Everyone who thinks and writes about pop music with a critical ear — whether they produce 100-word blurbs or 3,000-word opuses, whether they write for established media brands or self-publish online, whether they’re paid in all the promo copies they can stand or receive some amount of actual cash — owes a debt to Robert Christgau.
Much as Pauline Kael did for film, Christgau champions and popularizes the practice of taking rock ‘n’ roll seriously. Not as in “this is high art that’s good for you”, but rather as in “there’s something going on here and this is how it hits me and what I think it means.” As music editor of the late, great Village Voice for nearly 30 years, he oversaw a cadre of regular writers and occasional contributors who ran with that ethos in any number of directions — witty, learned, irreverent, profane, sometimes all at once. Yet even with people like Ellen Willis, Greil Marcus, Lester Bangs and Greg Tate gracing the section over the years, Christgau was the one they called the Dean, as if he was overseeing some rarefied academic department. His pronouncements, be they his monthly letter-graded Consumer Guide album roundups or his annual state-of-things framing the Pazz and Jop Critics’ Poll results, give music fans a way to understand the music they’re hearing (or, perhaps, discover music they aren’t hearing), and writers (yes, like me) a sense of how writing about the B-52s or Eminem or Richard Thompson or King Sunny Ade or whomever else can be entertaining, revelatory and literary, all at once.
Christgau has carried on long since the Village Voice unceremoniously ash-canned him in 2005, writing for the Barnes and Noble Review and now at Noisey. The state of music criticism has changed dramatically in the meantime: more people are writing, many more original voices are popping up thanks to the internet, even as the notion of thoughtful criticism isn’t anywhere near as valued by media overlords as it once was (which, truth be told, wasn’t universally all that much, except at places like the Voice and other alternative newsweeklies, which placed a premium on the genre). Yet Christgau’s work retains its sense and sensibility apart from the facile likes-and-clicks hackwork that dominates much of today’s internet. He is still witty, learned, irreverent and sometimes even profane, all at once, after all these years.
His latest collection of longer observations and musings, Is it Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism 1967-2017, is a wonderful roundup of how he’s approached the music that has moved him over the years. It’s by no means a definitive summary of all the Important Pop Music since then; three acts not covered here are Jimi Hendrix, Talking Heads and Drake. Instead, it uncovers the ideas — and the beats — that have animated Christgau’s work, all while presenting the chops that distinguish him as a thinker and writer.
Part of those chops is his broad knowledge of pop music, its offshoots and antecedents, for which we need look no further than the book’s title. The collection’s subtitle says rock criticism, but the title comes from a glorious 1978 R&B love ballad by Ashford & Simpson, a beloved and influential act I’ll bet most of the white people who’ve written about music at any point during these last 50 years, and many of the younger black ones, have never bothered to investigate. Why choose that song for a title, when there must have been other, better-known choices? He spells it out in his 2006 address to the EMP Pop Conference, included here as the prologue:
“For rock critics, in other words, pleasure is where meaning begins. A tune you hum in your head so your mind can hear it again, a beat that motorvates your body even when the main thing moving is your pulse, the slight flush that radiates from the mandible toward the ears at the right lick or turn of phrase, the virtual chuckle of amusement or amazement as that moment comes by yet again. Given our word rates, why else would we do the job?”
There’s a sense of his progression as a writer on display here. The earliest piece, “Rock Lyrics Are Poetry (Maybe)” (Cheetah, 1967), shows off the erudition with which his mind operates, but reads years later like a brainy young kid reaching to make a major statement, longer on vocabulary than gravitas. Thankfully, his writing got sharper, as the very next article demonstrates. “We Have to Deal With It” is his 1978 Village Voice travelogue on the punk scene in England, in which he is part reporter, part participant and part detached observer. By now his footing is surer, his conclusions better informed:
“Hippie romanticized youth’s potential for good and foundered on its gift for evil. Punk errs in the other direction, but the good is there too, however reluctantly acknowledged, and it may develop more naturally if not too much is expected of it. The thought of punk growing up is not an altogether happy one. But I hope it does grow up, because it’s going to get older regardless.”
