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 other Tuesday.

To ask your own question, please use this form.

November 06, 2018

[Q] Correct as they may be on issues, progressives are woefully serious, damnably dull, and as grimly humorless as expired parking meters. Bernie? John the Baptist not the Messiah. Elizabeth Warren? A nanny-spanker. The progressive leader must be young, smart, charismatic. Young? Experience enslaves you to a political status quo championed by pusillanimous geriatrics like Feinstein (85), Grassley (85), Hatch (84). Smart? High intellect, argumentative skills, strategically astute, politically savvy enough to never use the word "socialism." Charismatic? Can't deny Trump's raffish NYC swagger appeals to many. Even Democrats relished how he flattened his opponents right up until he flattened Mrs. Glass Ceiling. Dean Christgau, give me one progressive leader to counter Trumpism who's as young, as smart, as charismatic, as the firebrand flashing her gams at 29:00 below. One. -- Coco Hannah Eckelberg, Long Island City

[A] EVERYBODY WHO'S READING THIS GO OUT AND VOTE IF YOU HAVEN'T AND FINISH MY RAMBLINGS LATER. NEW YORKERS TURN THE BALLOT OVER--IMPORTANT PROPOSITIONS THERE, YES ON ALL. First, Coco expects me to follow a link to a video like countless naive publicists before "her"--by the time I bothered it was blocked, so I don't know whose gams I was supposed to admire, though if it's Ocasio-Cortez's I definitely think she's cool and pray she survives the grotty compromises of lawmaking the way good pols do (only wait a second, she uses the s-word). I was all "Warren 2020" as of 11/9/16--Post-Ited that prophecy on the subway wall--and have no idea what she means by nanny-spanker even after Googling it. But as I began to calculate the sexism of the 2016 electorate, particularly its female component, my confidence wavered, and I settled on Sherrod Brown, who's old but not as old as Warren much less Feinstein but who also shows no sign of wanting the job, so here's hoping while doubting that he'll win in a landslide in Ohio, where voter suppression cost Kerry big in 2004 and makes the landslide part unlikely. Brown's ruggedly Middle American exterior makes his eloquence on the issues even more effective. But now to the "raffish" (??) Frump, a clod and a bully I despised from afar well before he put his trussed gut behind birtherism and never "relished" for a second -- and who "flattened" Clinton by minus three million votes. As for Sanders, right. John the Baptist. He did historically essential work and now should take care of his blood pressure. I stopped listening to him repeat himself the third time I heard him give a speech and as his NYC-raised contemporary soon grew to dislike him as a familiar type -- an egomaniac who could and should have worked a lot harder for Clinton and never denounced Jill Stein in the detail she so manifestly deserves. But until one of those he heralded undergoes the seasoning political effectiveness requires, we have to not only vote for the best we can do, which looks like Warren again to me but may not even be that good, we have to get behind it emotionally. In which connection see the pre- and post-election pieces I wrote for a Village Voice that still existed in 2016.

[Q] To quote your review of A Crow Looked at Me, why is it essential to differentiate the "persona who sings the song from the person who created both the song and the persona"? I know the idea of persona was briefly touched on in your review(s) of Lennon's Plastic Ono Band and "The Slim Shady Essay" (which is now temporarily blocked), as well as other places I'm sure, but I'm not so sure I understand the benefits regarding the distinction. -- AS, Minnesota

[A] Two major matters here. First, that blockage is temporary all the way to November 2020, should this nation last that long. "The Slim Shady Essay" is part of the 70 percent of my new Is It Still Good to Ya? collection that Duke University Press understandably required me to tuck away out of reach on my site to motivate readers to buy the book, which all of you should because it's a great read. Second, "persona" is something I've been writing about forever on the assumption that my readers understood what I meant. Like its close relative "authenticity," it can be explored endlessly, so I'll just be as brief as possible. When Bob Dylan or Aretha Franklin or Chuck Cleaver or Noname sings or raps, never assume that they are expressing their true selves, whatever that could even mean. Rather they are artists creating a character, sometimes a character that shifts or is continually adjusted in the course of an album and other times not. Especially in the singer-as-songwriter model that goes back to Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly but became pervasive as the folkies of the early '60s transmuted into the rockers of the late '60s, those personas are conflated with the singers' "true selves." One great thing about A Crow Looked at Me is how impossible it makes this distinction, because it's infused so deeply with Phil Elverum's raw autobiographical suffering. This degree of embeddedness is extremely rare. And that's all I'll say on this endless topic right now.

