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.

May 22, 2024

And It Don't Stop.

'Honey' with some schlock, the b-word, namesake kaffe, dear old Dartmouth, Vampire vibes, and 1968 albums (slight return).

[Q] Having just watched the spellbinding American Honey, knowing nothing about it other than your glowing review of its soundtrack, I was surprised to note the eponymous song by Lady A was prominently featured. In a previous question I wrote to you about Lady A's name change, where you described them as a "dreadful band" of "Nashville schlock" (August 2020), I was surprised the inclusion of this song in the soundtrack didn't dent your enjoyment of it. Which leads me in a rather roundabout way to my real question, which is: can an album be an A+ without being strictly "perfect?" -- Adam Montgomery, London, UK

[A] Of course a schlocky band can come up with a first-rate song. I love that soundtrack--it's among my most-played albums even though it never came out as a physical. So I hereby recommend it to anyone who's never heard it, and yes, the movie is also terrific. Lady Antebellum benefited enormously in this context by providing the soundtrack with its title song. They also distinguished themselves by changing their name to Lady A in 2020 after being bombarded with criticism for the pro-Civil War implications of their name. Shortly thereafter (Wikipedia's is a good source on the details) they found themselves in a lengthy dispute with a Black blues singer yclept Lady A, legal name Anita White. Sampling White's top five blues/bluesy songs on Spotify, she's actually damn good--in my opinion better by far than Lady Antebellum/Lady A the country warhorses.

[Q] I was wondering as to your thoughts on the question of whether "problematic" lyrics can actually enhance the quality of a song. I love a lot of the pre-war Delta blues, but a majority of those songs have questionable lyrics when it comes to male/female relations. But for some reason the violence and sexism, are to me integral to the songs' quality. Perhaps this is because blues often has an eerie or desolate atmosphere which fit such lyrics. On the other hand, I am put off by a lot of hip hop for its use of "bitch" and its casual violence towards women. Even though hip hop at times boasts a similar atmosphere as blues. At the end of your review of the debut Ramones album you make the statement: "This makes me uneasy. But my theory has always been that good rock and roll should damn well make you uneasy." You use "Midnight Rambler" as example of a good kind of uneasy. Yet you draw the line, understandably, at "Brown Sugar." How do we make these distinctions? -- Bojan, Leerdam, The Netherlands

[A] I'd need to listen to a lot of blues records before working out a position on that conundrum, but as to "bitch" in hip-hop I'm basically against it without boycotting it--the word's tone does fluctuate radically in that context plus don't expect me to forget much less dismiss Roxanne Shante's great lost The Bitch Is Back. In addition let me note that my brief review of the Stones' 2015 Brussels Affair suggests that it's time to remove "Midnight Rambler" as well as "Brown Sugar" from their canon.

[Q] I have a question about your name, "Christgau." I looked a little and apparently "gau" is German/Danish (they share small border) rooted, meaning "land," while "Christ" of course is what it is. So, I was wondering if perhaps that kind of far-reaching humanism and compassionate virtues associated with Christ, and of course that you were from a born-again Christian household, influenced your democratic sensibility, your politics, your own humanism, etc. The values I feel in your writing. Maybe I'm too stressed out to formulate a concrete question out of this. Just a reflection. I'm sure you get it. -- Piotr, Manhattan

[A] I have no doubt that my Christian upbringing played an active role in shaping my humanism. "Love thy neighbor" was definitely a watchword at First Pres even if not all the parishioners lived by it. Also, my church library was one of the first places I found books about ideas, and I read several of them, which helped make me an intellectual, though I always preferred both fIction and books about baseball. But given the extent to which the leftist humanism of dozens upon dozens of my Jewish friends moved me in that direction, I identify more with that strain of secular humanism. As for the name "Christgau," there's a Danish brand of coffee called Christgau--an empty bag of it hangs from my office door. Then again, so does the remains of an envelope addressed to Rabbi Robert T. Christgau. In either German or Danish or maybe both the suffix "gau" seems to mean something like region or county, and I seem to recall that under Hitler certain states or geopolitical entities were called "gaus."