One of the pitfalls of any criticism collection is that, years later, the conclusions made in the moment can end up looking embarrassingly obtuse. One would assume Christgau chose not to include such clunkers (and all critics have them), but that quote you just read indicates that many of the ideas he dropped in his pieces over the years still hold up, if not for literal accuracy than at least for their sense of how things might play out.
Writing about R. Kelly in the Village Voice in 2004: “his lies smell like the foulest bullshit.” Considering Watch the Throne (2011) for the Barnes & Noble Review: “While both men are all too paranoid about their exalted status, [JAY Z] exercises the caution of a crime boss while [Kanye] West emanates the self-pity of a blabbermouth.” Or this, from way back in 2010: “Being a Lil Wayne fan renders you complicit not just in his musical and verbal compulsions but in the lifestyle of an unpackable, untraceable workaholic hedonist.” And so on, all throughout the book.
Another thing Is It Still Good to Ya? does is dive deep into Christgau’s long fascination with and recognition of African music. It seems his year-end best-of lists always included a rave for one African band or another, and not just Fela Kuti or whomever had been blessed with a soon-to-be-shortlived major label deal. He includes a large chunk of his writing about African music in a section called “From Which All Blessings Flow”, from a touching-all-the-bases review of Paul Simon’s Graceland in 1986, to his 1995 account of a music conference in Cote d’Ivoire, to an unpacking of the twinned musical and political Tuareg culture in 2013. As with the punk essay, he’s a participant-observer, not just an armchair critic opining away. He’s one of the few critics, of any background, who can write both insightfully and passionately about a sweaty performance by a popular Congolese soukous band and a magisterial show by Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour.
One might reasonably suspect that after 50 years of following pop’s pulse wherever it happened to be beating, Christgau might choose to be a bit less engaged about keeping up with the latest. Not so: in one of the most recent criticisms from just after the 2016 election, country singer-songwriter Lori McKenna tells him why songwriting is, basically, all she knows, perils of the streaming economy be damned. His placement of her lengthy thought makes it seem like one of the most simply profound explanations ever of why people wake up in the morning and make music for a living. And, one might presume, why people wake up and write criticism too.
Being a critic is both a harder and easier job nowadays (assuming one can find a gig as a critic), since there’s a jillion or so terabytes of new music released every hour online. But criticism at its best makes sense of it all, guided only by the writer’s tastes, smarts and deadlines. Critics aren’t the stars of the show; that would be the music they’re discussing. But if the New Journalism movement of the early ’60s sought to remove the never-wholly-real concept of objectivity from news reporting, so too did Christgau and his Village voice colleagues remove it from music writing. In fact, that’s why this collection is such a worthy read even for those who haven’t read much Christgau over the years. You may or may not be compelled to seek out the music he writes about, or you may wholeheartedly disagree with his assessment of that music, but you will enjoy the way he writes about it. Music is personal for him — it’s personal for all of us, really — and he writes like it is, only with way more erudition than a common Facebook post.
The other thing this collection might do is further cement his place as an important writer of and for his times. His well-received 2016 memoir, Going into the City: Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man, was his first book that wasn’t an anthology, and he’s got another collection coming in the spring of 2019 (Book Reports: A Music Critic on His First Love, Which Was Reading, on his writing about things beyond music). Christgau’s been around a while, so he’s got the right to bring some order to his legacy, and continued good luck on that front. But he continues to look, and listen, forward as well. As this collection demonstrates in abundance, Christgau’s enthusiasm — looking for the next compelling beat, if not the perfect one — is lifelong. Twenty years ago, he wrote in Borders Magazine (the former bookstore had a magazine?) that he doesn’t listen for anything specific in music. In what might be the most modest of the countless amazing sentences to be found here, he confesses, “I just try to make sure that music I like finds me.”
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Enjoy Steve Horowitz’s 2006 interview with Christgau here.)