Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Articles [NAJP]

"End of an Era"?

It's been a little weird keeping the news of the end of my Consumer Guide column at MSN under my hat since I got the more or less final word only it wasn't totally final in the second week of April. There were several good reasons to be discreet, some self-interested and others matters of courtesy to Microsoft, so at first I just informed a few professional contacts and a very few close friends (who in some cases are the same people). But around the beginning of June, with the final edition due in a couple of weeks, I decided to get more loose-lipped in an ad hoc way, which means a lot of the kind notes I've been receiving (a flow, not a flood) were from people who already knew the news. I've been interested to see the title phrase pop up three or four times, most publicly in the email "interview" my pal Ann Powers did yesterday.

Far from me to say, not least because I expect to continue to write record reviews elsewhere than my remaining regular gigs at All Things Considered and Barnes & Noble Review. But even overlooking its cliche density, that phrase seems worth avoiding. It encourages sloppy thought like whatever went through the head of the assigning editor at the New Hampshire public radio outlet that abetted a decent critic, better drummer, and (who knew?) dynamite self-promoter's self-labeling as "the last rock critic standing." (The critic-drummer, whose name you will note I am not spelling right, was in the non-print news again just a few weeks ago. No, I am not gloating, not even a little--shouldn't happen to Michelle Malkin. But coincidences this poetic cannot go altogether unnoted.) Point is, right, it's a crap time out there for arts journalists in general and rock critics even more. I've said so here many times and will again. And in that sense I suppose an "era" is ending--or ended a year, two years, five years ago. But even now there's loads of continuity. If I've learned anything from cyberpunk fiction, and I've learned plenty, it's that worlds do not end, they change.

Whether that means Doug McLennan is right and what I will in some subsequent post dub "the AOL model" is somehow a good thing, and by the way why not let local arts entrepreneurs control their own coverage, we're all in this together--well, that is another matter.

PS. I mentioned kind notes. Forgive my self-indulgence and let me reprint my favorite so far, much more for the first part, which is laugh lines, than the second part, which is hyperbolic praise. It's from my old pal Tom Smucker, who I only told a week ago even though he lives upstairs from me:

We were at a party 40 or 41 years ago and a young fellow came up to Bob and said, "So you're the guy who puts grades on records," meaning, "So you're the guy who moved the Notre Dame Cathedral to Sheboygan, Wisconsin" or "So you're the guy who puts catsup on caviar." Four decades later, in my opinion, the CG will stand as the brick by brick record of how two generations assembled a cathedral of music and words from small discs of plastic, and for awhile, spools of tape.


By JLT on July 2, 2010 5:52 AM>

As a committed long time devotee to Bob and the CCG (we never met but exchanged letters many many years ago) I was both saddened (for me and others like me) but also happy for Bob because I sensed relief and the anticipation of pursuing other goals personal and otherwise. I can only imagine the dedicated and rigorous daily routinized process that creating such a monthly column entailed. How Bob was able to keep this up and at the level excellence he mainatined is truly mind boggling.

So Bob thanks for all the great music you turned me (and my son) on to, the pleasure that it brought and the diversity of taste that opened new worlds of artistic expression that would be beyond the reach of any causal but interested listener.

I look forward to continue reading your thoughts and opinions on popular art wherever they might be published. And who knows, maybe there is an economic model out there that would allow the CCG to exist, even if in a less regular and comprehensive form.

Best of luck.

By Stan on July 2, 2010 8:46 AM

There are so many things that can be written--but I would simply like to thank The Dean for "taking the time". THE TIME--more listening in 40+ years than (gotta be) any rock critic EVER. Other critics have gifts--but no one has immersed himself in the music like Christgau--working his way through styles/genres/trends that even "comprehensive" fans would have instinctively ignored--but you don't ignore when you immerse and have the desire to be the best and most knowledgeable. Which he remains. Bob has learned from all of that listening--and so have we.

Congratulations on a job most well done and enjoy a little extra time off Bob--but not too much. Keep listening--catch a few more ballgames / dinners / vacations--and keep writing--we can't survive on Metacritic and Pitchfork alone.

By Jeff Callahan on July 2, 2010 10:38 AM

These days it seems anybody with computer access is a "critic." Which may be good for democracy, but it hasn't been so hot for what we used to call "art." (Sounds quaint, I know.)

Anyway, as a life-long music fan and follower of your column since it was reprinted in Creem in the 1970s, I just want to say thanks, Bob. Your work has influenced not only my taste in music but also my writing style and thinking on everything from art (that word again) to race, class, sex, and politics.

Don't stop.

