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.

October 16, 2019

[Q] There is no question here. This is just an e-mail with Greil Marcus spelled correctly. You're welcome. -- Barry L., Mexico, NY

[A] I thought I'd begin with this no-question question because it's so Xgau Sez-specific, though the joke that Sezzers may recall it references had legs--was cited on Twitter, in fact, as proof that I hadn't lost my gift for the one-liner although I hadn't been sure it was worth doing that entry at all. All of which is a roundabout way of announcing that with a slight push from several advisors I am a) moving Xgau Sez from to And It Don't Stop, as free content of course, and b) running it the third Wednesday of every month rather than every third Tuesday. That said, I should add that I am writing this edition well ahead of time on October 8, two days from scheduled knee replacement surgery, because I have no idea how functional I'll be after the operation, which many have told me involves a disablingly painful recovery on the way to painless full mobility, which I haven't had in that knee for years but which has become more acute since June (although pursuing a stray medical record last week I walked a total of two miles in discrete bits, hospital corridors included). Also, this is where I should point out that the kicker in the And It Don't Stop header, Old Age, while also a joke, was in addition simple candor. I'm 77; that's gonna come up. Maybe I'll even address it head-on sometime. Case in point with no parity suggested: Hall of Fame New Yorker baseball writer and literary generalist Roger Angell's "This Old Man," the prize-winning title essay of a collection he published in his nineties.

[Q] Hi Bob, I'm excited to hear about your new newsletter. But I also wondered whether, since you started doing Xgau Sez, it had become at all apparent that the majority of your readers lean towards rock, old music, and the canon of album-orientated, artist-songwriter music--that is, people who enjoy your writing at least partly from the sense that it's setting up respectabilities and hierarchies based on your intellectual engagement with artists' work (even if that's contrary to your own arguments against pretension, snobbery, "guilty pleasures," etc.). If that is the case, would you be possibly willing to cater to that at all in your new newsletter, with, say, one review per issue of an old album that you never reviewed first time round? -- Lewie Shipton, Exeter, UK

[A] Of course I'm aware of my readership's demographic and taste profile, although I like to think my fans are hip enough to generalize themselves as "male" above all and regret that a little. But I'd add that I get quite a few questions about jazz and African music and hip-hop and also relatively current artists. Without question the new newsletter format, consisting entirely of my fans as opposed to, for instance, some dimly imagined Noisey reader, frees me up to completely suit myself about what I cover, and I'll need to see how that pans out once I've gotten through the backlog of recent releases my three-month layoff rendered inevitable. But even the next few months will include old stuff I would have been chary of covering in Noisey. If both the newsletter and my body last long enough, I can imagine going back to the '60s, before the Consumer Guide began, and homing in on one oldie but goodie a month. But for a while I'm just going to play things as they lay.

[Q] Like you, I love the classic music of Sly and the Family Stone. One of the main messages they pushed was the greatness of racial unity between Whites and Blacks. However, when Sly went off the rails and became a drugged out thug, this message went out the window. Do you believe Sly was sincere in his earlier message or was it just horseshit to sell records? What do you believe was behind Sly's changed viewpoint, which I'd say began with the Riot album? -- Steve Mauyer, Phoenix

[A] I think you've got this wrong in several significant ways. First of all, though I may have missed something, it's not my impression that Sly turned into a "thug"--any kind of seriously violent robber or dealer. He merely turned into a drug casualty, and since he's still alive at 76, he's done better by that fate than many. Not that I much admire the person he seems to be, but those are real distinctions. Second, I believe his first two '70s albums, There's a Riot Goin' On and Fresh, are easily his best albums-as-albums, and though the first greatest hits album is even better, one reason there's an argument to the contrary is that the everybody-is-a-star message of racial harmony and universal love had serious limitations that Stone was much quicker and sharper than most to see through--he was certainly no worse a drug fiend than John Phillips or several post-folk harmonizers we both could name, but unlike those bozos he figured out ways to make art out of his disillusion, art that among other things had smarter and warmer things to say about love ("Family Affair"? wow!) than most of the white druggies who were figuring the same shit out. So yes, I believe Stone was sincere in his early message without believing he was altogether a fool about it, and good on him. "Peace and love" was OK as an ideal and dishonest as an ideology. Lots of '6os rockers fell for it or exploited it and who can tell which? Fewer critics did.

