Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Village Voice (1955-2018)

This is Robert Christgau's contribution to a forum introduced by Jennifer Krasinski, which also included contributions by Gary Indiana, Molly Haskell, J. Hoberman, Vivian Gornick, Melissa Anderson, Michael Miller, and Greg Tate.

THE VILLAGE VOICE WOULD HAVE CHANGED MY LIFE if I'd never worked there, as it changed so many others. I read it as a backsliding Christian fourteen-year-old from Queens who'd never set foot in the Village, as an Ivy League existentialist who hit Eighth Street every chance he got, as a would-be novelist on West Seventieth Street and an up-and-coming new journalist on East Ninth. But the June 1966 launch of Richard Goldstein's Pop Eye column hit me where I lived. One reason I consider Goldstein the first rock critic is his column hed--not only did he bring exegesis and reportage to the music ex-teenagers were calling "rock," he labeled it "pop" in the process. As a Mickey Mantle/Chuck Berry/Andy Warhol fan then writing for New York and Esquire in the belief that slick magazines opened a path to literary excellence, I said yeah.

But by 1968, when Esquire tired of my Secular Music column just as Goldstein had tired of Pop Eye, I was sussing that maybe the slicks weren't for this East Villager after all. Enter three years of a poorly remunerated Voice column dubbed Rock & Roll & that spawned the Consumer Guide briefs that proved my brand and essays I couldn't have published anywhere else, two years as Newsday's rock critic, and then my lifework, a decade as music editor and thirty-two years as chief music critic at a Voice then owned by New York's Clay Felker, who less than three years later would lose control to Rupert Murdoch, who'd toss us aside in 1985 himself. I was fired in 2006, but more than half of my forthcoming collection Is It Still Good to Ya? was first published there, mostly in this century.

The honor roll is spectacular. Gary Giddins, Greil Marcus, Lester Bangs, Tom Johnson, James Wolcott, Vince Aletti, Stephen Holden, Ken Tucker, Kit Rachlis, Stanley Crouch, Tom Carson, John Piccarella, Jon Pareles, Carol Cooper, Nelson George, Greg Tate, Greg Sandow, Chuck Eddy, Kyle Gann, Barry Walters, RJ Smith, Joe Levy, Ann Powers, Joan Morgan, Neil Strauss, Touré, Rob Sheffield, Rob Tannenbaum, Eric Weisbard, and Christian Hoard didn't all begin at the Voice or end up music critics. But all played their role in the paper's music coverage as overseen for a decade by me and three more by seven others, including five of the above-named. So did hundreds more pros, temps, and casuals, all enriching an ongoing conversation that had no end.

That conversation encompassed a wealth of themes, with race up top because pop music is more African than any other facet of American culture. But always in the mix was the pop perplex. Always our alt-weekly's rock criticism honored the hits while extolling the alternatives that rejected and aimed to displace them--disco, punk, and hip-hop during my tenure alone. Always we explored how it was possible for musicians and critics to do ambitious, provocative work under the nose of money men who'd pay us something for it. As the online economy erodes the cash value of both recorded music and the written word, that question gets fraughter and fraughter. The rapid demise of a union-busting online-only Voice launched less than a year ago is no surprise. But it's a grim omen.

Artforum, Sept. 11, 2018