Mar 2, 2015
The Dean’s List: Robert Christgau’s 10,000 Opinions
I’ve been telling people that the next three months of my life are going to be the hardest work I’ve done since 1980, and the hardest work I will do until I die,” said Robert Christgau, shuffling through a stack of CDs as we spoke in his East Village apartment. The room is crammed with every variety of music-related media imaginable. Christgau, who once jokingly referred to himself as the “Dean of American Rock Critics” only to find that the label stuck, has, he estimates, reviewed 14,000 records in his five decades as one of the country’s most prolific music writers. In the coming weeks, he’s juggling teaching two courses at NYU (“someone wrote the phrase ‘word entrepreneur’ in a paper, and I said, ‘please, not here’”), his regular review column Expert Witness, now published at Medium, and publishing his memoir, Going Into the City, which he sums up in the introduction as “I Am Not a Big Deal and This Happened To Me Anyway.”
Fans of Christgau’s writing—and they are legion—know him for his Consumer Guide column, letter-graded capsule reviews of records that are studies in density and precision of language. There is nothing half-assed about them. For each review, Christgau listens to an album a minimum of five times, and spends several hours writing and rewriting what amounts to a paragraph of hyper-distilled critical analysis. (On St. Vincent’s self-titled album: “Classy lady reveals not only that she’s feral but that she takes out the garbage.” On Prince’s Dirty Mind, famously: “Mick Jagger should fold up his penis and go home.”)
Going Into the City is, needless to say, a change of format, though Christgau insists that it’s not that far from his usual process. “It seems to me that my tendencies towards compression and concision are still at work in this book,” he said. “This is an old technique of mine. It was a lot of fun to tell the stories I knew well enough to tell, but there aren’t that many of them. I don’t have the imagination or the willingness to make shit up.”
In the memoir, Christgau interweaves his autobiography with passages of critical analysis of pop culture keystones in his life, like when he broke up with his high school sweetheart after watching Jules et Jim, listened to the Rolling Stones’ Aftermath with fellow rock critic Ellen Willis, his then-girlfriend, and discovering Television at the urging of a friend.
“I’ve never written an extended narrative before. And I never intended to write a memoir,” Christgau said.
“I never hung out with the stars. I’m really just a critic who sits at home and listens to records and goes to shows sometimes. Ultimately, I’m a homebody. So I decided that if a critic is going to write an autobiography, there’s got to be criticism in it.”
Those looking for an account of the inner workings of The Village Voice, where Christgau edited and wrote for more than 30 years, should read elsewhere. Though Christgau touches on his time there, including his acquaintance with the mercurial Lester Bangs, he ends the book in 1985. “I did not want to write a Voice book,” Christgau said. “There’s a good book there. I’m not sure if anyone’s going to write it, but it wasn’t going to be me.” And anyway, Christgau is loath to take credit for any kind of tone that could be attributed to Voice journalism. “I get a little annoyed with this notion of a Voice style, a Voice way to do things. I think a lot of the people who think that wish that there wasn’t anybody out there who wanted them to think hard about anything. Every editor just wanted thought. If that’s a Voice style, so be it.”
And 1985 is also when he and his wife Carola Dibbell adopted their daughter, Nina. “It seems to me that this is the story of my life pre-parenthood,” Christgau said. “My emotional life is a very important part of this, and I deal with it honestly. Dealing honestly with parenthood is another matter. All kinds of discretion would have been involved. I’m not comfortable being discrete.”
To the areas of his life that he covers, from growing up with a fundamentalist Christian family in Queens to college at Dartmouth to formulating his critical process in the Lower East Side of the 1960s, Christgau takes as rigorous an analytical approach as he does with his reviewing. It’s as much a memoir of the development of his editorial sensibility as it is of his life, an exploration of a finely honed system of principles for assessing masses of auditory output that he still uses today. “To the eternal ‘Opinions are like assholes—everybody’s got one,’” Christgau writes, “I just say, ‘Yeah, but not everybody’s got ten thousand of them.’”
A great part of Christgau’s editorial chops comes down to discipline and an inexhaustible interest in music. Critical burnout, particularly among the set of writers who post regular reviews, is an occupational hazard. But it’s one Christgau seems immune from. Of the original class of rock critics, Christgau is the last one still standing who takes an active interest in popular music. (Though an exception could be made for Christgau’s longtime close friend, Greil Marcus.)
“I believe that my appetite’s been crucial,” Christgau said. “Chief among my virtues is I don’t get bored. People can like what they like and have the emotions they do, and that’s fine. It’s reasonable to shut off at a certain point, and say, ‘That’s an adventure I don’t want to have.’ But if they objectify it and say, ‘Oh, music is terrible now.’ That’s intellectually weak. To say, ‘the music is bad because I don’t like it’? That’s stupid. Critics who do that, those are hacks. I have no respect for that at all.”
As for rock criticism in the age of the Internet, Christgau remains wary but hopeful. “I’m glad it didn’t happen five years earlier. As it is, I’ve managed to hang on by my fingernails. I think it’s a very terrible time for writers. The Internet has decreased the value of the written word and the profits of the record industry, so we take a double hit,” he said. “But I told people to not become rock critics before all this happened. It was never an easy way to make a living. I do bitch and moan about the state of criticism. I’ve been dissing Pitchfork out of the side of my mouth for a long time, and I still think a lot of what they write is vapid and without authority—emotional, experiential, or intellectual. But I’ve noticed some great stuff in there. And I know there’s more out there.”
And besides, for a consummate editor like Christgau, one advantage of writing online is that the potential for tweaking your prose is infinite. As we were speaking, he noticed a passage missing from my advanced copy of his memoir and put in a typed insert of a paragraph. “The final version is even better,” he said.
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