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 17, 2021

[Q] Hi Mr. Christgau, thanks once again for the truly singular role you play in the pop media landscape. You've expressed disappointment that Drake, despite his talent, is ultimately a pretty dull pop star. My question is what, to your ears, makes Taylor Swift more than gifted and slightly uninteresting? -- Andrew Judd, Los Angeles

[A] Melody. Also gender.

January 20, 2021

And It Don't Stop.

Going underground with movies and the Velvets, saying yes to sampling and no to Sidney Bechet and the War on Drugs, and putting "Brown Sugar" out to pasture.

[Q] I was delighted to read in Going Into the City of your experience with Lenny Lipton screening underground films in New York in the '60s. (And thanks for mentioning the wonderful Kuchar brothers.) That period and milieu of filmmaking is inspiring to me and I'd be grateful for other memories you could share. I figure you must have had contact with Jonas Mekas, although if I'm right your time at the Voice came after he left. This brings me to ask also about the Velvet Underground in their early days, since they were so involved with underground film. Were you aware of them during their circa 1965 Angus MacLise phase, when they accompanied film screenings? Or perhaps the Exploding Plastic Inevitable shows where the Velvet Underground and Nico played alongside Warhol's films? -- Andy Ditzler, Atlanta

[A] Actually, I did rub shoulders occasionally with Mekas during my 1969-1971 freelance tour with the Voice, but only because he knew me from the Popular Photography story my high school pal Lipton assigned and I interviewed him for, as I should have. He was the kingpin of that world and a genuinely remarkable man in many ways, but not one who had much use for me once my pop proclivities were on the table--he had no interest in "movies" at all. So while I was happy to help Lenny run the Eventorium's Friday-night film series up on West 100th Street, and sat through many hours of experimental cinema from Stan Brakhage (always interesting, occasionally great) to Gregory Markopoulos (horrible and subsequently withdrawn from the so-called New American Cinema canon and indeed circulation by the egomaniacal Markopoulos himself) because underground movies did continue to interest me, it was the New American Cinema's meager pop wing I wrote about: in particular the Kuchars, who remained friendly with Lenny after they all relocated to the Bay Area, and Stan VanDerBeek. My first glimpse of the Velvet Underground was at a St. Marks Place club called the Electric Circus, I believe under a Plastic Exploding Inevitable rubric that featured the whip-dancing of Gerard Malanga, who didn't impress me (at all). I think this preceded the release of their first album, which took me a while anyway; it was album three that truly converted me. I witnessed their legendary 1970 Max's run multiple times. Lenny, who became a successful inventor specializing in stereoscopic imaging, remains a friend although not a close one; a photo of me he took when I was 20 has appeared on this site. I hope to see him the next time I get to Los Angeles, which I hope is relatively soon. Knowing someone for 63 years is worth celebrating, believe me.

[Q] What would you say to an older musician if they were hesitant about giving permission to a younger artist who wants to sample their music? -- Zach, Washington, D.C.

[A] That obviously depends on many things--how prominent the sample is, whether or not the originator of the music likes the way it sounds in its new context, and what your commercial ambitions and prospects are, to name just three. At the very least you can offer to acknowledge the sample in your packaging and agree to give him a small piece of whatever profits ensue from the recording, which these days are of course negligible much more often than not but you never know and the originator probably knows even less. Plus you should argue that sampling is a practice that has real artistic merit, recontextualizing both new music and the musical history sampling explicitly acknowledges. I miss it terribly myself--a big reason trap generally fails to reach me. I wrote a piece about sampling that's never been collected, though I regret not shoehorning it into Is It Still Good to Ya?

[Q] One musician you've never reviewed was New Orleans clarinetist Sidney Bechet. With his improvisational prowess and warm tone, I would think that an Armstrong fan like yourself would have recommended one or two of the albums in his immense discography. Is his singular style of music not in your wheelhouse and if not why? -- Sam, Ridgewood, New York

[A] I've asked myself this question for years, gave up on the four-CD RCA comp The Victor Sessions: Master Takes 1932-43 a while ago but still spun the single-disc Ken Burns Jazz once in a while. This I've done three-four more times since your question arrived, but still concluded that for someone of my musical education his soprano sax was not distinctive enough sonically, improvisationally, or conceptually to demand my attention. Not that I'm skeptical of his reputation; far from it. And the music sounded pleasant enough. To double-check, I made sure Bechet was also within earshot of household jazzbo Carola Dibbell, who has intensified and helped articulate my response to Coltrane, Davis, Rollins, and Reinhardt, among others. So this morning before I sat down to write I asked whether she noticed the old jazz I'd been playing and she told me she had. So why hadn't she mentioned it, as she so often does? "I thought it sounded good, but not stop the presses." So that's probably it for that.

