Tuesday, March 16, 2010

My Christgau Problem

I'd like to invite you to look back, briefly, at early December 2009. This blog had been existing for quite some time, I had become a recent addition, and we had just got on the Twitter bandwagon. I was using this newfound tool as a means to tell Raekwon (or @RAEKWONICEWATER) that Schindler's List was an awesome movie, although (to quote myself), "the ending is slightly weak." My esteemed colleague then wrote the following at 5:45 PM on Dec. 9th:
slate's music club kinda sucks this year. where's christgau?
To which I replied at 6:09 PM:
Christgau is not the solution to the Music Club's problem (fad-chasing, strawman-bashing): he is the source.
To which he would later reply at 8:13 AM the next day:
to my colleague: not alarmed, but saddened by your xgau bashing. i'll keep my hopes up for the movie club
And now, three months later, I feel as if I should address my concerns about Christgau and the damage I think he wrought in detail, so depressed am I at the very idea that said esteemed colleague could be "saddened" by a(n admittedly overblown) tweet. So yes, it's true that I have a massive problem with Robert Christgau, the dean of music criticism, and the point of this post is to convince you the reader that it has nothing to do with those common canards such as professional jealousy, intense and/or frequent disagreements in taste, or dissatisfaction with the Village Voice mode of badass journalism (well...maybe the latter). These are criticisms born entirely out of odd and completely incongruous statements the man has made and continues to make, and I think he is directly responsible for the most technically showy but intellectually empty music criticism masquerading as journalism today.

Christgau has been writing non-stop for the last 40 years at least, so it's hard to sum up what I dislike about his writing without feeling like I'm cherry-picking arguments, so I thought I'd start with a bit of criticism that I'm pretty sure only I have paid attention to: a 1990 capsule review of a thought-provoking book (sadly out of print) called Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present, written by David Foster Wallace and his college buddy Mark Costello. The book, and particularly Wallace's segments (the two alternate writing chapters), is probably one of the few extended pieces of music journalism I can think of where there is a genuine attempt to reconcile the authors' love of the music with their unease dealing with the subject of contemporary black America--a dichotomy that is entirely ignored by today's Tom Breihans and Zach Barons, whose uncritical love of the most hoary of hip-hop cliches (guns, abusing women, sociopathic behavior in general) goes unquestioned. I will quote the entirety of his review, which is short enough to get many of my points across:
With its Basquiat cover and footnoted text, Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present might tempt the browser to lay down cash money for (ahem) "the first serious consideration of rap and its position as a vital force in our American cultural consciousness." Don't do it. The analysis is adequate to ignorant to barmy, and whenever the authors--Mark Costello an attorney and jazz fan, David Foster Wallace a philosophy grad student and writer of highbrow pomo "fictions"--get near a fact, it hangs its head in shame. Their revelation that "almost all established rock critics . . . tend to regard serious, ever new, non-crossover rap as essentially boring and simplistic, or as swaggering and bellicose and dangerous" will astonish the voters who made Public Enemy and De La Soul winners of the 1988 and 1989 Pazz & Jop Critics' Polls (and high finishers in Rolling Stone's more conservative tallies). I presume both acts qualify as serious and ever new because both appear in the pencil-necked discography (which proceeds directly from Run-D.M.C.to Raising Hell--there was one called King of Rock in between there, fellas). Costello says his "favorite rap ever" is an "untraceable 5-minute cut" he taped off the radio with an "inscrutable chorus" about a "Honeychild." Er, that wouldn't be Ice-T's "The Hunted Child," would it? B side of "High Rollers," later on Freedom of Speech? Nah, it's his favorite. Surely he cares too much to have missed anything so obvious.
Let's unpack this. First, there is the pissing match aspect of this--Christgau is basically waving his dick around pointing to the fact that he, unlike them, is aware of the Ice-T B-Side that Costello seems to have forgotten about (has to put in a plug for the Pazz & Jop poll too). Why point this out, especially in a paragraph-long review? Christgau obviously relishes, for no real reason other than puffing up his own rap scholarly bona fides and admonishing outsiders or casual fans. Of course, it should be noted that Wallace and Costello did in fact listen to every single rap album and single they could get their hands on, and the fact that Costello has a hard time coming up with the name of a certain track doesn't mean that both author's opinions are automatically invalidated. Read those final three sentences again. How are they not unnecessary, smarmy, and completely self-serving?