[Q] Some music buffs and I were recently playing "Make Me Choose Between" and someone posed the question: "Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett?" I sparked some fire by saying that was a hard choice, but a much more interesting question arose: "Had Otis lived, what would have been his path?" I got in more hot water by suggesting that, just like many other soul stars, the post-MLK assassination environment, the shifting of audience interests, the rise of more polished and more political soul (plus disco) might have presented him obstacles, which with the addition of Otis's "country" appeal and predilections might have ended up consigning him to a regional, Malaco-like niche. Others assured me he was such a star he would have continued to deliver timeless music and ride a popular wave. Your speculations on this, if you don't mind. -- Phil Overeem, Columbia, Missouri

[A] First of all, Redding vs. Pickett doesn't seem like a hard choice to me. Pickett's albums hold up surprisingly well--they're unrelenting. But his emotional palette is very narrow, and not in an attractive way--what I once called in Rolling Stone his hard soul made him hard to like except on special occasions. Redding never worked up as fierce a groove. But to me it seems clear that he had more brains and heart than any of his soul-identified contemporaries except--as artists, once again--Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson, and Marvin Gaye. And it's my biographically inexpert guess that as a person he reigned supreme in the heart department. Brains plus heart means that in principle he was well-equipped to keep making first-rate music. But bridging stylistic and historical shifts is difficult. Franklin floundered from 1974 until 1980; Al Green only managed by turning to gospel; even James Brown was winding down creatively by 1975. Whatever your personal opinion of quiet storm, Smokey did better. Redding might have found his own niche in that approach, and "Dock of the Bay" suggests he had places to go as a songwriter too. So my guess is that the Malaco fantasy sells him somewhat short, but that he was unlikely to retain all his '60s magic.

[Q] Are you following the Tracey Thorn imbroglio? Thrilled I was to read your first-ever, real-deal review of a long-time favorite singer of mine, she was not pleased with being described as a "55-year-old wife and mother" for reasons that have nothing to do with her age. I can see her point and it's very much hers to make. The real heartbreak for me is I'm 52 and have been reading you and listening to her since high school. It was like watching your parents split up, an analogy not likely to endear me to either of you. -- Keith, San Diego

[A] This question came in a while ago and the imbroglio such as it was presumably breathed its last longer ago than that. Getting involved in social-media bustups breaks my never-read-the-comments rule, and I avoid it. But in this case allies informed me of the gist and I read the beginning of what she had to say, which included that I'd never refer to a man that way when in fact I've been writing about both marriage and age as regards both men and women for years--and, not by accident either, followed her review with a review of Jinx Lennon that led with his marriage and parenthood though it carelessly failed to mention that he was 52. (His review was written weeks before the Thorn. I was aware of the marriage parallel when I paired them, but should have underlined the similarities it by adding Lennon's age.) I don't know if you're aware of it and very much doubt she is--very much doubt, in fact, that as a good UK chauvinist she's more than dimly aware of me at all--but my major writing on Tracey Thorn was a memoir review in Barnes & Noble Review. I quite liked her book, albeit not as much as Ben Watt's astonishing Patient (his second memoir, Romany and Tom, is pretty good too, plus it came free in the mail; didn't even know about Thorn's Naked in the Albert Hall till I wrote this), and hence felt obliged to explain why I'd never warmed to her music even though I respected it. So it was a nice surprise to truly enjoy an album of hers. Which is running around forty in this year's Dean's List, though it'll sink some as other albums come in.

