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.

May 18, 2022

And It Don't Stop.

Spreading out from NYC, Pulitzer to pop: drop dead, reviews not on the road to ruin, impressed by David Crosby (sorta), abundance and multiplicity vs. marginal differentiation, and wedding playlists.

[Q] Hi Bob, thank you for your many years of delighted, curious, knowing, sensitive music writing; I can't say enough about how much your criticism and alertness to pleasure has taught me. I was struck recently by this sentence in your A+ review The Rough Guide to Youssou N'Dour & Etoile de Dakar: "Maybe somewhere there was more exciting music circa 1980--punk L.A.? soukous Montreuil? hip-hop South Bronx? But don't bet on it." This hypothetical made me wonder: are there any periods and communities of musical ferment you wish you could have been personally present for, as you've been present for so many in New York? Years when a venue or a whole neighborhood or city felt alive with energy, history-being made? If you could revisit a cultural community or musical moment from the past--Dakar 1980, Kingston in 1967, Brazil in 1972--which do you think you would most joyfully choose? -- Jay Thompson, Seattle

[A] An interesting question that within a minute alerted me to two key facts. One, I write as a New Yorker, the best music city in the world during my lifetime. Second, ultimately I'm a record man, not a scene man. I'm intensely grateful I got to witness NYC punk close up plus been here for the very dawn of hip-hop plus disco at a distance and indeed the Monk-and-Coltrane jazz of the early '60s. And I'm also grateful to have covered other "scenes" journalistically: Monterey and the Summer of Love, Kingston in 1973 for Newsday, punk England for the Voice 1977, Akron for Pete's sake. Resided for eight months or so in both Chicago (Muddy Waters 1963!) and L.A. But I'm glad I'm such a New Yorker--it grounds me. And I'm glad too I've made album reviews my specialty, because strictly aural immersion in various regional musics has situated me virtually in Soweto and Dakar (though I'm also glad I've visited Africa twice), New Orleans and Seattle (both of which I've also visited more than once). I'm glad I've been so spread out. Because that spread is the most enlarging thing about music of all.

[Q] I recently came across the Wikipedia page for the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, which lists every winner since the award's inception in 1970. I may be mistaken, but it appears the award has never been given to a critic of non-classical music. Do you feel that rock/popular music has been unfairly overlooked by the Pulitzer Prize board? Are there any music critics you feel are particularly deserving of a Pultizer? -- Omar, Texas

[A] Sure, but what else is new? I'm always pleased when my paper or a pal or even acquaintance gets a Pulitzer or comes close, as has happened a few times--it's good for their professional autonomy and their pocketbooks. Sometimes too a Pulitzer will have a progressive political effect. But the kind of journalists I hang out with don't take the Pulitzer that seriously--it's quintessential stuffed-shirt stuff. (I notice Pauline Kael got shut out, which is disgraceful even though the '70s weren't her best decade.) In my world the critic most unfairly shut out would have to be the great jazz-plus specialist (and my longtime colleague and friend) Gary Giddins, a dynamo of enormous range and productivity.

[Q] I have to wonder why your reviews about MJ were so consistently negative and demeaning. Could it be perhaps be that the most famous and popular artist made you, someone who had to write about him in newspaper, jealous? Oh likely not. Well regardless of how many albums you downplayed (sentiments that ruined his life), every single album is on the top 50 best selling list, including the best seller (Thriller), and two others in the top 15 (Bad and Dangerous). In addition to the biggest music tours of the 20th century and being the most popular artist ever. I'll never understand the critics. -- Ahmed

[A] I only reprint this benighted question--"consistently negative and demeaning" for reviews that include three A's and two more A minuses, for instance--to highlight the benighted notion that bad reviews ruined MJ's life. Reviews very seldom ruin artists' lives, and don't believe they have without plenty of corroborating evidence. Fact is, I very much doubt MJ ever read a word of mine in his life. Instead his ruin began with his abusive father, systematic mistreatment that was likely transmogrified into his own fucked up and very likely abusive sex life. None of which in my opinion diminishes the artistic value of his music, though it does make it harder to get with emotionally.

