Still Good to Him: Robert Christgau on a Life of Writing about Listening

“I believe an editor’s job is to help a writer sound like himself or herself,” says Robert Christgau, who brilliantly applies that principle to his own third and fourth essay collections, Is It Still Good To Ya? and Book Reports: A Music Critic On His First Love, Which Was Reading, both published by Duke University Press this year. Well-known for the iconic Consumer Guides he wrote for the Village Voice from the late 1960s through 2006, comprising pithy, punchy, graded assessments of, according to Christgau’s website, “17168 albums from 7512 artists on 3319 labels, with 15109 reviews,” the 76-year-old “Dean of American Rock Critics” shows himself an equally deft practitioner of longer-form investigations. While music is the consistent throughline connecting the disparate profiles, essays, reviews and obits contained in Is It Still Good To Ya?, Christgau deploys Book Reports as a forum to present his interrogations not only of a global array of musical subjects, but also minstrelsy, Bohemias past and present, hedge funds, the modern novel, George Orwell’s 1984, R. Crumb’s eschatological beliefs, Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, the financial crash of 2007, and the legacies of such Marxist-oriented 20th century cultural critics as Raymond Williams, Marshall Berman, and C.L.R. James.-Ted Panken

 

The Barnes and Noble Review:   In an interview with Greil Marcus in Rolling Stone, you discussed what you call the “biographical fallacy.” What do you mean by the “biographical fallacy”?

Robert Christgau: I basically believe that all pop stars create personas and manipulate them. What we relate to are not their real selves; they are projections, which tend to shift in shape. I’ve been writing about this my whole life. When Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby sang songs, they were interpreting them; there was never a question that they did not write them. The convention in the Rock era, which continues today, is that singers are supposed to sing their own songs. That convention obviously tempts you to believe that this person is expressing themself, that these are autobiographical accounts of their lives. In some cases, there is no doubt that’s completely what they are. But 95 times out of 100, you’ll need a rhyme or scansion that simply won’t be served by literally representing your story. You’ve got that formal challenge, and you then adjust. Almost every songwriter will agree that’s the case. And many scoff at the notion that they’re writing about themselves.

In rap, it’s very common, on the one hand, for someone to claim they’re writing strictly from their own experience, but then, when they’re accused of fomenting murder (and there are many good hip-hop songs in which people die), they say, “No-no-no, it’s a fiction.” The group Migos write about being crack dealers. They weren’t crack dealers. They were from the suburbs of Atlanta. Now, that isn’t to say they didn’t know any crack dealers, or that your own particular unit may have lifted itself up but you have a cousin or somebody who didn’t manage. That’s what oppression is. But it’s not autobiographical.

BNR:   Your own writing incorporates a great deal of personal experience. You frequently use the first person.

RC:   Less than I used to, but yes. I see no reason not to. People believe that criticism should be objective, whatever that means, but I really don’t understand what people mean by that. I guess if you’re doing sonata-allegro procedure analysis, you can be objective for a page or two. But in pop? Really hard.

I believe that insofar as one renders judgment, one is rationalizing one’s opinion, and that it is only honest to make clear to people who you are — or at least suggest who you are. I think there are times when your account of what’s happening in a performance or a song can legitimately be called objective, and other times when there is more personal prejudice or personal impression (two different things, but they’re both real), and it’s your obligation to indicate that. Plus, different pieces are written from different points of view, and in some cases the “I” is a more important part of it than others.

BNR:   Well, my experience was that it was a rather seamless transition from the essays in Is It Still Good To Ya? to those in Book Reports. The same ideas, the same aesthetic criteria inform both arenas.

RC:   One reason I wanted to write Book Reports is that my rock criticism is infused with my politics. For example, I’ve always been interested in Bohemia, and I’ve done a lot of research over the years. In Book Reports I get a chance, via these reviews — especially the first long one (“Épatant le Bourgeoisie: Jerrold Seigel’s Bohemian Paris and T. J. Clark’s The Painting of Modern Life”), but I think that the rest flesh it out very nicely and also develop it — to really talk about Bohemia itself, instead of just a reference. But the fact of the matter is that good writing about Bohemia is very hard to find, and I thought putting those essays together gave a good overview of Bohemia.

Occasionally, I’ve gotten to talk about politics directly instead of dropping them into my music criticism, which I do all the time. That began with the review of Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, which started a lifelong friendship with Marshall – another piece about him ends the book. I talk about C.L.R. James, a crucial Trinidadian who invented the idea of the Third World — he also loved cricket, and this is about Beyond a Boundary, his cricket book. But the crucial ones are the pieces I did about the financial crisis and the hedge funds.

