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.

September 22, 2021

[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:

TOOL: Lateralus (Volcano) What am I supposed to say about the latest in meaning-mongering for the fantasy fiction set? That they are not as good as King Crimson? That I do not like my Billy Cobham comp even less? That this is not progress? That I am not a virgin? All of the above. Plus I never liked Crimson much to begin with. C

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?

August 18, 2021

And It Don't Stop.

Pleasure without guilt, inspirational verses, the generosity of Sonny Rollins and David Bowie (et. al.), bridging the language gap (or not), and the selling of bridges and other products of capitalism

[Q] Hi Bob, I was wondering if there is any music/album/artist that you thoroughly enjoy personally but as a critic wouldn't feel comfortable defending or recommending to anyone. I suppose the common term for it is "guilty pleasure," although I would want to object to the insinuation that it has to be associated with the idea of guilt (or even shame). Another way to ask this question would be: Is there a difference between you as a human being who enjoys music and you in your role as a critic, and if the answer is yes, what does it look like? -- LD Schulz, Hamburg, Germany

[A] I don't believe in guilty pleasures, as I explain in the prologue to my Is It Still Good to Ya? collection, which began its life as a lecture at a PopCon devoted for better or worse to the guilty pleasure idea. And as far as I'm concerned, any critic who doesn't write as a human being who enjoys the art form at hand--although "cares about," "is interested in," and other less hedonistic verbs could be subbed in there--is doing a disservice to criticism and indeed humanity.

[Q] Anyone addicted to your website has undoubtedly come across the "Inspirational Verse." Sometimes it's clear you deem the IV the crown jewel of a record, and other times, like in your slightly harsh review of the Prince side project The Family, it is hilariously sarcastic. How did the IV come about and when do you choose to deploy it? -- Joe, U.K.

[A] I don't have the fortitude to come up with an exact date, but it seems to me I've been using the Inspirational Verse device since very early in the Consumer Guide's history even though I don't find it in any of the scant CG material I included in my 1973 collection Any Old Way You Choose It. It serves two functions: a) a readymade way to single out lyrics worthy of note for better or worse that can also be b) a quick way to end a review I don't have a capper for. A Google search of my site suggests that I've put it in play something over 200 times. Glad you enjoy it--that's the idea.

[Q] Listening to Saxophone Colossus this unseasonably rainy morning reminded me that you recently referred to Newk as an artist of a certain "generosity" (also Coltrane, Parton, Aretha, Lamar, among other inveterate favorites of mine) and you seemed to suggest that this quality of generosity (or "spirituality") exists distinctly from anger and wit. A Google Search led me to a few other instances where you've made reference to a musician's generosity--Young Americans was Bowie's "generosity of spirit" renewed, for instance. What a lovely turn of phrase--it almost sounds utopian--but I can't seem to grok what you mean. In what ways is Rollins's generosity like Bowie's? Is it qualifiable or hopelessly nebulous? Personal note: I've been reading your work since I was 17 (I'm now 30) and your anger, wit, and (dare I say?) generosity has shaped how I listen to and think about the world around me. Engaging with you in this forum is a tremendous privilege. Thank you and stay safe out there. -- Daniel Tovar, San Antonio

[A] "Generosity" can mean many different things, and while it's generally distinguishable from both anger and wit, most of those things can certainly coexist with anger and wit. In Rollins's case, however, I'd say generosity, along with facility and the more closely related ease, is at the center of why we care so much about him. (Spirituality, I should add, seems to me a rather different thing.) Love of music and the sounds he can make with his horn is discernible or maybe just imaginable in every phrase he plays. Bowie is far more a poser and ironist plus someone whose rather European aesthetic sense stopped hitting me anywhere near where I live in the mid '80s. But on Young Americans in particular, which was much earlier, it felt like he was reaching out to his rapidly expanding fanbase and hence embracing his own stardom head on rather than holding it at an ironic distance. This impulse soon engendered Station to Station, which remains the only album of his I love wholeheartedly and play for sheer pleasure. To which let me add that the idea that I can convey any of this to listeners half a century my junior is an equally tremendous privilege.