Three generations of Xgaus

Three generations of Xgaus

[Q] Hi, I'm currently enrolled at Dartmouth College and I recently noticed that you went here as well. How was your time at Dartmouth? Any specific interesting memories? Did you participate in Greek life? Did any classes here make you want to go into music criticism? -- Joseph T. Kuester, Atlanta, Georgia

[A] An entire chapter of my memoir, Going Into the City, is about Dartmouth, and I assume you would find it enlightening. In NYC I was only allowed to apply to three colleges plus a CUNY, and I no longer remember whether Cornell and Hamilton wanted me, but Dartmouth gave me a scholarship, maybe because I had a great-uncle who attended on a football scholarship, didn't graduate (blew a knee, for one thing), then became an alumni association heavy of some sort; he was also a drunk who was run over by a bus in Cooper Square a few blocks from where I've resided for half a century. So he might have helped. In addition my College Boards were off the charts though my high school grades weren't, and math chairman although not-yet-prexy John Kemeny called me in to bawl me out for choosing the "gut' Math 3-6 option instead of Math 1-2 because it was the easiest "science" "sequence" and all I wanted to do was study literature and philosophy, which I then did for four years. My grade average was good-not-great because I have no knack for foreign languages--cum laude and Phi Bet but not by much. But I absorbed a lot of literature and philosophy there and made a few lifelong friends in English Honors and on the fringes of what passed as the undergraduate bohemia. I was the youngest member of my class.

[Q] A couple of years back I was going through a Vampire Weekend phase propelled partly by your writings. During such time I came across young Ezra's blogspot page titled Internet Vibes, in which he aimed to "categorize as many vibes as [he] can." The web page offers plenty of insight into the young man's character, his humor and quirks, his musical and intellectual inquietudes--and it did turn me on to some interesting music. On October 12, 2005, he posted "CRITICAL BEATDOWN," defending Billy Joel's music and sensibility against your judgements, going through some of your Piano Man reviews, and concluding that you are a "1-ST CLASS POSEUR," a "CLASSIC TYPE-A HATER," and that "GRADING ALBUMS like HOMEWORK is LAME," amongst other reflections about criticism in general. No antagonizing intended, I just wondered if you were ever aware of this, and about your view of Ezra's maturation and development as a songwriter, human, etc. which I understand seeps as subject of your reviews of his. -- Ignacio Nuez, Santiago, Chile

[A] What can I say? It's the rare artist who has any feel for criticism as a craft or calling and I'm even better at mine than he is at his, about which I've often written positively plus there's a big piece about his band in Is It Still Good to Ya? Maybe you should buy yourself a copy and Xerox the VW piece and send it to him even if you don't like it, which I'd make a 50-50 proposition.

[Q] What are your favorite albums of 1968 and would any from my list below make yours?

  • The Band: Music From Big Pink
  • The Beatles: The White Album
  • Big Brother and the Holding Company: Cheap Thrills
  • James Brown: Live at the Apollo Volume 2
  • Buffalo Springfield: Last Time Around
  • The Byrds: Notorious Byrd Brothers
  • Johnny Cash: At Folsom Prison
  • Leonard Cohen: Songs of Leonard Cohen
  • Cream: Wheels of Fire
  • Creedence Clearwater Revival: Creedence Clearwater Revival
  • Marvin Gaye: In the Groove
  • Buddy Guy: A Man and the Blues
  • Jimi Hendrix Experience: Electric Ladyland, Axis Bold as Love
  • J.B. Hutto & His Hawks: Hawk Squat!
  • Jefferson Airplane: Crown of Creation
  • Taj Mahal: Taj Mahal
  • Mother Earth: Living With the Animals
  • Elvis Presley: Elvis
  • The Rolling Stones: Beggars Banquet
-- Jack Westin, St. Louis

[A] We have similar tastes. Doing a best of '68 list would be a week's work I am reluctant to undertake, but I can say that the only album on the list I think of as way overrated is Cream's Wheels of Fire and a replay might conceivably change that (and I'm not a big fan of Jefferson Airplane's Crown of Creation either). But the only ones I'm pretty sure I've played for pleasure or something like it--usually what I'll call unnecessary research comparison--since say 2015 are, in guesswork descending order: Cheap Thrills, Beggars Banquet, Electric Ladyland, The White Album, At Folsom Prison, and conceivably Songs of Leonard Cohen. Not sure I own or therefore know In the Groove. (Motown didn't mail out review copies back then.)

April 17, 2024

And It Don't Stop.

Pick hits: Margret Drabble and Marshall Berman. Must to avoid: Smashing Pumpkins at Lollapalooza '94. Plus: Radio time (or lack thereof), Dave Marsh (disco mix), and old & new instant excitements.

