Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Articles [NAJP]

Postliveblogging the Debate

Well, else what am I supposed to call it? I'm not liveblogging--that's one of my intended points. And deadblogging really doesn't have the right feel. So good old "post" gets me out of a pickle.

When I wrote about my electoral gossip habit last week I expected more flak than I got (which was more or less none). One lesson of that, I suppose, is that most readers of this particular blog share the same jones these days. Another is that this is blogging, where it is accepted that the blogger (especially unpaid bloggers like myself) can do whatever the fuck they want. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck--it's like I'm back at the Voice (fuckwise, for sure not NPR or MSN, maybe Blender within reason). That isn't really my working assumption here--my working assumption is that everything I post should have an arts journalism "peg." My planned response to whoever complained about this was to adduce A.J. Liebling--along with Kael, Wolfe, and Macdonald a major inspiration for me in the '60s. Note that only Kael was a critic in the narrow sense. But Liebling, while a dedicated reporter--more dedicated than I proved to be for sure, though most journalistic criticism includes a reporting component absent from the academic kind--really pointed the way. He had three great subjects: journalism, boxing, and food. Although with his aversion to "the boys on the quarterlies" he might not have wanted to call his writing criticism, that's what it was. Liebling's "Ahab and Nemesis," about a Moore-Marciano fight, is one of the great critical essays of the 20th century. Now, a food critic won a Pulitzer in 2007 (and he deserved it, too). As for journalism, well, of course journalism can be criticized in the aesthetic as well as the public-interest sense. I became a journalist because I wanted to be a writer. Some journalism--the Goncourts, Addison & Steele--was already in the canon when I was in college. Much more is there now.

So I thought it might be interesting to track the critical reaction to Wednesday's Obama-McCain set-to. And I found some stuff out by doing so. The most important will come as no news to anybody but me. For some reason, I've never clicked Andrew Sullivan's blog the way many others I know do, though of course I've linked to it (probably something to do with the old Richard Goldstein attacks from my Voice days--a terrible reason, but all I got). So instead, as usual, I sat there with Josh Marshall in my lap (plus occasional attempts to access Maddow-Buchanan, which others apparently also found technologically impossible). But Marshall was not in top form--his best moment was "I'm just not thinking Colombia trade agreements are a driving issue this year. Call me crazy." It was Wonkette, which I looked at later, that eventually sent me to Sullivan by crediting him with flagging this glorious Youtube video. First, however, I spent the better part of two hours desperately trolling the Themtube--even looked at Charlie Rose for a while. There were very few aha moments. I liked Chris Matthews's point that when McCain said Americans were angry he was really talking about himself--"Americans aren't angry, they're worried, scared, despressed." I was impressed by Pat Buchanan's comparison of Obama to a fighter ahead on points in the 15th room, just looking not to get knocked out (though I was less impressed when he repeated it later on, and when he transformed it into a football/basketball team "running out the clock" concluded that he'd visited this metaphor many times before). Howard Fineman was better than usual--mildly funny once or twice ("Let's have those 10 town hall debates!"). And Keith Olbermann, though overbearing as usual, sharply pointed out that when it comes to judging debates, "Voters like policy and commentators don't." As if to prove it, former Recording Industry of America heavy and current CNN talking head Hilary Rosen commentated, "The style difference was important."

But for who? Next day Obama came out with an ad prominently featuring McCain's bizarre grimaces. But they would mean nothing without Obama's calm, boring, umpteenth-time explanations of his ideas and postions. His style was content. Sullivan got that better than anybody else in the best blow-by-blow of the night. (Pat Buchanan, meet Howard Cosell.) He noticed at 9:12 that McCain seemed "cranky" and instantly pointed out that Sarah Palin's special-needs expertise is not in "autism"; he complained that while McCain was "dreadful" on taxes, Obama was "boring," and that this time neither of them was clear on healthcare. Morning-after essays, typically, were better--Marshall at TPM, James Fallows, Gail Collins in a piece that must have been done by midnight to make today's Times, though I wish she'd figure out a way to break out of her op-ed neutrality just a little more sharply (although Tina Brown at her new Daily Beast, excellent on what she sees as the tragedy of her old pal McCain after the second debate, reverted to old pal this time). Fact is, the kind of from-the-hip writing that both liveblogging and TV analysis requires is hell on good criticism. Criticism requires reaction, absolutely. But it usually benefits from thought--and also from second thoughts.

Style did matter. But from here on in we'd better see less criticism and more reporting. The big story till November 4 will be the Republicans' efforts at voter suppression, which Talking Points has been on since it broke the U.S. Attorneys story in early 2007. Try this link:

And now this one. And then tell the boys in the front of the book at your paper, if you're lucky enough to still have one, that they're covering the Acorn story wrong. Because they almost certainly are.


By Jeff on October 21, 2008 5:45 PM

I've enjoyed your music criticism most of my life, but in politics you've chosen some strange bedfellows. Folks like Josh Marshall and Sully are good at raising people's blood pressure, but sometimes it's at the expense of honesty. I recommend adding Bob Somerby to your reading list. Once you get past his inflamed writing style you start to discover a whip smart media critic. And after that you begin to enjoy his inflamed writing style. Consider him a hedge position against those other blogs. Today's column is a good place to start:

Oh, one other point of contention with your previous post. Consider whether the 2000 election was perhaps the most important of your lifetime, not this one. Today the damage is done, and whoever gets in will have no choice but to start digging out. (Let's pray it's Obama with the shovel.) But if 2000 had gone to Gore, this would be a different world entirely.

By Robert on October 21, 2008 6:04 PM

I've been reading Somerby for years, but not much in this one. His dislike of Marshall is so clearly pure ressentiment--they both started in this game at the same time, only now Marshall is famous and he isn't. Of course, Marshall did tremendous work fighting Social Security privatization and breaking the U.S. Attorneys scandal while Somerby was rattling down the same old track--bad bad pundits and the war against Gore. I mean, right, Richard Cohen is a dick, as Marshall has pointed out many times; so are many others Somerby criticizes again and again and again. As with Wolcott taking out after K-Lo and Pajamas Media, eventually that stuff gets tired as writing. As for Gore, of course this wouldn't be such an important election if he had won. But he lost, and not just because of his bad media narrative--it was Gore who chose Leiberman, Gore who played the moderate card until it was too late, Gore who I'm not entirely convinced Wanted It no mattery what Somerby says. As for Marshall, he does tell the truth in a way Kos and HuffPost do not. As for Sullivan, I disagree with him about many things but he reads like someone with a better heart than Somerby. Day in day out, that matters with writers.

By Jeff on October 21, 2008 7:38 PM

Fair point about Marshall and the privatization work, though Somerby did give him due credit back then. I think you're reading Somerby wrong if you see resentment, though. More like disappointment. I don't think Somerby's in this for the glory; he may be one of the few. There's no paypal button on his site, for instance. And I'm not sure it's fair to criticize a media critic for not being an activist or a policy guy -- that's not his game. As for the constant harping about narrative, and all the repetition, it kind of works for me like the Ramones. He's got his issue, it's a great one, and damned if he isn't going to keep banging away at it until someone listens. To me that takes heart, even if it's not on his sleeve, and even if he lets his frustration show through too often. But let's agree to disagree on this one. We're both pushing for the same result, and in this case the end justifies the means, be it Marshall's or Somerby's.

Articles, Oct. 17, 2008

Political Criticism Call for Papers