Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Articles [NAJP]

The Only Publication of Its Kind

Had lunch today with Nancy Hanrahan, who for seven years in the '80s and '90s booked the New Jazz At the Public series at the Public Theater in Manhattan. She's now a tenured professor of sociology at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, who hopes to write a book about the decline of criticism in the internet age and was interviewing me to that end. A lot was said, including one point I'll get to that relates to Tom Moon's recent comment on his own less recent post--Plagens and me are in there too, and the back-and-forth seems of interest to me. But the main thing I want to report responds to Plagens's complaint that all we do at the NAJP is this blog. Hanrahan reads ARTicles regularly, but not as often as she would like. She thinks it's tremendously valuable, the only forum she's aware of for the problem that so interests her, and wanted to know why it's online-only--she'd read it more often if she could hold it in her hands. I replied with what seems to me the self-evident point that there was no way to make such a specialized publication economically viable, and nothing in her response persuades me in the slightest that I'm wrong. Nevertheless, especially coming from a sociologist I thought her climactic sentence was worth quoting in this era of hits and clicks: "Everything we need to know is quantified, but we don't really know anything." Think about that.

Among the things quantified, of course, are the deleterious effects of information bombardment on our mental functioning--well, often their mental functioning. Not that there was any quantification to speak of in "Digital Devices Deprive Brain of Needed Downtime," the chatty Matt Richtel piece Moon recommended in his comment today, which I'd forgotten I'd read this morning (on paper) by the time Moon brought it up. (Many others liked it more--it's at the top of the paper's most-emailed list! Does checking out most-emailed stories count as mental downtime? Or more distraction?) On the one hand, duh--I don't text, don't Twitter, don't have a Facebook page though maybe I should, and in general think information overload is a bane. On the other hand, that's exactly what someone of my age (and Moon's and Hanrahan's somewhat younger ages) is inevitably going to think, and I don't trust my command of this issue enough to make a big thing of it. It all sounds a little too familiar. Professors have been whining to me about how students don't read books for at least 30 years; I've been writing about information overload since my big New York Dolls essay in 1977, maybe longer. I wonder, just who are the sociologists and neurological researchers who are doing these studies? How old are they? What are their prejudices? I probably share those prejudices--a lot of them, anyway. But as I told Hanrahan when we discussed this point, I read too many articles 20-30 years ago about how you'd improve your infant's life by making sure s/he heard lots of Mozart before age one. What ever happened to that one?

Well, anyway, the big thing is: ARTicles--tremendously valuable. Post or comment now.


By Blair on August 26, 2010 9:36 AM

Then again.....

Seriously, what disturbs me are not the effects of technology on people my age (30) or older, but kids growing up with the constant feedbag of information. How will the landscape look in 30 years?

By JD Considine on August 26, 2010 9:29 PM

Actually, the babys-hearing-Mozart canard was debunked, along with the educational value of Baby Einstein videos.

Now, getting your child to play Mozart before age one. . . .

By David Schweitzer on August 28, 2010 7:19 PM

I feel like the Trekkie who corrects William Shatner on how many horses he owns, but Bob, you do have a Facebook page.

By Robert Christgau on August 28, 2010 7:38 PM

This is true. I do have a Facebook page. I didn't create it, however, which is hardly to say I'm anything but flattered that someone else dud. Problem is, in order to look at it, as I've tried to to three or four times including just now, I have to become a Facebook member, and I don't feel like it. My daughter is, natch. I keep meaning to ask her to show me my page, and forgetting.

By john rockwell on August 30, 2010 5:16 AM

I love the idea of having a Facebook page and being unable/unwilling to access it. I don't have one at all, hence remain pure. Wife and daughter do, however.

By Nancy Hanrahan on August 30, 2010 10:04 AM

Just to situate that comment (so that it doesn't seem so global) . . . the "everything" to which I referred is the information we have about "what people want." Surely quantifiable measures of popularity are not new to market research, but they've taken on vastly different proportions and the mantle of indisputable truth with the Internet. Yet the question of what people want, or will buy, is never settled in advance. Sure, we all know that publishing is in trouble, but we don't know whether or not any particular magazine has a chance to succeed--financially and otherwise--until it's out there. Again, this isn't news: Marx wrote about the fallacy of supply and demand in the 1840's. But I guess the bigger issue is that if we buy into the idea that the numbers have predictive value, we might think we know what we need to know, but it's at least partly an illusion. Art, including good criticism, tends to surprise us--something the numbers will never capture.

Thanks again for the illuminating conversation . . .

By MWnyc on August 30, 2010 6:50 PM

I'm sorry but I can't help shaking my head at the suggestion that one would read ARTicles more often if one could hold it in one's hands.

Isn't that why God made the "Print" function?

Is it churlish of me to respond this way?

(Personally, I'd never get through a single workout on the elliptical machine without printouts of good online journalism.)

By Nancy Hanrahan on August 31, 2010 8:07 AM

It's not just about holding something in one's hand, but about what you're holding (and I'm not just talking about differences in paper stock). If you go to a web-journal and print what you want, it's very different from the sense of discovery one has with a magazine . . . that possibility of being exposed to what you don't already know you're interested in. There was a letter to the editor in the NYTimes responding to their piece on Pandora a couple of weeks back. The writer said it beautifully--with Pandora, you have your own subjective preferences repackaged and sent back to you. But a radio DJ can take you on a journey to places you haven't been. Again, isn't that what art is about?

I have no illusions about swimming against the tide, and I'm a long way from begging someone to plunk down a pile of money for a new arts magazine. But since when do we just take industry hype for granted?

By Matt on September 1, 2010 8:37 AM

I gotta go with MWnyc on this one. I print out articles all the time to read on the bus, subway, or my couch. Seems like a no-brainer.

Articles, Aug. 25, 2010

One Bad Apple Aesthetics in Journalism--and History