By Robert Christgau on July 2, 2010 12:15 PM

Having received more notes since this was written, some of them here, I thought I should make one thing clear that apparently isn't. As became marginally less clear in a late edit I did not suggest (that then somehow failed to be made until an hour or so after the current CG went live, further compounding the confusion), the decision to end the column did not originate with me. It was MSN's. I accept, respect, and understand the decision, and, as I've said, the feelings I've had since are by no means all negative--far from it. But I don't think the column was ever stronger than it was in its last year.

By Scott Lemieux on July 2, 2010 12:31 PM

Was very sorry to see that yesterday, and am glad that you clarified the ambiguity about whose decision it was. Obviously, while it's a somewhat depressing time for consumers of good criticism, it's much worse for the practitioners. Best of luck.

By Mark on July 2, 2010 1:19 PM

I have a lot of records and compact discs because of that Consumer Guide. About 3000 strong. They take up a wall of shelving in my living room and I treasure every last one. My 80's Afropop compilations, my long out of print Original Music CD's, my signed Archers of Loaf discs . . . and so on. I wouldn't have discovered any of them if it weren't for Bob's ears and that monthly column. I'll still find great music. I'll still discover great young bands. I'll still read Christgau in whatever forum he chooses to work in. But I'll miss that cohesive guide and I hope that some savvy company recognizes its value and makes Bob an offer he can't refuse.

Hey Amazon or Barnes and Noble or, hell, Apple are you listening? People who read the guide buy physical media. . . . take a hint.

By Tom Lane on July 2, 2010 5:16 PM

So does this mean you will now have time to put together a book of your reviews from the 00's?

By Rod on July 2, 2010 8:09 PM

I could list the great music you've recommended. I could list my favorite lines from your delicious prose. But I'll keep it short and sweet in honor of the CG.

Thank you for the time you spent listening so that my listening could be more efficient. Thanks for the laughs, the insights and the music collection I've built heavily dependent upon your input.

I'll miss the analysis of someone whose ear was there in the beginning. I'll miss the opinions of someone who realized a good record collection could encompass Janis Joplin, Chuck Berry, Pere Ubu and Justin Timberlake. I'll miss the monthly challenge not to give up and be an old fart in my listening habits.

After a suitable period of mourning, I hope you enjoy your new listening life. I've wondered about the interesting contrast between your faithfulness to Carola and the aural infidelity required by the CG format. I know you won't quit listening for the new, but I also hope you find time to renew old sonic friendships pushed aside by CG demands.

It's been a joy reading you obsessively over the past 20 years. All the best.

By Zach P. on July 2, 2010 9:01 PM

Mr. Christgau,

I agree: Your column had never been stronger than it was during this last year. Thank you for providing such an indispensable resource for 41 years.

I read that you're not interested in putting together a '00s book. I hate to be greedy, especially since you offer so much of your work for free at your Web site, but please know there are many of us who'd be looking forward to it, should you reconsider.

By Zach P. on July 2, 2010 9:10 PM

Mr. Christgau,

I agree: Your column had never been stronger than it was during this last year. Thank you for providing such an indispensable resource for so long.

I read that you're not interested in putting together a '00s book. I hate to be greedy, especially since you offer so much of your work for free at your Web site, but please know there are many of us who'd be looking forward to the book, should you reconsider.

By Michael R on July 3, 2010 1:20 PM

I've been addicted for over 30 years, 360+ CGs and I wouldn't have missed any one of them. The first record I bought on an RC recommendation was called Marquee Moon. The most recent was one of a few Thelonius Monk records I've got recently. And maybe a thousand others in between. It hardly needs saying that the 41 years of CG is the best writing there is on pazz n jop. (As a small example from this month, the one line on John Prine conveys 40 years worth of understanding and affection.) Robert, I'll continue to keep your writing under closer surveillance than the FBI did on those Russian agents, wherever it can be found. Many many thanks.

By Jim K on July 4, 2010 3:59 PM


Oh, well, keep on keeping on, whatever the next step. Been reading every week since 1983 (when I was 13) up until this seemingly final cg.

By Steve G. on July 4, 2010 7:32 PM

I have been reading the CG since the late Sixties, and I own two of Robt. Christgau's books, "Any Old Way You Choose It" and "Grown Up Wrong." I have relied on his ears to hear new music, and his essays to think about music and culture. That MSN has elected to drop the CG is stunning news...what can I say. I'm hoping that an arts patron will anonymously and graciously elect to underwrite Mr. Christgau, in the public interest.

By David Schweitzer on July 5, 2010 5:53 AM


I wish someone would pay you to do a comprehensive A-List book (Top 1000, say, within some arbitrary-by-nature paramater). But I hope you get to write the pop music history you've been researching on and off since at least 1988.