[Q] You've been a great champion for the incredibly underappreciated Jinx Lennon, and I've always been curious how he came upon your radar. Even more curious how is it a Yank has a finger on the pulse in regards to Irish culture and politics? -- Larry, The Sticks, Ireland

[A] I learned about Jinx Lennon from a generous Irish fan of mine named Liam Smith. I reckoned him a winner when my wife plus my daughter in the back seat got with Know Your Station Gouger Nation as we drove back to NYC from Connecticut--"Gobshyt in the House" and "Forgive the Cnts" both proved family favorites. As for the pulse of Ireland, glad you think so. I'm just a fairly well-informed person who probably did a little reading as I put the review together, though I remember more of that when I wrote my little Voice feature on Lennon. And by the way, ya think Tracey Thorn knows who he is?

[Q] Do you have music on while reading novels? -- Jose Luis, Thunder Bay, Canada

[A] I always play music when I read, but I play music differently than most people, because so much of the listening I do is processing--relatively new and unfamiliar, because finding out what penetrates my concentration or sticks with me later is essential to how I work. That said, I also often read along with music I choose, say, to please Carola or people I'm visiting in the country. I have no problem with music being a background to other activities. Its ability to function that way is one of the reasons recorded music especially is such a gift.

October 23, 2018

[Q] No question--that seems very trivial now. Just my hope that Carola's painful treatment will restore her health. Also, I hope that someone helps support the caregiver (you) since you likely need care too. -- Dan Weiss, Washington DC

[A] Since I got several of these get well soon notes both here and on Twitter--and appreciated they all are, believe me--I thought I'd offer a progress report. First of all, as I understand it pain is not one of the major dangers of a stem cell transplant. It's more days of serious gastrointestinal disruption, profound weakness and fatigue, a rash and worse associated with what's called engraftment syndrome, and dangerous opportunistic infections. Digestively Carola was uncomfortable but not alarmingly so, and she had trouble sleeping--still does. But basically she avoided the bad stuff, as some but not most patients do. Moreover, her white blood cells and hemoglobin and platelets rebounded with unusual vigor. She came home four days into her third week and is doing so well she doesn't require as much care as many patients, meaning I'm allowed to leave her alone to shop or go to the gym, which we didn't expect. Moreover, we have many friends close by in our rather communal building--my sister lives upstairs with her husband, as do Why the Beach Boys Matter author Tom Smucker and his wife. Which isn't to say it hasn't been tiring for me--caregiving is hard. First full day she was home I got into bed at 9 at night and got out of bed at 9 the next morning. Carola won't be out and about till January. But things have worked out very well.

[Q] Hello, Dean--you gave Liz Phair (2003) an A. Pitchfork gave it 0.0. What do you make of that and what does it say about rock criticism and subjectivity? If rock critics aim to tell fans what to listen to/buy, what are we to make of such an extreme difference? More generally, what do you think of Pitchfork reviews and how they line up/don't line up with yours? -- Rob, New York City