And then there's that line about Wallace being a "writer of highbrow pomo 'fictions'," the sheer condescension invoked in that descriptor being all but palpable. Christgau obviously doesn't know what he's talking about. At the time of this writing, Wallace had written two other books, his first novel The Broom of the System and the short story collection Girl With Curious Hair, both of which could be labeled "pomo" due to the obvious Pynchon and Barth influences, respectively. But "highbrow"? "Fictions" in scare quotes? There is nothing highbrow about either of these books,* and in fact both contain quite novel uses of popular culture (the town shaped like Jayne Mansfield's breasts in Broom; Pat Sajak and Alex Trebek pulling pranks on each other in Curious; a million other examples). And, with the exception maybe of the final story in Curious, both of them can be firmly designated as fiction (no meta-ironic commentary, no playing around with the novel form) not "fiction" (in a way that Barth's Lost in the Funhouse, to cite an actual pomo "fiction," does not). The irony here is that Christgau sees no problem attacking the authors for not doing proper research, but he obviously didn't know anything about Wallace or his "fictions."

So there you have two Christgau tropes, at least: a man prone to focusing on asinine, irrelevant details as a means of criticism, and a man eager to prove his superiority as a rock scholar to anyone who dares horn in on his territory (let's not forget, the appellation "dean of American rock critics" was entirely self-inflicted).

However, the review above is pretty lucid compared to a lot of the stuff he used to write for the Voice, particularly his consumer guides. I want to stress that it is difficult for me to get a lot of this down because reading what I've written so far could give the impression that I'm simply cherry-picking quotes that would sound more ridiculous than others, in the hopes of prematurely winning an argument (call it the "B.R. Myers tack"). If people have counter-examples, I want to hear them. But how do you defend something like Christgau's short review of XTC's first album White Music, wherein he writes:
Although it took a year and a half for this debut album by the premier English art-pop band to get released in the States, two Andy Partridge songs on side one aim directly at the American market--"Radios in Motion," which mentions Milwaukee, surely isn't about the BBC, and the avowed purpose of "Statute of Liberty" is to get a look up her skirts. The third, "This Is Pop," is why he missed--radio programmers resent anyone telling them their business, especially subversives who favor herky-jerk rhythms, jerky-herk harmonies, Lene Lovich radar noises, and depressing subject matter. Colin Moulding's songs, on the other hand, are aimed at bored Yes fans, which is why he missed--the lad doesn't know that Yes fans like being bored. B+
Just read that last sentence and tell me--what the fuck is he talking about? Let's put aside the fact that I hear no resemblance to Yes in Colin Moulding's songs. Yes fans like being bored? How is this? I hate Yes as much as the next guy, but I can see what fans might find exciting about them, and their love of being bored doesn't really follow. Who in the world likes being bored? My father has an old VHS tape of Yes performing in concert (which would become the live album YesSongs), and based on the few minutes I managed to watch, I know there are people in the audience that look pretty excited and amazed when Rick Wakeman starts playing Vivaldi backwards in a silk tunic or whatever. If people in the audience loved being bored, I would think they'd be more inclined to stay home and wait for YesSongs to come out on vinyl. If that.

One common component of Christgau's shorter writings is that there is no logical flow from sentence to sentence. Honestly, this is something I can find hard to do in our monthly Critical Beatdown segments, and it sure is hard to sum up a song (let alone an album) in a few sentences, but Christgau's reviews are particularly egregious because it seems like he is just laying down confusing observation after confusing observation with no regard for any sort of linear thought pattern or argument. To a not-very-observant reader, it sure seems as if Christgau is good, even a great writer--his sentences are punchy and lively, filled with odd and interesting juxtapositions of words, often succinctly describing songs in a manner that many (including me) probably couldn't replicate.

But take a closer inspection, and it all falls apart. I urge you to look at the above quote again. This sentence: "The third, 'This Is Pop,' is why he missed--radio programmers resent anyone telling them their business, especially subversives who favor herky-jerk rhythms, jerky-herk harmonies, Lene Lovich radar noises, and depressing subject matter." All of this sounds accurate--there's really no better descriptor of XTC than "herky-jerk," but why is he insinuating that "radio programmers resent anyone telling them their business"? Isn't that what they do, a lot of the time? Why is it that British radio programmers are somehow different from American radio programmers in this regard? Maybe there is something here, but I don't see it.

