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 21, 2020

Streamed lectures and streamed music, the jazz apple and the rock orange, the enduring skippability of "Oar," the Lion King vs. the Black Panther, and the power of "WAP." Special guest: Carola Dibbell

[Q] Your assorted dispatches from the EMP Pop Conferences have been the inspiration for both my initial attendance and my eventual presentations. I assume your recent medical issues were the reason you didn't submit for this year's conference originally scheduled for April. I noticed I didn't see you at any of the virtual sessions happening this month. Considering your enthusiasm for the conference, I was wondering what the reason(s) was for your absence. -- Richard Cobeen, Berkeley

[A] I am not a Zoom guy to say the least. Are you, really? EMP has been major for me both socially and professionally, a kind of lifeline almost. Presentations I did there for an audience of my peers, usually requiring weeks of work no journalistic outlet would publish much less pay for, now bedeck both Book Reports and Is It Still Good to Ya?: Charlie Gillett and Henry Pleasants, Dionysus and Lil Wayne. But I cherish the social aspects even more, the mixing and mingling and walking around, the chance to say hello to people I see seldom or nowhere else like Carl Wilson, Josh Clover, Michaelangelo Matos, the Powers-Weisbard combo, and for that matter yourself--great teaching-music presentation on that bill with my sister a few years ago. I also valued the chance to migrate from one set of talks to another. I sent in a December proposal for the later Covid-cancelled EMP but bowed out long before the pandemic because it was clear my aching thigh would make travel onerous and walking around impossible. (Thigh's been much better since I had lumbar fusion in June but still not necessarily EMP-ready.) And continuing disability has cut into my time. In addition, however, streamed lectures just aren't live lectures the way streamed music just isn't live music, a major reason I'm chagrined but not ashamed to admit I've watched very few livestreamed concerts. Also, I'm such a fuddy-duddy that I haven't mastered Zoom as a technology--one funeral, one baby shower, that's been about it. (Carola keeps up with her women's group on Zoom. Many glitches.) We'll see what happens on multiple fronts, and I can't imagine disengaging from EMP altogether--it's meant too much to me. But how I age remains to be seen.

[Q] I was surprised to see Louis Armstrong's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man missing from even the worklist of your top 50 albums article. You included other box sets (James Brown's Star Time) and you've also called Louis Armstrong "the greatest artist of the 20th century" and "my favorite artist." What gives? Too much filler on the Portrait? The collection of late-20's/early-30's songs where his vocals are equal billing with his trumpet seems to me to be some kind of musical peak few have reached. -- Dan M., Bucharest, Romania

[A] I kept jazz albums off the Rolling Stone list because I'm a rock critic and fRolling Stone is a rock magazine. Carola made her own call and included Kind of Blue, but I just didn't want to get involved in an apples-and-oranges problem--first Misterioso, then Portrait of the Artist (which I thought had gone out of print but am delighted to report is still buyable, go for it if you have the cash, folks), then Kind of Blue or should it be Jack Johnson, then Ellington's Flaming Youth or maybe I should dig out Sonny Rollins's A plus G-Man or who knows what-all. As for Star Time, well, fuck it: James Brown is one of the two or three greatest artists in rock or if you insist rock-era history and Star Time is the only album like object available to prove it, including Sex Machine and The Big Payback. Strictly following rules in such vast and theoretically murky enterprise as the Stone 500 is the path of absurdity.

