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 05, 2019

[Q] Today's CD players are a lot better than the old ones, especially when it comes to converters; "a new laser" is not all you need! I've never seen a stranger "product placement": where did you get the idea that Bose qualify as "quality speakers"? (The ones I use cost me $270, so it's not a matter of price.) -- Beppe Colli, Catania, Italy

[A] As I've said before in this space, I am not an audiophile. At 76, I never will be. I actively dislike luxury goods and prefer my couture from L.L. Bean. Perfect sound forever means nothing to me. Vinyl may be "richer" than CDs (and may not), but I love CD convenience. I do have a professional audio advisor who thinks the Boses are fine for my purposes, which he understands well. I have now owned four Sony CDP-CR375 changers (and hence now own four remotes, which is useful, they get mislaid), two or three of which I bought used. My only complaint is crucial, however: after a while they stop recognizing CDs, need to babied into it by manipulating the stop button and other fussy stratagems. That machine fits perfectly in my very cramped workspace, plus I really know how it works. FWIW, I still write when possible in DOS-based WP51, a superb word processing as opposed to self-publishing program that dates to 1991. I convert to Word--7 I believe--for email purposes.) My email service provider is AOL because Gmail insisted my handle be at least six characters. I never have been and never will be on Facebook. Etc. Any practical suggestion regarding how I nurse along my actually existing CD changer would still be greatly appreciated. Or maybe I need to buy a new one I won't like as much.

[Q] Has an artiste ever returned from the limbo of Everything Rocks and Nothing Ever Dies? -- DTL, Toronto

[A] Counting just stuff I've caught and enjoyed--I can't fairly speak for, say, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band or Ruth Brown, who I suspect might have managed to reach fair-minded nonfans better attuned to their skill sets than I am--I note four: Boz Scaggs's moderately astonishing 2015 A Fool to Care, which I've mentioned before here; the terrific 2009 album Asleep at the Wheel did backing Willie Nelson; the first good album I ever noticed David Bromberg making, 2016's The Blues, the Whole Blues, and Nothing but the Blues, which is so much fun I wouldn't be surprised if there were other gems lurking in a catalogue I never paid the slightest mind; and the Lady Gaga-Tony Bennett album, where Gaga is superb but Bennett definitely pulls his weight.

[Q] In your review of Lupe Fiasco's Tetsuo & Youth you end with: "The final interlude is called 'Spring,' only it's not an interlude. It's the end. Nothing follows." My question is why phrase it like that? Is there something you found important about its placement at the end? Something about the cyclical nature of life? -- Tom, Philadelphia

[A] Obviously naming the instrumental interludes after seasons refers to the cyclical nature of life. But this is a dark album, and by announcing spring, the most cliched symbol of rebirth, and then going silent, I expect Fiasco meant to imply uncertainty and possibility simultaneously. The final song of the Winter section is the ambiguous but ultimately positive "They.Resurrect.Over.New," the title a play on the Pete Rock & CL Smooth mourning song "They Reminisce Over You." The "Spring" interlude includes playground sounds, so I'd say it stays positive. But he'd still rather listeners fill in the blank on their own terms.

[Q] You have mentioned W.C. Heinz as an influence and inspiration but I don't recall you ever discussing boxing. Curious as to whether you are/were a fan and if so, which fighters/fights may have been favorites. Also, your fondness for baseball and basketball plus your distaste for football has been documented. Wondering what other sports you follow closely or enjoy watching. -- Jim Chaffin, Melbourne, Florida

[A] A Google search of my site indicates only three hits for "Heinz," all of which concern beans. You're referring to the legendary sportswriter W.C. Heinz, perhaps because the boxing writer in question also has a double-initial sobriquet: A.J. Liebling. I like all of Liebling's writing, but the boxing book you have in mind remains one of my favorite essay collections, and I do love essay collections: The Sweet Science. I was never much of a boxing fan, however. Got into basketball during the Patrick Ewing and Jason Kidd years, then slacked off, and watch tennis occasionally--it was my father's sport and my sister is a big fan. But basically I'm a baseball fan who only recently--basically with the advent of MLB's Gameday feature--stopped listening to every Yankee game on the radio while he also listened to music, which was not a healthy habit. I read baseball books occasionally, but it's been awhile, and read coverage mainly in the Times, which has neglected the sport shamefully in the past few years (unlike Rupert Murdoch's rag, the Post). Football I never liked and hockey I hate, both for the same reason--a glorification and, in a way worse, normalization of violence far exceeding boxing's. And although I'm obviously a Yankee fan for life, I wasn't altogether disappointed when they got whipped by the Red Sox. I had more important things to do last October, in particular paying as much attention as possible to my cancer-stricken wife--who is, to answer another question, in a remission her oncologist calls "better than remission." This doesn't mean there won't be a recurrence--with multiple myeloma, there probably will be unless the cure they say is in sight arrives. But it will be treatable.