[Q] I admit to bias but could you re-review War on Drugs and Kurt Vile and the Violators at some point? I remember one comment you made on Granduciel's songwriting and something about KV with CB but that's all. They are both incredible live bands and all-around great supporters of the scene here in Philly. -- All Best, Chris

[A] Sorry, but I'm not going back there. Retrospectively, I figure the War on Drugs to be in a class with the 1975, an even more admired band I have no use for either. And Vile I've tried and tried with--as with Guided by Voices, that's the seminal example, he's a revered songsmith whose oeuvre has never made the slightest dent on my auriculum. Both may well be great live bands and scene stalwarts, but as a stalwart of that scene yourself you're more prejudiced than I am, because those songs have had a very different kind of chance to dent your auriculum. Enjoy if you like, more power to you--people like what they like, that's fundamental. Courtney Barnett obviously did, and must have helped in some way you're better equipped to suss out than I am:

Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile: Lotta Sea Lice [Matador, 2017]
Fetching guitars, nice goofy vibe, songwriting dominated by spaced-out drip Vile rather than Barnett's distracted depressive ("Over Everything," "Continental Breakfast") **

As for the War on Drugs, here's my scholarly commentary in an interview I did with Dan Weiss at Spin to promote Going Into the City. I'm the first speaker:

What do we make of the War on Drugs? What the fuck is going on? Why do people adore this? I'm asking you here.

I'm thinking now that I have the time [to replay it], we'll see how that goes, maybe it'll go well, it might really be tough. But I was thinking of doing a week where I just do the War on Drugs and then, what's her name, FKA twigs. I'm not actually convinced that those records are as . . .

Bad as they seem?

Skimpy as I think they are. I mean, I haven't gone to that level yet. War on Drugs sounds like, I mean, has anybody else said it's blanded out U2? That's what it is. Has it been compared to U2?

It's been compared to Springsteen and Tom Petty a lot.

That's ridiculous! That's fucking ridiculous! I mean, Tom Petty writes real lyrics. And so does Bono, don't get me wrong, but not the way that Springsteen and Petty do. This guy, whatever his name is, can't write lyrics at all. He can't write fuckin' lyrics! You know that's a very important part of a musical gestalt. It's like if Springsteen or Petty buries his lyrics . . . boy, that's nutty.

[Q] I am curious, what is your typical interaction with music when you write about music? Do you play your writing object in the background, or keep the environment quiet but just pull out moments that will help with your writing, or even play something else in background? -- Minghan Yan, New York City

[A] As I believe (and hope) most critics do, I almost invariably play whatever I'm writing about as I'm writing. You never know when some error will reveal itself or some new idea pop up--plus it makes it easier to use the remote to pin down or double-check a crucial detail.

[Q] I'm curious to know your thoughts on the Stones' "Sweet Black Angel," and if those thoughts have changed over the years. The irony of tracks like "Brown Sugar" is pretty obvious, but "Sweet Black Angel" in particular, with Jagger's enunciation and usage of the n-word, has always baffled me. Just wondering what your take on this is. -- Jeremy, Missouri

[A] Politically and every other way, I find "Sweet Black Angel" far more attractive in retrospect than "Brown Sugar," which I decided should be put out to pasture after I saw Bob Dylan cover it in 2003 and (less problematically, I admit) the Stones themselves roll it out at a 2005 concert. Irony be damned, its representation of cross-racial master-to-slave lust is far too realistic--too easy to interpret one-dimensionally as an explicit and unembarrassed articulation of a specific variety of lust. N-word or no n-word, "Sweet Black Angel" can't be misprised that way even if you're not fully aware that this "angel" is in fact a historical personage: the crucial Black feminist radical and indeed Communist Angela Davis. As the song presents her, this woman isn't in anybody's bed. She's in a court of law even if you're not hip enough to know every detail--a star-level celebrity whose picture is worth hanging on your wall whose freedom is in jeopardy as a result of the peril her Black brothers still suffer. The Genius transcription is a mite sloppy, but the Genius commentary isn't: "one of the few overtly political Stones tunes."

