may mean research (as in the proper criticism of world music) but it doesn't mean musicology (Christgau has never shown much interest in classical music or its analysis). Neither does it mean that swirl of adjectives that Roland Barthes dismissed as bourgeois folly, nor even the fretful name dropping and genre chopping without which most rock critics can't manage. For Christgau the music is the only evidence for the rightness of his response to it. And the music is what is immediately there, not what it might suggest that isn't.

The critical response is triggered by the music but it is also shaped by the mood and circumstance of the listener (judgements change). The starting point for all criticism is emotional. A record must make the critic feel something (Christgau is particularly partial to music that is angry) even if that feeling is, in critical practice, intellectual excitement. Christgau most values artists for their intelligence, most despises them for stupidity.

All music critics must resolve the same contradictions. Brain and body: moved by music and yet detached enough to explain its movement. Chaos and order: disrupted by music but steady enough to restore one's thoughts to order. But for Christgau, as a democratic intellectual, the very process of such criticism, the resolution of these contradictions, is political (and not, as in the academy, just clever). He takes it for granted that rock music is commercial. To make music to make money is not in itself the sign of bad faith. He is not much interested in authenticity: what we hear and judge is the persona not a person. Nonetheless, there is a link between music and purpose, between aesthetics and intent. "This divorcee sounds overripe," he writes of Bob Dylan's Street-Legal (C+), "too in love with his own self-generated misery to break through the leaden tempos that oppress his melodies, devoid not just of humour but of lightness." This is a failure of art, not life. If rock acts want us to pay attention to their music, they must pay attention to it too.

4

Bob Christgau was the best editor I've ever had, and the most daunting. Editing sessions (pre-booked on the transatlantic telephone) were technical--let's get rid of some widows!--irritable--what are all these dashes?--and philosophical. Christgau was more rigorous than any tutor I ever had about evidence and accuracy, And he was much more obsessed by good writing.

The best music critic, George Bernard Shaw says somewhere, is not the smartest musicologist or most sensitive soul but the best writer. A good critic's skill is with words, not notes, and Christgau's collected capsule reviews are a remarkable memorial to his writing skill. A record addressed and assessed in 2 to 200 words: this is both the most immediate of critical responses and the most carefully honed. As an editor Christgau taught me that self-expression is not a matter of writing what comes into your head but working and working on words until they say what you want them to mean. The harder the work, the more the writing becomes your own.

There is a school of critical thought that believes that writing about music should be somehow like listening to music: visceral, fragmented, overwhelming; as if the critic can do your listening for you. For Christgau, by contrast, writing is a critical way of listening, not an ersatz substitute for the real thing. It's a way of listening which in its very articulation both invites disagreement and makes the reader follow through, in the music, why they disagree. It's a teaching device, and I'm not sure that Christgau ever really got out of the academy at all.

Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough, 2002


RJ Smith Milo Miles