[Q] You once answered a question about which foreign language you'd like to master saying it'd be Portuguese. Given that you're a big enthusiast of Tom Zé's work and have also reviewed other Brazilian big names such as Gil, Veloso, and Elza Soares, I'd like to know why haven't you reviewed any other Jorge Ben album except his collaboration with Gil (which you liked)? Do you have any thoughts about his music? Thanks a lot! -- Mateus Paz, Rio de Janeiro

[A] No, but I admit I haven't tried that hard. A friend once gave me a copy of Africa Brasil, which I played dutifully more than once at the time and replayed again when I read your query only to find myself once again unable to breach the language barrier--or maybe I just don't get Ben, a rhythm artist for whom lyrics aren't necessarily paramount, due to some glitch in my general response mechanism. There are clearly great lyricists in African music--Franco and Youssou N'Dour by all accounts and some translations come to mind. But the musicality of those two artists and so many others subsumes the verbal content. In contrast, Brazilian music tends more pop in the Tin Pan Alley sense, which means among other things that it's designed to accompany or even showcase lyrics and thus can't fully connect with those who don't understand them. There might well be other negative factors as well--there's a classiness about the Brazilian pop ideal that's not my kind of thing. But the language differential makes it harder for me to bridge that gap.

[Q] In your review of Wanna Buy a Bridge? [younguns: legendary 1980 Britpunk comp], you singled out Delta 5's "Mind Your Own Business" as one of the highlights, and I'm wondering if you have any thoughts on the song's recent appearance in an iPhone commercial. (Greil Marcus praised it in his June Real Life Rock column.) And/or any thoughts in general on the practice of using punk songs to shill for corporations? (The Buzzcocks, Iggy, Sonic Youth, Jesus & Mary Chain, and Gang of 4 have all authorized such spots.) -- Scott Woods, Toronto

[A] This goes back to the vexed circa-1969 question of whether Aretha should do a Coke commercial, which neither I nor my more Marxian then-partner Ellen Willis had any problem with. Let artists we loved shovel up more money--this was capitalism, and rock and roll was a product of capitalism. So I've seldom moralized about such machinations, though these days I guess it would depend on the corporation: no fossil fuels, no big banks, probably not much international agribusiness either. But much as I distrust big tech, that's a much closer call. I mean, I own an iPhone myself, albeit one I inherited from Nina. And drink loads of Diet Coke too. There are so many graver economic injustices and disconnects to address.

[Q] FROM AMAZON: "Vintage presents the paperback edition of the wild and brilliant writings of Lester Bangs -- the most outrageous and popular rock critic of the 1970s -- edited and with an introduction by the reigning dean of rack critics, Greil Marcus." Gee, maybe "rock" critic Christgau should have a pissing contest with "rack" critic Greel? Whip 'em out, boys! Us ladies are waiting! -- Coco Hannah Eckelberg, Key West, Florida

[A] Gee--what faux-female commenter could be so interested in Lester Bangs books that s/he peruses Lester's Amazon entries for typos and so overawed by the Greil-Xgau cabal that s/he wants to check out their dick size? I wonder.

July 28, 2021

And It Don't Stop.

Generalizations too vast to swear by, instrumentals worth hearing, the algorithm vs. the people, and Frank Zappa vs. George Clinton.

[Q] Re: "Combating the Sound of Whiteness." In reading the piece I came to wonder if you've read Heartaches by the Number (Cantwell and Friskics-Warren, 2003). Specifically how they choose to define a "country song"? -- Clifford J. Ocheltree, New Orleans

[A] I was certainly aware that I was generalizing swiftly and broadly in that piece, and if I owned Heartaches by the Number I would have checked it out, as I did David Cantwell's excellent Merle Haggard: The Running Kind. I was also aware that there were revised editions of Bill C. Malone's Country Music, U.S.A. to which Geoff Mann referred in his essay; I'd read the 1968 version shortly after it came out and have never seen either of the newer ones. But since I wasn't claiming to do anything but review those two essays and had plenty to say about them, with deadline approaching I went with what I had. My generalizations are obviously too vast to swear by, but as more-than-plausible argument starters I stand by them.

