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.

December 15, 2021

And It Don't Stop.

A Wikipedia shout out, the alt-right assault on election workers and school-board members, desert-island Miles, fondness for ABBA revealed, the serial comma defended, and a brief history of rhyme

[Q] Hi, Bob, thanks for all the great writing and hard work, I have appreciated it for decades. Don't know if a similar question has been asked before, but how do you feel about so much of your work being quoted on Wikipedia? Annoyed that it may one day be an almost semi-shadow site of the Guide? Gratified that so many Wikipedia editors quote and link to your work? Appreciative that new readers may follow the links to this site, and to your other writing? Until a fan made the case for Tom Hull, you were really the only "named" legit critic to regularly show up, especially in the ratings boxes, although there have been arguments about Anthony Fantano (ha) and Piero Scaruffi (haha) over the years. -- RES, Fishers, Indiana

[A] I love Wikipedia. Use it almost every day, have learned to see through its inevitable glitches, and donate as I believe everyone who visits it regularly should. As soon as it became apparent that my Substack thingy was going to be a success that would pay me decently to work hard, I called my webmaster Tom Hull to thank him for creating my site almost single-handed, because I assume at least half of's regular visitors discovered me via Wikipedia, which cites me so often because my site is a very searchable, very reliable source of pithy reviews of thousands of artists. Do I find errors there fairly often? Yes. Are all subjects covered with equal skill and dedication? How could they be? As I'm about to say just below, there are lots of scary things about the internet. Wikipedia isn't one of them.

[Q] Hi Robert. I'm 16 and have been reading your reviews for a while now and have begun to take an interest in your political views--which are obviously of some leftist persuasion, like mine. I want to ask you what your views are on the modern online far right, or alt-right, and its tendency to target and recruit teens--like me--who are politically adept--not so like me. In this day and age, is it just a natural--no--unsurprising consequence of social media and its sweeping reach? Or are alt-right groomers becoming smarter? Or the youth dumber? -- Leon, London, UK

[A] I think things are a little different, and maybe better, in the UK, about which I know little, so will stick to the USA. I am alarmed, let's call it, although terrified is in the running even now and things seem all too likely to get worse before they get better, by the effect of let's say alt-right (so as not to resort to fascist quite yet) social media on national and especially local politics in the U.S. Election workers and school-board members, who've historically been earnest if occasionally self-important people of considerable integrity and public-spiritedness, have been under concerted attack, with the aim of denying or greatly complicating the franchise of people who for class or racial reasons are likely to vote Democratic and of expunging "liberal" ideas about race, class, gender, and sexual identity from public school curriculums--and by ideas is often meant something very much like facts, as in the recent controversy over the history of post-Civil War "Reconstruction," the 1876 abandonment of which the right seems to have forgotten greatly accelerated, among other things, the lynching fad that was all the rage as late as the 1920s. Moreover, all manner of disinformation, especially about Covid and the 2020 election, is accepted as fact by an alarmingly large proportion of U.S. citizens--10, 20, often 30 percent. In this rightwing websites have played not merely a role but the leading one. How this all reaches down to the young (who to me seem less adept than inept) I know much less about. Is TikTok, for instance, in play? I myself have been appalled by how complicit Facebook has been in the right's disinformation campaign. In addition I would note that a bitter urban-rural dichotomy has divided this spacious, widely populated nation since its very beginnings.

[Q] You once opted for Miles Davis as your desert island discography pick. I'm curious as to which of his records you spin the most? I've loved reading everything you've put out about Miles, and it's lead me to some deeper cuts like Dark Magus and Agharta, I'm wondering, what do you think of his output pre-Bitches Brew? -- Nigel, Queensland, Australia