[Q] Who are some of your favorite writers? -- Will, Atlanta

[A] Funny you should ask, because it's the perfect excuse for me to link to the Book Reports intro Duke just put online. But because you were generous enough to give me this opening, I'll add that I think everybody should read a little Dickens--Bleak House and David Copperfield are the masterpieces, but if you want something a little shorter Great Expectations is wonderful--and that in the last 16 months or so I've read seven long novels by science fiction titan Kim Stanley Robinson. His Mars trilogy is magnificent and I just got knocked out by Aurora, a big chunk of which is narrated by a computer that/who learns what love as it learns to write. Now here's that Book Reports link. I hope the table of contents is of interest too.

February 12, 2019

[Q] Will there be a Pazz and Jop 2018? Will you be involved in it? -- John Burns, Brooklyn

[A] Anyone who doesn't know that the dormant corporate Village Voice, which still has a skeleton staff, decided that Pazz & Jop was worth keeping alive should follow me on Twitter, where I announced my non-theme essay last Thursday. You can find the poll results and a bunch of other recommended essays there.

[Q] What is your opinion of the band Unwound? Given your admiration of their labelmates Sleater-Kinney (not to mention the band's occasional Sonic Youth worship) I'd guess that you've heard one or two of their records. I don't think you ever reviewed any. Any thoughts on their relation to other 90's underground rock bands? PS: On the 90's underground theme: Seems like you aren't a fan of The Jesus Lizard. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on them as well. -- Tim, Tucson, Arizona

[A] Because I review so many albums people assume I hear everything I might take a shine to. This isn't close to possible, not just because by now the number of hours of popular music released in a year greatly exceed the number of hours in a year (by how much? anybody know?) but because you don't review an album properly by listening once and jotting down your thoughts but by immersing over time and then spending hours finding words to convey your response, all hours in which you can't listen to anything else. These days Spotify etc. makes it possible to hear almost anything, although of course I won't and don't want to. But in the '90s I had to own a physical copy, which meant that almost all the albums I reviewed came to me in the mail, and while I did review a fair number of titles on Kill Rock Stars, Unwound's label, and Touch and Go, Jesus Lizard's for most of their career, I don't recall hearing either. (One reason I never became a Fugazi scholar is that the few of their albums I had to buy on word-of-mouth because Dischord had a strict no-promos policy just didn't inspire me to aim for completism.) I did get to hear Jesus Lizard Lollapalooza 1995 and my review of that event can be found in a dependent clause in Is It Still Good to Ya?, which while I've got your attention I'll mention is now one of five 2017 criticism nominees in the National Book Critics Circle Awards, which I'm proud and happy about. That clause appears on page 102 and reads as follows: "who I'd never seen before and will never see again." The kind of dark, melodramatic sludge I hate is what I recall a quarter century later. Meanwhile, I streamed Unwound's A Single History comp on Spotify while writing this. Faster and punkier than the Jesus Lizard, and good for them. But good enough to explore retrospectively? Doubt it.

[Q] I've noticed a lack of reviews on some popular millennial rappers such as Logic, Mac Miller, J. Cole, and ScHoolboy Q. Just not impressed enough to write about? Would like to hear your thoughts on any of these guys. -- Aaron A, Minneapolis

[A] There are plenty of J Cole reviews on my site (drop the period when you search) although I thought his latest way too bland. Mac Miller I always found a complete bore, ScHoolboy Q toxically sexist without enough payback. Logic I've tried several times without connecting. Maybe someday--his profile remains intriguing.

[Q] Seems like you would've made a good producer. Has any artist/band ever reached out? And have you ever pondered the idea yourself? -- Ian

[A] I don't think I'd make much of a producer. There certainly have been major exceptions, but I think producers are better off having more technical command of music than I do. The one person I can recall asking me to try is Todd Snider; I was even more flattered by his question than by yours. But what I told him is also what I've told NYU students seeking comments on their demos. My gift is being able to listen to a finished product, whether it's as untutored as early Bikini Kill or Coathangers or as skilled as Randy Newman or Thelonious Monk, figure out exactly how much I like it, and then being able to figure out why. Telling artists how to better perfect themselves is a different skill. Not that I mightn't come up with something useful or insightful. But most likely I wouldn't.