All of this seems pretty random, right? One more example, and then I'm done. Let's take a look at his capsule review of the New York Dolls' first album, one of his favorites (and one of my own as well):
At least half the white kids who grow up in Manhattan are well off and moderately arty, like Carly Simon and John Paul Hammond. It takes brats from the outer boroughs to capture the oppressive excitement Manhattan holds for a half-formed human being the way these guys do. The careening screech of their music was first heard in the Cooper Union station of the Lexington IRT, and they don't stop there. Mixing early-'60s popsong savvy with late-'60s fast-metal anarchy, they seek love l-u-v from trash and bad girls. They go looking for a kiss among the personality crises. And they wonder whether you could make it with Frankenstein. A+
This is not criticism. This is Christgau talking about affluent white people in Manhattan, followed by a few sentences working several song titles into phrases that are otherwise completely empty of substance or content. The A+ at the end tells you more about how he actually feels about the album than anything before it. Imagine if I wrote a review of Raw Power in which I seriously put forth the following: "You'd have to be on a DEATH TRIP with no SHAKE APPEAL to not see the RAW POWER inherent in this PENETRATION of an album. This album leaves me NEEDING SOMEBODY to GIMME DANGER." The only place where you find that kind of criticism is on the back of DVDs, usually from Gene Shalit or Joel Siegel ("Austin Powers is groovy, baby!"), and even that is becoming less common. So that's Christgau in a nutshell: an artier, fancier version of Jeff Craig from Sixty Second Preview.

It is possible that I'm being too harsh because of his shorter criticism, and I should pay more attention to his longer reviews. To be fair, a lot of these are indeed better. A while ago, my other enemy Jody Rosen tweeted that a column Christgau wrote for Barnes & Noble Review (?) was "the best piece of Weezy criticism ever written." He could be right--it is quite good. Unlike many of his other articles, it seems to follow a logical progression from beginning to end, it provides some insights I haven't heard elsewhere, and it generally stays away from the trap of vindicating Lil Wayne as some godlike, above-the-law rap maestro. But then I will come across something completely unreadable like this piece of self-aggrandizement, and I realize that my opinion of Christgau's writing, at least as far as I know, continues to be relevant. His criticism is two parts self-regard and one part flashy adjectives, which doesn't leave a lot of time for him to get around to the music.

I don't want this to be the end of the argument. If you think that I am willfully misrepresenting his writing style, and would like to point to counter-examples, I would like to read them. These are merely my responses after reading a good number of his books and commentaries, but my knowledge is by no means exhaustive. So, bring it on, Xgau fans**.

*Although "highbrow" strikes me as yet another word that tends to mean a multitude of things, most of them negative, all of them nebulous, depending highly on the writer. In this case, I assume he means that they are somehow inscrutable, allusion-heavy, academic, jargony, dense, allegorical, not-fun-to-read, etc. The Broom of the System is none of these things and Girl With Curious Hair is allusion-heavy in one particular story. And of course Infinite Jest is a whole different cookie, but in my experience the only people who consider it highbrow are those who haven't read it and are intimidated by its length.


**Mr. Christgau is of course also invited to respond.

12 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. Maybe "saddened" wasn't the right word, but I guess I've felt sympathy for the guy since the Voice threw him under the bus a few years back. Nothing about that seemed remotely fair, or to do with good journalism. And even if you don't like the man, surely you agree he ran the Pazz and Jop well?

    I guess what I respect about Christgau--who is, you are right, frequently wrong (inasmuch as a music critic can be 'wrong') and confusing--is how widely he listens, and how enthusiastic he is about new sounds. In the most recent consumer guide, he favorably writes up the new album by Dessa. Dessa, who I can't claim to love, is maybe the third most famous member of Minneapolis rap crew Doomtree, but released a strange, non-rap solo album recently. Unlike practically every other national/east coast critic, Xgau bothered to listen to it. It just seems indicative to me.

    He also has a way of 'getting' new sounds--African music, hip-hop, riot grrrl--before his colleagues do, without ignoring the heroes of his generation.

    I enjoy some of the inscrutable reviews, which he clearly does willfully. It might be more a matter of taste than you acknowledge. Is he a dick sometimes? Sure, but at least he forgave Sonic Youth.

    And sometimes he just nails it. On "Dirty Mind":
    Mick Jagger should fold up his penis and go home.