[Q] The irrepressible Alfred Soto recently posted his favourite 20 instrumentals in rock. Seems like he had a lot of fun doing it. How about yours? -- Christian Iszchak, Norfolk, England

[A] Without committing to play till the ninth inning, I did what I could to check out most of Soto's picks and was surprised at how few of them worked for me. To choose the biggest disappointments because my tastes clearly run more r&b-let's-call-it than Soto's, neither Sly's "Sex Machine" nor JB's "Time Is Running Out Fast" made me say anything like "How the fuck did I forget that"? The Neil Young, the Bowie, even the Sugar just didn't reach deep enough. But "Tel-Star," "Frankenstein," and not quite as undeniably the Stooges' "L.A. Blues" certainly qualify, as of course does Funkadelic's indelible "Maggot Brain," which Carola and I recall first grokking while we were parking our car in an Akron driveway in 1978 and staying in our seats till it was over, enthralled. Almost as crucial is the Meters' "Cissy Strut." I'd never registered Yo La Tengo's "Spec Bebop" and loved it. I'd replace Eno's "Becalmed" with his "Sky Saw." Pink Floyd's "One of These Days" would probably place. Rush's "YYZ," which it's quite possible I'd never heard in my life, also might. But I think Soto was wrong to leave out all "jazz"--Miles Davis's 27-minute "Right Off," which leads Jack Johnson, is extraordinary and indelibly rock-derived, and not just because it builds off bassist Michael Henderson's "Honky Tonk" riff. Which brings us to the '50s, which Soto ignores altogether. As I've written more than once, it was the hour I spent as a 14-year-old playing side one of my Bill Doggett 45 "Honky Tonk" on repeat that transformed me into the person who became a rock critic. Side two was the hit, one of the best-selling instrumentals of all time, but I always insist that both sides form one composition, still one of my favorite tracks ever. One of Soto's commenters mentions that he also omitted Link Wray's equally influential "Rumble," where you can hear noise guitar being born. And from the '50s I'd add New Orleans sax man Lee Allen's "Walking with Mr. Lee"--and also, just to be contrary, Count Basie's 1956 hit version of "April in Paris," another 45 I bought, which Billboard calculated peaked at number 28 but was bigger in NYC I guess.

[Q] I've been listening to a lot of early Funkadelic lately (Westbound years) and though I'm not a fan (for the most part) of Frank Zappa and the Mothers, I keep hearing similarities, mainly in the eclecticism and lack of vocal identity (not to mention scatological/pornographic fixations). While I can accept that these ideas perhaps have more validity coming from a Black band than a White band (context matters), I am not entirely comfortable with that acceptance. Yes, I agree Zappa doesn't like people or sex (same as Stanley Kubrick) and George Clinton and Co. are more accepting of personal foibles (or at least have more fun with it). Does therein lie the distinction? -- Theodore Raiken, Metuchen, New Jersey

[A] The short answer is of course that's the distinction, although the lack of vocal identity is a meaningful parallel it's sharp to point out on your way to homing in on the formal similarities between the two bands and brands. That said, except for Zappa himself if you like the way he plays guitar, which many do more than me and not without reason, there are no musicians as personable as Bootsy Collins or Eddie Hazel or Bernie Worrell in the Mothers however formally skillful the players Zappa gathered around him. Nor were the Mothers anthemic the way P-Funk was--that wasn't how Zappa rolled, which as far as I'm concerned is one more manifestation of his stingy spirit. To me, 1972's (very early) America Eats Its Young, Clinton's most Zappaesque album, is also easily his worst. Usually there's tremendous generosity to his music, which kept on developing after his Westbound tour was over. And that sort of, well, let's call it spirituality, is one thing I respond to in musicians. The Beatles sure had it. John Prine. In their way both Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn. Damn right Peter Stampfel. But probably more Black artists: Coltrane, Rollins, and Coleman in jazz, Aretha and Otis Redding especially in soul, in hip-hop the Roots and Kendrick Lamar for starters. And hey: Louis Armstrong! Not that I don't also identify with righteous anger and sardonic wit. Which Clinton also had.