[Q] If you are not a music critic, you must be a good literary critic. You ranked The Mars Trilogy sixth, between Mumbo Jumbo and A House for Mr. Biswas, on your list-in-perpetual-progress of favorite 20th-century novels. Do we get the full ranking? -- Debbie Chan, Shenzhen, China

[A] I'd rather not for several reasons, though I suppose might change my mind. But there's a brief novel by Margaret Drabble, a UK author I generally respect more than I admire, that I read at Carola's urging when we first got together. It's called The Millstone and I recommend it to everyone I know even though I understand childbirth is a less universal theme than some might imagine. I wrote about it in Going Into the City. It's both soulful and exquisite.

[Q] Which book by Marx is a must-read, The Communist Manifesto, Das Kapital, or the 1844 Economic Manuscripts? -- Terry Tan, Hong Kong

[A] I'm not the guy to ask, since The Communist Manifesto is the only one I've read. Instead I strongly recommend an essay collection by my dear friend the late great Marshall Berman: Adventures in Marxism. I'm probably not supposed to say this given what I haven't read, but Berman's prose is a lot easier on the cerebellum than Marx's. So I should add that circa 1967 I read and admired Marx's 18th Brumaire. It was regarded as something of a potboiler albeit a revolutionary one as I recall, but for just that reason goes down easier.

[Q] Hi, Robert. Maybe you've been asked the following questions before. However, here goes. Have you ever tuned into Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour? If so, what is your assessment of Dylan's tastes in music, assuming he chose those tunes not just because they fit the given theme, but also for their musical value. Thanks! -- Keiro Kitagami, Kyoto, Japan

[A] Essentially, I never listen to the radio, although I did when I owned a car a couple of decades ago, and then I stuck stuck to pop stations, which had and have more to teach me about what's going on. I did enjoy Dylan's book The Philosophy of Modern Song, though.

[Q] Dave Marsh once said "I don't know that [punk] was any more important than disco" and believes hip-hop is more significant than punk in musical history. Do you agree with this? -- Lance Rocke, California

[A] Given how crucial Africa has been to post-2000 pop and arguably a lot of what's earlier than that I certainly don't think these are outlandish ideas. But I would note that Marsh has been so much a lifelong anti-bohemian that his thoughts in that arena are always suspect.

[Q] Bob, I've enjoyed your work for many years. You've written about your process of putting new music on in the background to see if it grabs you. My question: can you recall some albums that have blown you away on the first listen--work that inspired something like immediate astonishment, and that you immediately knew was A or A+ stuff? Perhaps a related question (or perhaps not): do you remember your reaction the very first time you heard the Clash or Ramones? The very first spin of Sgt. Pepper's? Thank you! -- Kent, Brooklyn

[A] I don't think "blown me away" is a very useful way of putting it. Rather I'd say something like "excited me" or "commanded my full immediate attention." In 2023 there were a number of such, several of which I recognized as terrific right off but also could soon discern were clearly limited in one way or another: Gina Birch would be a perfect example--not for everyone at 69 and understandably so. Olivia Rodrigo's Guts might be an exception--terrific from first spin but also clearly calling out for deeper analysis and further elucidation. I couldn't get enough of the 2023 Lewis Capaldi for the first day or two, although that's an album few admire as much as I do, and the same probably goes for Dolly Parton's Rockstar, which I crowed about to Carola track by track first play but soon recognized wasn't for everyone on a first-to-last basis, and rightly so at that. Having already seen the Ramones a bunch of times when their debut surfaced I played it immediately and never seem to get tired of it. Then there were my first two rock album buys, The Beatles' Second Album and The Rolling Stones Now! Both are still play-it-again faves around here. As for Sgt. Pepper, I sat around with a bunch of journalists and listened to it for hours before its official release, still play it occasionally. and now resent anyone who puts it down "Within You Without You" notwithstanding.

[Q] As someone who's thoroughly read and philosophized upon your words, I figured I'd ask about your review of Smashing Pumpkins' 1991 LP Gish. I know that a * review is by no means negative, but, aside from highlighting an occasionally-aired promo single, your review was relatively dismissive. I know of your thoughts on metal ("What am I supposed to say about the latest in meaning-mongering for the fantasy fiction set?"), but the lyricism and guitar acrobatics on this album cannot be denied. Hell, it might be kind of arty, but not that arty. Not enough that it loses its relatability. This mild dismissiveness of usually beloved records would include your reviews of Elliot Smith's Either/Or, Bjork's Homogenic, and, in a more extreme case, Radiohead's Kid A and Amnesiac. I'm not asking you to love ATUM, Zeitgeist, CYR, or Machina/The Machines of God. I don't like half to 99% of the music on those records. Just please reconsider. Even the same response with reasons would be enough. -- Morgan C, New Hampshire