[A] Did you read the review--which, I should make clear, is a formally eccentric essay, not a CG brief--or just look at the grade? I just reread it and was convinced all over again, then turned off the CD I was checking out and cued Liz Phair up on iTunes. Sounding great to me as I write this. I almost put that piece in my Is It Still Good to Ya? collection--OUT THIS FRIDAY, OCTOBER 26, FROM DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS AND BETTER BOOKSELLERS NOT QUITE EVERYWHERE--and then chickened out because the accompanying Whitechocolatespacegg column seemed a little weak; now I'm sorry. As for the Pitchfork review--by one Matt LeMay, author of both an Elliott Smith 33 ⅓ and something called Product Management in Practice--almost no review with a grade of 0 should be taken seriously, and "subjectivity" has nothing to do with it. It took me a couple of years of Consumer Guiding to stop grading punitively because I could, which I believe lent cred to the E I gave G N' R Lies in 1989 as a way of refusing to shrug off the vile "immigrants and faggots" provocations of "One in a Million" (and even then I granted the album's "musical quality" a C plus in the text). But in 2004 P4K was still riding that warhorse to punish Dismemberment Plan guy Travis Morrison for the sin of growing up. Back then P4K was still a snotty boys club open to many "critics" were barely critics at all, although these were outnumbered by the honorable exceptions even then (Marc Hogan and Douglas Wolk come to mind, but not everyone I take seriously was at their level, founder and self-made millionaire Ryan Schreiber foremost among them). Too many amateur wise-asses and self-appointed aesthetes throwing their weight around. Eventually the general level rose a lot; I get better tips from P4K than from anywhere else these days, although I have to pick and choose, and although the departure of the Lindsay Zoladz-Carrie Battan-Amanda Petrusich troika a few years back was a blow. But to return to Liz Phair, it got killed in the indie press for two things: the indie sin of hiring name producers, which my review goes into in some detail, and explicit sexuality. Good sex songs are hard to write, but I love them when they happen; "Favorite" and "HWC" stand out. But the stone classic here is "Little Digger," in which her young son comes into the bedroom she's sharing with a guy not his dad. A complete killer, clearly over LeMay's head. Not yours, I hope.

[Q] You rate Lennon, Green, Holiday, and Sinatra great singers. Hey, me too! But I would like to know your opinion of singers many don't rate so high like Bob Dylan, Joe Strummer, and Patti Smith, to name a few personal favorites I've defended plenty of times over the years. For me, Dylan is a great singer by any measure I care about--expressivity, grain, soul, surprise, phrasing. Do these singers do it for you? What makes a great singer, according to you? -- Andreas, Malmö, Sweden

[A] In general, great singers are supposed to combine what are called great voices with not just technical mastery but--bye bye, Mariah Carey--technical originality. Of the four you and I agree on, Green and Sinatra qualify on all three counts, Holiday is so technically original that everyone ignores how small her physical voice is, and Lennon is an outlier few would put in their class even though to my ears he also qualifies on all three counts. I guess my feeling is that, bottom line, a great singer has to supply what I can only call sheer physical pleasure--a slightly more flexible and permissive notion of the great voice that for me includes more "limited" vocalists such as, say, Willie Nelson or Lil Wayne or Shirley Alston of the Shirelles. But as much as I enjoy hearing Patti Smith and Joe Strummer, they're not quite in that category physically--unlike Johnny Rotten/John Lydon, who I find less interesting than either of them. And then there's Dylan, who I definitely do rate a great singer, not so much for all the qualities you list accurately enough, but for his humor, his intelligence, his malleability, his willingness to do anything and fuck you if you can't take a joke or make an adjustment.

[Q] Do you have a favorite film soundtrack, if so, what is it? -- Robert Joyce, Phoenix, Arizona

[A] It's so nice to get one of these impossibly general questions I can answer, mostly because I'm not really interested in soundtracks. Answer is the RZA's Ghost Dog, hands down. Eventually caught the movie on television, which was OK but no more. In addition, I am a fan of some soundtracks that are really compilations, notably American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused.

[Q] I'm wondering if you could talk a bit about your relationship with film culture and cinephilia. For example, whether you would've wanted to produce more critical writing on cinema than you have already. -- David, London

[A] As an early major-league rock critic, I was actually the film critic for both Cheetah and Fusion back in the day, episodes now so obscure that I wasn't aware that writing wasn't on my site till I answered this question. Back then the overriding concept was "popular culture" by me, and when I was researching my memoir I looked back at that work and thought it was pretty good. But back then I went to the movies a lot, and as of 1972 hooked up with Carola Dibbell, whose first husband worked in film and who did some film work herself in the late '70s via a college pal who made documentaries. But once we had Nina movies became a much smaller part of our lives for time reasons alone, and even more important, I gradually became aware of all the things I didn't know about film, particularly editing. I've reviewed some films, all music-related as I recall, in the past few decades; one of those reviews is in Is It Still Good to Ya? I think the Jules and Jim section of the memoir is first-rate and also did some production notes for Inside Llewyn Davis that I'm quite proud of. And were someone to ask me to write about a movie I doubt I'd hesitate. But you know it'd be a music movie. And you also know I'll be gladder than usual that I have Carola's brain to pick.