December 16, 2020

And It Don't Stop.

The art of storytelling and album covers. Also: consensus meters, epic curation, and a protest playlist.

[Q] I've been quite taken by Serengeti's Ajai--the characters, attention to detail, and humanity that runs through it have quickly made it one of my favourite hip hop albums. It got me thinking, who are the best storytellers in music? Dylan and Leonard Cohen of course go without saying. I grew up with my dad playing Ice-T in the car, and I've grown to appreciate the hyperliterate thug vignettes of Ghostface Killah and the Notorious B.I.G., the working-class character studies of Ian Dury and Randy Newman, and the masterful, first-person quote, unquote "short film" good kid, m.A.A.d city by Kendrick Lamar. Would you count these among the best storytellers, and who am I missing? Please don't hesitate to suggest less literal storytellers, I love tangential lyricists like MF Doom, Mellow Gold-era Beck, and my favourite, Lil Wayne (none of those specifically would qualify though, I'm sure you'd agree). -- Ian Carroll, Skerries, Dublin, Ireland.

[A] I must say that I don't think of Dylan or Cohen as storytellers however many narrative and putatively autobiographical elements enter their songs, though obviously there are exceptions--Dylan's "Ballad of Hattie Carroll" leaps to mind, Cohen's "Chelsea Hotel." I think of them as songwriters--just listening as I write to my beloved "Brownsville Girl," and even that's on the cusp at best. And while there are obviously plenty of exceptions in hip-hop--Ghostface Killah's "260" has always been a favorite of mine, though when I relistened while following along on Genius I realized I'd never fully figured the story out--it's generally rappers' rhetoric and diction and sheer musicality that pull me in. But on the other hand there are great storytellers you don't mention--try the Drive-By Truckers' "Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife," for instance. The very best are two artists who've actually put out albums with "storyteller" in the title. One is a flat-out comp, Tom T. Hall's The Essential Tom T. Hall: The Storyteller (start with "Salute to a Switchblade," then "Homecoming"). The other's a live best-of of sorts, Todd Snider's ("KK Rider Story" we were just enjoying for the umpteenth time last week), although "You Got Away With It" on The Devil You Know is the greatest of all. And hey, ever listen to Woody's Guthrie's "1913 Massacre"? Killer, as they say. Even "Ludlow Massacre" is a distinct runner-up.

[Q] Hello Bob! I've been reading you for 40 years--from sitting with the VV in my hometown library reading room til' now. But I think I might be about to stop and it is not because I don't learn from you anymore: I still get loads of great music tips from you! But your casual cruelty about people with substance abuse problems is, I fear, going to drive me away. Recently I tried to convince myself that you were just an old guy who needed some help catching up on current usage: but then I reminded myself that this is a 40+ year problem with you--a feature, as they say, and not a bug. From your dismissal of James Taylor as an "addict, pure and simple" to last month's description of Skip Spence as a "hopeless druggie" this seems to be a cruel and conscious worldview. All those years on the Lower East Side and nobody has been able to break through to you about substance abuse as illness (very often constituted as dual diagnosis with other mental illness)? Anything you want to share on this? -- Jeffrey Melnick, Cambridge, Massachusetts

[A] Backatcha, Jeff--still recall proudly how impressed you were when I biked something like nine miles on no sleep after getting lost at Roskilde in 2012, when I was 70. Thousands of books addressing questions like yours have been written, and I'm not about to start one here. But having affirmed that of course addiction is a disease, I'll begin by pointing out that you misread the Taylor review: the addiction is to the road and the Holiday Inn. At the time I wrote it (I suspect retrospectively in 1980 for the first Consumer Guide book rather than in 1971 when the album came out), I had no inkling of Taylor's weakness for heroin. Then I'll point out that while all diseases are arguably subject to interventions of the human will and/or spirit, this is much truer of addiction than, for instance, cancer, which Norman Mailer used to preach had a psychosomatic dimension, not to mention Covid 19. It's clearly too bad for Skip Spence and particularly his four kids that he just couldn't kick, and hard not to suspect because it's easy enough to recall that portions of Spence's fanbase actively admired how wasted he was. It's the romanticization of addiction that I abhor, and that has been all too common since the bebop days. But let me add that from Charlie Parker to Kurt Cobain, I've actively admired the music of many addicts, and add that one of these is John Coltrane, who kicked heroin cold turkey circa 1957 and became a much greater musician thereafter.

