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.

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.

[Q] It seems like Anthony Fantano's by far the most discussed music reviewer on the internet these days. Have you watched any of his reviews. Do you think he's a good critic? -- David Springer, Fairfax, Virginia

[A] I don't "watch" reviews. I read writing. When I'm at the computer I almost never click on links to podcasts or televised news much less criticism, for two reasons--first, reading is faster than listening, and second, I'm continually using my ears to listen to music. Moreover, no one I know "discusses" Anthony Fantano, a name I barely recognized. Glancing over his Wikipedia entry he seems to have arrived at a plausible brand of 21st-century rockcrit taste that runs toward what I'll call dark prog--the godfathering Swans, this year's number one Daughters, on the rap end his beloved Death Grips. But clearly he's broader than that. Little apparent interest in the pop end or indeed tune or indeed fun, however--always a tragic and psychologically revealing lacuna. Nowhere near as insensible to hip-hop/r&b as dark proggers tend to be, but note that very few female artists crack his top 10s, which in 2018 was really missing the action. Fantano seems to have figured out a way to make some kind of living by disseminating his own criticism in the online age. That's an achievement. But until he starts putting it in written language, I'll live without.

[Q] You reviewed albums for magazines that ranked by star like Rolling Stone and Blender. Especially in Blender's case, I thought you were kind of generous on the five stars with some collections (Patsy Cline and John Fogerty jump to mind). Were you really generous or did you change your mind eventually? -- Nicky, Quebec City, Quebec

[A] Every mag that rates records has a different way of doing it. If I'm working for them, it's my job to do it their way. Rolling Stone was always too stingy except when Jann Himself was reviewing one of his rich friends. I wanted to give Lucinda Williams's Car Wheels five stars and was flat-out refused, and could only raise M.I.A.'s Kala to four-and-a-half after crushing out a review just before a family vacation and then finding that all I wanted to do when I got to LA was play it again. Both are now fives for them if subsequent coverage is any indication. Partly to distinguish itself from Rolling Stone, Blender graded more leniently; I'd say they didn't recognize the A plus concept. So for them those two comps got the highest grade. Without relistening to make sure, that makes sense to me.

[Q] What stylistic rules of thumb do you live by that other writers would benefit from. -- Scott Lyons, Stirling, Scotland

[A] I don't know about stylistic, beyond find your own voice and stick with it as it develops--plus, I guess, be funny occasionally if you can. Plus plus, oh yeah, condense. But I believe in rewriting and rewriting again--rereading anything you write at least half a dozen times, which in the case of the stuff up front in anything over 1000 words usually means dozens of times. Reread on the screen, type it out and read it on paper because that's different, ask someone you know to give it some sort of edit because the simple awareness that other eyes are on it will add perspective. And then, when you're all done and ready to send it off, proofread one more time. I should add that the Xgau Sez format is designed to be more off-the-cuff so it feels less like work--I fiddle with it, sure, but not so laboriously, and it's barely edited by design. So in this format I fuck up more often. Like when I said Ghost Dog was my favorite soundtrack hands down? Completely forgot about American Honey, which I like even more.

January 01, 2019

[Q] Taking into account your own preferences and tastes, are there any artists of a style or in a genre that doesn't usually resonate for you but who are so good that personal preferences melt away and respect must be paid? -- Stuart Rosen, New Jersey

[A] For sure respect can be appropriate--as noted recently, I respect Paul McCartney a lot these days. I really respect Beethoven too--quite a lot, in fact. But the manner in which respect must be paid is an altogether different matter. Except in the pursuit of some larger critical or literary goal, you don't listen to music because you respect it, or at least I don't. I listen to it because I enjoy it. Early in 2018 me and Carola, who has a deeper personal history with classical music than I do, were serially entranced by a long scene in Kyle Stanley Robinson's 2312 in which one character gets another through a life-saving, months-long underground hike (on Mercury, as it happens) by whistling the entirety of Beethoven's Third. So we played a copy of that symphony from the random albeit alphabetized classical LPs squirreled away in the hall. But before side one was through we'd lost interest--a lot faster than we'd lost interest in Robinson's verbal description, which gripped and delighted us both.

[Q] Hi Robert, you've probably been asked this before, but I was just wondering about how your grading system changed a few years ago. Nowadays the letters range from A+ to B+, and are then followed by the asterisks, and there generally seem to be more A+'s and A's than there used to be. What are those of us who want a sense of your entire critical oeuvre (or whatever) to make of this? Is it simply that the asterisks have replaced the lower letters--three stars means B-, one star means C-, etc? Sorry for the long question! -- David Trollope, London

[A] "A few years ago" might also be rendered "since 1990"--that is, for most of the time I've been grading albums. If there are more A's these days, that's because there are more albums, an argument I've been making for all of this century. *** and ** records are B pluses I adjudge unworthy of a full review; so are most of the *'s, but I leave myself hedge room at the very bottom when there's something I feel the need to weigh in on briefly. Briefly in the early '90s I confined my negative reviews--that is B down to D and maybe there were one or two E's--to a monthly Turkey Shoot I've also explained here, but sometime in the early '90s my protégé then friend then editor then benefactor then mentor Eric Weisbard convinced me to include a "Dud of the Month" with the monthly Consumer Guide I published in The Village Voice, which after I got canned there got moved to MSN Music till June I think of 2010. When the Consumer Guide morphed into Expert Witness at the end of that year I stopped writing pans, and I don't miss it. Fact is, I'm too old to pack that kind of authority anymore, and am so glad not to be involved in the fractious trolling, infighting, and ignorameouness of the social media dystopia.

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