Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

Consumer Guide:
  User's Guide
  Grades 1990-
  Grades 1969-89
  And It Don't Stop
  Book Reports
  Is It Still Good to Ya?
  Going Into the City
  Consumer Guide: 90s
  Grown Up All Wrong
  Consumer Guide: 80s
  Consumer Guide: 70s
  Any Old Way You Choose It
  Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough
Xgau Sez
  And It Don't Stop
  CG Columns
  Rock&Roll& [new]
  Rock&Roll& [old]
  Music Essays
  Music Reviews
  Book Reviews
  NAJP Blog
  Rolling Stone
  Video Reviews
  Pazz & Jop
Web Site:
  Site Map
  What's New?
Carola Dibbell:
  Carola's Website
CG Search:
Google Search:

Articles [NAJP]

Political Criticism

So a week or two ago, a commenter here wondered if I ever answered anything that wasn't about politics. The syntax confused me a little, so here are his exact words:

Do you always reply to comments exclusive to politics, Mr. Robert Christgau? (If you don't reply, I'll consider that a reply).

Something like what I said, anyway--commenter Jones had previously raised good musical questions in connection with my Joe Schloss post that I'd never found time to respond to, so perhaps that was on his mind. I was going to answer this time by noting that one of the great benefits of my longtime job at The Village Voice was that even though I was a music critic I got to write about politics as much as I wanted--because the Voice in those pre-New Times days was an explicitly left-liberal paper, because that was the critical persona I'd established, and because I was expected to write essays as well as the brief record reviews that are now almost the entirety of my paid output. But I never found the time. I was too busy feeding my election gossip habit.

Really, I barely check my favorite music blog, Idolator--and when I do I wonder why Maura Johnston isn't sneaking more politics on there somehow. Starting from a base of Talking Points Memo, Daily Kos, and Huffington Post, all of which I check many times a day, I now regularly click on Politico and Real Clear Politics; I just realized I hadn't checked out Wonkette in a while, and stopped writing this for 15 minutes so I could. What I wonder is--Jones doesn't? I'm not the only one whose creative life has been disrupted by this campaign. I mean, I go down to Princeton to visit an English class and find that the host prof knows exactly what I'm referring to when I talk about Obama's chances in Virginia (should Ohio and Florida disappear down their usual black hole, the pivotal state this year) and Montana (don't believe the maps, his people are still there and say it's close). Then I catch up with a rather shy, apparently apolitical, TV-and-fiction-obsessed ex-student and find out that he is planning to canvass in Pennsylvania next weekend. The first five minutes of the last NAJP board meeting was all election gossip.

When I was a teenager part of my fascination with pop music was the charts--I followed Cash Box and Peter Tripp's top 40 the way I followed the box scores and the weekly batting averages the way I followed, come to that, the 1956 presidential races with their primitive convention-breakdown (all those favorite sons!) and electoral-vote maps. I'm supposed to have outgrown these fascinations, but though in music I started a critics' poll so I wouldn't have to. Why should I? It's a species of play, a crucial aesthetic dimension by me. It's just that in all three realms, baseball included, other aesthetic dimensions have come to loom larger.

I'm not saying play is the main reason for my election gossip habit. The main reason is that I feel my life depends on it. The most important election of my life, easy. I said the same in 2004, when I did my first serious electoral work after more than five decades of electoral fandom, and as 2008 is proving all too thoroughly for my taste, I was right. Sure there's an important sense in which my life (not just my livelihood) depends on music too--but right now, not as much. I still listen my usual 12-18 hours a day, still get excited, still feel sustained--but right now, not as much. So on the one hand I tote up electoral votes and work out scenarios and read inside dope, and there's play in that. But it's not all that much fun, which is why I'm spending the weekend in Virginia, canvassing flesh-and-blood voters. I'm not even bringing my laptop with me.

And of course, my habit extends well beyond the stats. I even read comment threads sometimes, which in most contexts is my idea of a major waste of time (though not here--ARTicles has such an exclusive clientele). Anyway, for better or worse much if not most political writing is in fact a species of criticism these days. Stat breakdowns, "ground game" analysis (amazing how many amateurs know what "ground game" means), voter suppression stories, and of course actual policy discussion are all in the mix--the meat of the mix, really. But for the most part election coverage critiques performance and--another term we've all come to know--"media narrative." Certainly that's what 90 percent of debate rehash boils down to, and at least 50 percent of stump-speech and ad reporting. So much of it is crap, too--Wolf Blitzer, David Gregory, that CNN Republican with the mustache, what pompous, short-sighted, irrelevant critics. The Maddow-Buchanan show, on the other hand, is spiky and sprightly. James Wolcott, so eloquent when he's palpably angry or sick at heart (he always gave a sense of loathing the war to his soul), has turned into an effete bore because Obama isn't really to his taste (though the stock market crash woke him up--later for that one). Chris Matthews has picked up his game big-time because his loathing--of the Clintons, who deserved more measured disdain--turned him into a goon, obscuring the robust appetite for politics that is his special charm. Keith Olbermann's shtick--and passion--wore thin fast. Jon Stewart proved himself a grand master with his perfect Obama question: "How are you going to break our hearts?" And then there's my favorite, Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo, who intersperses concise, fact-based, morally impassioned analysis with occasional one-liners. My favorite was headed "Deep Thought." It went: "Why did Bush ruin the country?"

I think the answer is that Bush thought his friends would still have their money no matter what--enough of it, anyway, to continue to run the country in perpetuity. Let's not let that happen. If you can't canvass, phone-bank.

4 Comment

By Tom Lane on October 10, 2008 8:25 AM

You're right about Idolator's lack of political music posts. I sent them a link when John Rich's "Raising McCain" first came out and was surprised to see nothing listed about it. By the way did you know that Aaron Tippin now has a new song called "Drill Here Drill Now". Easy to find on Google.

By Alex on October 10, 2008 10:12 AM

Actually, a better question is why the commenter seemed surprised that a music writer responded to politics. I write because all the issues that interest me about our culture turn up in music sooner or later, and thinking about music means thinking about our culture -- politics included.

By Dean Jones on October 11, 2008 11:59 AM

Sorry the syntax is confusing, but I'm delighted that a proper article was weeded out of it. Although I had no reason not to believe you were liberally minded just from reading your music reviews, I found it humbling to see you defending Barack Obama; my comment was not reactionary or critical, nor was I pressing for a response (I swear!). Sure, I can take 15 minutes out to scour daily, political commentary -- in fact, I usually take about 2 hours -- and I can appreciate the minutes put in when it comes to canvassing. So, while I'm doubly pleased to find my last comment atop your article, that advocacy and prioritising explicit in your political writing isn't lost on me:

". . . Bush thought his friends would still have their money no matter what--enough of it, anyway, to continue to run the country in perpetuity. Let's not let that happen. If you can't canvass, phone-bank." Keep on pushing.

By Gary Knight on October 13, 2008 4:45 PM

Hi Robert,

Do you read CounterPunch at all? If not, you may want to check it out.

Thanks for all great writing.



Articles, Oct. 10, 2008

The Bookazine Solution Postliveblogging the Debate