As for my tribute to the CG, well, I just bought the 2-CD set of Andy Fairweather Low's mid'70s work, mainly for , which I just recently realized is great enough that the CD I made from a tape I made in 1988 of some rock critic's very scratchy copy just didn't hack it anymore. And in the process discovered that (the C-90's flipside) is a lot better than I gave it credit for at the time--I'm a lot more forgiving of soft rhythms in my 40's than I was in my 20's.

As you obviously understood when you included him in, otherwise largely filled with artists of greater impact and/or your personal passions, Andy Fairweather Low is a great example of what you do.

Leaving aside hipper-than-thou and so-square-I'm-hip, every critic with ears will come across records that no one else seems to like much or even get. The small part of the trick may be admitting that (and explaining why) you love this thing that others are too bored to puke at (which of course becomes easier as you accrue cred). The bigger part is actually not doing so unless you're really sure (which I would imagine takes ever more restraint as you accrue cred). The CG format, especially back when it still had 20 records on a page, allowed a newbie to get a general idea of where you were coming from, find some reference points, and decide how useful you'd be to him or her. That you then also refused to abuse this position by inflating grades for oddball faves is one thing that's given you staying power. Someone else, I'd hear Low's look-ma-no-hands vocals once and figure the critic was either full of it or just on a different page from me. With you, I may not end up sharing your enthusiasm, but I'll give that fucked-up a vocal a second or third chance based on that enthusiasm, because I know there HAS to be something behind it, because there always is.

David Schweitzer

P.S. Yeah, 's pretty good too.

By Jeff H. on July 5, 2010 11:10 AM

Late Seventies for me. Since then, the CG has been an invaluable guide to the levels of a great and complex pop music scene. Two observations: the CG is a late revisionist bloom on the flower of Consensus criticism, an inheritor of the Randall Jarrell legacy; for in both cases, the fact of judgment (as Raymond Williams would say) remains significant. And that, in just this respect, Christgau certainly gave the tropism of feedback-technology (Pandora/Netflix, et. al.) a run for its money. I salute the project, and I'm sure I join many in wishing and hoping for a long-form argument.

By Rick on July 7, 2010 7:01 PM

Mr. Christgau, I've often wondered what I'd do without CG but now I wonder what you'll do. Thanks for all the recommendations, thanks for the excitement that came everytime I opened a new CG, thanks for guiding me to and through hip-hop, African pop and the Go-Betweens. And thanks equally for the challenge that your writing provides; measuring and re-measuring the weight of those 60 or 70 words has been a joy in itself. You are an incredibly gifted writer and I'm glad you'll be continuing to do that.

By Carl M on July 9, 2010 1:23 PM

For me Christgau and his buddy Rockwell were the drivers in eviscerating the link between taste and any kind cultural hierarchy. I'm in Lima Peru, so I don't have my quotes exactly right, but in 'All American Music' Rockwell wrote, "there are those who question how Eddie Palmieri and Neil Young can be discussed alongside of Elliott Carter and Milton Babbitt. Well, it can; I do it here." And he proceeded to show us how. Christgau took the notion of hierarchy and turned it on its head. For him 'popular' meant 'populist', and with this as a grounding he proceeded to erect some of the most demanding critical standards I've ever seen. Sorry Bob, but to a couple of generations of us the last part of Tom Smucker's note - the part about assembling a cathedral of words and music from small discs of plastic - doesn't sound hyperbolic at all. We have lost our rudder. What do we do now?

By Doug Christgau on July 9, 2010 2:40 PM

Hi Bob - Good to see you were so appreciated.

Brother Doug

By J. Callahan on July 11, 2010 5:42 PM

Alright, goddamn it.

So I just purchased and listened to the cds I didn't already own from what is ostensibly the final Consumer Guide. I mean, The Dead Weather and LCD Soundsystem I can (and did) find on my own, but how am I going to find gems like "Pierre de Gaillande Sings Georges Brassens" without a heads-up from Christgau?


By Michael Stoutsenberger on July 12, 2010 8:45 PM

"You say goodbye and I say hello."

I've often wondered how many other nuts like me have spent hours on your website, trying to discover sounds we missed out on, passing late late nights sifting through As and random Dean's Lists, hoping to find something we haven't heard yet, something amazing to shake us up.

How many of us have listened to an album, formed an opinion, and then tried to guess what you'd said about it, before finally rushing over to your website to find out. Feeling vindicated when we'd agree, laughing our asses off at some line you wrote even if we didn't.

Looking forward to the first of every month to see who made the cut this time. And for myself, never wanting to get to the end, never wanting to have heard it all. "Hey, there's always another A+ to check out, right? A B+ I skipped over? I haven't really been through this whole website, have I? Wait, is it 4 am??"