Anyway, initially, I only knew that I was going to write Is It Still Good To Ya? I thought maybe there would be a book collection in the future. Then I received a Visiting Arts Professorship at NYU, where I’d been an adjunct for many years — a three-year appointment. Midway into the first term, my wife convinced me that I should drop it. I was working too hard. I could have done it, but I certainly wasn’t going to put together a collection at the same time. I still had my “Expert Witness” column, and, at that time, initially, the Barnes & Noble column was still in full fling. Barnes and Noble Review made these books possible. They gave me a chance to continue to be an essayist. I managed to place Consumer Guide briefs, which I’m still writing for Noisey — and I am proud of it. The money is ok, and I can use it, but I also like the outlet.

Anyway, I’d finished the memoir (which people told me I couldn’t possibly do while I continued to do everything else) without an immense amount of difficulty. So that was behind me, and I knew I wanted to do this collection. I didn’t have a title. I put together a list by going to my website, culling everything I might use, and giving each piece a grade, usually off the top of my head: “This is an A+, this is an A, this is an A-,” and anything under an A- I’m obviously not going to put in the book. That list is 80% of what’s here now. I also had a word limit of 160,000, which is very long for a collection, and I could see that if I included my piece on blackface minstrelsy (“In Search of Blackface Minstrelsy: Why Postmodern Minstrelsy Studies Matter”), which was 8,000 words long and was an A+, I would not be able to do the other things I wanted to do in terms of balance, etc. So things shifted.

So I went back to Ken Wissoker at Duke University Press, and I told him that I just couldn’t see how to do the minstrelsy piece. I asked: “Do you think maybe I could do a second book that’s just books?” He just said, “Yes, go ahead.” So I gave him two proposals. They accepted them both. First I did Is It Still Good To Ya? — the music one.

BNR:   There’s a strain of intellectual Marxism as a tool of analysis that’s a throughline in a lot of your work.

RC:   I’m not much of a Marxist. I’m a person who believes that class is really important.

BNR:   As a man who grew up in a working-class home.

RC:   Well, in a more or less working-class home, yes.

BNR:   It occurred to me, reading the section in Book Reports about Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, that there was some personal identification.

RC:   Oh, definitely. One throughline of that piece is to stop thinking about him as a political analyst, and think about him as a writer — as an artist. People think his style is knotty, and it is. But I tried to write about it as what it is, with real affection.. I feel an affection for him the way I feel for, say, Walter Mosley, the way I perceive John Lennon, or Dostoevsky. Quite that good? Of course not. But I relate to him in the same way. That’s the way it’s personal I basically extract a persona from the writing. That’s the formal approach I took there. I’m very proud of that piece. I know it’s knotty. When I wrote about 1984, suddenly I was writing with a clarity I’d never achieved before, and would quickly fall away from, because I was reading Orwell and that was his thing. Well, the writing in this Williams piece is similarly kind of knotty and stubborn.

BNR:   Along with your, let’s say, class-based writing, there’s this search for transcendence that seems to emanate from your early immersion in Dostoevsky and your church background as a young person, and then there’s also strong psychological component. You’re very frank about sex, and the role of sex and libido in the way people perceive and experience the music you write about. Those three factors intertwine in a very interesting way.

RC:   I’m glad you think so. Insofar as I think of myself as a writer of substance, it has to do with the way I intertwine all of that stuff. People think of me as a wisecracker who’s said a lot of mean things about people. That happens more in the Consumer Guide than in these pieces, but it happens here, too. But I’d like to think that there’s a lot of human warmth in what I write about this music. I think it’s an obligation, really.

I ended Is It Still Good To Ya? with my New York Dolls piece. I just get David Johansen. David Johansen is very different from me in many respects; then there are ways in which he’s not different from me at all. He’s from the outer boroughs. He’s a bright guy with a sense of humor, who definitely has his acerbic side, but is also funny and warm. If that’s who I can be, that’s who I want to be.

BNR:   Another thing I find striking and quite likable, if that’s the word, is that you’re writing about “middlebrow” from a “highbrow” perspective without it feeling at all like you’re slumming or condescending.

RC:   I read a lot of mass culture theory, and came up with a notion which I think is very important (and especially true in France), that there was a sense in which rock criticism was a highbrow-lowbrow synthesis, and the middlebrow wasn’t so good. We don’t want to be middlebrows. Well, over the years, I’ve come to feel the opposite. I am a middlebrow. That’s what I am.

BNR:   Can’t you be both?

RC:   Maybe.

BNR:   These are highbrow texts.

RC:   One reason I was so close to Marshall Berman is that we felt the same way. The whole Structuralist-Poststructuralist…God knows what else they now call it…perplex that permeates academia, near as I can see, is something for which I have very little use. I am interested in work for use. I am a believer in democracy. I am a big believer in marriage, a struggle that I try to describe in the memoir.