[A] I am genuinely flattered that you believe I'm so diligent and open-minded I can be expected to replay an album by an artist not one of whose releases I came close to enjoying as opposed to respecting. But I'm not. In fact the only one of the six artists you name I admire more than that is Bjork, and even in her case the positivity doesn't extend so far that I'm about to figure out how to insert the appropriate umlaut into her name. Many serious aesthetes among rock fans admire these artists you name. I don't, because none of their aesthetics make enough room for pop fun or African-derived grooves, both of which are gold as far as I'm concerned. With Smashing Pumpkins my disillusion arrived early in their career, at a doomed 1994 rock festival in Rhode Island whose performance I described thusly:

It was after 8, so we spread our stash of Armenian food on a desolate press table slightly aft of the stage, but although we hoped to avoid Nick Cave, all too soon rampant self-expression was drowning out dinner conversation. We took our time returning, then lounged far back as the decent conventional rock and unriveting arena solos waxed and mostly waned. Occasionally the star would announce that he was about to knock our socks off, but he never came close, and around 9:20 he started complaining in a strangely un-Australian accent. He dissed Rhode Island, he dissed the site, he told us we should "tear up the empty lot" when the show was over, he congratulated us sarcastically for attending: "There may be a bomb underneath you but you are rocking--at least you can tell your children that you came and you rocked." He pouted: "I'm sorry we suck." He rationalized: "We apologize for trapping ourselves in a vortex we can't get out of." Finally, just before 10, he advised us to drive safely and limped off to widely scattered cheers. The Quonset edition of Lollapalooza was over.

I was pissed off and deeply confused. For half an hour I'd been jeering this bad expressionist band in the expectation that soon I'd hear a good one, Smashing Pumpkins. God, I thought, that must have been some traffic jam. But when Carola asked who the female musician was, I figured it out. Nick Cave had preceded Quest--that was Smashing Pumpkins. How embarrassing for me--but how much more embarrassing for Billy Corgan. Carola, who isn't normally given to hyperbole, called it the worst performance she'd ever witnessed in her life. I told her she'd never seen Richie Havens.

I am proud to note that after this passage was published I was approached in a restaurant by a bizzer I knew who worked for Smashing Pumpkins. He thought it was a riot.

March 27, 2024

And It Don't Stop.

Hip-hop lyricism, the year of the woman circa 2018, very best vs. all-time greatest, Underoath vs. depression, in praise of Kim Stanley Robinson and Swedish socialism, remembering David Schweitzer.

[Q] Hi Robert: In your 2023 Dean's List piece you name a predominance of older artists as the year's "significant anomaly." What interests me the most, however, is the relative lack of black music--hip hop in particular. Sure there's some, but ignoring the various African releases compiling decades old music, you can almost count black artists on two hands. I seem to recall you having voiced reservations about current tendencies within hip hop, so my question: Assuming you agree with my analysis, do you think the lack of hip hop on the list is just a coincidence (just a lackluster year in that regard), or is there a deeper meaning to it? Just a curious observation: Your highest ranked hip-hop record of the year (by black artists) is Scaring the Hoes, and it's among other things a frontal attack on the hip hop scene of the current moment. Danny Brown: "Niggas don't rap no more they just sell clothes/So I should probably quit and start a line of bathrobes." -- Adam, Denmark

[A] That's a fair question and I haven't come close to figuring out why it pertains. I expect it has something to do with trap as an approach to rhythm that I don't understand, don't cotton to, or don't like at all, though I'd begin by venturing that it's not hooky enough in the pop sense, which is something I've always valued in hip-hop myself. The thing about Danny Brown is that he definitely has ambitions as a lyricist, and except for a few of what I'll call the New York intellectuals--Wiki, say, or especially second-generation Marxist Billy Woods--that's becoming rarer near as I can tell.

[Q] While reading the lists of recent years' Grammy winners, I found your review of Kacey Musgraves's album The Golden Hour, and I was really intrigued by the passage where you refer to that year (I presume 2018) as "the rock era's biggest yet quietest year of the woman to date." Could you elaborate on that? Also, do you still stand by that assessment after five years? -- Gaetano, Siena, Italy

[A] Looking back on 2018's Dean's List, I find 16 women in the top 30: Noname, Bettye LaVette, Pistol Annies, Tierra Whack, Cardi D, the Paranoid Style featuring Elizabeth Nelson, Maria Muldaur, Kah-Lo, Wussy featuring Lisa Walker, Janelle Monae, Elza Soares, Amy Rigby, Amanda Shires, tUnE-yArDs, Hinds, and the transgender Sophie. So without doing any handstands, that looks to me as if it qualifies as a yes--there just weren't that many women getting respect back then. So 16 in the top 30 deserved some sort of plaudit.