[Q] Have you held on to your vinyl archive? What place does it hold in your current listening habits? Do you ever learn about new music on vinyl these days? -- Jonathan Culp, Vineland Station, Ontario

[A] I've certainly held onto my vinyl, insofar as I don't have CD versions and in Beatles-Monk kind of cases even if I do, but am somewhat ashamed to say that I seldom play it--most often to pull something out for Carola, Charlie Haden's The Ballad of the Fallen, or Steve Reich's ECM Music for 18 Musicians. Except insofar as it provides an income stream for musicians, who deserve every one they can get, I'm not interested in the vinyl revival, although I do listen to vinyl-only releases that seem interesting (though I don't recall making a single significant discovery that way, including that Piranha Botswana comp, which I had on promotional digital). I'm also happy to use Spotify to rehear stuff I'm vinyl-only on. I do take seriously, however, the audiophile prophecy that bit-rot will ultimately destroy the music on CDs (although nowhere near as quickly as they say in my experience) and that therefore vinyl should be storehoused and treasured. The notion that digital is forever as regards any kind of information seems absurdly optimistic to me. That's one reason I want to republish my writing in books like, er, Is It Still Good to Ya?

October 09, 2018

[Q] You have written that you play records 12-18 hours a day, which I find astonishing. So I am curious: not counting sleep, when do you NOT have a record on? -- Richard B., Stony Point, New York

[A] I've gotten several questions like this, which gives me an opening to explain how my listening habits have changed since my wife Carola began contending with a cancer called multiple myeloma in late January. Both Carola's tolerance and Carola's ears have been a part of my criticism for 46 years. Not every living companion would put up with the ambient sound she does, and I treasure whatever responses she shares with me--as a glance at my site will establish, she's a hell of a critic herself, and I know no one who hears voices so acutely and imaginatively. Not that I blast music through the house whenever it's on in my office--we have speakers with separate controls in four of the seven rooms in our apartment (and I don't blast a lot anyway). But even then it's my preference to always have the music playing in the dining room/kitchen so that it's waiting whenever I venture out for a snack or to answer the doorbell. This was simpler when Carola had an office of her own in a neighbor's apartment--since that arrangement ended, I've been more careful about impinging on her mental space during the day. But her illness has not only made me far more cautious than that, it's cut into how much time I spend at home and how much time I spend working. Hundreds of hours of doctor's appointments, daily discussions of her symptoms and treatment options that I'm loath to undercut with aural distractions, and a lot more TV have all cut into my ear time--she needs my company, and I've never treasured hers more. Since September 26 Carola has been at Sloan-Kettering undergoing an autologous stem cell transplant and I've been up there six or more hours a day. The next phase of that treatment she'll be home, but weak and in need of sleep, and how that will affect my reviewing remains to be seen--for around a month she'll need to have me or a stand-in with her 24-7. So although I've gotten many requests to reevaluate old music, that's been something I could rarely manage as Xgau Sez got rolling (and once when I made an exception Carola got the Thompsons' "When I Get to the Border" stuck in her head and couldn't get it out). And now let me add one more thing. Carola will get better--multiple myeloma is considered incurable at present, but the afflicted go into remission for very long periods and her treatment has been going exceptionally well. Anyone who wants to pray or meditate or send out vibes, please do so. But one problem with having a serious disease is dealing with people who are worried about you--in my world, Carola is far more beloved than I am, as she should be. So unless you have special knowledge about multiple myeloma, your best wishes are assumed. And let me tell ya--after managing one two-day and one three-day getaway in 2018, in 2019 we intend to have some fun no matter who's on the fucking Supreme Court. What that will do to my work schedule remains to be seen.