[Q] You occasionally mention socialism, and at times you've referenced critiques of capitalism. Meanwhile, the pop-music business spectacularly recapitulates capitalism's inequitable relations between labor and capital, and also provides escapist fare which serves to obscure or justify those relations. Any comments from you on these (apparent) contradictions, with or without references to Raymond Williams, would be appreciated. -- Chris Reeder, Watertown, Massachusetts

[A] I've written about these matters so often for so long that I wonder why anyone who knows my work is asking such a vast, simplistic, broadly worded question. The "pop-music business" doesn't "recapitulate" capitalist economic relations. It engages in them like any other enterprise where goods are bought and sold. There's nothing especially spectacular, by which I assume you mean something like extreme, in how it does this; in fact, the years 1970-2000, approximately, were unusually good ones for popular music artists because in those years recordings were relatively profitable, a profitability greatly diminished not by capitalism per se but by technological innovation--the streaming economy has forced most musicians back to earning their livings almost exclusively on the road via personal appearances, since the time of the troubadours a hard life with unfortunate ideological consequences. (I mentioned technology. Now let me mention crime. Neither is identical to capitalism; both are often exploited by capitalists.) As for "escapist fare," popular musicians have always sold escape, which properly experienced and administered is essential to a decent life for most working people--for most sane ones, in fact. I could go on; I could literally write a book were I so inclined, which I'm not (no one would pay me enough for my time--writers have problems under capitalism too, always have and it's getting worse). But the central answer to your question is simply that some corporations find it profitable to sell art that mitigates/palliates/undermines/contravenes the capitalist order, as indeed do some artists, with greatly varying degrees of intentionality. I know I haven't organized this especially well. But I'm not getting paid, so why should I allow myself to be exploited any further? Instead I'd humbly suggest that anyone who genuinely cares about what I think about such matters, but especially Chris Reeder, obtain and read in order both Is It Still Good to Ya? and the forthcoming Book Reports, where they arise again and again and again, albeit often at an angle rather than head-on.

[Q] I'm enjoying my advance copy of Book Reports (thanks!) and have a question about the Paul Nelson/Ellen Willis essay. It's a terrific piece of criticism, but near the end you say something I'm hoping you could unpack. You refer to yourself as "someone who spent fifteen years extricating himself from [Ellen's] politics and is so glad he did." I grew up reading you and Ellen, but can't really figure out what part of Ellen's politics you felt compelled to pull away from. Any chance you could spell that out? -- Jeff Salamon, Austin

[A] It's mostly about her feminism--not the fact of it, obviously (I'm so sorry she's not around to kick ass today), but its single-mindedness. This began with the very personal question of marriage. Willis and I were a committed couple from early 1966 to late 1969, and I wanted to marry her, but though she agreed to a lifetime relationship, she was so firmly against the legal institution of marriage, and such a brilliant polemicist, that she convinced me (until she proposed to bring another man into said relationship, which sent me thataway). I spent at least two years extricating myself from that position, married Carola Dibbell in 1974, and am now a fervent pro-marriage, pro-monogamy propagandist, while Willis spent the rest of her life formulating a left radicalism centered on the oppression of women. She was always good on class and remained so, but Wilhelm Reich was her hero and her own brand of Reichian feminism her core ideology. For me, class--the concentration of wealth--is always key, but as a rock critic I engage continually with racial issues Ellen seldom had much to say about. Moreover, I always maintained an active and rather hopeful interest in electoral politics and as of Bush-Gore became fairly passionate as well as active about them, with a deep hostility to Ralph Nader that soured me permanently on third-party politics. Ellen's lifemate Stanley Aronowitz, in contrast, ran for governor of New York on the Green ticket in 2002--which is hardly to equate him with the egomaniacal spoiler Nader, and I like to think Willis would have seen through the Russophile spoiler Jill Stein and had her doubts about Bernie Sanders, whose sexual politics continue to suck. I will say this, however. Before the turn of the century Willis was warning from her Reichian-feminist perspective about a resurgence of fascism. I thought she was blowing smoke. She wasn't, and moreover, I agree with her that gender more than race provides most of the emotional energy fueling the fascist wave here and in Europe.

