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.

January 17, 2024

And It Don't Stop.

Radiohead and the pitfalls of prog, an executive decision, the remarkable Ms. R, cannibalizing great songs, the uncollected Consumer Guide, and the varieties of musical experience.

[Q] Hi Robert, Long-time fan here. With the frightening advancements in AI and more dependence on interconnectivity than ever, do you believe that Radiohead's OK Computer is more impactful than you originally gave it credit for? It seems as though this album in particular is a shared favorite amongst Gen Z for these reasons as they grew up alongside rapid technological connectivity that this album so heavily preached against. You described the album as, "arid." Given the fact it has been able to transcend and grow to reflect a new generation who arguably enjoys it more than the one in which it came out in, would you still say that today? -- Quindarious, Flint, Michigan

[A] Just reread my OK Computer CG brief as well as listening to the thing again and failed to register the anti-computer preachments to which you refer, which doesn't mean they're not there--I've never found the band's lyrics compelling enough to follow religiously--but does likely mean that they're more pretentiously subtle than "heavily preached." My guess is that Thom Yorke, whose political activism and general sense of principle I very much admire, didn't intend anything as blatantly ideological as you suggest. I believe the band's popularity, which these days is better designated "status," is based much more on its prog aesthetic than on its progressive politics. To my way of thinking this is one of the pitfalls of what I'll just call art-rock, which actively rejects both the catchy hooks and the compelling groove of the rock and roll aesthetic I've championed for most of my life. Moreover, I believe that the band's rejection of that aesthetic in favor of more cerebral songwriting and subtle execution is, together with their enthusiastically received live shows, why their fans love them so--insofar as they still do, since their productivity has definitely flattened out in recent years.

[Q] Respectfully, what is your review of the full 22-track version of Pink Friday 2? -- Nicholas Wanhella, North Vancouver, BC

[A] In the wake of Minaj's confusingly variegated 2023 output I've made an executive decision that when an artist releases a new album in multiple versions, I'm only obliged to review one. In this case I did what I usually do--buy, with my own money, a physical from Amazon. The one that came in the mail and I wrote about didn't even have a booklet--just a square, almost info-free 4.7"X4.7" slip of paper. It got the level of attention I estimated it had earned. The album was good, but definitely an A minus rather than full A. My working assumption is that the "full 22-track version" is longer and quite possibly as good but very unlikely to be substantially better. I don't think Minaj is so iconic she merits the extra attention.

[Q] Hi Bob, with Guts already my most played album in years and Olivia Rodrigo just about my favourite artist on the planet, I wondered if you'd care to expand a little on your two glowing capsule reviews. Just how good/great do you currently rate her? Think she can keep this going? Planning on seeing her live in 2024? -- Trevor Minter, Shoreham-by-Sea, West Sussex, United Kingdom

[A] With an artist as gifted as Rodrigo, predicting the future is difficult to impossible, although it is worth noting, as she does in the notes to Guts, that she works with an experienced collaborator named Daniel Nigro who it's safe to assume transformed at least a few good songs into great ones. Also worth remembering is that thus far she's been free to write as something approaching what she is: a remarkable young woman whose professional life and love life are both bound to become more complicated, with who knows what effect on the songs she writes except that just because the writing has been so consistent up till now a few unresolved twists and complication or for that matter some sort of satisfactory resolution or turmoil in her romantic interpersonals likely awaits her, with unpredictable effects on her art itself--although just because she's so talented it's not at all impossible that her next bunch of songs at least will be more complex and unexpected than is within our power to anticipate.

[Q] What's your gut reaction when you hear a well-known song or artist being used to sell a commercial product? Is this practice simply morally wrong, or are there examples of positive synergy? -- Andrew Maslar, Baltimore

[A] As a general matter, there's nothing morally wrong about cannibalizing a great song for a commercial, and yes I said cannibalizing. A lot of musicians feel they don't get paid enough for their work, and many of them have a point. So I don't even think twice about it, which may be why I can't even cite a relatively offensive example. A gravity knife? A Kid Rock Trump anthem? A conspicuously pricey timepiece? An AK-47? Some oxygen-sucking SUV I can't even name?

