Robert Christgau
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Robert Christgau

Robert Christgau
Christgau at the 2010 Pop Conference in Seattle
Christgau at the 2010 Pop Conference in Seattle
BornRobert Thomas Christgau
(1942-04-18) April 18, 1942 (age 76)
New York City, U.S.
Occupation
  • Music critic
  • essayist
  • journalist
Alma materDartmouth College (BA)
Period1967-present
Spouse
Carola Dibbell (m. 1974)
Children1
Website
robertchristgau.com

Robert Thomas Christgau (; born April 18, 1942) is an American essayist and music journalist. One of the earliest professional rock critics, he spent 37 years as the chief music critic and senior editor for The Village Voice, during which time he created and oversaw the annual Pazz & Jop poll. He has also covered popular music for Esquire, Creem, Newsday, Playboy, Rolling Stone, Billboard, NPR, Blender, and MSN Music, and was a visiting arts teacher at New York University.[1]

Christgau is known for his terse capsule reviews, first published in his "Consumer Guide" columns during his tenure at The Village Voice from 1969 to 2006. He has authored three books based on those columns, including Christgau's Record Guide: Rock Albums of the Seventies (1981) and Christgau's Record Guide: The '80s (1990), along with two collections of essays.[1] He continued writing capsule reviews in MSN Music, Cuepoint, and Noisey--Vices music section--where they are currently published in his "Expert Witness" column.[2]

Early life

Christgau was born in Greenwich Village[3] and grew up in Queens,[4] the son of a fireman.[5] He has said he became a rock and roll fan when disc jockey Alan Freed moved to the city in 1954.[6] After attending a public school in New York City,[5] he left New York for four years to attend Dartmouth College, graduating in 1962 with a B.A. in English. While at college his musical interests turned to jazz, but he quickly returned to rock after moving back to New York.[7] Christgau has said that Miles Davis' 1960 album Sketches of Spain initiated in him "one phase of the disillusionment with jazz that resulted in my return to rock and roll".[8] He was deeply influenced by New Journalism writers such as Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe. "My ambitions when I went into journalism were always, to an extent, literary", Christgau later said.[9]

Career

"I am interested in those places where popular culture and avant-garde culture intersect. As a critic, I want to achieve a new understanding of culture in both its aesthetic and political aspects; as a journalist, I want to suggest whatever I figure out to an audience in an entertaining and provocative way."

--Christgau, 1977[10]

Christgau initially wrote short stories, before giving up fiction in 1964 to become a sportswriter, and later, a police reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger.[11] He became a freelance writer after a story he wrote about the death of a woman in New Jersey was published by New York magazine. He was asked to take over the dormant music column at Esquire, which he began writing in early 1967. After Esquire discontinued the column, Christgau moved to The Village Voice in 1969, and he also worked as a college professor.

In early 1972, he accepted a full-time job as music critic for Newsday. Christgau returned to the Village Voice in 1974 as music editor. He remained there until August 2006, when he was fired shortly after the paper's acquisition by New Times Media.[12] Two months later, Christgau became a contributing editor at Rolling Stone (which first published his review of Moby Grape's Wow in 1968).[13] Late in 2007, Christgau was fired by Rolling Stone,[14] although he continued to work for the magazine for another three months. Starting with the March 2008 issue, he joined Blender, where he was listed as "senior critic" for three issues and then "contributing editor".[15] Christgau had been a regular contributor to Blender before he joined Rolling Stone. He continued to write for Blender until the magazine ceased publication in March 2009.

In 1987, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in the field of "Folklore and Popular Culture" to study the history of popular music.[16][17]

Christgau has also written frequently for Playboy, Spin, and Creem. He appears in the 2011 rockumentary Color Me Obsessed, about the Replacements.[18]

He previously taught during the formative years of the California Institute of the Arts. As of 2007, he was also an adjunct professor in the Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music at New York University.[19]

In August 2013, Christgau revealed in an article written for Barnes & Noble's website that he is writing a memoir.[20] On July 15, 2014, Christgau debuted a monthly column on Billboards website.[21]

"Consumer Guide" and "Expert Witness" columns

Christgau is perhaps best known for his "Consumer Guide" columns, which have been published more-or-less monthly since July 10, 1969, in the Village Voice,[22] as well as a brief period in Creem.[23] In its original format, the "Consumer Guide" consisted of 18 to 20 single-paragraph album reviews, each of which was given a letter grade ranging from A+ to E-.[] These reviews were later collected, expanded, and extensively revised in a three-volume book series, the first of which was published in 1981 as Christgau's Record Guide: Rock Albums of the '70s; it was followed by Christgau's Record Guide: The '80s (1990) and Christgau's Consumer Guide: Albums of the '90s (2000).[22]

