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.

March 18, 2020

Xgau in China, Judy Garland, John and Yoko's feminism, Brian Wilson, contemporary jazz, and the best album of the 21st century

[Q] First I want to thank you for your music writings that help an internet community of Chinese pop music fans (please bear with my possible English mistakes) to appreciate many music aesthetics rarely heard in our daily life but extremely addictive. I joined it a bit late (after I already spent lots of time on adult contemporary and brit-pop that I gradually realized lack the identity, dynamics and flow of those truly great music) but I think it's created by a user who spent years in listening, digesting your writings and introducing them in easy Chinese to most of us. I have two questions. First, how you would rate Beatles' Revolver, White Album, Abbey Road that you seemed not mention much or I may have missed? Second, in 2010s I can feel more personal, inward looking hip-hop and R&B, or more outspoken, confident female country, but are this decade's characteristics more subtle than any before, and do you have any thoughts on directions of evolution of pop music in next decade. -- Minghan Yan, New York

[A] I'm deeply flattered by this, which I haven't edited an iota as your English is plenty accomplished--I get cruder prose all the time. Around 2010 I began to get word of China-based enthusiasm for my work, even a discussion group about the Expert Witness commenting community, and I hope every one of that group is doing well in this scary moment. Sharing a reading with my wife in a Queens bookstore in 2015, in fact, I was amazed to learn that among the attendees was a fan from China, a teenager or young twentysomething who introduced himself afterward. As for your questions, it's worth pointing out occasionally that the Consumer Guide only began mid-1969. This means that all but a few of the '60s albums reviewed on my site were done in connection with special '60s lookback spreads in the Voice and Rolling Stone. As for the Beatles, my favorites among the late albums are Sgt. Pepper and Rubber Soul with Abbey Road third. Revolver I find somewhat cluttered, the White Album somewhat scattered, though both are high A minuses at least. As for the evolution of music, I think you did well by the 2010s, though I'd add the persistence of punk and the evolution of Afropop. All anyone dare say about the future is that it will be bigger and more various than anyone can comprehend. The prog tendencies I've been complaining about since early in the century will certainly persist. I'd add that at the moment the welcome and indeed essential efflorescence of female artists in general seems to have brought with it a folkie madonna renaissance I can generally do without.

[Q] What's your opinion of Judy Garland? I never see her name come up in any of your discussions of the all-time great natural pop singers which is odd given her huge popularity at the height of her career. Rufus Wainwright is such a fan he recorded his own version of one of her albums. Don't any of her recordings attract you in the same way that, say, Nat King Cole or Peggy Lee records do? -- Neil Sherman, Mahopac, New York

[A] As with the Boswell Sisters a while back, an artist I thought I'd reviewed but hadn't. That's because I did review Rufus Wainwright's take on the legendary Judy at Carnegie Hall, which original I bought and quickly decided buried the tribute, but never wrote about in itself. A strong A minus at least. But when I go back to check out one of the two or three single-label studio best-ofs I've been sent over the years, most recently because I liked the Renee Zellweger vehicle Judy quite a bit, I didn't hear anything I felt I needed to delve into. Might yet, but might well not.

[Q] Yer right, John Lennon's politics were not radical, unlike, say, those of your late friend Ellen Willis. But, I believe that John Lennon was the first male rock STAR to sing and speak about feminism, which is something. I, too, like him best of the Fab Four, despite his (and Ono's) extreme self-absorbtion, his unjustifiably mean-spirited "How Do You Sleep," and his violent tendencies. -- A.C. Wilson, Chicago

[A] First of all, I don't expect any rocker to be radical the way Willis was, not least because I'm not myself. And I'm glad you mentioned the violent tendencies, because before Yoko and possibly after they cut into his pro-woman proclivities big time (as they did those of other male rockers). But for sure his attraction to/adoration of Yoko said something major and positive about his feminism even though on an ideological level she wasn't any kind of conventional feminist herself; in my opinion, "Woman Is the Nigger of the World" has survived its dubious claim on the N-word. And as someone who identifies feminist himself but is also deeply into marriage, I thought their marriage of at least metaphorical interest even though I wouldn't recommend it as a model--it was pretty eccentric. After Lennon's death I wrote about this twice: for the Voice in 1981 and for a Rolling Stone John and Yoko book in 1982. If you've read that far, however, I suggest you also take a look at a 1983 review Carola and I did of May Pang's Loving John.