BNR:   Would serial monogamy be a way to…

RC:   No, I don’t believe in serial monogamy. I believe in monogamy. I simply see no reason to minimize marriage as the most important thing in my life. It’s more important to me in music. Why shouldn’t it be? What’s more important, Art or Love? That’s easy. Love! I think that comes to the fore in a great deal of my writing, and I want it to.

BNR:   I like your writing about African music.

RC:   Since most of the African artists don’t speak in English, there’s a more strictly musical and formal relationship, and the persona, then, by that token, becomes somewhat less specific, because it’s words that usually impart specificity to an artist. Now, I’ve been saying for years that Youssou N’Dour is the greatest pop musician in the world — especially when he was with Nonesuch, I could read the translated lyrics, which, yes, made a difference and enriched my understanding of what he was about, and made me respect him more, I would say. In the case of Franco or Rochereau, who are completely irresistible as far as I’m concerned… Well, there’s a great Franco song called “Azda” which is about a Volkswagen dealership. One of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard in my life! I think that’s kind of cool, in a way.

BNR:   There’s a piece on your website about the Rolling Stones, with this wonderful paragraph about Mick Jagger: “Jagger’s distance from the Afro part of his Afro-American musical heritage was especially liberating for white Americans. Whereas for Elvis and those natives who followed him the blues bore an inescapable load of racial envy and fear, Mick’s involvement was primarily aesthetic. Since as his English blues preceptor, Alexis Korner, once remarked, Jagger’s chief worry was whether the music was ‘performed properly,’ he betrayed no embarrassment about being white. Not all Englishmen were so uninhibited – an obsessive like Eric Burdon (of the Animals) emulated black Southern intonations sedulously. But Jagger got off on being a white person singing black songs, and he put that across. His mocking, extravagant elocution, as wild as his hair and the way he pranced around the stage, was more than vaguely self-amused, achieving a power that compared to that of its origins because it was true to itself.

RC:   That same kind of idea, which also applies in a different way to Lennon and McCartney, I’d say was the first big, original idea I had about rock-and-roll. The initial cliche was that they learned the blues (which in the case of the Beatles wasn’t actually true at all…but they did learn a lot of early rock-and-roll for sure), and they are bringing that music back to Americans. But it always seemed to me that they brought it back with what I then would have called (and I think it’s not a bad term) pop irony. They understood that they were not black and could not be black. You could hear that understanding in the playfulness and the exaggeration with which they performed. They were not pretending, unlike Eric Burdon, to be anything they weren’t. They were British kids who loved this music and wanted to sing it their own way. It was liberating. It meant you could do it, that you didn’t have to feel that inferiority, which, quite appropriately, white people feel when faced with the fact that the most important thing that happened musically on this polyglot continent was its African element, without the slightest question.

BNR:   Can you assess your stylistic influence on rock journalism?

RC:   First of all, as an editor, I nurtured a lot of important second-generation people, and also worked with the first-generation people. And as a writer and lead rock critic for the Village Voice, any college kid who came to New York read me. I like to say that I don’t have the slightest doubt that Barack Obama read me in the early 80s. It’s the kind of person he was! He was interested in music, he was a smart guy, he was at an Ivy League college — sure, he read the Voice!

A lot of people imitated my style. I would try to get them not to do it. People came to me when I was still editing there, and said, “I want to write a Voice piece.” I would tell them, “No, that’s not the idea; you’re supposed to write your piece. That’s what a Voice piece is.” But it would be silly not to acknowledge that the kind of prose I write, which is this colloquial, wiseguyish, sort of wisecracking, but also highbrow, dense prose, was a model for many people.

BNR:   You were a newspaperman.

RC:   Yes, I guess so. I think it’s been imitated a lot. I had a wonderful review of Going Into The City by a woman who wrote: “You know that voice. That’s Christgau’s voice.” She implied that a lot of people over the years had emulated it in one way or another, and I think that’s true. I think it’s partly because it’s a strong voice, and partly because every fucking writer in the country read the Village Voice. It gave me a quality audience. Some jerks read it, too. But a bunch of really smart people who cared about the arts and cared about writing all read me.

BNR:   Let me ask you about grading music.

RC:   It is an attempt to report on what I predict to be not just what is my current response to this record, but the likelihood of my future response. Now, I don’t claim to get it 100%, or even 75%. But I do claim that I am in the ballpark almost all the time. It is not, strictly speaking, an aesthetic judgment. It’s a report on my aesthetic response, which is a different thing, even though judgment is certainly involved in response. It’s finally about what gets me going.

I’m very happy with a sentence that I wrote in the prologue: A tune you’ll 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.