In 2001, robertchristgau.com--an online archive of Christgau's "Consumer Guide" reviews and other writings from his career--was set up as a co-operative project between Christgau and longtime friend Tom Hull; the two had met in 1975 shortly after Hull queried Christgau as The Village Voices regional editor for St. Louis. The website was created after the September 11, 2001 attacks when Hull was stuck in New York while visiting from his native Wichita. While Christgau spent many nights preparing past Village Voice writings for the website, by 2002 much of the older "Consumer Guide" columns had been inputted by Hull and a small coterie of fans. According to Christgau, Hull is "a computer genius as well as an excellent and very knowledgeable music critic, but he'd never done much web site work. The design of the web site, especially its high searchability and small interest in graphics, are his idea of what a useful music site should be".[24]

In December 2006, Christgau began writing his "Consumer Guide" columns for MSN Music, initially appearing every other month, before switching to a monthly schedule in June 2007. On July 1, 2010, he announced in the introduction to his "Consumer Guide" column that the July 2010 installment would be his last on MSN.[25]

On November 22, 2010, Christgau launched a blog on MSN, called "Expert Witness", which featured reviews only of albums that he had graded B+ or higher, since those albums "are the gut and backbone of my musical pleasure"; the writing of reviews for which are "so rewarding psychologically that I'm happy to do it at blogger's rates".[26] On September 20, 2013, Christgau announced in the comments section that Expert Witness would cease to be published by October 1, 2013, writing, "As I understand it, Microsoft is shutting down the entire MSN freelance arts operation at that time ..."[27] On September 10, 2014, he debuted a new version of Expert Witness on Cuepoint, an online music magazine published on the blogging platform Medium.[28] In August 2015, the Expert Witness column was relocated to Noisey.[2]

Grading system

In his original system from 1969 to 1990, albums were given a grade ranging from A+ to E-. Under this system, Christgau generally considered a B+ or higher to be a personal recommendation.[29] He noted that in practice, grades below a C- were rare.[30] In 1990, Christgau changed the format of the "Consumer Guide" to focus more on the albums he liked.[22] Grades below B+ were replaced for regular use by the following categories:

  • "Honorable mentions": These denote records which Christgau believes may be of interest to their own target audience:
    • 3 asterisks: interested listeners "may well treasure" it.
    • 2 asterisks: interested listeners "may well enjoy" it.
    • 1 asterisk: interested listeners "may well like" it.[31]
  • Neither: Denoted by an impassive face, this denotes an album that may impress at first with "coherent craft or an arresting track or two", before failing to make an impression again.[31]
  • Choice cut: Denoted by scissors, this denotes an otherwise disappointing album that has at least one good track. These tracks are listed without further comment.[22][31] Wolk said this category was "more about tracking his taste than arguing for it."[22]
  • Dud: Denoted by a cartoon-style bomb, this denotes a negative opinion. These are listed without further comment. Christgau did give full reviews and traditional grades to records he pans in an annual "Turkey Shoot" column in The Village Voice, until he left the magazine in 2006.[22]

Pazz & Jop

In 1971, Christgau inaugurated the annual Pazz & Jop music poll, which surveyed music critics on their favorite releases of the year. The poll results were published in the Village Voice every February after compiling "top ten" lists submitted by music critics across the nation. Throughout Christgau's career at the Voice, every poll was accompanied by a lengthy Christgau essay analyzing the results and pondering the year's overall musical output. The Voice continued the feature after Christgau's dismissal. Although he no longer oversaw the poll, Christgau continued to vote and, since the 2015 poll, also contributed essays to the results.[32][33]

"Dean's Lists"

Each year that Pazz & Jop ran, Christgau created a personal list of his favorite releases called the "Dean's List". Only his top ten counted toward the poll, but his full lists of favorites usually numbered far more than that. These lists--or at least Christgau's top tens--were typically published in The Village Voice along with the Pazz & Jop results. After Christgau was dismissed from the Voice, he continued publishing his annual lists on his own website and at the Barnes & Noble Review.