[Q] In February's Xgau Sez you listed some popular musicians who could be the most important of your lifetime: "Bob Dylan, James Brown, Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, David Bowie, Michael Jackson, Prince." For me this person would have to be Brian Wilson. His output from '63-'68 (most of the early singles and B-sides, Today!, Pet Sounds, Smiley Smile, Wild Honey) and less consistently since (Sunflower, Surf's Up, American Spring, Love You, the assembly of Smile) is without equal for innovation, uniqueness, and great tunes. Lyrically, he falls well short of Dylan, Lennon, and the bulk of the artists you listed. Was this the disqualifying factor to you, or was there something else those other had that Wilson did/does not? -- Jacob H., Madison, Wisconsin

[A] First of all, those are all individual artists--no Beatles, no Stones, etc. Second, the ringer on my list is Bowie, who like Wilson seems to me to have worn out after a single decade, the '70s as opposed to the '60s. The difference is that I found my good friend Rob Sheffield's On Bowie more convincing than my even better friend Tom Smucker's Why the Beach Boys Matter (which you should definitely check out). That's because Sheffield praised late work I knew I had no predilection for formally--that I expected he could hear better than me--while Smucker praised late work whose less evolved formal materials are in my wheelhouse yet despite Tom's tips never broke through for me because they seemed all too merely competent. (Tellingly, the great exception is the magnificent remade Smile, which embellishes and finalizes inspirations almost four decades old.) Lyrics are certainly Wilson's weakness (though he didn't write all of them, by any means)--underrated though the imaginary teendom of "surf" and wigged-out whimsy of Wild Honey and Love You are, he's not remotely in a league with Dylan or Prince or even Smokey Robinson, Lennon-McCartney God knows or indeed Jagger-Richard. All that said, Wild Honey and Smile never disappoint when I put them on, as I do. (Carola loves Wild Honey; "Darlin'" is definitely one of Our Songs.)

[Q] Do you listen to much current jazz? I've always found your takes on albums by icons like Ornette, Monk, and Sonny to be spot on, and you have stepped out through the decades for commentary on the likes of David Murray, James Carter, and David S. Ware. It seems to me that the world of jazz is exploding now in lots of interesting ways, and I frequently wonder about (and occasionally crave) your take. Some examples would be the English scene, the International Anthem label, and the surging of women (like Tomeka Reid) into the spotlight (such as the jazz spotlight is). -- Phillip Overeem, Columbia, Missouri

[A] I find keeping up with new stuff in my natural but increasingly distant musical habitat quite challenging enough, thank you. The Substack incarnation of Consumer Guide gives me the opportunity to explore old jazz classics I've never paid enough mind, with Carola cheering me on. If I run out of those I might spelunk around, although it might be just as rewarding to dive into some of the '60s rock albums that like I was just saying I've barely written about. Every once in a while along comes a Harriet Tubman or Sons of Kemet album that hits me where I live. But the likes of Kamasi Washington and Makaya McCraven (not to mention that horrible Miles Okazaki Monk thing) sound not much better to me than Roy Ayers did when Gang Starr started pumping him in the early '90s. I do follow Tom Hull's reviews and every once in a while check out something from there. But I'm very selective and very judgmental so seldom come up with anything.

[Q] So Bob, with another decade gone is M.I.A.'s Kala still your favorite album of the century? -- Daniel Groza, Satu-Mare, Romania

[A] Yup. No contest.