[Q] As a Byrds fan, how would you rate Gene Clark's No Other? Is it the forgotten masterpiece that contemporary reviewers claim it is? -- Kyle Barton, Dallas

[A] I've thumbs-upped only three Byrds albums--the greatest hits plus the country-leaning Notorious Byrds Brothers and the country-all-the-way Sweetheart of the Radio. This doesn't make me a Byrds fan--it makes me a Byrds skeptic, and if anything that skepticism has grown. Michael Clarke was a truly crap folkie drummer--I'll take crap folkie drummer Spencer Dryden or ham-fisted rock drummer Dewey Martin any day. I was at the Fillmore East when they introduced the Sweetheart material, which drew more boos than cheers from the Byrds fans despite my own vociferous support, and believe Chris Hillman made the right call to hitch up with the admittedly fickle Gram Parsons. So it's no surprise that I never once reviewed a Gene Clark record. Fact is, I do not recall No Other at all.

[Q] Have there been any singers since Billie Holiday that could match her "languid timing, subtle melodic variations, [and] unmatched conversational intimacy"? Also: is there a good collection highlighting her early years, when she was singing happier tunes, like "Having Myself a Time," "I Wished on the Moon," "What a Little Moonlight Can Do"? I get the sense her compilations skew heavily to her sadder side. -- Dan, Portland, Maine

[A] Billie Holiday is probably my favorite singer. Al Green and John Lennon (yes, John Lennon) are the only competition that normally spring to mind when these discussions arise. So obviously I don't think anyone has matched her, and I find acolytes like Madeleine Peyroux kind of pathetic, decent and well-meaning though she seems. As for a compilation of Holiday's upbeat stuff, I know of no such consumer object, but it's a great idea: Bouncy Billie, or at the very least Bouncing. My nominations are "Them There Eyes" and "Your Mother's Son-in-Law." Of your three, unfortunately, I think only "What a Little Moonlight" a sure shot. That is the problem. She was much better at pop throwaways than the jazzbo elite believes. But her upbeat trifles are still pretty rare.

[Q] Is your current appreciation for Superchunk's early catalogue in sync with your love of their later stuff? -- David K., London

[A] As I thought I'd made clear in my reviews, I think what happened to Superchunk is that Mac McCaughan grew up. He stopped thinking slack motherfuckers were an apt marketing device. And he learned not so much to sing as to enunciate with some specificity and emote more legibly and, crucially, got more interested in tunes. Finally, in 2016, Trump convinced him that it was time to stop even hinting that life was but a joke. The first sign was his intense involvement in the Battle Hymns comp released the day Trump was inaugurated. And then came this year's What a Time to Be Alive. Key song: "Reagan Youth." Play it now, and listen to the lyric.

[Q] Guantanomo--you're in charge of the music. Pick one: GodWeenSatan: The Oneness, Antichrist Superstar, The Downward Spiral/Broken. Or . . . ? -- Noah C. Peterson, Garden Grove, California

[A] Do you believe in torture? I oppose it myself. All these selections resemble the music Bush I's military enablers sicced on Noriega on account of he was a dictator (unlike such Bush faves as Pinochet, Somoza, Guzman) and also, er, controlled the Panama Canal. For that matter, limiting the selections to one is a species of torture. So not to cosset any kind of Islamic fundamentalism, let's start with anything by Rachid Taha. Then Youssou D'Dour's Egypt. Bassekou Kouyate's Jama Ko. Oumou Sangare's Worotan. Oruj Guvenc's Ocean of Remembrance. I could go on and won't. But for local color, let's include a Los Van Van best-of.