The following are Christgau's choices for the number-one album of the year, including the point score he assigned for the poll. Pazz & Jop's rules provided that each item in a top ten could be allotted between 5 and 30 points, with all ten items totaling 100, allowing critics to weight certain albums more heavily if they chose to do so. In some years, Christgau often gave an equal number of points to his first- and second-ranked albums, but they were nevertheless ranked as first and second, not as a tie for first; this list collects only his number-one picks.

Year Artist Album Points Ref.
1971 Joy of Cooking Joy of Cooking 24 [34]
1974 Steely Dan Pretzel Logic 21 [35]
1975 Bob Dylan and the Band The Basement Tapes 24 [36]
1976 Michael Hurley, The Unholy Modal Rounders, Jeffrey Frederick & the Clamtones Have Moicy! 15 [37]
1977 Television Marquee Moon 13 [38]
1978 Wire Pink Flag 13 [39]
1979 The Clash The Clash 18 [40]
1980 The Clash London Calling 25 [41]
1981 Various artists (Sugar Hill Records) Greatest Rap Hits Vol. 2 [label compilation] 19 [42]
1982 Ornette Coleman Of Human Feelings 16 [43]
1983 James Blood Ulmer Odyssey 18 [44]
1984 Bruce Springsteen Born in the U.S.A. 17 [45]
1985 The Mekons Fear and Whiskey 16 [46]
1986 Various artists The Indestructible Beat of Soweto 18 [47]
1987 Sonny Rollins G-Man 16 [48]
1988 Franco and Rochereau Omona Wapi 16 [49]
1989 P?lnoc Live at P.S. 122 [bootleg recording] 17 [50]
1990 LL Cool J Mama Said Knock You Out 22 [51]
1991 Various artists Guitar Paradise of East Africa 24 [52]
1992 Mzwakhe Mbuli Resistance Is Defence 18 [53]
1993 Liz Phair Exile in Guyville 13 [54]
1994 Latin Playboys Latin Playboys 14 [55]
1995 Tricky Maxinquaye 17 [56]
1996 DJ Shadow Endtroducing..... 19 [57]
1997 Arto Lindsay Mundo Civilizado 15 [58]
1998 Lucinda Williams Car Wheels on a Gravel Road 23 [59]
1999 The Magnetic Fields 69 Love Songs 16 [60]
2000 Eminem The Marshall Mathers LP 16 [61]
2001 Bob Dylan "Love and Theft" 20 [62]
2002 The Mekons OOOH! 14 [63]
2003 King Sunny Adé The Best of the Classic Years 20 [64]
2004 Brian Wilson Brian Wilson Presents Smile 22 [65]
2005 Kanye West Late Registration 16 [66]
2006 New York Dolls One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This 17 [67]
2007 M.I.A. Kala N/A [68]
2008 Franco Francophonic 18 [69]
2009 Brad Paisley American Saturday Night 17 [70]
2010 The Roots How I Got Over 16 [71]
2011 Das Racist Relax 12 [72]
2012 Neil Young and Crazy Horse Americana 15 [73]
2013 Vampire Weekend Modern Vampires of the City 17 [74]
2014 Wussy Attica! 17 [75]
2015 Laurie Anderson Heart of a Dog 25 [76]
2016 A Tribe Called Quest We Got It from Here... Thank You 4 Your Service 19 [77]
2017 Randy Newman Dark Matter 25 [78]

Style and impact

No one in this time and place has the time to sit and listen uninterrupted for sixty minutes to anybody's music. I think Robert Christgau is the last record reviewer on earth who listens to eight records a day twice before giving his opinion on it ... Christgau is the last true-blue record critic on earth. He gave us an A-plus. That's pretty much who I make my records for. He's like the last of that whole Lester Bangs generation of record reviewers, and I still heed his words. He gets my vision, and I'm cool with that. But half these people, they read Pitchfork, and they base half their opinion and quotes on that.[79]

--Questlove, 2008

"Christgau's blurbs", writes Slate music critic Jody Rosen, "are like no one else's--dense with ideas and allusions, first-person confessions and invective, highbrow references and slang".[12] Rosen describes Christgau's writing as "often maddening, always thought-provoking ... With Pauline Kael, Christgau is arguably one of the two most important American mass-culture critics of the second half of the 20th century. ... All rock critics working today, at least the ones who want to do more than rewrite PR copy, are in some sense Christgauians."[12]Spin magazine wrote in 2015, "You probably wouldn't be reading this publication if Robert Christgau didn't largely invent rock criticism as we know it."[80]