It’s not everything, but it’s a good start. It is a report on how those things have happened to me, and a prediction of how it will affect me in the future. So the grade is a way to report on my subjective response, my aesthetic response, and objectify it. That certainly includes judgment, but it is also physical and emotional. In the Radiohead piece in the book, I articulate what I think the limitations of Radiohead are — and I think that’s a very good articulation. In the Fiona Apple piece, I talk about how good the music is, and then I do a serious analysis of the lyrics at hand, and point out that she really is full of shit a whole lot of the time. Now, I recently read somewhere that for hundreds of thousands of women Fiona Apple’s imagery has spoken to their deepest… If that’s the case, maybe I’m missing something. I don’t get it, and I explain why.

BNR:   Speaking of women and Fiona Apple, in your recent Pazz and Jop essay, you referred to 2019 as “the year of the woman.

RC:   Well, sure. Did you look at the list? It was inevitable. I knew that was going to happen. In rock in particular, and also in hip-hop, tropes and musical usages which have been completely worn out by guys are being discovered by a group of human beings who have a different experience of the world than ours because of gender, which is a very real thing — just as race is a very real thing. Men dominated those usages for so long that, even when they picked them up and did them well, a certain level of excitement and discovery was just missing. That excitement and discovery is all over what a great many women are doing in a great many fields. Plus the fact that they feel freer in the wake of the so-called #metoo movement to write about things that they didn’t used to think they could get away with writing about. Which is to say: New material explored in a new way. Do I agree with it all or like it all? No. But is the field wide open? Sure.

BNR:   Both books span 51 years. I’m interested in the ways in which your aesthetic has evolved, and in your notion of what seems most salient about the ways popular music has evolved.

RC:   Well, I believe in the great schism of 1955…well, actually in 1956. I believe that Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley, Fats Domino and Little Richard, all the people we can name…that was a profound caesura in pop history. But I also believe, as I’ve said hundreds of times, that the most important record formally of the rock-and-roll era is “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” by James Brown, which is also his big hit. Hip-hop is intertwined with James Brown. It basically used and recycled his materials in creative ways for years and years and years. Its very existence creates a platform where African-Americans achieved not just parity but the dominance that they actually deserve. Hip-hop is, without question, the most important strain of pop music today. I actually think that a lot of it has gotten bad. But once again, the number of good female rappers… The Noname album (Room 25) was my favorite record of the last year.

But then, having given precedence to African-Americans, as I always try to do, there’s also Bob Dylan, whose effect on lyric writing is every bit as profound. As I write in a squib towards the very end of the book (“Sticking It In Your Ear”): “Bob Dylan changed songwriting single-handed in the mid-60s. Before him, clarity and surface coherence were a requirement. Afterward, they weren’t. Not every songwriter who followed a model he himself sometimes puts aside was better for it. And he credited this innovation to Robert Johnson, which makes sense, as might other bluesmen, too.” That’s in Dylan’s Chronicles, Volume 1, and the writing on Robert Johnson is the best writing anybody has ever done about Robert Johnson. It’s a great book. I don’t like Dylan very much as a person. But you have to admire and enjoy him, because he’s very often a complete genius. “But without question, Dylan freed things up for the better. Single-handed, he revolutionized a major means of verbal expression. Of course he deserves his Nobel, although admittedly he could have been nicer about it.” As he could be about almost everything.

BNR:   As you describe your childhood, adolescence and teens in Going To The City, you seem always to have marched to the beat of your own drummer, so to speak.

RC:   I’ve said many times that rock critics were the first people to put into words that these perceptions people were having about popular culture was as important as the High Culture we learned about in college, and all that stuff. Even though we were the first people to write it down, pretty much, the reason we succeeded is that millions of people just behind us felt that way, and then a lot of them started doing it, too.

Because of my relationship to Pop Art, I actually was thinking about this stuff in an intellectually proactive way very early. Earlier, I think (for instance), than Greil Marcus, who I turned on to Gilbert Seldes, whose The Seven Lively Arts was the first time I am aware of that this was ever articulated in book form, sometime in the mid 1920s. I began thinking about sportswriting as a kind of literature. Red Smith is the guy I named. Jimmy Breslin was just evolving into the full service journalist he turned into. I love Norman Mailer on boxing and bullfighting. A lot of literary types had the boxing jones back then, and that fed into it as well. Dwight McDonald was somebody I read in a polemical way, very early; as with Pauline Kael and A.J. Liebling and Tom Wolfe, he basically influenced me as a stylist. It kept flowering throughout the Sixties. McLuhan was there and other shit like that.

So absolutely, if I didn’t exist, there would still be rock criticism, just like if Elvis Presley didn’t exist there would still be rock and roll. Absolutely. No question about it. And I’m not comparing myself to Elvis Presley here. He was more momentous than I am, God knows. He was a giant. But I was into it early. So I would say, yes, the drum I march to is one I heard pretty early.

 

Ed note: An earlier version of this article erroneously gave the name of the hiphop artist Migos as “Amigos.”  We apologize for the error.