[Q] Terrific review of Michaelangelo Matos's book on 1984 that explains the pros and cons of that era. Your ending, referring to his use of Live Aid as a coda, was intriguing: "To me what happened there was less neat and closed off." Can you elaborate? -- Chris, New Zealand

[A] That quote in toto, after an organizer foolishly claimed that "the sixties had finally come true": "'The new era Live Aid portended, though, had more to do with its many visible corporate sponsorships than any world saving, per se. It sealed pop stardom as another facet of modern celebrity--turned it, officially, into a kind of landed gentry.' To me what happened there was less neat and closed off." Certainly the landed-gentry phase of pop stardom, a nice metaphor, was inevitable without Live Aid, and plenty else wasn't portended there. Most important, Run-D.M.C. gave barely a hint of hip-hop's gigantic future, its starting point which for argument's sake I'll say was the Tupac-Biggie assassinations followed by Jay-Z's late '98 breakthrough "Hard Knock Life" and in 1999 Eminem, still more than a decade off . But in addition Matos's premonitory bows to SST, the Replacements, and the pop success of R.E.M. in particular don't in any way anticipate the way Nirvana's never-duplicated commercial success established alt-rock for a time as a mythic artistic hotbed.

[Q] When I pull up Mukdad Rothenberg Lanko on Spotify, the suggested "Fans also like" recommends McCarthy Trenching, Peter Stampfel, and other artists nothing like MRL. This can only be the algorithm responding to your February 2021 CG--not about stylistic similarities. How does it feel to be so powerful? -- Rick Meyer, Decatur, Illinois

[A] I'm reasonably assured this is not the algorithm per se. It's just people liking and playing the same records because they learned about those records from me. It certainly makes me happy when my fans enjoy some of the more obscure artists I favor, and I know that long-distance friendships have occasionally begun that way. But "power"?? That's not power. Power--of a sort, anyway--might be other critics latching onto the same artists and their readers streaming them too, up into the thousands of plays. How about tens of thousands? That would be cool.

[Q] Why are you such a crotchety, beat up looking goof with a web site from 1997? Can't afford anyone to modernize it? Your taste in music sucks cock! Maybe you do too! Fucker! -- James Carter, Atlanta

[A] Not Jimmy, I assume. Or the saxophone whiz. Oh well. Even so you can say whatever you want about me as long as you keep putting in the hours with Stacey Abrams. Non-Georgians need you more than ever. Go Warnock.

June 16, 2021

And It Don't Stop.

Lousy (or not) Stones albums, world champion Beatles albums, some musical geniuses, some upbeat albums, and whither rock & roll? Plus: the story of 1974's Consumer Guide to America's Yogurts.

[Q] I really enjoy your reviews and your writing in general. I do notice that you sort of pick your favorites, though--you gave the Rolling Stones' Dirty Work an A and Steel Wheels a B+??? You cannot be serious with these positive reviews--these are two albums that even the band will tell you are terrible. I love the Rolling Stones but Dirty Work might be one of the worst-produced albums of all time. I mean it's just bad. Do you honestly pull out this album out still? As for A Bigger Bang, it's OK but nowhere near as good as the review you give. It's sort of a very good imitation of a Stones album. "Streets of Love" is just terrible second-rate Mick Jagger solo album material. You honestly think these albums I mentioned above don't top any of Queen's first six albums? I mean really? -- Adam Marr, New York City