[Q] Not a question but a comment regarding the Very Best of the Shirelles. I own their 25 All Time Greatest Hits on the Varese Sarabande label, 1999. The fidelity is great. It contains "The Things I Want To Hear" and "It's Love That Really Counts" which was omitted from Very Best Of; it also has "Boys" and "Foolish Little Girl" and "I Met Him on Sunday" and "Don't Say Goodnight and Mean Goodbye" plus "A Thing of the Past" which is all on Very Best. -- Steven Goldman, New York City

[A] The Varese Sarabande seems like a best-of worth owning. And I envy you your "It's Love That Really Counts." But my 16-track Shirelles best-of on Rhino has served as one of my favorite albums ever for many years and I'll just stick with it.

[Q] Hello, I've been reading your reviews since my teen years in the 2000s and you've had a huge impact on my musical trajectory. I wanted to ask you about a record from that time that you never reviewed (frankly because it is far outside your typical wheelhouse): Underoath's Define the Great Line. It's a record that has stuck with me for a long time through my deep depression as a continual comfort, source of emotional exhilaration, and even a light of insight in my darkest times. -- Grace Brown, Salem, Massachusetts

[A] If you suffer from depression and this record braces you, by all means stick with it. Me, I've never liked a screamo record in my life and see no reason to try and make an exception for this one.

[Q] I think you share the same political philosophy as Kim Stanley Robinson. Are you a democratic socialist who supports the Swedish model? -- Meng Dang, Nanchang, China

[A] Robinson is just about my favorite contemporary novelist although the more aesthetically daring Jonathan Lethem is in the running, and while I regretfully doubt that Swedish socialism will ever catch on here I'd be delighted if it did.

[Q] I was looking for information on my old NYU friend Dave Schweitzer, who founded the rock newsletter Hawaiian Punch while there (he and I used to do a Blind Date record column), and was saddened to find that he died at the age of 44 in 2012. At the same time, I was grateful to see that, at the time he died, he was your assistant. The Dave I knew at NYU would have been thrilled to know that he would assist you one day. -- Dawn Eden Goldstein, Washington, DC

[A] David was one of my first assistants, recommended as I recall by Riffs contributor and NYU prof Perry Meisel. He had a very good brain and was a pleasure to be around. I learned of his death, which as I recall was heart-related and took place when he was pursuing a graduate degree in English in Texas, via the earliest iteration of the commenting community that grew up back when the Expert Witness blog generated a de facto discussion group that dubbed itself the Witnesses. He was mourned; it was a shock for all of us.

February 22, 2024

And It Don't Stop.

Some thoughts on Eminem, trying (and failing) to get into Neutral Milk Hotel, Chicago blues (Chess and otherwise), A+ best-of albums, pretty good live Stones, and the affordability of CDs.

[Q] As a fellow boomer and long-time consumer of your words, just thought I'd acknowledge how 100% right on and right you are on the topic of Eminem. I pity the fools who begrudge that generation their Stones/Dylan/whatever that makes sense and irritates parents. -- Bernie Kellman, Mexico City

[A] Anyone who's really interested in my take on Eminem should find what The Believer called "The Slim Shady Essay," which is available on my site and also collected in Is It Still Good to Ya? It was assigned and paid for and then left hanging as a minibook by someone who'd been led to believe by the late Dave Hickey that I might write something worthy of his recommendation. But there was only one Dave Hickey, and it definitely wasn't me.

[Q] Hi Bob! Huge fan, even if (especially IF) we disagree on certain records because I'm a huge fan of getting an alternate viewpoint. A critic will never make me stop liking what I like, but a critic who can write well will ABSOLUTELY make me give something a second listen, and your reviews have certainly pushed me out of my gen-x, rockist comfort zone. I'll stop kissing ass now. That being said, are you ever tempted to revisit reviews based on the changing landscape of popular acclaim? For example, you gave Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea a solid "Meh," which (I say this as the target audience) is totally defensible (and not . . . too far off from other reviews at the time) but it's become kind of the Sgt Pepper's of people born between 1972-1987 (I picked those numbers out of my ass, and I'll stand by them). Is there an urge (or a responsibility) to re-review a record when its place in music history has shifted radically? No wrong answers! -- Matt, Boston

[A] I have tried to get into that admittedly beloved Neutral Milk Hotel album on at least three separate occasions. Many love it and are free to do so, yourself included. Not me. I'm older than you and would at this point in my life would almost always rather devote my ever-fleeting hours to something I like already.

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