A Voice without Christgau

by Jason Gross

5 September 2006


As you may have heard, Robert Christgau was fired from the Village Voice last week, after working there for some 40 years, changing and shaping the entire dialog of music criticism.  While it’s certain that Christgau will miss his long-time home, it’s also certain that the Voice will not be the same without him.
I started reading his Consumer Guide in the late 70’s as it was reprinted in Creem magazine.  Next to Lester Bangs, I found his writing to be the most intriguing in that stalwart publication.  I liked his work because he was not only informative but also interesting and fun to read.  I also admired how many different genres he tried to straddle in his column.  I wasn’t the only one inspired by his work.  Along with a long list of subsequent writers who looked to him for inspiration and advise, there was a scribe turned teacher who had his students plow through Christgau’s and Bangs’ work in his writing class and when it came time to write their own reviews, the writer they mimicked (consciously or unconsciously) more often was Christgau.

Almost ten years ago, a few months after I interviewed him for my zine, Christgau called me at my day job to ask if I’d be interested in writing for the Voice about the Czech band Plastic People.  I never even considered such a thing- surely, rock journalists were a different breed that I wasn’t a part of.  But he assured me that I’d do a good job so I decided to do it.  After I interviewed the band and took extensive notes at their show, he was kind enough to go over my work and give me a lot of pointers.  Granted that it was my first piece of freelancing but I was still proud of the end result.  From there, I wrote more pieces for the Voice and was able to branch out to other publications (like PopMatters).

Christgau was the one who in the last few years led the (ultimately doomed) charge to keep the pay rate for us freelancers at a reasonable amount: no doubt, this didn’t endear him to the Voice’s future owners.

When the paper did change hands, the new owners started their house cleaning with music editor Chuck Eddy, who was fired in April 2006 along with others who were also let go or resigned when they didn’t fit in with the plans of the new owners.  Another change was that the Previews section was taken away from freelancers and given to one staff editor to write.  As such, other jobs such as the annual Best of New York issue was also taken away from freelancers and mostly given to staff.  With Voice writers doubling up on work, it seemed penny-foolish to keep cost cutting and squeezing more work out of fewer people.

But there was more to come.  Even with a new music editor in place who supported Christgau (Rob Harvilla), he was still fired (albeit with a good severance package) along with several other arts editors.  Although it was obviously something that he, along with many other writers, had thought about and feared for their jobs since the new owners took over, it was still something of a surprise to him: in a New York Times interview, he revealed that he was already working on his December holiday guide for the Voice.

Even though he has enough of a reputation to entertain several options (editing elsewhere, writing books, teaching), it still must have been a tremendous blow to him to have his own paper, where he’d worked at so hard for so many years to establish a sterling reputation in music coverage, tell him that they didn’t want him anymore.  Surely, the many readers that he had will miss his work there also.  I know that I will.

Which leaves me wondering about my own future with the Voice.  Though I’ve enjoyed working with Harvilla, I’m not happy to someone whose work I admired (even though I argued with him a lot about music) and who helped me along with my work get tossed out in what seems to be a power play to establish a new regime at the once-mighty alt-weekly.  Just as Christgau and others at the Voice did until their time was up, I’ll guess I’ll play it by ear but one thing’s for sure- without him around, the Voice won’t be the same and it likely won’t be a change for the better.

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