Douglas Wolk said the earliest "Consumer Guide" columns were generally brief and detailed, but "within a few years, though, he developed his particular gift for 'power, wit and economy,' a phrase he used to describe the Ramones in a dead-on 37-word review of Leave Home." In his opinion, the "Consumer Guide" reviews were "an enormous pleasure to read slowly, as writing, even if you have no particular interest in pop music. And if you do happen to have more than a little interest in pop music, they're a treasure." Fans of Christgau's "Consumer Guide" like to share lines from their favorite reviews, Wolk writes, citing "Sting wears his sexual resentment on his chord changes like a closet 'American Woman' fan" (from Christgau's review of the 1983 Police album Synchronicity); "Calling Neil Tennant a bored wimp is like accusing Jackson Pollock of making a mess" (reviewing the 1987 Pet Shop Boys album Actually); and "Mick Jagger should fold up his penis and go home" (in a review of Prince's 1980 album Dirty Mind).[22]

In 1978, Lou Reed recorded a tirade against Christgau and his column on the 1978 live album, Take No Prisoners: "Critics. What does Robert Christgau do in bed? I mean, is he a toe fucker? Man, anal retentive, A Consumer's Guide to Rock, what a moron: 'A Study' by, y'know, Robert Christgau. Nice little boxes: B-PLUS. Can you imagine working for a fucking year, and you get a B+ from some asshole in The Village Voice?"[81] Christgau rated the album C+ and wrote in his review, "I thank Lou for pronouncing my name right."[82] In December 1980, Christgau provoked angry responses from Voice readers when his column approvingly quoted his wife Carola Dibbell's reaction to the murder of John Lennon: "Why is it always Bobby Kennedy or John Lennon? Why isn't it Richard Nixon or Paul McCartney?"[83] Similar criticism came from Sonic Youth in their song "Kill Yr Idols". Christgau responded by saying "Idolization is for rock stars, even rock stars manqué like these impotent bohos--critics just want a little respect. So if it's not too hypersensitive of me, I wasn't flattered to hear my name pronounced right, not on this particular title track."[84]

Tastes and prejudices

Christgau has named Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Chuck Berry, the Beatles, and the New York Dolls as his top five artists of all time.[85] In a 1998 obituary, he called Frank Sinatra "the greatest singer of the 20th century".[86] He considers Billie Holiday "probably my favorite singer".[87] In his 2000 Consumer Guide book, Christgau said his favorite rock album was either The Clash (1977) or New York Dolls (1973), while his favorite record in general was Monk's 1958 Misterioso.[88] In July 2013, during an interview with Esquire magazine's Peter Gerstenzang, Christgau criticized the voters at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, saying "they're pretty stupid" for not voting in the New York Dolls.[89] When asked about Beatles albums, he said he most often listens to The Beatles' Second Album--which he purchased in 1965--and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.[90]

Christgau readily admits to having prejudices and generally disliking genres such as heavy metal, salsa, dance,[85]art rock, progressive rock, bluegrass, gospel, Irish folk, jazz fusion, and classical music.[24] "I admire metal's integrity, brutality, and obsessiveness", Christgau wrote in 1986, "but I can't stand its delusions of grandeur, the way it apes and misapprehends reactionary notions of nobility".[91] Christgau said in 2018 that he rarely writes about jazz as it is "hard" to write about in an "impressionistic way", that he is "not at all well-schooled in the jazz albums of the '50s and '60s", and that has the neither the "language nor the frame of reference to write readily about them"; even while critiquing jazz artists like Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, and Sonny Rollins, he said "finding the words involves either considerable effort or a stroke of luck."[87] Christgau has also admitted to disliking the records of Jeff Buckley and Nina Simone, noting that the latter's classical background, "default gravity and depressive tendencies are qualities I'm seldom attracted to in any kind of art."[87]

Christgau has said he is not "encyclopedic" about popular music; Wolk wrote that "there are not a lot of white guys in their 60s waving the flag for Lil Wayne's Da Drought 3, especially not in the same column as they wave the flag for a Willie Nelson/Merle Haggard/Ray Price trio album, an anthology of new Chinese pop, Vampire Weekend, and Wussy (who? Well, if Christgau gave 'em an A, maybe you'd best find out)."[22]

"Dean of American rock critics"

