The Rock Critic Robert Christgau’s Big-Hearted Theory of Pop
Fifteen years ago, the rock critic Robert Christgau published a survey-of-the-literature essay called “In Search of Jim Crow: Why Postmodern Minstrelsy Studies Matter,” in The Believer. The essay, which is collected in “Book Reports: A Music Critic on His First Love, Which Was Reading,” gleans findings and arguments from academic sources and translates a takeaway for a hip general audience. Minstrelsy was a horrifically racist enterprise, founded upon white-from-black appropriation; it also stands as a launching pad for the entire tangled, rotten, potentially liberating history of American popular music, from the blues through rock and roll, hip-hop, and whatever other composite style comes next—for all of the pop music any of us have ever loved. “Somewhere in that cross-racial nexus lurked a uniquely American sensibility whose decisive attraction was that it was no respecter of propriety,” Christgau writes. In one of the essay’s most striking passages, he argues that “the signal term” for this sensibility “is an elusive one: ‘fun.’ ” The word “fun,” he notes, began gathering Oxford English Dictionary citations in the same early nineteenth-century moment that minstrelsy was emerging as our founding national popular culture—and was routinely pegged to that racist entertainment’s dances, performers, and songs. This brand of “fun,” Christgau observes, made “a role model of the unkempt rebel” and emphasized pop values that have never gone out of favor: simplicity, energy, sentiment, and “unencumbered beat.”
“Book Reports” features reviews of not only the pop-music tomes you’d predict but also literary fiction, Marxist-adjacent cultural commentary, feminist debates over pornography, and even books about the past decade’s financial crisis. It follows a collection that Christgau published last year, “Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967-2017,” which includes Christgau’s takes on, among many other things, classic rock, Kanye West, the music of Desert Storm, Lollapalooza, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and so-called guilty pleasures—a category that Christgau rejects, since, for rock critics, as he puts it, “pleasure is where meaning begins.” Together, these collections make the sneaky case that Christgau is not just the Dean of American Rock Critics, his self-awarded and perhaps slightly off-putting nickname (he has insisted that he was a little bit drunk and a little bit joking when he coined it), but one of America’s sharper public intellectuals of the past half century, and certainly one of its most influential—not to mention one of the better stylists in that cohort. Fun is a big part of why.
“Even among rock critics, who ought to know better, fun doesn’t have much of a rep,” Christgau wrote, back in 1972, in a Newsday essay about Chuck Berry. That assessment is less true now than it was then, and this is at least partly a testament to how successfully Christgau has spread the gospel of fun ever since, not only in the pages of the Voice but in rock magazines, such as Rolling Stone and Creem, and general-interest outlets, such as Newsday and Esquire. Along with his fellow-pioneer rock critic Greil Marcus, at Rolling Stone, and Ellen Willis, at The New Yorker, Christgau developed a pop-with-politics aesthetic that, not unlike rock and roll itself, foregrounded freedom and democracy. Christgau and Willis began dating in the mid-sixties and lived together for three years—“except for my wife, no one has influenced me more,” he writes, of Willis, in a review, from 2011, that is collected in “Book Reports.” The couple’s working premise, that popular music would reward those devoted to thinking and writing well about it, was an idea on the fringes of respectability when Christgau began writing his Esquire column, “Secular Music,” in 1967. At the time, there were more Beatles than there were mainstream popular music critics. (Willis debuted her “Rock, Etc.” column in The New Yorker the following year.) Introducing his new column, Christgau offered a lighthearted warning: “I am one of the barbarians—I love rock and roll.” We’re all barbarians now.
Christgau didn’t set out to become a rock critic for the simple reason that, when he began his career, a rock critic was not something one could become. He was born in 1942 and raised in Queens, by a Catholic mom and a firefighter dad; in his memoir, “Going Into the City: Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man,” Christgau describes how his life was redirected when he was awarded a scholarship to Dartmouth. His breakthrough as a professional writer was the article “Beth Ann and Microbioticism,” about the death of a young woman who was fanatically devoted to an extreme diet. It was published in the New York Herald Tribune, in 1965, and was later included, alongside pieces by Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and Joan Didion, in Tom Wolfe’s anthology “The New Journalism.” Christgau’s contribution, Wolfe wrote, “seemed to be written so effortlessly that one is likely to overlook the tightness of its structure, which has a classic American short-story quality.”