[Q] Agreed, they were teens fumbling at sex and alcohol. Agreed, she was an ingenuous girl. Agreed, he was a drunken boy. Agreed, she was unaware of the chaos hormones make of romance let alone civility. Agreed, he was unaware his sense of entitlement didn't license incivility let alone sexual harassment. Agreed, there is no telling. Agreed, there is no proof. Agreed, philosophically, we join hands with the Prefect of Judea: "Quid est veritas?" Yet I can't shake out of my head three hideous devils in three hideous details: one, his wingman was there watching; two, they both laughed uproariously; three, he locked his hand over her mouth. Devils One and Two, these days, would be live on the internet. Devil Three alone is a form of assault, if not a legal one. What the military calls show of force. Saying in effect, "Shut up, bitch, and take it!" -- Coco Hannah Eckelberg, Long Island City, New York

[A] I always wonder what music exactly got turned up to drown out Dr. Ford's protests--when BK got his buddy arrested at Yale, it was after a UB40 concert when a guy the drunk BK believed was that band's Ali Campbell refused his advances. More substantively, Ford's testimony brought to my mind Sam Phillips's dictum that the highest goal in recording is to capture the spontaneous one-of-a-kind moment. Even though she must have prepared for this public test of character, her performance before the cameras to an audience of millions seemed totally unscripted, from the head and the heart simultaneously--so quietly intelligent and so set on precision above all that it felt to me unprecedented, something the world had never seen before, credible in every detail to which she was ready to attest no matter what sexist bigots male and female are telling themselves. So to hell with the Prefect of Judea--the veritas is that in Maryland in the summer of 1982 a 15-year-old girl was sexually assaulted by two high school jocks. She wasn't an adventurer or experimenter. She may have been an outsider looking to grow up a little or widen her social circle. But there's not the slightest indication of the kind of sexual curiosity or status-seeking that does happen with young teenagers sometimes. She merely isolated herself from a smallish group to go to the bathroom and was physically forced to enter a bedroom. That's assault right there. Everything else is sexual assault.

September 18, 2018

[Q] I click on my Robert Christgau bookmark every Monday morning, and every few weeks you're late on an update, which means I have to Google your name to make sure your Wiki page still says "is." What's gonna happen when you're gone? I've discovered some really great shit through your reviews, but even after reading hundreds of them I still don't have a good sense of what you would say about a band or album. When I no longer have your reviews to trust, I'm afraid I might not have the tools to discern quality on my own. For example, you gave a Backstreet Boys album a higher rating than any album by The Cure or the The Smiths. I want to better understand the principle here, so that I don't wind up a Morrissey fan on accident in the (hopefully distant) future. I guess the question I really want to ask is: to what degree (if any) are your letter grades relative to genre, as opposed to an absolute measure of quality? Is the Backstreet Boys album only an A as far as vapid teen pop goes? -- Paul England, Michigan

[A] Three things. First, I don't do any of the tech stuff on my site. Techwise I'm an idiot. So be thankful my webmaster Tom Hull does that work for me and also for you, and if he's late once in a while figure he has more rewarding things to do with his life (plus he's been beset with server problems recently). Second, the Cure I got for better and worse, but if there's a band I think I missed it's the Smiths. Definitely there was more to them than I thought at the time; their failure to make the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is an America-first outrage. Maybe someday I'll have the time to go back and figure them out, but that's a big job of small journalistic utility for anyone but my major fans. Third, that Backstreet Boys album is among other things a showcase for Max Martin, clearly a major genius of contemporary popular music.

[Q] Hey Bob! Nice to see you getting into this Xgau Sez thing. My question: Given what I already understand to be your stance on jazz in general (different universe, etc.), I'm nevertheless left wondering why you don't review more of your finds in the genre--particularly the many, MANY '50s & '60s iterations you've never gotten around to writing about? I mean, call me simple, but the very notion of all those poor, defenseless potential A-listers leave me fending off the cold shakes (and other assorted demons) on any given unfortunately dark & grim night. Think of the children! Why you wanna do us like that, man? -- Ioannis Sotirchos, Athens, Greece

[A] I can't notate and am not at all well-schooled in the jazz albums of the '50s and '60s. So I have neither the language nor the frame of reference to write readily about them, plus they lack the news value of recent pop albums, and this is journalism I'm supposed to be doing here. Jazz is hard to write about the impressionistic way I do it. Even with the few artists I've covered often--Davis, Coleman, Rollins--finding the words involves either considerable effort or a stroke of luck. So check out Tom Hull's list if you need some tips.

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