[Q] Hi, Bob! I love your work--own all your books, but still find myself using your huge website a lot even though I own it all in print. It's addictive. I wonder if you could comment on your decision-making about putting so much of your work online for free. Do you think it has hurt total book sales? Helped them on balance? It's an interesting choice that I imagine many authors have to think about. -- Henry, Brooklyn

[A] Critics do not make meaningful money from their books if they're lucky enough to have a few, and this applies especially to criticism per se--bios and to a lesser extent historical studies are somewhat different. Also, like all writers critics want to be read, to have their carefully honed analyses and opinions be a part of public discourse so that guys like you can share them or elaborate them. Hence I didn't think twice when my old friend and in some respects protege Tom Hull made the tremendously generous offer to create a website for me back in 2001, which I should mention now includes 24 years of Consumer Guides that have never achieved book form. If he hadn't, and if Wikipedia hadn't gleefully cited and sometimes cannibalized it, I wouldn't be making a remarkably decent living on Substack, which at least for the nonce I am. A fulltime writer at 81. I'm very fortunate.

[Q] First of all, thank you very much for your concise and precise writing. My question concerns the relationship of this writing (and the research that fuels it) and your enjoyment of the music you critique. I am an academic who writes on cultural production--thus far, primarily comics, though I am beginning to branch out into music (primarily classical). I find my close engagement with a work (perhaps a piece of music or an album), through research, close listening, etc., to have a significant effect on how I listen to/hear it. This effect is neither clearly negative nor positive, but rather more complicated. What are your thoughts on this relationship? A related follow-up: Are there albums you hesitate to listen to closely for fear that this attention will significantly (and perhaps irreversibly) change how you experience them? -- John Benjamin, Nanuet, New York

[A] I think my most important gift as a critic is how intensely, variously, and most important voraciously I respond to music. That said, it's far more common for such responses to be enhanced and intensified by analyzing and listening critically, a process generally jump-started by what begins as more casual or incidental enjoyment. But the opposite certainly happens sometimes--I come to realize that I've been attracted only to a single song or two, or even that I've gotten tired of or seen through the track that initially pulled me in.

December 20, 2023

And It Don't Stop.

An implausible hypothetical briefly considered; Taylor's rerecordings, same; PJ Harvey and the two tests; tips welcome; a jazz starter kit for toddlers; CDs welcome.

[Q] Quick one: If your 20 favorite artists formed a committee and announced their support for Donald Trump in 2024 (whatever their reasons, w/chaos being an acceptable reason), would you continue to listen/support them? -- Liam, California

[A] This is a hypothetical so implausible--forget Trump, what about "formed a committee"?--that it's not worth answering except to point that out. I suppose you could posit a situation in which his opponent was heinous in some way, but whatever the Dems' limitations that's not plausible either. And in any case, my politics are my own, which doesn't mean they won't inevitably be affected by the neverending flow of new information that can come from anyone. I read more about politics online than I do about music.

[Q] In light of Taylor Swift's nomination as the Time Magazine Person of the Year, I was curious as to your thoughts on her decision to rerecord her first six albums. What are your feelings about this significant action? -- Brad Morosan, London, Ontario

[A] Only occasionally do I even listen to rerecordings or remasters, and almost never do I write about them. These niceties may well matter to the artists, but they're also profit-takers pure and simple that tend so marginal aesthetically that except in jazz, where improvisation counts for so much, I just feel like I have better things to do with ears that work 12-18 hours a day. Maybe what I assume about Swift is obvious; maybe it's even public knowledge. I just haven't cared enough to poke around about it. But I assume that her primary reason for those rerecordings is economic, not artistic--a way to combat the sale of her catalog out from under her nose. But I will also say that having raved about her as long ago as 2008's Fearless, I personally have found Swift's recent songs of solid quality but at the same time somewhat more predictable and/or fame-specific, hence less than compelling.

[Q] Being a PJ Harvey fan since I first read about her in your reviews, I was very curious to know your thoughts about her latest album which came out in July this year. So when the December Consumer Guide came out and there was still no review of it, I started wondering if you were even aware of its release, or maybe you had listened to it but didn't consider it good enough (or interesting enough) to dedicate a review to. If that's the case, even with artists who you previously covered and showed appreciation for, I wanted to ask what's your criterion (if there is one of course) for deciding not to review an album. Also, in that regard, Paul Simon's latest album comes to mind, especially since you mentioned in a previous Xgau Sez that you were going to listen to it. -- Gaetano, Siena, Italy

[A] I've streamed the new PJ maybe four-five times, which isn't to claim front-to-back by the way, without feeling inclined to forget about it quite yet. But that's mainly because I respect the artist as much as I do. This is PJ Harvey, after all. That said, so far it hasn't passed either of my two tests: 1) Do I want to play it again just to hear it? 2) Am I ever actively and consciously enjoying what I'm hearing on some purely aesthetic level? Not as of now. The Simon, which I purchased on the grounds that it was Paul Simon after all, failed both tests, so I'm not reviewing it. I'm giving PJ the month off and will check it out again before January is over.