Christgau soon abandoned narrative journalism, but that tightness of structure remained a notable strength of his writing. For critical models, he turned to essayists who were able to wrestle ideas big and small from all varieties of American popular culture. In the introduction to “Book Reports,” he name-checks A. J. Liebling’s “The Sweet Science” and Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation” and writes a full-on mash note to the film critic Pauline Kael, particularly her collection of pre-New Yorker work, “I Lost It at the Movies.” “Her secular intellect and honed prose, her brassy candor and democratic gusto, her nose for the laugh line and love affair with American English, her ideas as juicy as her descriptions, and her enthusiasm for artworks from The Grand Illusion to The Sugarland Express all rendered her an earthshaking critic,” he gushes. “I’m no Kael—nobody is,” he adds, though, of course, this still-thrilled description of his hero’s work doubles as an on-point portrait of his own.
The beginning of Christgau’s career as a full-time music critic, with the Esquire column, could not have been more perfectly timed—the Monterey Pop Festival and the release of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” were both just weeks away. For the next year and a half, “Secular Music” provided Christgau a platform to write, at length, about that moment’s musical revolution, taking on not only the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan but also bubblegum pop, soul music, and country rock—whole burgeoning musical worlds. In late 1968, according to “Going Into the City,” an editor assigned him a rock-is-dead piece, and he responded by turning in an essay arguing why it was very much alive. That was the end of his stint at Esquire. He soon began to write essays for the Village Voice, in a column called “Rock & Roll &.” But it was another Voice column, “Consumer Guide,” made up of seventy-five- to a-hundred-word album reviews, for which Christgau would become best known. (The zinger that ends his 1980 review of Prince’s “Dirty Mind”—“Mick Jagger should fold up his penis and go home”—is often quoted as the epitome of the approach.)
Save for a couple of years in the early seventies, when Christgau took a job as the music critic for Newsday, “Consumer Guide” ran monthly in the Village Voice, from 1969 to 2006; retitled “Expert Witness” (no faux humility here), the column now appears weekly at Noisey. At once vernacular and highfalutin, each of his capsule reviews concludes with a letter grade—a cheeky touch, at least when he started—offering marks for what professors had assured us was a waste of our time. The grade was also a sincere effort to offer tips for record buyers on a budget: in the early days, Christgau even docked points for short running times and cheaply glued album covers.
Driven, in part, by a “crude desire to know more about my subject than anyone else in the world,” Christgau has now, by his own count, reviewed more than seventeen thousand albums. The bulk of these reviews have been gathered in three decade-focussed guidebooks, which are always indispensable, even as particular judgments—inevitably, at such a pace—may infuriate. The collections also reveal how his writing for the column became more specialized, if not downright esoteric, as it went. His reviews are crammed with cultural allusions, political asides, aesthetic assumptions, and pocket histories. Plus: jokes. Consider, to choose one more-or-less-random example of the style, Christgau’s response to the 1992 album “Slanted and Enchanted,” by the indie rock band Pavement. The band, he insists, is “not just the latest scruffy rumor,” and “though no insider wants to believe it, they’re more well schooled than inspired.” He writes:
Always good at both tune and noise, they sacrifice you-know-what for you-know-what now that they’re thinking about quitting their day jobs, and as you’d expect, the content is formal: noise doesn’t give up without a fight, often it fights hard, sometimes it fights dirty, and tune digs where it’s coming from. Yielding a message complex enough to offer hope that the lyrics—more bemused than enraged, more depressive than despairing—will catch up. A.
Over the years, some readers have complained that the density of Christgau’s “Guide” entries has left them feeling dense. But note that any difficulty in following along here has little to do with the complexity of Christgau’s sentences. Instead, the sticking point is that Christgau, at least in his “Consumer Guide” mode, doesn’t talk down to us nor bother to catch us up. Rather, he envisions a reader who has been keeping up with the specific scenes and sounds, the insiders and the outsiders, of this particular cultural conversation every bit as obsessively as he has.
The “Consumer Guide” has been, by far, the most influential project of Christgau’s career—and not all of its effects have been salutary. The prevalence, in our critical culture, of capsule reviews that are geared toward an in-crowd and trade in letter grades or star ratings, accompanied on occasion by snark and condescension, can at least partly be traced to misapprehensions about what Christgau has been up to. The interest in ranking and rating is also evident in a critics poll that he founded, and for many years ran, at the Village Voice: Pazz & Jop, an early and exemplary entry in the debate-fuelling year-end accountings that are now ubiquitous. The poll offered Christgau an annual opportunity to expound at length upon the evolving state of the art, how it was perceived by those who covered it, and the connections of both to larger concerns. “Whine about Lil Jon and Ashlee Simpson if you want. There was still plenty of good news in popular music this year,” Christgau writes in his Pazz & Jop introduction for the 2004 poll. “Any album list headed by The College Dropout, in which young Kanye West proved as deft and surprising a recalibrator of African American crossover as young Barack Obama, and SMiLE, in which acid casualty Brian Wilson excavated the same pivotal decade that tripped up veteran John Kerry, has its past-and-future straight.”
