Critic Christgau Wraps the '90s

New consumer guide from the Dean of American Rock Critics

By |

Some friends arrived at the theory that among the myriad ways you can divide Americans into two categories (good vs. evil, city vs. country, etc.), there's nice vs. honest. That's not to say that nice people can't be honest, and honest people can't be nice, but when pressed with a question as to whether those trousers look ridiculous, whether you burned the dinner or whether that album isn't worth the plastic upon which it's printed, people will fall into one of the two categories.

In this sense, Robert Christgau is notoriously not nice.

But with that honesty comes a reliable purity of taste. An admirable arms-length from the music industry for the past three decades, Christgau has eluded favoritism, tit-for-tatness and newfound opening-week hysteria in his music reviews. His may not always be to your taste, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a more reliable means of critique for album releases than his monthly Consumer Guides in the Village Voice. More than 3,800 of them are collected in the recently released Christgau's Consumer Guide: Albums of the '90s, which follows his similar volumes on the Seventies and Eighties.

Another byproduct of the Consumer Reports, is the Voice's annual "Pazz and Jop" poll, the results of which arrived on newsstands this week. We talked with Christgau about the mechanics behind the Reports, Pazz and Jop and the ever-changing popular music creature.

Between your initial reviews and those in your new book, a few grades have altered. What sort of circumstances make for a grade change?
One reason the Consumer Guide is what it is, is I wait until the record is ripe, for me. I don't write about a record that I'm confused about. I'm a steadfast person. So surely there will be changes; things change, things fade a bit. Things have a tendency to fade, you have to re-access them to see what they're like.

And the talent pool seems to only grow larger and larger.
That's one of the main points I make in the introduction. The most important single fact about pop music in the Nineties, is the number of hours made commercially available increased by an estimated factor of ten. Which means that the project I set for myself in the Seventies is now physically impossible. That I continue to pursue it at all is by some people's judgement questionable. But I remain a believer in the value of a shared culture. It's a real opening experience, being forced to hear genres that warrant public attention, even if we're not attracted to them.

Does it every give you a hidden charge to give something a good drubbing?
Oh, it doesn't. [Pauses] Well, in some cases it's fun to pan. When something is truly hateful. I feel that I have a very good track record in hitting sexists where they live, which is right in the balls. And that's always a pleasure, to impugn their sexual vitality and abilities. I hate that kind of, reflexive and violent sexism that both metal and hip-hop have made current in the music, and it's a great pleasure to put it down in its own terms, which as a foul-mouthed person who's still very deeply interested in sex at age fifty-eight, I don't have any trouble doing.

Other kinds of negative writing aren't fun at all. The process of writing a Turkey Shoot [his November hunting of albums that rate poorly] has historically been a psychologically debilitating one for me. I get grouchy and depressed because I spend all my time listening to music that fails one way or another by my own internal standards. I don't believe in pulling punches or being judicious, as the standard in literary criticism or academic musicology. I think that it's every writer's obligation to be vivid and engaging. [But] I think in many writers' civility is a mask for cowardice and dishonesty. So for all those reasons I have to get in a bad mood.

Can an album bring you out of that bad mood?
[Pause] That's a good question. Certainly it's much more important for me to go to a good movie and spend a nice night with my wife than it is to listen to a specific piece of music. But on the other hand it's a tremendous relief when the Turkey Shoot is done. But it's not like I pull out my old standards. Over the years, I've become habituated to new music. I don't want to use the term "addicted" -- it's become a cheap metaphor -- but I definitely would feel diminished and probably stuck in some way if I had to just play the old stuff, even the old stuff I love very much and don't hear enough of. It maintains my faith in the human project.

Any particularly tough pans from 2000?
Oh let's see . . . Kittie. That was one that was no fun. I completely approve of these girls, I think what they do is great, they just don't do it well. I don't think they're as good as the Donnas, and I don't think they ever will be. But that's what the Turkey Shoot is about. People forever looking for the right attitude and claiming that the music lives up to it. And often in the early times of the band, it doesn't. But it has to be said. One of my jobs is dealing with what I called "autohype" early in my career. People who create their own hype. There are two problems with autohype. It's a house of cards, and ultimately it's gonna fall down. The second problem, is that people say they really want Kittie to be a good band; it's a men's scene and they're trying to enter it on men's terms, and they're beating it up and all that. But the fact is, they're not beating it up. And so, what good are they gonna do for the guys whose minds they were trying to open up? None. In fact, they're providing them an excuse to say, "Ah bullshit, girls suck and they can't play rock & roll." It's the emperor's new clothes, basically.

It seems there are quite a few apologists for sexism in music.
I think letting it slide is awful. I think it's especially common among black critics who basically have the point of view, and it's a reasonable one, that young black men are thoroughly fucked over in this society, which I absolutely believe. It's the legacy of slavery, it's still a racist society. Nevertheless, they believe that young black men should have absolute carte blanche to say what they want. I don't think that's true. And it's got to be said over and over again. On the other hand, I have to say that Ghostface Killah's "Wildflower," which is one of the vilest pieces of anti-women spew you'll ever hear, is also truly great. The real problem with the sexism is that it's reflexive, it's dull, unimaginative, brutal. "Wildflower" is this incredibly violent tirade that which really enacts something about jealousy and sexual rage. Makes you understand what it's about. I also think the current Eminem album is great. But the nonsense that "Kim" advocates the murder of wives who cheat -- what an absurdity, and what a disgusting absurdity on the part of people who don't give Eminem credit for being more intelligent than they are, quite frankly.