[Q] I've been obsessed with your reviews of Steely Dan over the years, since I've been a fan of them since I was 12 years old. Your review of Pretzel Logic has particularly intrigued me. When you say this is the epitome of their "chewy perversity," what do you mean? -- Hugh, West of Ireland

[A] "Chewy" is a pretzel joke, though maybe in the west of Ireland they don't make big doughy pretzels, only the crisp dry kind. "Perversity" is posed in contradistinction to "logic." Steely Dan's songs are always something to chew over--they don't parse "logically," yet don't seem at all meaningless. Moreover, these guys have a fairly twisted worldview, wouldn't you say? Voila.

[Q] Whatever happened to Deerhunter? You seemed to start to really like them despite your initial misgivings, but you haven't reviewed either of their two most recent albums. Does that mean you didn't like their new releases all that much? -- Christopher, Hawaii

[A] That's exactly what it means, the key phrase being "all that much." With bands like Deerhunter, who I've admired intermittently with reservations--and "until he lurches off in another direction" certainly indicates reservations--I always give a listen. But I also make up my mind pretty fast about whether the album in question is good enough to review or not, and if it isn't let it pass unless there's some compelling reason not to. Possible A albums I put time into; Honorable Mentions I feel free to skip (and will even more in the monthly Substack format). There are too many artists capable of albums that really reach me to expend time on marginals.

[Q] Phoebe Bridgers' recent collaboration album with Conor Oberst excepted, you've never reviewed any releases by the Boygenius trio. Any thoughts on them? -- Adam Hart, Richmond, British Columbia

[A] Releases plural? Boygenius released one EP, which Wikipedia tells me took them four days for four songs. I listened to it multiple times and thought it wan, merely conceptual, dare I say overrated just because people liked the idea of the thing (which I sure did). Of its three members--in addition to Bridgers, the more prominent Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker--I've given lots of time to the latter two. Dacus especially is considered a big deal by many I respect but has never came close to reaching me, and at a certain point you just have to throw up your hands and move on. This was long enough ago that I don't know exactly how I'd characterize her music except to say that I could hear she had big ideas but found her expression, I don't know, flat. Baker moved me more--her determination to address her own depressive tendencies directly seemed both courageous and educational. But in the end I found her too thin to climb into Honorable Mention territory.

September 17, 2019

[Q] I'm curious about the decision to make so much of your writing freely available. It's been an amazing resource for me as a listener, musician, and aspiring critic, and it's only as an adult that I've realized what a coup it is that I never had to pay for any of it. Was this an intuitive (i.e., not extensively considered) decision? A principled one? I hope my asking doesn't make you reconsider. -- Dustin Lowman, Chicago

[A] Funny you should ask, since I've just announced And It Don't Stop. On that Substack-hosted "newsletter" (I guess by now "blog" suggests "free" a little too unavoidably) some of the writing will indeed reach the reader free of charge--which I've actually done before, when as a board member of the by-then-unfunded National Arts Journalism Program I was active on the ARTicles blog we began to help keep that entity alive. But the record reviews to which I assume you're referring will cost consumers five bucks a month. That's because I never wrote for free--I was paid by various publishing entities, first at the newsprint Village Voice, which for its last two decades was distributed free because it made its diminishing profit from advertising, and then at various online entities whose business models I never fully understood, although at least in the case of Noisey I assume some arcanely calculated payment by advertisers for clicks and screen time was involved. But in all these cases most of my value to the publication was presumably exhausted shortly after I posted even though the work remained online (which it didn't at Microsoft after it axed all its content providers--for reasons I've never begun to grasp, they presumably own a zillion servers). After that, why not make it free? (As indeed the archives will continue to be.) It's good for my professional profile and my ego and makes it so much easier for me to look back at my old work, although everything post-1988 is on my home computers in the vintage-1991 WP51 I still work in. As I never tire of saying, writers write for money, especially if they're not rich to begin with. But they also write to be read. There's deep spiritual satisfaction in knowing that I have such an engaged fanbase--feels something like love. Plus, I'm pleased to help the often struggling musicians I admire by sharing their work with others whose interest and financial support will ease the musicians' struggles and also feel something like love.

