These are questions submitted by readers, and answered by Robert Christgau. New ones will appear in batches every third Tuesday.
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September 22, 2021
The rock-critic economy, rumba reading, not sucking in your 70s, Van the Prick, and the meaning of meaning-mongering.
[Q] You've often talked about how the digital age has destroyed musicians' ability to make money off their music alone without touring. Your Substack now has well over 1000 subscribers sending in $5 USD per month so I assume you're making much more than you would as an employee for a professional music publication, and with far less stress and more freedom. Would you say that experiencing this new model has changed your views at all? That if musicians bypass the middleman then they actually stand to make more money than before, say through a subscription model? Or would that still only apply to very well established individuals like yourself who can leverage one of the largest user bases in your field, furthering the inequality in the profession as the 99 music journalists underneath you get nothing at all? -- Alan, Canada
[A] This is flabby reasoning at best. Just as record royalties have shrunk to near-naught because recording artists sign label contracts without which they cannot capitalize their recordings and the labels then license those recordings to streaming platforms and pass but a pittance to the artists, journalists' word rates have shrunk to nearly nothing because the advertising dollars that used to prop up print media are now scooped up by Google etc. This is a relatively recent development. When I got fired by the Voice in 2006, Microsoft, which still imagined there was money plus prestige to be gained in the verbal content business, offered me a generous word rate that in 2010, after corporate concluded that verbal content was actually a loser, cut by 80 percent and four years later offed me altogether. Then the fledgling Medium picked up the prestigious Consumer Guide for an excellent rate only to look at its balance sheets a year later and let me go. A few months later I was hired by Vice's Noisey music "vertical" at a measly word rate informed advisors thought I'd never get though in retrospect I could probably have upped it a bit--and in June 2019, increasingly strapped, decided to expend its pittance elsewhere. Whereupon up popped Substack, about which I was exceedingly skeptical. But Joe Levy convinced me to give it a shot, and subscribers chipped in at a much greater rate than I thought possible. As I've said many times, I'm flattered and gratified by this. But I'm also inspired to put in something approaching full-time hours--I am not a fast writer--so as to give paying fans I didn't know were there content I believe is something like what they want. I see no reason to believe any other writer could provide that particular content. Nor is there any economic model I can conceive that might transfer any meaningful proportion of my take to the shared journalistic weal. And of course, it is inventing new and different economic models, something I have no gift for at all, that might somehow change this inequity if that's what it is--which I'm far too proud of how good a critic I am to believe.
[Q] Hi Bob, I wanna thank you for putting me onto so much great African (Victor Uwaifo, Thomas Mapfumo, Orchestra Baobab, E.T. Mensah, King Sunny Ade, and many others) and World musicians (notably Tom Zé & Coupé Cloué). Being especially fond of the great Congolese rumba and soukous music (Le Grand Kallé, Franco, Docteur Nico, Tabu Ley, Papa Wemba, Koffi Olomide), I wondered if you could recommend me any good books about Congolese music in general or the major artists in particular. -- Paulino Kubala, Brussels
[A] Graeme Ewens's Franco biography Congo Colossus is an excellent start. And in Is It Still Good to Ya? there's a piece called "Forty Years of History, Thirty Seconds of Joy" based partly on Bob W. White's more academic Rumba Rules, which is quite terrific even though it was researched in the '90s, after soukous's various golden ages. That piece also recommends several other books about Zaire worth checking out. Most useful is Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost, which has no music in it and should but is damn good anyway--better, I should add, than documentary of the same title, which is nonetheless a properly grueling experience any soukous fan owes the music and was available on Amazon Prime when we watched it a few months ago.
[Q] You called Billie Eilish's When We All Fall Asleep "the most impressive debut album by a teenager" since Elvis's Sun Sessions. That got me thinking--what are your favorite releases by older musicians? People in their 70s, 80s, even 90s? -- Nick, California
[A] As it happens, I not long ago published here an old PopCon lecture that addressed this very question with special emphasis on Peter Stampfel and Willie Nelson. Right behind Stampfel and Nelson, I'd single out the 2018 Blue Lu Barker tribute Maria Muldaur did at 75--and except for the less remarkable Tuba Skinny collab that came out in 2021 also the only album she's released in her seventies.
[Q] A little while back in the introduction to your resurfacing of an old piece about Biz Markie, you wrote that you were boycotting Van Morrison. I've felt similarly disappointed and disgusted by him of late. (Same goes for Eric Clapton.) Short of him renouncing things he's said--which seems unlikely--is there anything that would bring you back to his music? I have so much love for so much of his work, and I'm tempted to justify continuing to listen with the belief that the man singing "Into the Mystic" or "Everyone" is not the old crank talking harmful nonsense today. But that leap can feel awfully forced on some days. Should I be making it at all? Does it make an ethical difference if I'm listening to CDs and albums I've already bought and not listening to streams? I.E., not putting more money in his pocket. I guess I'm just curious to know more about how you draw--and might redraw--your lines in a case like Van's. -- David Marchese, Brooklyn
[A] Ever read Barney Hoskyns's excellent Small Town Talk, about the Woodstock "scene"? Van's not a major player there, but he gets what I presume is his due, which left me with no doubt that he's long if not always been a major prick. When I read it back in 2018 this did not stop me from listening to Moondance or Into the Music or "Jackie Wilson Said." Nor has the ignorant, reactionary, racist-to-anti-Semitic blather he and his homeboy Clapton have been spewing during the pandemic turned me off their music (though the only Clapton I actively like is half a century old) because, yes, the music has its own reality. You could even say that the guy who's making the music is not the prick--that he inhabits or creates some other reality when he sings and plays. So my boycott is about Morrison's current Latest Record Project, which Greil Marcus did review and thought sounded pretty good until it approached the Protocols of the Elders of Zion part. But Greil's a big big Van fan, where I've merely found some value in his ceaseless recent output. So it's easy enough for me to say fuck that shit.
[Q] The phrase "meaning-mongering" shows up in your reviews from time to time. How exactly do you define this term? Is it always a bad thing? If not, how does one successfully pull it off? -- Austin, Missouri
[A] "From time to time," I read. Gee, I thought, not exactly a witty term, why would I do that? So I Googled my site and got precisely one hit: a 2001 Turkey Shoot pan that read:
All of which I take to indicate that, for reasons I no longer remember, Tool was my post-9/11 choice to symbolize the ever-burgeoning pretensions of metal, which by then my readers presumably knew I didn't have much use for unless Led Zeppelin or Motorhead counted. What I'm really insulting in this very terse review is fantasy as opposed to science fiction, the overstatements of jazz fusion, and rock's eternal "progressive" tic. The virgin crack, I should add, I don't get. Were Tool deep into phallic sexism? Can't recall, don't much care. Hate that shit in hip-hop too.
[Q] Have you ever written a hit record, or any record for that matter? -- Brad Ballantyne, Richmondshire, England
[A] Nope. Have you ever published a record review? Murdered anyone?