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  3. also the best piece on lil wayne was by a guy named david ramsey, and was included in one of those "best new music writing" books. not music criticism per se, but a really beautiful article about his experience teaching middle school in post-katrina new orleans, in which weezy's msuic features prominently. can't find it online, unfortuantely

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  4. I've always found the Pazz & Jop poll to be a good indicator of what was most beloved by rock crit circles, and I'll often go to it when searching for new music, but again, if you look at a lot of the comments made by Christgau's successors in the "Comments" section, you'll find a lot of the same discombobulated, flashy and often irrelevant commentary that he made his MO.

    I do get and appreciate what you say about the breadth of his listening abilities, which seem to basically be without peer (he's also apparently very keen on modern classical music). I read his NPR review of Dessa and found it a lot more readable and illuminating than I expected, so maybe my real issue here is with Village Voice editorial standards.

    But again, I find it very rare that his obvious enthusiasms translate into his writing. What I can't stand the most, I guess, are his pithy uber-generalizations, such as the above comments about Yes or this comment regarding the Dead Boys: "The charm of good junk has always been its innocence." Huh? Why?

    By the terms you mentioned, I think I prefer someone like Lester Bangs, who was often as full of bullshit but far more clear about his enthusiasms, and why they remained his enthusiasms. It's also why I like Derogatis' writings despite the comparative lack of flash.

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  5. Xgau values a more personal approach to music, appreciates passion(or the lack of it). His taste is somewhat conventional and somewhat not. I'll tell you this: you can whine and bellow about all the merits the dolls have and sum up less than 10 percent of that paragraph, which evidently expresses his deep concern for the dolls and passes it on, the spirit of it, which is what great journalism should do. Let the music express itself to the listener. Classic albums should never be reviewed conventionally.

    While you are at it, check out his reviews of remain in light(Talking heads), Rumours(fleetwood mac), and then exile and dirty work by the stones among much much more. Then try to maintain this highly irrelevant opinion of yours.

    And (referring to yes), try to appreciate humour once in a while!

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  6. "His criticism is two parts self-regard and one part flashy adjectives, which doesn't leave a lot of time for him to get around to the music."

    Did you make that impression solely on that essay(which I really couldn't read). PLEASE cite me another example of the same...would you?

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  7. If Christgau reviewed Christgau:

    My random diatribes have befuddled many an impassioned coffee-house discussion on the merits of this and that. At least they're not bored.

    I re-hash (pun intended) the same old formula of listening to music while completely wasted, write down some incoherent thoughts (with lots of parentheses to contain the random thoughts within the random thoughts) and send them off to be published without any fear of editing, since I am the God, I mean Dean, of (American) Rock Critics.

    i am the cormac mccarthy of critics i produce steaming streams of consciousness and deserve a pulitzer prize for it please love me please because i hate myself

    While pseudo-intellectuals (white boys -- of course) ponder my mental diarrhea, I feel alone and empty inside. If only I had some fucking talent. God, I can't believe I wasted my life this way...

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  8. Sigh. If only Cormac McCarthy, the writer of 'steaming streams of consciousness,' had been a good boy and waxed grandiloquent on the erection-inducing aspects of tennis, a game beloved by rich faggots.

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  9. Anonymous
    Impression of R. Christgau

    Fun because it's punchy, ultimately a letdown because its smartypants claims are baseless. Points deducted for pop psychology. ("Steaming Streams of Consciousness") D+

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  10. Christgau's New York Dolls capsule review is not one of his best - I'm still wondering what "and they don't stop there" is supposed to mean. Nevertheless it's far more precise, honest, informative, and thought-provoking than your take on it.

    "This is not criticism. This is Christgau talking about affluent white people in Manhattan, followed by a few sentences working several song titles into phrases that are otherwise completely empty of substance or content."

    Actually, it's three sentences putting the Dolls into sociological context, followed by succinct music criticism ("careening screech of their music ... mixing early-'60s popsong savvy with late-'60s fast-metal anarchy"), followed by representative lyrical samples and even exegesis (your clumsy parody doesn't resemble the original). That's a hell of a lot of useful criticism and consumer advice to pack into 100-odd words. Of course a capsule can't fully capture what's great about an A+ album, which is why he's fleshed out these ideas in long essays.

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  11. ^^ I could not have put it better myself. This is a horrible analysis. Its totally missing the point. Christgau is the best critic around.

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  12. ^^Can't argue with that reasoning.

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