[Q] I noticed that in the Consumer Guide you never reviewed a Bobby Darin album. And there is scant mention of Dean Martin. Given your obvious love for Sinatra, how do you rate Darin and Martin as gentlemen of song? -- OldFart, New York City

[A] Not high. Martin was a gifted comedian whose admitted mastery of what we'll call the relaxed tone has its contrarian admirers, but I've never warmed to his simulation of warmth, and I've tried; Darin aimed so hard to please he had nothing to say even when he covered Dylan and went political for a while, and I never believed a word he sang after "Splish Splash." Comparisons to Sinatra are silly. Technically, Sinatra was the greatest pop singer of the 20th century--feeling little attraction to the persona he projects, I'm awed anyway by his purely musical subtlety and power. There are other male pop singers I actively enjoy in a more than campy way, Bing Crosby especially, but note most of them are black, starting with Nat King Cole. A compilation I admire in this vein is Rhino's Closer Than a Kiss.

[Q] Recently I've been listening to Aftermath by the Rolling Stones quite a bit. I'm curious what you thought of the album when it first came out and how you view it today, especially given its lyrics. -- Ian C., Minneapolis

[A] I see you haven't read my memoir, Going Into the City, where on pages 168-171 a reader can find an essay on Aftermath, which for a while in the '60s was my favorite album of all time and my partner Ellen Willis's too. (The American version, of course; the essay accounts for both.) By what I think of the lyrics I assume you mean "Look at That Stupid Girl," a title I stole for a 1970 Voice piece reprinted in Any Old Way You Choose It and credited by several female readers who wrote me about it back then as the first feminist essay on rock and roll, and "Under My Thumb," off which Willis spun what some call the Willis test for sexism in rock and roll--"Under My Thumb" passed, Cat Stevens's "Wild World" did not, on the grounds that in "Under My Thumb" you can switch genders and the song still makes sense and in "Wild World" you can't. As I explain, I'm not so sure that argument holds water--Ellen loved the Stones, and always had a knack for transmuting her personal preferences into universals. My favorite track on the album is "Going Home." These days I prefer Exile, The Rolling Stones Now!, Beggars Banquet, and others.

[Q] Longtime online reader here (well, relatively long, I'm 25 years old). You've been rather favorable of Conor Oberst's output ever since Lifted, so I've been wondering, how do you feel about his earlier output with Bright Eyes, especially Fevers and Mirrors? Also, do you find his whole trajectory and evolution as a songwriter as impressive as I do? Greetings from Germany! -- Lukas, Hamburg

[A] Many years ago Kelefa Sanneh, who has since moved on to grander things, made me an early Bright Eyes mixtape. I played it a few times and still have it in my A shelves just in case--it was certainly OK. But it never grabbed and held. Unless an artist deeply moves me--Professor Longhair comes to mind--going back to catch up with the early stuff is seldom time-efficient. So much good pop has a historical specificity to it, especially if you want it to last longer than a sure-shot single you somehow missed.

[Q] Why do you still bother buying CDs? Why not just save yourself money and shelf space by streaming everything? -- Jake L, Montreal

[A] As I've said before here, I believe that streaming dematerializes music as well as depriving it of economic reality. It makes music harder to perceive as work and also as something with an existence outside of the listener's head. I suspect that's one reason why I find it difficult to write more than a few dozen words about a streamed album. For me streaming is preliminary processing; psychologically, to listen deep I need an object I can see and handle. Plus packaging does often add dimension to the experience and comparison listening, in which I use a changer to sneak up on my ears with a related album, is much easier to manage with physical product.

[Q] Given that many music critics consider writing about politics to be part of their job, which political pundits have you admired (or would you read) the music criticism of? (Setting Nat Hentoff aside.) -- Chris Reeder, Cambridge, Massachusetts

[A] I can't think of any except for The New Yorker's David Remnick, who on 11/9/16, while the rest of us reeled in the 24 hours after Trumpnacht, wrote a cogently impassioned attack on the president-elect his mag has lived by ever since and has also written definitive profiles of Springsteen and Leonard Cohen. I've read Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo daily since Bush II won in 2004--policywise he's a little to my right, but his command of the possible is unmatched and he's been not only superb but politically effective on such matters as social security privatization and voter suppression. I also love Esquire's Charles Pierce, a waggish old rad of the younger part of my generation who recently observed with some glee that "Senator Professor Warren," as he's always fondly called her, was finally beginning to act like she thought politics was fun and that this was a very good thing. But while both these guys really care about music, neither makes any visible attempt to keep up. Marshall is a Dylan nut who was so moved by the boxed set or whatever it was of his Xian phase that he wrote an unconvincing screed about it. Pierce is a real fan, deeply into New Orleans and the likes of Derek and the Dominoes. But while Remnick has spruced up The New Yorker's music coverage considerably with the likes of Carrie Battan, Amanda Petrusich and Hua Hsu, neither Marshall nor Pierce has ever shown any discernible hip-hop consciousness or sense of movement in the alt-rock world. Kind of sad.