[A] Miles Davis desert island? Didn't remember that until my editor Joe Levy unearthed a 2019 Xgau Sez where I begrudgingly named Davis my desert island artist without specifying a desert-island disc. Miles Davis at the hospital I do remember, however--kind of the same thing. All that said, the first Miles album I ever owned was 1958's Milestones, though I almost certainly bought it later than that--probably sometime after Kind of Blue came out in 1959. I played it recently and it sounded dandy. But without question it's Kind of Blue that's Davis's greatest album just like everybody says, and it's Kind of Blue that I play the most, with Jack Johnson and In a Silent Way numbers two and three and odd '70s funk-tinged rackets after that. Its lead cut "So What" in particular is such a classic and astute piece of music that it's what I request when undergoing minor surgery or one of the fancy injections us oldies sometimes undergo--it's simultaneously super-intelligent and calming, and not only that, everyone in the room is gonna like it. Davis in general is complicated for me by the fact that not only does my upstairs brother-in-law Steven play jazz trumpet but my same-floor roommate Carola loves jazz trumpet. Recently she has reunited with Sketches of Spain even though if not because she knows it's kind of schlocky, so that one has passed through my ears two-three times in the past year and sounded pretty much OK to boot. I also play Miles's pre-Columbia birth-of-the-cool stuff occasionally. The only period I don't dig is the Wayne Shorter late-'60s, which is not a final judgment, just a quirk of taste. I should add too that a 1985 Wayne Shorter interview with Greg Tate played a major role in the Tate tribute I wrote for Bookforum. It made Shorter seem like a wonderful man, which I have no doubt he is. Will reexplore.

[Q] You've certainly been quoted enough regarding your famous line about Abba. I didn't know it was famous--did you? What's it like to be at the forefront of their Rip Van Winkle act? -- Keith Shelton, San Diego

[A] Come up with a good line and it'll follow you around for life, which has advantages and disadvantages. In this case--"We have met the enemy and they are them"--I meant "them" to refer to Abba's European origins, which given Sweden's pop dominance in the Max Martin era was prescient except insofar as I actually enjoyed and admired Max Martin. But in fact I became surprisingly fond of Abba, who had always obviously been good at creating pop standards that are better than most pop standards, and was softened up considerably by Mamma Mia! and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, flicks whose indulgent takes on music fandom in general and Abba in particular I respected and thought pretty great. Nor do I have any problem with their comeback scheme, which strikes me as a lot more apt and earned than the grotesque shenanigans of the average or even above-average fiftysomething metal band.

[Q] Hey Mr. Christgau. Mongo is such a fan of yours, and maybe you can explain if you really give a shit about the Oxford comma? Mongo, being slightly denser than a fresh batch of granola with too much molasses mixed in it, gets lost without that comma. Is Mongo a twit or should he let it go? Wait, just answer the second part of that, I am a twit but I do care about the Oxford Comma. -- Mongo, Mongo's Pig Farm and Granola Factory

[A] Your attachment to said comma is anything but twittish. It is a mark of intellectual savoir-faire. The only thing I myself don't like about the "Oxford comma" is calling it that. I greatly prefer the more descriptive and less snobby-Brit sounding "serial comma"--which I also prefer to the B.C. Dreyer variant "series comma," because I think it's better to modify a noun with an adjective than with another noun. So as I invariably wrote on the blackboard for my NYU writing students: "Use serial comma, use serial comma, and use serial comma." Why? Because it's clearer, period, to always divide the three or more elements of a series of adjectives, verbs, or especially nouns, proper names, or other substantives with the same indicator, namely a comma. One reason it's called the "Oxford comma" is that Brits use it less consistently than Americans, and those who make the wrong choice wish to indicate that the right one is snobby. Many U.S. newspapers forbid it, presumably to save the precious newsprint space that tiny quarter-pica or whatever a comma represents. Dreyer's English cites what Dreyer reports is an oft-posited example of why we need it, a sentence that goes: "Highlights of his global tour included encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector." Sans serial comma, Mandela becomes not only a dildo collector, which it's safe to assume he was not, but an 800-year-old demigod when in fact he was only an ordinary demigod, as he most certainly preferred.

[Q] Stephen Hawking once said, "People who boast about their I.Q. are losers." What would you have said to Stephen Hawking? -- Thon L, Spanish Lake, Louisiana

[A] Were he still alive, which I'm sorry he's not, I'd say: "Top of the morning to you, sir. Have you ever heard those MC Hawking records? Bet you'd like 'em."