[Q] In the November Xgau Sez you brought up the American Epic soundtracks, which reminded me that in your original review for that record it sounded like you were also looking forward to digging into the American Epic: The Sessions album. From what I can tell, you enjoyed several other albums from the American Epic collection but you never reviewed Sessions. Am I correct in assuming that means it fell short for you? The sessions film was my favorite episode of the documentary, and while the romanticism of the reconstructed 1920s recording system (along with the fact that I'm a Jack White homer) no doubt influences my opinion, I'm also a big fan of the album. I'm curious to hear whether you got around to the Sessions album (and/or film), and if so, what you thought of it. -- Benjamin Schroeder, Grand Rapids, Michigan

[A] As someone who isn't a Jack White anything, I couldn't even get through the sessions album--don't recall the details anymore, just said enuf. Nor do I much remember the sessions episode of the documentary. I think the sharp-eared musical curation and cinematic historical digging of that project are both extraordinary. The John Hurt and Memphis Jag Band stuff knocked my socks off, and the blues CD Bernard MacMahon assembled is my favorite such comp--starts with the ahistorical (because late rather than early '30s) Robert Johnson, what a stroke. The "commercial" gestures of the session stuff, on the other hand, did nothing for me--less interpretation than exploitation, as I recall with no intention of checking. And one more thing: the documentary itself can be streamed at Amazon Prime. Very highly recommended.

[Q] I was curious about your opinion on, an online collaborative metadata database of musical and non-musical releases which can be catalogued, rated and reviewed by users. Did you know about it? Did you use it some time? What's your general opinion about this kind of site? -- Eduardo Mujica, Colombia

[A] I don't think there's any harm in such enterprises, but given that I don't even credit Metacritic scores that much, it shouldn't surprise either of us that I don't expect to be going there often. For you I would assume it's different, since one reason you're here is almost certainly my half century of grading albums and this is an alternative. Thing is, for me grading is by now an ingrained skill--I've learned how to recognize, analyze, and describe in words my own aesthetic responses and also know how to build into such articulations a quantum of "objectivity." These raters are amateurs. Were I to learn that something had, I don't know, a 4.5 on RateYourMusic (and wasn't metal or some other genre I just don't care about) I'd probably check it out, although when I gave the site a glance I didn't even run into any 4.0s. So two pieces of advice. One, Metacritic is probably a more useful consensus meter. Two, I'd bet without checking back that RateYourMusic is 95 percent male if not higher. All this rating stuff is very boy in a time when women are nearing parity in musical quality-quantity even though men still dominate every phase of the industry. Only P.S.: there are now many more women critics than there were just five years ago, another reason to check Metacritic first.

[Q] In your review of Wish You Were Here, you say "the cover/liner art is worthy of all the stoned raps it has no doubt already inspired." This got me wondering how important you consider cover/liner art as a visual impression of an album, and how vinyl to CD to streaming may have diminished this effect--if any--over the years. For better or for worse, once I see the cover of an album, it's hard to unsee it as part of the "image" the music forms. Have you ever had this happen? -- Joe, London, UK

[A] I agree that covers matter--even the digital-only albums that have proliferated in this era almost always come with a square illo that will print out for the downloader who burns (in color if that's how the downloader rolls, as most presumably do and I unfortunately do not). How well most are remembered is another matter. Forty-five years after the fact I had no idea what Wish You Were Here looked like, and when I pulled the vinyl LP out of my shelves also had no idea what I was talking about musically in that review--not an A minus I don't think for those anal-retentives who are keeping score. Maybe the heads were agog about the cover--it was still a pot-smoking era and Floyd was of that cultural persuasion. But by then I'd pretty much quit and was never much of a head to begin with, though I do recall a special fascination with the cover of the first Asylum Choir album, good luck finding that one--psychedelic toilet paper as I recall. (Sez an Amazon commentator: "When this album came out, nobody had heard of Leon Russell or Mark Benno, and thye original cover was a toilet paper roll." (Misspelled "the" in original.) In general I think the answer for me, as someone who probably owns 50 times as many albums as you do, is a simple no. That doesn't mean it isn't different for those whose collections are smaller, who have certain records they handle all the time. It also doesn't mean I can't see the covers of Ramones, Misterioso, and The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan in my mind's eye. Great covers all, and very different.

