Robert Christgau and the End of the Consumer Guide

In the latest and probably last edition of Robert Christgau’s Consumer Guide (published yesterday), this is what the noted scribe had to say:

Barring miracles unlikely to ensue, this is the final edition of Christgau’s Consumer Guide, which MSN will no longer publish following this month’s edition. The CG has generally required a seven-days-a-week time commitment over the 41 years I’ve written it, and I’m grateful to MSN for paying me what the work was worth over the three-and-a-half years I published it here. But though I always enjoyed the work, work it was, and I’ve long been aware there were other things I could be doing with my ears. So while I have every intention of keeping up with popular music as it evolves, being less encyclopedic about it will come as a relief as well as a loss.

Mind you, this is only about 10 weeks after Jim DeRogatis left the Chicago Sun-Times as a columnist. Just as movie journalism had its breath taken away only four months ago when long-time movie critics Todd McCarthy was fired by Variety, it could be that music journalism might be having one of those moments now. In McCarthy’s case, writers were worriedly wondering, ‘if there’s no place for him in the media landscape, is any of us save either?’

After Christgau send out his announcement yesterday to dozens of writers and friends about his column, a number of tributes came back in, copied to the whole list, thanking him for his work and for no doubt inspiring many of those people, including yours truly.

It’s obvious that the format was difficult to maintain, for over four decades no less (most of which was at the Village Voice until he was unceremoniously fired from there in 2006). And he certainly made an art out of it- in a few sentences, he could communicate an enormous amount of ideas in a witty, smart way and cover many different genres in each column he did. Nowadays when many struggling print mags keep cutting back their word count to save space and money, he’s become a necessary model of how to keep your writing brief but still informative.

And then of course there was the grading system that he did in the Guide. On his site, he details in excruciating detail about how he does the letter grades and later he says that he came to regret ushering it in as a standard for other publications. Like At the Movies, with its thumb’s up or thumb’s down grading system, it was a simple easy way to convey approval or disapproval. Some serious chin-strokers objected to simplifying the process so much and making it into a strict system of evaluating. But like Roger Ebert, Christgau went beyond simple grades and gave you much more in his reviews, almost always rewarding your attention.

Now’s not the time to speak about him like he’s dead because, as he noted above, he’ll still be writing. He still does fascinating essays for the Barnes and Noble website and he’ll no doubt have plenty of other publications who’ll want to work with him, not to mention his NYU teaching gig and other opportunities that’ll come up (one of which is something that I’m working with him on).

Love ‘em or hate ‘em (as Lou Reed probably still does), his work has changed not just the face of music journalism but also how it’s perceived by fans. There’s no reason that even without the format of the Guide, he won’t continue to do so with his work.

ADDENDA: Just to be clear about who actually made the choice to end the Guide, Christgau told me “the decision was MSN’s.”

Consumer Guide at MSN

Christgau’s grading system

Christgau’s interview with Ann Power of the L.A. Times about the Guide

Christgau’s columns at Barnes and Noble