A less widely known but still key Christgau contribution is all the work he’s done that didn’t come with his byline. In his role as a page editor at the Voice, Christgau mentored music critics the way Art Blakey did jazz legends: Chuck Eddy, Gary Giddins, Joe Levy, Ann Powers, R. J. Smith, Greg Tate, Holly George-Warren, Eric Weisbard, and quite a few others all worked with Christgau as a colleague or boss. All seem eager to second a claim made by the jazz critic Giddins: “Best line-editor I have ever known.”
But “Book Reports” and, especially, “Is It Still Good to Ya?” reveal something that may come as more of a surprise: Christgau’s best work is in his essays. Freed from the constraints of writing a hundred words plus a punchline, Christgau’s long-form pieces are genuinely capacious—both big-hearted and precise, rather than only evocative—and they seem written not only for veteran music nerds but for pop newcomers who appreciate some context and history (maybe even the occasional explanation or two) with their judgments, thank you very much. That allowance for a broader audience feels, in some ways, truer to the philosophy that underlies all of Christgau’s writing. And, taken as a body of work, his essays come as near as he ever has to developing that philosophy—or, rather, the “theory of pop,” which Christgau has insisted, in his memoir and elsewhere, that he wanted to write but, thanks to the time demands of his “Consumer Guide” project, never managed to.
A key text for that theory is “Pops as Pop,” a bravura bit of writing, from 2010, in which Christgau positions Louis Armstrong not only as one of American pop’s foundational figures but as a masterly singer whose best recordings include late-career vocal work that is often dismissed as corny by snobs who maintain stark divisions between art and entertainment, high culture and low. “Of course there are meaningful distinctions between high culture and popular culture,” Christgau writes—but those differences are not, he suggests, “qualitative.” What’s more, the belief that they are is “suspiciously undemocratic.” “One meaningful distinction between high and popular culture,” he writes, “is that there’s way more good popular culture—because its standards of quality are more forgiving, because sobriety isn’t its default mode, because there’s so damn much of it. Since there’s so damn much of it, and a lot of that is terrible, it rewards connoisseurship. But its strengths are quantity and variety—democracy.”
There’s so damn much of it. One thinks of the seventeen thousand or so “Consumer Guide” reviews and Christgau’s insistence on keeping them coming. You might well call this impulse democratic, particularly given the eclecticism that Christgau has never let abate: even in the omnivorous era of pop-culture criticism that he helped bring into being, Christgau has conspicuously big ears. He doesn’t merely argue that variety is more fun, and that more fun is worth pursuing; he embodies it. “Is It Still Good to Ya?” includes pieces on the African pop legend Fela, the Americana singer-songwriter Lori McKenna, the country star Brad Paisley, Thelonious Monk, the Spice Girls, Lil’ Wayne, and many, many more. If anything, Christgau’s wide-ranging sensibility comes through even more unmistakably in his second collection, “Grown Up All Wrong: 75 Great Rock and Pop Artists from Vaudeville to Techno,” from 1998, which gathers his assessments of George Gershwin, George Jones, DJ Shadow, Public Enemy, the New York Dolls, Youssou N’Dour, James Brown, Sleater-Kinney, and Bette Midler. Necessarily contingent and backward glancing, taking both their time and the long view, these essays now read like antidotes to hot takes and imperious, conversation-halting assertions.
Fun is central to Christgau’s sensibility in part because fun insists that life should be centered around so much more than what a good work ethic may provide. What that means concretely will necessarily be up to ordinary folks to determine together as an audience; it won’t be dictated by parents, preachers, teachers, politicians, or other authority figures. From such a perspective, even something as seemingly trivial as what artists or records are genuinely great matters far beyond the deceptively simple issue of personal taste. In the prologue to “Is It Still Good to Ya?,” a title borrowed from a 1978 R. & B. hit by the duo Ashford & Simpson, Christgau makes the aesthetic stakes plain: “Forget good for you—art should be good to you.” Fun with prepositions, maybe, but also a quietly significant shift toward a more democratic perspective, rooted in the conviction that we all deserve nice things. “In the worst of times,” Christgau wrote all the way back in 1969, in a sentence that’s proven something of a thesis statement for everything he’s written since, “music is a promise that times are meant to be better.”