August 27, 2019

[Q] In your various commentaries on The Who Sell Out, you have referred to it as "the Who's finest album" and "their only great album." Your 1969 Jazz & Pop ballot marks Tommy at number one for its year, however. Given the motivic as well as conceptual connections between the albums--play the end of "Rael 1" back to back with one of the rock opera's instrumentals if you don't know what I mean--is there any basis for claiming Tommy as another great album? Are rock operas destined to fail? -- Timothy Getz, Vernon, NJ

[A] First of all, I have little interest in motivic relationships among rock and roll songs. Such matters as flow, pace, mood, and groove are far more important to the success of good song collections, which is what most good albums are. Hence, rock operas come to us from behind the eight ball at best. That said, I think I overrated Tommy slightly when it came out--was somewhat hornswoggled by Townshend's tremendous intelligence and ambition, actually. I don't think Tommy's plot is compelling or coherent enough to merit the adulation it continues to inspire. An A minus, sure--a pretty good one. Masterpiece, ridiculous. In 2012 I wrote a review of Townshend's autobiography that didn't quite make the Book Reports cut. Check it out if you're so inclined. I stand by it.

[Q] You've reviewed every Lucinda Williams album since 1980 except her two most recent ones--This Sweet Old World and Vanished Gardens. Have you heard them? Have you soured on her? I would've thought you'd be interested in the former, since it's a track-for-track re-recording of an album you awarded an A. As for Vanished Gardens, Jon Pareles has already dubbed its improbable fusion of genres jazzicana. -- Robert M., New York City

[A] Artists run out of steam, good ones included. It's natural--they start with a good angle or three only then the ideas themselves lose pizzazz for them or they run out of the song material that's a slightly different part of their vision. I've stuck with Williams longer than most--many feel she started repeating if not parodying herself early in this century. But for me her last A was West in 2007. Rerecording classic albums is usually a desperate measure, and though I gave This Sweet Old World a play or two found the differentiation from the excellent Sweet Old World all too marginal--re-recording great albums is a perilous ploy (and please please please don't do them in concert). As for Vanished Gardens, ah man. Her famed collaborator is flower jazzer and rock pickup artist Charles Lloyd, who I had marked as a lightweight 50 years ago.

[Q] Robert! Love your writings and views. You should be proud of your accomplishments! One question. Where did you get the cool guitar T-shirt (the grey one with all the pictures of guitars)? -- Steve, Humboldt County, California

[A] It was a present from the lovely aunt of my daughter Nina's dear friend Val, who was visiting for Christmas from the Philippines and bought it for me at fashion hot spot Old Navy. In truth, it's a little scratchier than I prefer my T-shirts--which should never be scratchy at all, right?

[Q] Has your opinion on retrospectively offensive songs--say, "Bad Detective"--changed over the years? To what extent do you think historical context should be valued in the appreciation of music? -- Jake, Los Angeles

[A] I don't believe in reading things out of the canon; distorting history is counterproductive in the long and usually medium run. You've probably never read George Eliot's philo-Semitic Daniel Deronda, which among other things is way long, but in fact the portrait of the Jewish character there can be intensely embarrassing even though Eliot was doing sincere albeit her rather awkward best to undermine British anti-Semitism in that novel. I do find certain songs offensive in retrospect--"Brown Sugar" in the Stones' original always had an ironic anti-racist edge to it, but that edge disappears in a much changed historical context and I don't think it should be performed today (an opinion I formed when I heard Dylan do it in 2002 and continued to hold when the Stones themselves closed a generally excellent 2005 show with it). But "Bad Detective"? I think that's silly. Do you know the Coasters' original? Classic Leiber-Stoller pop-culture burlesque. So naturally the Dolls ran with it. To me it seems much healthier to remember and mock the longstanding and in some respects quite healthy American tradition of ethnic humor than to act like it was never there. Listen to Bing Crosby's "McNamara's Band" sometime and try to pretend that wasn't there either. There is such a thing as affectionate and even celebratory satire, and what exactly that can mean is crucial to our understanding.

