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 17, 2021

Groove with a side order of vocal emotion, soul with a (small) side order of jazz organ, Queen with less kitsch and more camp, and parody with honor. Plus: two movies, one a must a see.

[Q] I notice how over the years you have reviewed music in languages that you (presumably) don't understand. How do you approach this kind of music and what is your mindset when you enjoy it? -- Eduardo Mujica, Colombia

[A] I enjoy it as music merely, kind of the way I enjoy jazz--which generally entails harmonic details in musical languages I don't understand either. This means that when lyrics are prominent, as they are in a lot of non-Anglophone pop, I tune out--even when the lyrics are in French, which I can speak and understand well enough to find a restaurant or the train station, but not to follow lyrics. All of which is to generalize broadly, with numerous exceptions. But for sure what I usually respond to in non-Anglophone music is groove with a side order of vocal emotion or affect. Because I recognize and treasure the African contribution to the Anglophone rock-etc. at the center of my pleasure zone, and also because I've long been aware of how decisive African culture is in American culture generally, I've always been eager to hear what African music I could, and so paid attention to the few compilations that began to surface in the early '80s, starting with the great John Storm Roberts Africa Dances collection of the mid-'70s, which for whatever reason delighted me from the first time I heard it and prepared me for the trickle and then flood that followed; see the 1991 Rock & Roll & called "Afropop Without Guilt" for more details. But over the years many other grooves and even tune families have spoken to me. In Colombia itself it's been cumbia mostly, which didn't take long. For some reason, though the dominant horn parts are certainly part of it, I've never really gotten into Puerto Rican salsa even though I love Puerto Rico, which I've visited many times. But once in the south of the island I watched entranced for half an hour as a cumbia band entertained near the town square.

[Q] What are your favorite albums featuring jazz organists? I'm guessing that Jimmy McGriff, Charles Earland and Booker T Jones must be some of your favorites but what albums by those artists or others do you turn to when you crave soul jazz or a keyboard master jamming out on electronic organ? -- Chris Rogers, Missouri

[A] To my surprise, since I never ever "crave" soul jazz or Hammond B-3, you guessed right. As I discovered by utilizing the Google Search function on my site, I've actually given positive reviews to albums by both Jimmy McGriff and Charles Earland. Stax mastermind and hidden genius of Willie Nelson's Stardust that he is, Booker T. doesn't have a horse in this race--soul jazz has never been what he's about, which is fine by me because I've always found that calling too schlocky by a factor of three. Jimmy Smith in particular I've avoided for half a century. Cornball, cornball, cornball.

[Q] I'm asking this because I'm a sucker for Queen, but what is your opinion on Queen--if you've ever listened in retrospect? You pretty much wrote off their albums, yet you later said their music has "the high gloss of committed kitsch" and Freddie Mercury was a "true queen." It's strange you've rarely mentioned them, especially because of the enduring popularity of songs like "Bohemian Rhapsody," "We Will Rock You," and more, plus their endless popular Live Aid set. -- Oscar, Johannesburg, South Africa

[A] I've definitely softened on Queen since I started to figure out that there was camp and joy in their overstated virtuosity as well as vitality and endurance in their tunes. I have both Classic Queen and Greatest Hits in my iTunes, but not the physicals, presumably because my daughter Nina squirreled them away in her CD folders back in the pre-Spotify days. Since Nina comes over most weekends I thought I'd burn a CD of the latter just to play it at lunch and maybe come up with a grade and some wise words about music I now both enjoy and respect without loving it the way you and Nina both do. As I recall--this was just this past weekend--she observed that she would have liked to hear more of their early stuff, but that was as far as we got. Are they worth some kind of A by me? Conceivably--we'll see how it goes. But even given this query, which I only opened Sunday, it's a tossup whether I'll ever get that far. I should definitely check out the movie sometime. Nina loves it.

[Q] Hi Mr. Christgau, I came across this piece in a New Yorker anthology of humorous prose and thought you might get a kick out of it. An affectionate parody of the CG and your style, so it seems to me. -- James Douma, Amstelveen, The Netherlands

[A] Veronica Geng, who died of brain cancer when she was just 56, was among other things a renowned parodist, so much so that to be parodied by her was an honor. That piece, a Consumer Guide to imaginary albums spun off Nixon's impeachment, was included in a 1984 collection of hers called Partners. She invited me to the book party and give me an autographed copy: "To Robert Christgau, From a little clerk, Veronica Geng." Hmm. As I recall, she told me I was harder to get right than she'd expected, but looking back at the piece, I think she approximated my stylistic tics or shall we call them methods better than I had any reason to expect: long, grammatical sentences bursting with parentheticals and festooned with slang and wisecracks. It's a sweet memory that reminds me how sorry I was when left us so soon.

[Q] What did you make of former Village Voice staffer Joan Micklin Silver's 1977 Between the Lines? I thought it was interesting but a bit out of touch for something produced THAT particular year (little by way of punk or disco--but maybe Boston was provincial like that then?), yet it had some nice riffs on rockcrit feminism. You're mentioned in the credits fwiw, but I've never seen you hold forth in print anywhere and searching your site didn't turn up anything either. Thoughts/comments? -- J.M. Welch, Elmira, New York

[A] First of all, although Micklin Silver did apparently write for the Voice before I started Rock & Roll & in 1969, I don't recall her byline and doubt she was ever a "staffer" there. She gave me $500 (??) to be some sort of musical consultant on Between the Lines, which I thought was cool because I loved Hester Street. I have a distinct but undetailed recollection of calling her from a pay phone in the course of a vacation road trip and advising that she include the Bobbettes' "Mr. Lee" in the film. Did she? Dunno. Insofar as it purports to depict the interior life of an alt-weekly I didn't think it had an especially penetrating feel, although it was certainly plausible. But that was a long time ago, and after attending the opening I never saw it again.

[Q] No-frills question (or just topic): Steve McQueen's Lovers Rock from the Small Axe pentad. Have you seen it? If so, thoughts? -- Mark Bradford, Brooklyn

[A] You should follow me on Twitter, where I got so excited about Lovers Rock I dashed out an instant lateish-night rave that got plenty of lateish-night response, the most flattering from veteran critic Ira Robbins, who immediately sat down and watched it himself past midnight and then tweeted that he was as knocked out as I was. It's not just that it's the music sector of Small Axe, every installment of which I think is terrific. As Robbins noticed too, it's how formally audacious it is--an unprecedented masterpiece, I'd say. It has no plot in the usual sense. Instead it's structured as a documentary about a London reggae house party, from food and sound prep to individual partygoers dressing up to transportation to the shifting, organic interactions of the party itself. I find most cinematic party scenes, especially club-action ones (which this isn't because of the house setting) garish, corny, overstated, stupid. Here characters and relationships emerge, crises arise and resolve themselves. There's even an ending--several, in fact, each not exactly topping but inflecting what's gone before. Like all these five films, it's so humane; like most of them, it goes places you absolutely do not foresee. I thought what McQueen made of Twelve Years a Slave was excellent. But these films, set in a U.K. McQueen knows very well indeed, have a transcendent quality so remarkable I hope McQueen gives himself time to regroup before essaying anything too ambitious--hope he takes a few deep breaths and rests on his laurels for awhile.