January 29, 2019

[Q] Since early on in your writing, you've made explicit distinctions between "Major" and "Minor" artists. Can you elaborate on what, for you, makes an artist fall into either category? Is there a third category of "Non-Artist" or something similar? And can someone move between them, falling or rising? I think of PJ Harvey, who you deemed major back in the '90s, but since Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea doesn't seem to have done work that's impressed you very much. -- Patrick Brown, Denver

[A] Major and minor aren't mathematically precise terms (and also not terms I'd set apart by capitalizing). Nor do I use them in any consciously systematic way, though they're the kind of trope a critic can slip into unawares. Certainly many artists who arrive as major lose their mojo--run out of conviction, find themselves incapable of freshening up ideas and virtues that once took us by storm. But since you mentioned Harvey, I looked back at those reviews and saw that with her I'd imbued the term with more meaning than is generally advisable but in her case makes sense. Harvey has put out two records I gave a full positive review since 2000's superb Stories From the City. But as regards one of them I also say she isn't major anymore, because she's lost so much emotional generosity. To put it another way, as of 2011's pretty good if overpraised Let England Shake she's on her way to becoming a crank. And as of 2016's Hope Six Demolition Project--which because she's such a talent still merits a *--she's rendering moral judgments there's no internal evidence she has any right to. I hope she recovers.

[Q] I noticed No Age's Snares Like a Haircut was ranked outside your top 20 even though you initially gave it an A. Assuming, based on the ranking, it's no longer an A record, what changed your mind? -- Stephen Roberts, Newfoundland

[A] Let's not get anal here, guys, and I do mean guys--in my experience, women just don't peruse lists in this kind of detail. Finalizing the Dean's List is a job--it's anything but tossed off, maintained throughout the year and then substantially revised on the basis of close to 100 percent relistening in December. But although my grades are remarkably stable--most critics' opinions fluctuate more--that doesn't mean they're set in stone: quite often A's dip to A minus and vice versa and sometimes A minuses fall off the Dean's List altogether. As it happens, the No Age album was one I bought early, found kind of dead and neglected, was surprised when it rose into high A minus territory as I prepared the relevant Expert Witness, decided at the last minute had to be a full A despite my early misgivings, put aside again, but in December found resisted enough to re-entry that I concluded was only a high A minus after all. In the future, as I relisten some more, my Dean's List responses and judgments will shift some more--last time I played the Hinds I thought it was probably too high on the list.

[Q] How often does it happen that you want to review an album but keep changing your mind about what grade to give it so you never publish a review? Is indecisiveness or changing your mind about whether/how much you like an album a frequent occurrence for you? -- Jinkinson Smith, Atlanta

[A] The basic answer to this question is never, but in part that's because the "want" in "want to review an album" is a self-fulfilling concept. Basically, the only albums I "want to review" are albums I like a lot. It's circular. It is true, however, that when an artist I've praised in the last makes an album I feel is weak (Robyn, say), I'll try harder to see where it stands on the */**/*** scale, if indeed it does, and once in a great while I'll begin to hear more compelling virtues in it as I do. Sometimes, too, I'll give up on a well-reviewed record only to return to it again later when the critical consensus gathers mass, especially if the album would meld well with something else I'm writing about. That happened not long ago with Soccer Mommy, which I thought would make a good conceptual fit with the Mitski I'd put off because I thought that despite its evident value (A-? B+? ***? wasn't sure) conceptualizing Be the Cowboy was going to be a challenge. In the end, the Soccer Mommy album I'd put aside after multiple plays in the spring turned out to sound about as good--better, actually--in a complementary way I thought made for an EW that hung together especially well as a whole. I don't require that of myself, but it's nice when it happens.

[Q] I remember Robyn's previous work has won your very optimistic opinions, but her new album Honey didn't appear in your Dean's List of 2019. Have you listened to it? I'd love to hear your thoughts. -- Yang, China

[A] I love Robyn, as the essay entitled "Dancing on Her Own" in Is It Still Good to Ya? explains at length. But Honey's huzzahs mystify me. The Robyn of 2010 was some kind of miraculous songbird, while the songwriting on the mildly charming Honey doesn't approach what she seemed to roll out so effortlessly on three successive albums eight years ago. There'll be an Honorable Mention sooner or later. But meanwhile let me provide you with a tracklist that made one great album of the three, which I left off the book version for formatting reasons. I called it Robyrt's Robyn. 1. Don't Fucking Tell Me What to Do; 2. None of Dem; 3. Dancehall Queen; 4. Dancing on My Own [Radio Version]; 5. Get Myself Together; 6. Hang With Me; 7. Call Your Girlfriend; 8. Stars 4-Ever; 9. Indestructible; 10. Cry When You Get Older; 11. Include Me Out; 12. Fembot; 13. U Should Know Better; 14. Criminal Intent; 15. We Dance to the Beat; 16. Jag Vet En Dejlig Rosa.