Christgau has been known as the "Dean of American rock critics", a designation he originally gave to himself while slightly drunk at a press event for the 5th Dimension in the early 1970s.[24] According to Rosen, "Christgau was in his late 20s at the time--not exactly an é minence grise--so maybe it was the booze talking, or maybe he was just a very arrogant young man. In any case, as the years passed, the quip became a fact."[12] When asked about it years later, Christgau said the title "seemed to push people's buttons, so I stuck with it. There's obviously no official hierarchy within rock criticism--only real academies can do that. But if you mean to ask whether I think some rock critics are better than others, you're damn straight I do. Don't you?"[24]

Personal life

Christgau married fellow critic and writer Carola Dibbell in 1974;[85] they have an adopted daughter, Nina, born in Honduras in 1986.[92] He has said he was raised in a "born-again Church" in Queens, but has since become an atheist.[93]

Christgau has been long, albeit argumentative, friends with critics such as Dave Marsh, Greil Marcus, and Ellen Willis, whom he dated from 1966 to 1969. He has also mentored younger critics such as Ann Powers and Chuck Eddy.[85]

In an interview with The Wires Zach Schonfeld, who described Christgau as "notoriously grumpy" and "characteristically cranky", Christgau said he enjoyed pornography, stating that it "performs its arousal function quite well with no outside help".[94]

Bibliography

References

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  3. ^ Christgau, Robert (2015). Going into the City. Dey Street. p. 23. ISBN 978-0-06-223880-1.
  4. ^ Christgau, Robert (December 30, 1971). "Consumer Guide (22)". The Village Voice. Retrieved 2013.
  5. ^ a b Christgau, Robert. "Robert Christgau Biography". Robertchristgau.com. Retrieved 2014.
  6. ^ Christgau, Robert (2004), "A Counter in Search of a Culture". Any Old Way You Choose It, Cooper Square Press, p.2.
  7. ^ O'Dair, Barbara (May 9, 2001). "A conversation with Robert Christgau". Salon.com. Retrieved 2013.
  8. ^ Christgau, Robert (May 21, 1970). "Jazz Annual". The Village Voice. Retrieved 2013. ... Sketches of Spain, which in 1960 catapulted Davis into the favor of the kind of man who reads Playboy and initiated in me one phase of the disillusionment ...
  9. ^ Eliscu, Jenny (October 26, 2016). "Prolific Music Critic Robert Christgau Knows What He Likes (and Hates)". Vice. Retrieved 2016.
  10. ^ Locher, Frances C.; Evory, Ann, eds. (1977). Contemporary Authors. Gale. p. 118. ISBN 081030029X.
  11. ^ Christgau, Robert (2004), "A Counter in Search of a Culture". Any Old Way You Choose It, Cooper Square Press, p.4.
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  13. ^ Bob Christgau (June 22, 1968), Correspondence, Love Letters & Advice, Rolling Stone
  14. ^ Christgau, Robert (March 27, 2009), "Poptastic bye-bye". ARTicles. Retrieved March 4, 2010
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  83. ^ Christgau, Robert (December 22, 1980). "John Lennon, 1940-1980". Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics. Retrieved 2008.
  84. ^ Christgau, Robert. "Sonic Youth". RobertChristgau.com.
  85. ^ a b c d O'Dair, Barbara (May 9, 2001). "A conversation with Robert Christgau". Salon. Retrieved 2008. ... there are things I don't like or get. Metal--I don't think metal's as bad as I hear it as being.
  86. ^ Christgau, Robert (1998). "Frank Sinatra 1915-1998". Details. Retrieved 2015.
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  88. ^ Christgau, Robert (2000). "How to Use These Appendices". Christgau's Consumer Guide: Albums of the '90s. Macmillan Publishers. p. 352. ISBN 0312245602. Retrieved 2015.
  89. ^ Gerstenzang, Peter (July 24, 2013). "Why Aren't the New York Dolls in the Rock Hall of Fame?". Esquire. Retrieved 2014.
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  91. ^ Christgau, Robert (December 30, 1986). "Consumer Guide". The Village Voice. New York. Retrieved 2016.
  92. ^ Dickey, Jack (February 24, 2015). "How To Survive 13,000 Album Reviews". Time. Retrieved 2015.
  93. ^ Christgau, Robert (August 27, 1991). "With God on Their Side". The Village Voice. Retrieved 2017.
  94. ^ Schonfeld, Zach (August 27, 2013). "Robert Christgau Is Writing a Memoir, Enjoys Porn". The Wire. Retrieved 2014.

Further reading

External links


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