[Q] At risk of coming across as naively thinking that the devastation is over simply because he's been voted out, I was wondering if you would care to put together a playlist--or other kind of list--of your favourite Trump-targeting songs from the last four or so years. Not sure there's a whole canon there, and am sure I've picked up on some dissatisfaction from you at times that there haven't been more Trump songs, but there's probably a good selection. Off the top, Oberg, Snider, Hamell and Superchunk have all contributed some quality material. It'd be good to see your top picks. -- Isaac Iszchak, Norfolk, UK

[A] Sorry to say my dissatisfaction remains in place. Unless I'm misremembering, in fact, neither Hamell nor Superchunk, gratifyingly political though they've been, has contributed anything specific to Trump unless Hamell's commander-in-chief-assassinating "Too High" counts. To Oberg's "Nothing Rhymes With Orange" I'd add "Care" even though it doesn't name names either. YG's "FDT" remains relevantly cathartic more than four years after it was released; Public Enemy's "State of the Union" is just as explicit and more detailed even though it doesn't utter his cursed name; A Tribe Called Quest finished off We Got It From Here with the otherwise inexplicit "The Donald." And after that I'm reduced to comedy albums, first Tim Heidecker's Too Dumb for Suicide (my two favorites both involve shitting: "Imperial Bathroom" and "Sentencing Day') and then Harry Shearer's better researched The Many Moods of Donald Trump ("Covid 180," "I Never Knew Him," "Very Stable Genius"). As an alternative you can go to Spotify and search for Joe Levy's "Uprising 2020" playlist. For me racism remains primary. Even more than the long-term economic devastation wreaked by the greed of the superrich and their legislative minions, the legacy of chattel slavery remains my nation's crippling original sin and hasn't been so great for Britain either. The songs Levy put together in June hit that truth from as many angles as there are artists to calibrate them. [Eeek--PS. Because this Q&A was inadvertently deleted during the editing process and had to be quickly recreated, I failed to finish with the first and still greatest of the anti-Trump songs: YG's "FDT," released March, 2016 and killer to this day.]

November 18, 2020

And It Don't Stop.

Some thoughts on family, work, dancing, and the permanent-collection CDs that come out at mealtime. Also: country songs about systematic oppression & screwing with the hegemony of classical aesthetics

[Q] Hi Bob. My name is Alfonso. I'm a 20-year-old student from Honduras. This is not a question but it seems to be the only way I can reach out you. I just wanna start by saying that I'm obsessed with rock and roll. Being obsessed with rock and roll, I stumbled upon you eventually because, well, you're the most famous rock critic of all time. I was just reaching out to you hoping you see this and to tell you that I love your work. You and your writing mean the world to me. In a perfect world, I would be chatting with you about rock and roll. -- Alfonso Godoy Baide, Tegucigalpa, Honduras

[A] Well, this is cool. I don't know if you're aware that in 1985 I spent two months in Honduras with my wife adopting our daughter Nina, who we met when she was precisely two weeks old. Mostly we were in San Pedro Sula, and every afternoon after the rain stopped I'd walk around with her in my arms while my wife napped. I also walked further into the city by myself, and we left Nina with a sitter to take day trips up to Copan and over to the Miskito Coast. Our hostess was a Palestinian immigrant who owned a small clothing factory, and I understood that despite the cocks crowing and the iguanas darting about this was a genteel and protected neighborhood. But I never felt unsafe anywhere in the city. The last four days we spent speeding around Tegucigalpa with our lawyer to finalize the adoption. That was different. As you know, Teguce is the capital and also where the US anti-Sandinista operation was run from. It was cooler due to its elevation and where we were staying most houses were gated behind walls and armed guards were not uncommon. As you also know, I assume, sleepy San Pedro Sula turned into a cocaine hub, which was only one reason it also turned into a city controlled block by block by individual gangs, a city that by some metrics was the murder capital of the world. That's why so many of the migrants Donald Trump and his racist henchman Stephen Miller stopped at the Mexican border came from Honduras and San Pedro Sula specifically. God knows what Biden will be able to do about it given the other devastations Trump left on his plate, but undoing the work of Stephen Miller will be a fine start.