[Q] How do you decide which albums you want to listen to? I imagine there are artists where you listen to their new music automatically, based on their fame or their track record. What about new ones, or those you haven't kept up with before? -- Jamie, Texas

[A] I read a lot of reviews and hear many more albums than I write about. I also have advisors de facto or otherwise--my editor Joe Levy most of all, after that my sister Georgia and my daughter Nina and my webmaster Tom Hull. But I talk music with most of the people I know and will take a likely-sounding tip from anyone.

[Q] My son is just about two years old and I have been slowly feeding him a diet of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Bob Seger, Knopfler (both Mark and David), Warren Zevon (who I discovered owing to your blog) and Gordon Lightfoot. He is showing a clear inclination towards them and I'd like to introduce some jazz into the mix too. Being a jazz novice (and musically illiterate) where should I start him? -- Abhinav Arora, India

[A] Louis Armstrong's 16 Most Requested Songs. Later, Kind of Blue. Maybe Dave Brubeck's Jazz Goes to College. And jazz aside, by all means get him started on the Beatles. Sgt. Pepper, why not?

[Q] After decades of fielding promos, along with whatever you've acquired on your own, how do you manage your physical collection inside of a 21st century NYC? And are you happier now that most review content is sent digitally? -- Joe Siiva, Atlanta

[A] With insufficient space and ever-increasing difficulty. Any intellectual my age has to start pondering how to dispose of his library, but usually those faced with that ever-expanding dilemma aren't also working full-time. I am. That said, it's high on my to-do list and may even be something I want to write about. And I should add that as I've indicated before here, I much prefer physicals, especially CDs--in part because they're simple to stick a bunch in a changer for an informal compare-and-contrast but also because, just as with e-books versus printed books, I find listening to streamed music different psychologically from putting CDs in a changer. In both cases I'm old enough to be somewhat disoriented by its lack of materiality.

November 15, 2023

And It Don't Stop.

Therapy, the Vandellas vs. the Supremes vs. the Marvelettes, Wilco (The Reviews), the listening method, the Kennedys then and now, and Pazz & Jop motivations.

[Q] Have you ever done psychiatric or psychological therapy? Do you perceive the ongoing concern for mental health and well-being with some degree of generational skepticism and distance or is it a welcome change from what I perceive may have been a diminished interest in the topic during your youth? Would you rather there be more political interest in today's artists (not that they're mutually exclusive), could "mental health" be code for selfishness or is that too cynical a view? Am I simply ignoring the fact that it's nothing new and you saw it being dealt with lots back in the day? -- David, Calgary, Alberta

[A] I don't know enough young people to comment on how much therapy they do except to wonder how they pay for it. Maybe things are different in socialized Canada, but here in NYC it can cost plenty. That said, I know plenty of people who've done therapy, count one therapist an old friend, and have written about my own experiences with therapy in Going Into the City. One shrink played a minor but key role in my decision to set my sights on a relationship with none other than Carola Dibbell, while another was in our lives when Carola and I had a crisis in 1980 and certainly did me more good than the marriage counselor we consulted did the two of us. Then again, the NYU-linked therapist Carola consulted for free in the early '70s was such a key figure in her life that he's the focus of her strange, poignant, funny, highly recommended short story "Surviving Death." Carola gets free counseling as part of her so far successful treatment for multiple myeloma and also consults a therapist who specializes in counseling writers who gets a thank you she deserves in the acknowledgments to The Only Ones.