Especially for someone born in '79, I had a lot of catching up to do. You made it possible. Didn't once tell me what to think, but sure taught me how to.

So thanks very much for the CG. It's been a hell of a lot of fun! We're all in a tremendous debt to you.

By Jim Quinn on July 13, 2010 1:06 PM

Mr. Christgau, as someone who found you by accident and relatively late - stumbling across a copy of Any Old Way You Choose It 15 years ago at the local library while away on a university co-op term - I too have a lot to catch up on. But unquestionably, I trust you beyond any other in helping me from here to there.

There are many reasons for this. The intersection of your infinite appetite, broad scope and long-term continuity makes the choice logical to begin with. Your writing is remarkably entertaining and insightful, especially given the space constraints you work within, which makes for a rewarding read (and has been influential in my own love of writing). But the kicker is that instinct, and I've never been disappointed when picking up an album on your advice (which is often) - what more could one hope for from any consumer guide than that kind of trust?

So, like the others, I hope some equally loyal (if more well-heeled) reader will offer you a new posting . . .hopefully before you start to enjoy all that extra free time enough to say No.

And either way, thank you. You've opened my ears to more great albums than I could possibly whittle down to a carload on some future cross-country move.

By Justin Hartung on July 16, 2010 8:07 PM

Sad to hear it - You've turned me on to more great music over the years than can possibly relate here. I'ma google-alert ya, surely. Thanks for teaching me to always keep my ears open.

By howard on July 17, 2010 10:32 PM

the first thing by you i ever read was "Q: why is rock and roll like the revolution?" and i've been hoooked ever since: it's almost unimaginable not to have a consumer guide to look forward to next month.

(long ago and far away - ok, the mid '80s, when i wrote for the boston phoenix - you quoted me 3 years running in your pazz + jop round-up essay, my proudest moments in music criticism.)

By Daniel Blades on July 22, 2010 11:12 AM

Mr. Christgau,

Not to be repetitious, but I began reading your column in the late '70s in Creem and my listening to all manner of pop music has been enriched by you. More than your exceptionally broad tastes and your rigorous aesthetic standards, what has kept me coming back is your deep moral sense.

I may not always agree with you--the first G & R album isn't that bad--but you have opened me up to more good music than anyone else.

Now if you can find time to write that history of pop music I know you have in you . . .

Thank you and good luck.

By Cam on August 1, 2010 8:08 PM

Today marks the first day (+/-) without a consumer guide in hand. I was disappointed for Mr. Christgau about this, and I hope his expressed equanimity is as genuine as it seems. Then I felt bad for myself, because I need tested filters for the reams of new music that are squeezing through the disparate portals that connect artists and my ears (potentially but almost never directly). But this overlooks who I worry about most-- great artists who I never would have heard (or bought product from) but for Mr. Christgau. To the future Dramaramas and Sunny Ades of the world, I wish you good luck and I hope all my friends with cash can still find you.

To Mr. Christgau, I hope you can hear just one time the sax solo on Lloyd Price's Where You At. Holy moly, the whole song is only 122 seconds, but I cannot believe all that happens in that song really fits into a 2 minute record.

Be good.

By Sterling Black on August 8, 2010 7:56 PM

Mr. Christgau

As a fan of yours, I am saddened by the fact that your Consumer Guide will no longer be published. Hopefully, rock critics won't lose their nerves with your absense. But, I've always loved your Pazz & Jop lists, and I was wondering if you will still be participating in the poll? Thank you for the 41 years that you have written these great reviews.

By Tom on August 9, 2010 5:40 PM

Typically, I leaped past the first paragraph of the July column to get to the reviews and didn't even see the "end of CG" note. After refreshing the page several times on August 1 and wondering what happened, I finally read the note, much to my dismay. I think that makes me another one of the "nuts like me have spent hours on your website". Before the internet I clipped and saved every VV column, starting back in the late '70s. And I still keep coming back to things I missed. I'm glad someone mentioned Andy Fairweather Low. That is a perfect example of a hidden treasure I would have missed w/o your writing. I read your columns on him when the 70s anthology came out and always wondered if he was really that good. When the double CD was released and I got it, I couldn't believe it. How could music like this go unheard? And as I recall your mentioning in another column, I have never played AFL without someone stopping to ask me about him. And your recent work has helped a guy who is pushing 60 separate the wheat from chaff with my son's indie rock recommendations. In fact, thanks to recent review, he and I have tickets to Titus Andronicus in a few weeks.

Thanks for all the great writing.

Articles, July 2, 2010

An Original An Unruly Collection