[Q] Agree 100% on your assessment of Elizabeth Cook's "Thick Georgia Woman" as a "classic in waiting." So I am wondering if you have any additional comments about the phrase "dream genocide" found later in the song? Specifically, if the dream in question refers to MLK Jr's famous quote, doesn't it summarize the staggering cultural and personal consequences of 21st century racial bias in two deft and damning words? -- Greg Morton, Blue Guy in a Red State, Idaho

[A] I love Elizabeth Cook, adore that song, and wish I could agree with you. But the couplet in question, which goes "A feather down place to hide/For your dream genocide," seems all too opaque to me, and when it comes to addressing racism--if that's the intention, which I doubt--opacity is a sin. Fuck subtlety--the more explicit the better. Yet though I must be forgetting something--is there nothing of use in the vast catalogues of the manifestly good-hearted Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton?--I can think of only one explicitly anti-racist song in all of mainstream country music: Brad Paisley's much-mocked "Accidental Racist," where "caught between Southern pride and Southern blame" and especially "They called it Reconstruction, fixed the buildings, dried some tears/We're still sifting through the rubble after 150 years" seem like the right direction to me even though the LL Cool J cameo remains an embarrassment. No longer mainstream is Jason Isbell, whose concise, powerful 2017 "White Man's World" addresses many varieties of systematic oppression with a clarity that near as I can tell shut him out of Music Row, perhaps permanently. Kudos too to Mickey Guyton's "Black Like Me," which is a lot more explicit than any of the other exceedingly scarce Black country artists--Charley Pride, Kane Brown, anybody remember Stoney Edwards?--have dared. I hope the reason is fear of the base rather than fear of Black Lives Matter, though both are distressing. But I wouldn't bet on it.

[Q] Your Dean's List for the 2010s included two deluxe editions--M.I.A.'s Maya and Rihanna's Anti. Are there any other deluxe or super-deluxe or "complete sessions" that you think improve on the original album release? For example, The White Album, or Nevermind, or Jack Johnson? Any thoughts on these big boxes in general? Thank you. -- Rob Gallagher, New York City

[A] There's a difference between deluxe editions and the boxes you name. I often didn't bother to check out boxes even when I got them in the mail, although I still wonder about that Grateful Dead one. But though I'm told I should check out the Jack Johnson and may some day, these expanded editions don't really interest me. I'd much rather go dig out a Kirby Heard or Martin Creed album few know exists, or pay close attention to a Malian artist's first U.S. release, than differentiate marginally between/among already established classics and registering the existence of previously unreleased alternates and arcana. True deluxe editions, on the other hand, are worth a listen-hear. Since I buy most of my reviewables after streaming them on Spotify, it saves me bucks to check those out the bonus cuts, which are seldom worth the time or money but in the two cases you cite transform good albums into great ones. Often, however--a relatively recent example I examined carefully is Madonna's Madame X--they have a diluting effect.

[Q] Hello Mr. Christgau. Your writings always read like you're a person much more inclined to be looking towards the future than romanticizing the past and forgive me if you've answered this before: Off the top of your head, what is the oldest piece of recorded music you're still getting a kick out of right now? -- Julian Hartmann, Bonen, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany

[A] When I'm working, which is most of the time, I am indeed working, sifting through new stuff. But I play a lot of older music at mealtimes when Carola and sometimes Nina will be hearing it too. Looking over the permanent-collection CDs I need to reshelve at the moment, I see Albert Ammons, the Asylum Street Spankers, One Nation Under a Groove, Astor Piazzolla, the Ramones' debut, Pretzel Logic, Billy Swan, Djelimady Tounkara, and Howlin' Wolf. But that's all post-World War II. From the '20s and '30s these days it's less likely to be early Armstrong or Ellington, which I played a lot pre-2000, or Billie Holiday, an inexhaustible perennial, than country blues, particularly Skip James, who Carola's really gotten into, the eternal Mississippi John Hurt (sometimes '60s stuff with him), or the superbly conceived and sequenced compilation Bernard MacMahon assembled for his American Epic project.

[Q] One of my teachers once said to me something along these lines: "Every other field has moved on, but aesthetics is exactly where it was 2500 years ago." He was being provocative, but I can see where he was coming from. Do you see your criticism as aesthetics? Something else? Clearly we're not just talking about beauty. There's a Monk tune called "Ugly Beauty," but is that just an evasion? Sincere thanks for this wonderfully generous online resource. -- Tim Buckley, Melbourne, Australia