[A] What a strange question even disregarding the fact that I gave Steel Wheels a B minus, not a B plus. Though I'm glad you like my work, I'm sad that some basic principles haven't gotten through. A major one is that in the end people like what they like, and that a simple way of understanding the critic's job is that critics should among other things try and explain what their opinions/responses are and where they come from. As has already come up in this space, I'm not a Queen fan even though, inspired mostly by my daughter, I've warmed to their precise, campy comic grandeur. When I find time to explore, I might listen more intensively. But if I live to 100 I'll never find time to hear much less immerse in their first six albums. Maybe my feelings will shift a little, but I'll never like them that much, and at best I'll limit myself to a best-of or two. Moreover, the Stones are inscribed a lot deeper on my sensorium than on yours--I've been a sucker for a fundamental groove I attribute mostly to Keith Richards and the great Charlie Watts since "It's All Over Now" hit the airwaves in the fall of 1964. And even though Jagger isn't my kind of guy as a human being, their sound plus his flair sparked into life longer than most aging rockers could manage. My unconventional fondness for Dirty Work remained in place last time I checked--a tremendously underrated album especially given the pass the Stones got on the 1983 Under Cover, its opprobrium based mostly on the overblown reaction to the echoey way producer Steve Lillywhite did drums, which is neither here nor there as far as I'm concerned. Replaying A Bigger Bang for the first time since 2006, my A minus seems right--the opening "Rough Justice" is a strikingly ironic/acerbic expression of both Jagger's musical gift and his romantic limitations and the songwriting strong is throughout, though "Streets of Love" is no high point. In addition to the CG review, wrote longer about A Bigger Bang for Blender in 2005 and then reviewed a 2006 show of theirs for the same mag. I stand by everything I wrote. Check it out--especially the show review.

[Q] In your recent Too Much Joy review you quip that they aren't Randy Newman meets the Clash cause those acts are genius while Too Much Joy just have high IQs. I've noticed that genius seems to be a word that you are hesitant to use to describe musicians. It got me thinking, how do you define genius when it comes to musical artists? Is it based on their sonic innovation, language, what you think they'd get in an IQ test, or something else? Also, who are the definite geniuses in music, and do any/all of the following qualify: Prince, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Kanye West, David Bowie, M.I.A., El DeBarge, Eminem, Lil Wayne, Stevie Wonder, Taylor Swift, James Brown, Billie Eilish, Captain Beefheart, Frank Ocean, and Brian Wilson. -- Anonymous, Europe

[A] First of all, I use the word "genius" plenty--too much, probably; Google says it gets 1130 hits on my site where "talent" comes in at 1050 and "smart" at 913. Second, musical genius doesn't have much to do with IQ, certainly not, for instance, the 175 that talented non-genius Bob Mould claims in his memoir, though 120-125 would probably be a good idea just to utilize and kick-start the musical genius properly. Third, most of the musical geniuses I can think of are Black: on your list James Brown above all with Prince second, maybe Wonder, not DeBarge or Ocean, but how come you left out Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin? (And Louis Armstrong! Duke Ellington even though he's never been a favorite of mine! Thelonious Monk! Miles Davis!) The one obvious white genius who comes to mind is easy and isn't on your list: Bob Dylan. Ditto for Joni Mitchell whatever her vanities, Lennon probably, Eminem in his fucked up way conceivably, and I definitely wouldn't rule out Swift. The others less, with understandable candidate Beefheart exemplifying near-genius's limitations. Billie Eilish PLUS HER BROTHER, THAT'S DEFINITELY A PARTNERSHIP, might qualify in 10 years and might not. When I wrote my Billboard obit of George Jones I pulled out the G-word, which didn't seem preposterous, especially for someone on a death deadline. As for Randy Newman and the Clash, both come close enough to justify a good joke, Newman in particular given his soundtrack sideline. And now I declare an end to this party game.

[Q] Did the Beatles ever make an A plus album? -- Faizal Ali, Minneapolis

[A] Ordinarily I skip A plus questions but this one I couldn't resist. How could I not nominate the two I put on my Rolling Stone list: Sgt. Pepper and The Beatles' Second Album, the latter of which most Beatles scholars don't believe counts if they even acknowledge it exists? But because so much of my early Beatles listening was their U.S. albums, I'm not qualified to distinguish among the "official" UK versions that preceded Sgt. Pepper. Moreover, while I feel and understand the artistic skill and historical momentousness of prime candidate Rubber Soul, in fact I only cream for three of its songs: "Norwegian Wood," "Girl," and "In My Life." A plusses have to do more than that for me.

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