Do you appreciate the distance you get from not doing interviews with artists?
Yes, I'm very glad I don't have to deal with artists on a one-to-one level. I find that I like them in general much too much. Over the years, I've had something approaching personal relationships with many artists and when they then fall short, it takes me an extra two days to get up the guts to say what I think has happened, because I feel for them as people. But I gotta do it.

In your book Any Old Way You Choose It you mention how much you love rock & roll. Do you still feel the same way?
No, I certainly don't love it as exclusively. And I didn't even love it all that exclusively then. I've always been a jazz fan, but I don't write much about jazz, because I don't have the chops. But it's really, really hard to write about improvised instrumental music when you don't have a good knowledge of harmony and can't identify rhythm signatures very easily either. Nevertheless jazz was always there. But does rock & roll turn me on as much as it ever did? Yes. Does that mean I get as big a kick out of Chuck Berry as I did thirty years ago? No, I don't. It's not possible. I'm fifty-eight years old, I haven't figured out the number of hours of music I've heard, but it's a lot. And the bulk of that experience is not liable to be moved, whereas the bulk of my experience was more likely to be moved when in was thirteen, because there's what, forty times as much of it?

Do you find the marathon eighty-minute album to be too much? Does it hurt grades?
I wrote about that in the introduction to the Eighties and Nineties books. For a long, long time, I listened to music twenty minutes at a time, and I used a changer. I'd listen to twenty minutes of one record and then on to the next record. And I actually think that's a pretty good length. For me the analogy is the symphony, it's the rare symphony that runs more than forty minutes. I know because I've researched it -- not because I've listened to a lot of symphonies. And I think that says something about what human beings can and can't concentrate on. And of course the symphony is a nineteenth century form when people had more time. So I think there's something really weird about the seventy-eight-minute album.

Are there enough hours in the day?
No. I don't have enough time to listen to the albums that I love, and that's the great drawback of my job and the way I do it. It's a very good reason to stop doing it this way, and I sometimes think that I should. I do have this jones for new music and the Consumer Guide is a very good way to find out about new music. A lot of the records in the Consumer Guide are records that I do not like when I first hear them. And what most critics would do with those records would be to throw them away. And I don't. I hold on to them, I wait for word of mouth, I give stuff another shot, anything that finishes in Pazz and Jop Top 100, I listen to again, no matter what I thought of it.

There seems to be a pattern of hurried reviews, with stringent listening rules in some cases.
That's because of the promotional and market driving aspects of music journalism, and I've managed to finesse them. I was asked by Spin to review the Madonna album. I said, "I didn't know there was going to be a Madonna album" [laughs]. I said, "Where is it?" They said, "You have to go to Maverick and listen to it, but you can listen to it as much as you want." I said, "No, I will not do that." The whole point of the CD is that it is an infinitely reusable commodity. And it ought to be reused in different contexts, when you're in different moods and different time frames. What you're doing there is approximating your own reaction rather than having it.

In an industry built on autohype, who will be associated with rock & roll years from now?
Louis Armstrong is locked into jazz, so Chuck Berry and Elvis are locked into rock & roll. The Beatles. [Pause] I wonder sometimes about the Stones [laughs]. They were my favorite band for a long time and they're not my favorite band anymore. But they did have a great rhythm section, and that's what really matters, same with Chuck Berry.

You've been consistently pleased with PJ Harvey's output. Are her odds good?
I would say she's a sure shot. She could die, and I hope she doesn't [knocks wood], that's not what I mean, but she already has that body of work. She's written as many good songs as Chuck Berry. Who knows? She's not as original -- she hasn't written as many great songs as Chuck Berry, but she's getting there. More than Jerry Lee, no. More than Carl Perkins, that's for sure.

You're a little less favorable with Radiohead.
See there's another example of how I'm just not with it anymore. Dr. Dre, Radiohead, they're people who are regarded as absolutely undeniable by people under thirty. I think Radiohead is a ridiculous band. Maybe I'll be proven wrong. Autohype, there it is. It's a generation that needs a heroic band, and here's the only one that even comes close to filling it. PJ doesn't seem to count. Maybe she's too trad. Radiohead have a futurism about them that makes people think that they portend something, which, God help us, they probably do. It is the return of art rock. Only critics were smart enough not to take Emerson, Lake and Palmer seriously. They're not as bad as Emerson Lake and Palmer, but still, there as bad as King Crimson. I think King Crimson is a pretty good analogy.

I'm with you on Radiohead, but do you ever question your judgment?
No, I think they suck.

[Note: To avoid reams of Radiohatred, since this interview was conducted, Christgau informed me that additional exposure tied to the "Pazz and Jop" wave had boosted Kid A up towards an A-.]