[Q] Because of a lengthy work commute, these days I do most of my listening within the cramped environment of a Toyota Prius C. After sixty years of exposure to loud music both live and recorded I'm starting to notice a little high-end hearing loss, and as someone who listens to even more music than I, I was wondering if you have similar issues, and what, if any, precautions you take to protect your hearing. -- Jeff Callahan, Flat Rock, North Carolina

[A] I haven't had a serious hearing test in 20 or 25 years and should schedule one when I'm done with my arthritic knee and my aging prostate and the elbow I fucked up when I was 10. But last time I did have one, expecting the worst because I was still going to a lot of live music, the audiologist told me my ears were exceptionally sharp. I concluded later that this was partly because I did so much close listening--deciphering lyrics, distinguishing between instruments--that my score on a test that worked by requiring me to register shifts in volume and pitch reflected learned skills as well as physical aptitude. That said, I have none of the usual old-man hearing symptoms--playing the TV loud, not registering my wife's questions, etc. And the fact is that most of the live music I attend isn't especially loud and never was--if it was, I usually stuffed tissue paper in my ears. Similarly, I almost never play music loud at home and never block out ambient sound when I use earphones (never buds). Thinking about it as I write, I can detect a very slight ambient ringing in my ears. Testing them would be a good idea. But they've held up pretty well. I can think of two music critics in my cohort who need hearing aids and never want to join them.

[Q] Hey Robert! I play in Deer Tick and just wanted to thank you for all of the thoughtful reviews. We are fans of your words. -- Ian O'Neill, Providence

[A] Just for the record, as someone who never imagines musicians should be his friends--it happens occasionally and friends are too precious to turn down out of an excess of caution, but it can get sticky--I really appreciate it when this kind of thing happens. Note that I dismissed two of Deer Tick's three most recent albums, though I liked the other one a lot. Thanks, Ian--I'm glad you care, and glad you can tell I always try to tell the truth as I hear it.

January 15, 2019

[Q] Alright Robert, so you have to live on a deserted island for a year. You can only bring one artist's discography to listen to. Whose discography do you bring with you? -- Cody Holleman, Fort Worth

[A] Kids are so cute. You apparently don't know that Greil Marcus edited a book based on this silly premise called Stranded 40 years ago. We were supposed to pick albums, not oeuvres, and although Dave Marsh concocted an imaginary compilation he claimed he could jerk off to, most of us took our assignment as what it was: a chance to celebrate a beloved album at essay length for decent money--$750, quite good for the time, not to mention this one. I cheated by picking a UK-only double-LP comprising both New York Dolls LPs. For your silly question I'll be more literal, however, and say the choice would be between the Beatles and Miles Davis and I'd probably chicken out and choose Davis because he recorded so much with so many different concepts, attitudes, grooves, and sonic gestalts. Sure I prefer Monk in real life. But he just isn't as varied.

[Q] You have reviewed every post-1970 Dylan album, and of course most of his 60s work is listed in the Basic Record Library. But you haven't commented on the five (!) albums' worth of standards Uncle Bobby has dropped on the world since 2015. Why the pass? Not interested? Tried to listen but felt meh? You dug both Willie's Stardust (a lot) and Rod's American songbook volumes (enough). If you did give Shadows in the Night, Fallen Angels, or Triplicate a listen or two (or five), what was your takeaway? -- David Sussman, Orlando, Florida

[A] I bought Shadows in the Night and listened, I don't know, three-four-five times. Probably not five, because it was painful. Dylan's voice would appear to be permanently shot, which happens to lots of singers as they approach eighty, although Willie Nelson and Elza Soares and to a lesser extent Tom Zé and many others including my near-contemporary Maria Muldaur are sounding great. Sinatra was such a virtuoso, however, that he petered out. Dylan might still get away with writing songs for the voice he has, as the shot Leonard Cohen did. But the Sinatra-style pop canon Dylan has devoted himself to lately does generally require some show of mellifluousness and pitch control. Nothing I know about the follow-ups suggest he sounds any better three years later.

[Q] Will you admit that you got Fiona Apple's debut Tidal wrong? -- Dominic, Brigantine, New Jersey

[A] Do a Consumer Guide search on Fiona Apple on my site and find her reviews topped by Tidal's Neither. But at the bottom there's a link to something called "Hearing Her Pain" that till October 2020 will inform the Fiona Apple fan that the 2012 Barnes & Noble Review essay of that title is included in Is It Still Good to Ya? and embargoed as such. But I can tell you that my view of Tidal had not changed as of that 2012 pass and that I am unlikely to revisit the question again. "Determinedly bathetic," "sodden juvenilia," "went triple platinum behind a Grammy-winning single about doing a good man wrong and a video featuring a teenager in her underwear" is the pertinent verbiage. Sorry.

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