[Q] I've noticed that your reviews have begun to reflect a lot of political thought in the days of Donald, beginning with ATCQ's most recent album (and your most recent A+). The questions I wish to ask are these: how do you perceive art unbiased when you have a political view? Do you believe in having an obligation, as part of a publication, to highlight certain a political agenda? -- Henry Glover, Australia

[A] I've always written about politics--take a look at the Rock & Roll & section of my first collection, Any Old Way You Choose It. I was on Bush II's Iraq war a lot, too. But politics have been a constant of my work throughout. More to the point is why people keep saying critics should be "unbiased." Of course we're biased--everyone is, and should be. Aesthetic judgment is idealist bullshit unless it's spiked with emotional commitment and moral passion, yet on the other hand sometimes a strong or beautiful expression will shift or even overwhelm your values, even move you to change your mind or adjust your feelings about something in a relatively enduring way. But at another level is that this is the age of Trump, which even in Australia you should be able to see is a crisis by definition. I've said many times that my aesthetics are those of a small-D democrat, and Trumpism's fetishization of cruelty and fealty to the superrich puts that kind democratic values are under an attack so sustained and extreme it could put them out of reach not just for the few years I've got left but for much longer. As I said in that recent Hendrix at Woodstock piece, the threat of F-A-S-C-I-S-M is real and present. For all of us, politics are no longer discretionary. That doesn't mean we can't continue to take delight in musical passion, pleasure, and silliness. Those things help keep us human. But any critic who pretends politics have nothing to do with his or her work is a coward or a fool.

[Q] A few questions for you.

  1. Calling Dr. Freud: What was it about the Progressive rock of the 1970's that made you feel so threatened by it that you had to single it out for ignorant snark?
  2. Were you afraid that ELP, King Crimson, or Genesis were going to steal record sales from your beloved Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, or all the other crap that you fawned over in your reviews?
  3. Did you ever realize that your schoolmasterly handing out of letter grades was infinitely more pretentious than anything Peter SInfield ever wrote?
  4. Do you still feel that anything you don't understand must ipso facto be bad, or have you finally outgrown such parochial fatuity?

As you get outfitted for your drool bucket, I urge you to ponder these questions. Oh, and say hi to Griel Marcus for me the next time you see him, and tell him for me that he understands the Surrealist movement about as well as Donald Trump grasps quantum physics. -- Kevin, New York

[A] It's Greil, actually.

August 06, 2019

[Q] I'm saddened that the Consumer Guide is in limbo due to the vagaries of the publishing and music industries. The grades remain a very valuable consumer tool. Idea: provide the grades for new albums et al without the capsule reviews (which I assume takes the bulk of your time). You provide your recommendations to your acolytes without spending hours writing reviews without compensation. Thoughts? -- Dan Weiss, Washington, D.C.

[A] Nah. A) It's still work I'm not getting paid for, so why? B) The writing and the grading are organic to each other, so that the grade will occasionally change and often firm up as I write. Writing is the final phase of grading. C) For me it would be interesting to find out how giving up grading might change the way I hear.

[Q] Among all the rightful praise thrown your way, Dean, I would like to add this vital point: you have been right. Critics, to be worth their salt, have to emerge from the pages of history as right, right? My personal experience has demonstrated this--freakin' Field Day, for prime instance. Universally dismissed (Rolling Stone gives it the back of the hand) and you give it an A plus. A plus! Today it sounds--God--so damn good, it holds up and I expect it to do so for years into the future. My question is this: I know you have spoken about this in the past but what records do you recall as being the absolutely toughest to settle on and decide? And why? -- Werner Trieschmann, Little Rock, Arkansas

[A] Werner, as a longtime fellow toiler in the rock-critical oilfields as well as a longtime supporter of mine, you know very well that "right" is a contingent concept. The reason you're a fan and supporter is that, like many of my more devoted readers, you happen to hear music and relate to artistic expression the way I do. It's somewhat subjective. That said, I think I'm unusually good at hearing beyond the kind of timebound stylistic prejudices that cause Greg Kot in the fourth Rolling Stone Album Guide--who, be fair now, does acknowledge that the booming, echoey production on Marshall Crenshaw's Field Day is "divisive," meaning that there's another school of opinion, by which he may well be thinking of mine--to give that album only two stars out of five. But "right"--that's too grand and absolute a concept for tastes that you and I share. As for what was tough to settle on, I don't know anymore. I just scrolled through the A's on my site and couldn't find one I remembered agonizing over, except maybe for a few I expect I overrated: Spoek Mathambo's Father Creeper, almost certainly an A minus, and the utterly disrespected white-women rap trio Northern State, whose first three releases all got full A's from me. That particular judgment has proven so déclassé that I've been afraid to replay for years. But doing so right now I can say that although their flow is probably too stiff for a full A I still think the songs are first-rate.

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