[Q] Hello Mr. Christgau, I recently checked out Martha & the Vandellas' The Definitive Collection and had my mind blown by the extended mix of "Heat Wave," where the Vandellas' feverish "burning, burning, burning" cheers Martha on as she pushes the song into a new emotional peak. After that I looked into their history more and found after Motown shifted its focus and resources to Diana Ross (and the Supremes) they seemed to stop getting material from its first-string songwriters/production teams; at least the Marvelettes had Smokey Robinson writing a few more indelible classics for them. And while the Supremes were commercially irrefutable, I couldn't help but think with the same support and resources they got Martha or The Marvelettes could've done just as well, what do you make of this? -- Clement Lin, China

[A] I do not own The Definitive Collection but wasn't wildly impressed by the not-all-that-extended "Heat Wave" when I found it on Spotify, which is too bad because Carola adores "Heat Wave," which appeared around when she was beginning her sophomore year in college and--along with the Beatles, natch--reconverted her to rock and roll. (She had a jazz phase that has served her well for decades without cutting into her rock and roll fandom. When I asked whether it wasn't maybe "Dancing in the Streets" that so impressed her she stuck with "Heat Wave." "It's my favorite song," she said indignantly. "It's everybody's favorite song.") Me, I'm not such a big Reeves fan, partly because while finally purchasing a couple of LPs I adore to this day I also bought her Dance Party, which definitely didn't hold up against The Beatles' Second Album or The Rolling Stones Now. Not only that, but my fave '60s ur-Motown album is The Marvelettes' Greatest Hits, purchased in 1969 or maybe 1971, I still remember finding it in a bin in Berkeley. Motownwise, Reeves got the shaft as the Supremes took over the label, not least because she was bizwise enough to nurture big ambitions that sat poorly with Berry Gordy, who was more bizwise by a considerable margin. In my view her voice was just big enough to justify dreams of taking her pop legit. By the time I was getting records in the mail I recall getting a solo debut from here, maybe the Richard Perry production Nelson George references in his Motown book Where Did Our Love Go? For sure she had a bigger voice than Diana Ross or Gladys Horton of the Marvelettes, but that's never enough. The album was a dog.

[Q] I've read your reviews of Wilco and I find them completely mystifying. Disagreeing with your reviews is familiar territory for me. But I usually (almost always) think you have interesting things to say about interesting music. But reading what you wrote about Wilco makes me wonder if you accidentally listened to and reviewed the wrong music. Did you accidentally swap your Bright Eyes disks into Wilco jackets? The best Wilco album is up for debate, but Wilco (The Album) is not it, and that's not debatable. My vote would be Summerteeth, but I wouldn't argue with anyone who said YHF, Ghost, or Sky Blue Sky, each of which you dismissed so lazily I can't believe you actually listened to them. My question is, how did you get your Wilco reviews so spectacularly and colossally wrong? -- Matt Petersen, Earth

[A] One of the more depressing things about spending your life as a critic is haters who should probably avoid criticism because disagreement sits so poorly with them. Many of these people are just stupid, but Petersen doesn't seem to be--his syntax is fine, and sometimes he thinks I'm "interesting." He just loves Wilco so much that the fact that a name critic doesn't share his full-bore enthusiasm drives him mad. You'd think to read this aggrieved fan's hate mail that I'd panned all of Wilco's albums when in fact only one of my nine repeat nine reviews is negative. The problem with the others, presumably, is that they're not positive enough--one A minus, two B plusses, three three-star Honorable Mentions, one two-star, one one-star. In addition they collaborated on an album I love, the Billy Bragg-enhanced not to say -dominated Woody Guthrie tribute Mermaid Avenue. But going back to Uncle Tupelo I've always thought Tweedy was overrated as both a singer and a songwriter and explained why in prose I can guarantee wasn't "lazy" because I know how hard it is for me to put sentences together.

[Q] When you're listening to an album, what do you do? Do you sit there and take it all in, or do you do something else while it's playing? Personally, I usually have to be doing something else, but I have noticed I get a better connection with the songs if I lay in bed and listen to it. -- Ray, Atlanta

[A] My basic method is the one I've used since I started listening to the radio in my own room when I was 12: have music playing all the time and see what attracts your attention. By "all the time" I mean something less absolute, of course--only when I've lived alone has it been literal, and from the beginning there was often baseball vying for my attention, and seldom did I do both at once. But all the preceding assumes I'm living alone when for the past half century I've cohabited with a woman who I'm forever milking for offhand opinions. If she likes it I almost certainly do or will. But that only happens when she's not working herself--more often we have to negotiate so she's not distracted by my sounds, and for years she got to rent her own work space in a friend's apartment upstairs (which she still misses). All that said, absolutely once I've determined that a record pleases me on a casual basis I hone in on it, generally playing it five or 10 times and making sure I catch every lyric. I don't think the kind of listening many fans do requires that kind of attention. But if the music is to your taste it will repay it.