[Q] Hey Bob, just sending in a silly music question while off work recovering from the plague. I'm curious to hear your thoughts on the public rehabilitation of David Crosby. In recent years he's gone back on the road, had a fairly sympathetic documentary released, and emerged on Twitter as a sort of curmudgeonly hippie grandpa, readily offering hot takes on other musicians of his day. It would appear that in the process, he's managed to shift his public perception from being a punchline to perhaps almost a respected elder statesman of rock 'n' roll. Do we all just naturally soften to figures from a previous era as they age and fewer of them remain? And while we're on the topic, I was always curious about your review of Remember My Name, where you advertised a competition for readers to "Rename David Crosby" -- were there any good entries? Did anyone win? -- Kevin, Dublin Ireland

[A] Writing about Déjà Vu, a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young doc about Neil's CSNY Living With War documentary, for Film Comment, I found all three fifth wheels more likable than I once had. I was especially impressed by Stills, who electioneered for the Dems in his spare time. But I was also impressed by Crosby: "Older, wiser, and off crack, Crosby explains: 'CSNY is not a democracy. It's a dictatorship, a benevolent dictatorship. Neil is in charge not because he demands it. It's not because he bosses people around. It's because he thinks about this stuff All. The. Time.'" And in general Crosby too has been vocal politically, which I admire. But his supposed comeback album, 2021's For Free, lost me after one-and-a-half plays. Feel better. (P.S. I am highly unlikely to recall any response to second-rate jokes I concocted half a century ago.)

[Q] Not a question, but just one of no doubt too many lists of personal-favorite Neil Young albums, you'll be receiving. My #1 is Re*ac*tor which I--and practically no one else, including you--have loved with a passion for 40 years now. #2 Decade, which sums up his career brilliantly, and doesn't really replace Everybody Knows . . . , After the Gold Rush, Harvest, On the Beach, etc., but makes the list easier to make. #3 Way Down in the Rust Bucket, which stands in for all his great double lives (second only to James Brown). Each has its own special attractions. #4 Harvest Moon #5 Rust Never Sleeps #6 Americana #7 Tonight's the Night #8 Living with War #9 Mirror Ball #10 Trans. I hope someday you get around to rating all these 21st-century releases from the vaults, which are bewilderingly tough to keep track of. It would be a valuable service. -- Ken Stillman, Columbus, Ohio

[A] Not a bad top 10, though any truly accurate good one on my part would require more relistening than I will ever have time for--for business or pleasure, there's just too much other music to listen to and will be till the day I die. Which goes approximately tenfold for the vault releases, about which I have a far less indulgent attitude than you do. Egomaniacal profit takers is the short of it, and the same goes for all the Stones outtakes digging and Dylan arcana and to a lesser extent Beatles remasters and for that matter reconstituted jazz geniuses. If mad fans and specialists care so much about an individual artist they want to delve into one or more of these options, they're welcome to do so. I did it with that fine Monk in Palo Alto thing myself. But what I treasure most about the music I've devoted my life to is its abundance and multiplicity, not its marginally differentiatable manifestations of individual genius. Will there be an exception or two sometime in my future? Perhaps a serendipitous one, like via some especially compelling word-of-mouth or special request. But in principle I don't care.

[Q] I'm going to marry soon. What are some songs you think would be great for a marriage playlist? -- Xo, Paris, France

[A] The best songs for any wedding playlist, assuming music has been an important part of the couple's lives, are those they arrive at themselves. Brainstorm; replay stuff; keep a list. That said, however, I can name a few that seem relatively universal to me: Chuck Berry's "You Never Can Tell," Al Green's "Let's Get Married," and the Beach Boys' "Darlin'," although that's a more subjective call. Listen hard to Brad Paisley's "Then," as good a marriage lyric as I've ever heard, and see if it moves you. Others that come to mind are chancier. Etta James's version of Otis Redding's "Cigarettes and Coffee," for instance, has become a favorite in this household, but cigarettes being the noxious things they are could well seem beyond the pale in your case. Thelonious Monk's take on "Tea for Two" is great only if you're familiar with the simplistic "Tea for two/And me for you" ditty it simultaneously celebrates and deconstructs. And Kate & Anna McGarrigle's "Walking Song" carries with it the pall of the marriage it references, which is a major reason it's the only love song Kate ever wrote.