[Q] You refer back to some of the records covered in the first Consumer Guide in your intro to the seventies guide, and use the parenthetical "(I admit)" twice--once to refer to your praise for Procol Harum's A Salty Dog, and in a corresponding reference to your dismissal of Skip Spence's Oar. You've covered A Salty Dog as a probable B+ --still sounds pretty good to me, definitely less afflicted by pretensions than their others. But Oar you've never commented on since the original C-. So . . . do you like it? At least, better than you said you did over half a century ago? -- Ryan M, Dallas

[A] Oy, Oar. Yet for some perverse reason I clicked over to Spotify and found a version that seemed to include 20 or so tracks, I didn't count. This is a cult record so beloved that if they left the tape running while Spence used the shitter with the door open the plops and gurgles would probably show up on a deluxe collectors edition. On Spotify I got to track four or five while I pruned my email and moved on. What can I say--as I hope you've figured out by now, slow records by depressive and/or drug-addled space cases just ain't my thing. Still love the first Moby Grape album, where Spence's "Omaha" is a peak. Very little else--hopeless druggie for most of his life. I read that he left four kids behind when he died of lung cancer at 53. Hope they're at least OK.

[Q] Beyonce's most recent project, the The Lion King soundtrack, has been compared to the Black Panther soundtrack. I think it offers more in its instrumentation (though perhaps more obvious in its use of African music and artists than Kendrick Lamar on Black Panther). It's not as "smooth." Do you find it too busy? Interested to know since it's been re-released to coincide with the Black Is King film (she's added "Black Parade" and removed the spoken word parts). -- James, Chester, U.K.

[A] I love her "Black Parade" enough to have bought a copy, but in general I seem to be turning into some kind of weird Beyonce truther or something--recognize her preeminence and mostly appreciate her public presence but just don't dig her music the way many will feel I should. Tuning in on Spotify at your behest, I found the Lion King music so cutesy, disjointed, and plot-specific that I only got through six or seven tracks (and yes, I went back and checked just to make sure I hadn't just been in a bad mood the first time). Far as I'm concerned, comparing it to the carefully sequenced Black Panther soundtrack is almost incomprehensibly silly. And let me also say that I am very much disinclined to check out her or anyone else's music-you-can-only understand-when-watching-the-visuals. I don't review videos, period, and am old and established enough to remain quite the crank about it.

[Q] Any thoughts on "WAP" by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion and the media's reaction? -- James, Liverpool

[A] What's not to like? I'm definitely a Cardi B fan, and while I've always found Megan a little macho, her recent assault experience has focused her mind considerably. So if these two established female rappers, a welcome and uncommon thing in itself, want to turn generations of big-dick mythos inside out, I say both yum and more power to them. As for media reaction, I don't know what's happening in the U.K. but nobody I take seriously over here has complained enough to get my attention (although it's true that I ignore ignoramuses so steadfastly that "media reaction" often escapes my attention altogether). Your question did, however, remind me to watch the video, which I did with pleasure four-five times: witty, visually deft, and definitely sexy despite and sometimes because of its inevitable exaggerations--loved the big cats. I must add, however, that logocentric as I am I continue to find City Girls' "Pussy Talk" sexier. Should no doubt check out the video on that one too. (P.S. Just did--waste of time.)

[Q] Hello, very much appreciate you Bob but this question is for Carola. I'm interested to know what brought you to select Madonna's Immaculate Collection in your recent list for Rolling Stone's 500. I ask because it indicates a change in opinion since the letter you wrote in 1992 for Ann Powers and Evelyn McDonnell. I won't quote the letter because I don't want to misrepresent it and I understand it covers more than just Madonna, but I'm curious to know the motivations for your selection and what, if anything, changed your mind on her. -- James Kean, Liverpool, U.K.

[A] Carola Dibbell writes: Thanks for noticing things I said so long ago about Madonna. My daughter, a big fan even as a toddler (when she called Madonna "Mmm"), eventually won me over. While I've never considered Madonna a feminist hero, I've come to savor many of her songs--and yeah, that's a lot about the beats, the arrangements, but whether she's doing baby talk or throaty woman she does own them. While I pondered your question, Bob put on Immaculate Collection. "Holiday" opened and everything else stopped--the track had me with Jellybean Martinez's 30-second intro before Madonna opened her mouth. Then there were "Cherish," "Vogue," "Live to Tell"--but not "Deeper and Deeper," a favorite of mine from Erotica, which came out two years after the compilation.