[Q] This is something that has been bugging me a long time. I'm 62. JFK was assassinated when I was two. RFK was assassinated when I was seven. I have no memories of either. But the media is still fascinated by the Kennedy mystique. And most of them are far younger than I am. I remember vividly Tom Brokaw commenting after Al Gore's acceptance speech in L.A. in 2000 that he was no JFK. It infuriates me to this day. With RFK, Jr., do people, younger than I am, still hold to the Kennedy "mystique"? Is this a media myth? Or am I missing something? -- Theodore Raikin, Metuchen, New Jersey

[A] JFK became president by barely defeating Richard Nixon, who even in 1960 seemed like the amoral menace his eventual presidency proved him to be. Kennedy's never fully explicated assassination suggested that despite the Bay of Pigs disaster he was regarded as a dangerous agent of change by the forces of evil, plus he projected a youthful vigor and gathered an impressive liberal brain trust around him. Hence his legend, which while it wasn't justified by his actual achievements as of November 1963 is rightly associated with what LBJ soon accomplished as his de facto political heir, in particular the Civil Rights Act and then Medicare. True, Vietnam took root on JFK's watch as well, and while I suspect he would have done better with it than LBJ, how much better cannot be known. That said, though, RFK did become genuinely antiwar, which to me indicates that JFK would probably have taken a less hawkish path though who can know for sure? What is clear is that RFK's own antiwar feelings were genuine. Without having the expertise to vouch for its unconventional details, I recommend the "investigative poetry" of Ed Sanders's Broken Glory: The Final Years of Robert F. Kennedy (which also has plenty of alarming stuff on the MLK assassination). RFK Jr., however is clearly a menace and has been since he went on the Covid-period anti-vax crusade many other Kennedys have condemned.

[Q] What was your motivation for starting the Pazz & Jop poll? -- Michelle, Chicago

[A] My main motivation was to establish a critical consensus like any other critics' poll. Not that such a consensus is definitive, but it's certainly informative as regards both the critics and the art form they cover, plus it was a standard journalistic circulation-booster that filled a gap left by the departure of a mag called Jazz & Pop, and clearly that gap needed filling. In addition I thought that, as with "Dean of American Rock Critics," Pazz & Jop was a handle that might attract some attention on its own. A hook, we call that in the music biz. Like the blatantly obvious "Consumer Guide," this one definitely worked.

October 18, 2023

And It Don't Stop.

Sinead's voice, Chinese novels, Placebo and the ecstasy of influence, the squall of Johnny Thunders, radio days, Spofity's Roganomics.

[Q] Any thoughts on Sinead O'Connor since her passing? I agree with your reviews that the albums did dip in quality after the first two. And I can't say if I'll ever read her memoir. But absolutely love her voice and am saddened to know we won't receive any new recordings -- James Kean, Liverpool

[A] O'Connor was obviously a bit of a skyrocket. She peaked early and never seemed to regain her equilibrium, insofar as she ever had any. Her voice was so remarkable it carried her, pretty much, through an uneven and occasionally unhinged career powered in part by an active and admirable but not especially consistent or persuasive social conscience. I hadn't put her on in years when she died, played Do Not Want a little, and moved on. But it's worth noting that a week ago Carola and I were visited by an intellectually ambitious grandniece with an active interest in music who'd just graduated from college. An hour or two into our colloquy she asked me what I thought of Sinead, who she'd been playing and felt like hearing again. So I dug out a CD. In that context, I thought O'Connor sounded great.

[Q] I know that you read a lot of books, especially novels. As a Chinese reader, I would like to know if you have read any books by Chinese novelists. If so, which books would you recommend? -- Meng Dang, Jiangxi, Nanchang

[A] Not many, and if you don't count Chinese Americans, just one: Cixin Liu and Ken Liu's The Three-Body Problem, clearly a work of genius though it didn't blow my mind to the extent others report. Counting Chinese-Americans, start of course with Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior, which is more novelistic than it pretends. Liked Eugene Lim's Dear Cyborgs and even more Charles Yu's Interior Chinatown. Not crazy about Ling Ma's Severance. Highly recommend the long China section of Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt, and the Chinese protagonist of his Red Moon.

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