[A] I certainly don't see myself as an aesthetician. That's a branch of philosophy, and while I took a few relevant philosophy courses in college and have dabbled around in aesthetics a little as any serious critic should, I'd rather immerse in art than in theory about it. But I have dabbled enough to know that in one respect your prof was setting you up for a fall. The key is that 2500-year crack. That puts us back with the Greeks, right? The Greeks had their Dionysian fling, as I discuss in the now finally unembargoed Dionysus essay that began its life with my long-ago Guggenheim world-history-of-pop project and took form as an EMP lecture prominently displayed up front in Is It Still Good to Ya?--but not as far up front as another repurposed essay from that collection, another EMP presentation that serves as a prologue: "Good to Ya, Not for Ya: Rock Criticism vs. the Guilty Pleasure." Without going into any detail and thus steamrollering many relevant cavils and objections, just say this: the rise of Romanticism really put a crimp in the hegemony of classical aesthetics. One way of describing that crimp is to say that ultimately it valorized as beautiful various usages most classicists would believe were, like Monk says, ugly, thus reminding us that most of the Greeks who invented democracy were in fact snobs who denied citizenship to the lower orders. Without identifying with Romanticism except in the most general way, just say I've devoted my career and indeed my life to fucking that shit up. "Exactly where it was 2500 years ago"? Bushwa. (Most recent relevant book read is a tough one: Johann Gottfried Herder's Song Loves the Masses. See also the Terry Eagleton and Marshall Berman essays that close Book Reports. The Raymond Williams too, why not? Go crazy. You asked for it.)

[Q] Did you know Slim Gaillard played an important role as musician and rapper in the fantastic 1941 dance sequence for Hellzapoppin featuring Frankie Manning and Whitey's Lindy Hoppers? Did you know I met Slim Gaillard in London in 1988? I did not know he was half-Jewish--he didn't look it. -- Judy Pritchett, Montclair, New Jersey

[A] I did not know any of these things, although as we are aware and my readers aren't, I have known you yourself, the former Judy Rosenberg, since 1962. I'm also well aware that you became an expert on swing-era dancing in your forties and from the late '80s until his death a month short of his 95th birthday in 2009 were the companion and manager of the great lindy hopper Frankie Manning, who with your help I taught at NYU a few years back after deciding that my music history course was shortchanging the swing era (stuck the Boswell Sisters in there too). Here's the Gaillard-Manning sequence you cite:

And here's some more subdued Manning-Pritchett stepping in 1992, when Manning was 78:

October 21, 2020

And It Don't Stop.

Streamed lectures and streamed music, the jazz apple and the rock orange, the enduring skippability of "Oar," the Lion King vs. the Black Panther, and the power of "WAP." Special guest: Carola Dibbell

[Q] Your assorted dispatches from the EMP Pop Conferences have been the inspiration for both my initial attendance and my eventual presentations. I assume your recent medical issues were the reason you didn't submit for this year's conference originally scheduled for April. I noticed I didn't see you at any of the virtual sessions happening this month. Considering your enthusiasm for the conference, I was wondering what the reason(s) was for your absence. -- Richard Cobeen, Berkeley

[A] I am not a Zoom guy to say the least. Are you, really? EMP has been major for me both socially and professionally, a kind of lifeline almost. Presentations I did there for an audience of my peers, usually requiring weeks of work no journalistic outlet would publish much less pay for, now bedeck both Book Reports and Is It Still Good to Ya?: Charlie Gillett and Henry Pleasants, Dionysus and Lil Wayne. But I cherish the social aspects even more, the mixing and mingling and walking around, the chance to say hello to people I see seldom or nowhere else like Carl Wilson, Josh Clover, Michaelangelo Matos, the Powers-Weisbard combo, and for that matter yourself--great teaching-music presentation on that bill with my sister a few years ago. I also valued the chance to migrate from one set of talks to another. I sent in a December proposal for the later Covid-cancelled EMP but bowed out long before the pandemic because it was clear my aching thigh would make travel onerous and walking around impossible. (Thigh's been much better since I had lumbar fusion in June but still not necessarily EMP-ready.) And continuing disability has cut into my time. In addition, however, streamed lectures just aren't live lectures the way streamed music just isn't live music, a major reason I'm chagrined but not ashamed to admit I've watched very few livestreamed concerts. Also, I'm such a fuddy-duddy that I haven't mastered Zoom as a technology--one funeral, one baby shower, that's been about it. (Carola keeps up with her women's group on Zoom. Many glitches.) We'll see what happens on multiple fronts, and I can't imagine disengaging from EMP altogether--it's meant too much to me. But how I age remains to be seen.

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