When Robert Christgau appointed himself Dean of American Rock Critics, he was "slightly soused at a 5th Dimension press party" in the early 1970s. Christgau was in his late 20s at the time—not exactly an é minence grise—so maybe it was the booze talking, or maybe he was just a very arrogant young man. In any case, as the years passed, the quip became a fact. From his perch at the Village Voice, Christgau reigned as the country's foremost popular-music writer. In the 1970s and early '80s, when rock criticism was arguably at its height of cultural influence, Christgau was formidable enough to inspire in-concert tirades by Billy Joel, who ripped up his Voice reviews onstage, and Lou Reed, who wondered aloud on the live LP Take No Prisoners, "What does Robert Christgau do in bed? Is he a toe fucker?" Unlike other first-generation pop critics, who drifted into other kinds of work, lost interest in current pop, or, in the case of Lester Bangs, died, Christgau was persistent. He continued to write about the records that arrived in his mailbox every day, keeping his ears and mind open to new music more than most critics 40 years his junior. He also earned the "dean" title by teaching. A huge percentage of the working rock critics of the last three decades are graduates of the Voice music section, shaped by Christgau's mentoring and fearsome line-editing.
Last week, the Voice fired Christgau. This wasn't altogether unexpected—the paper has been in turmoil since its purchase last October by Phoenix-based New Times Media, with dozens of employees quitting or getting the sack—but it still came as a shock. Christgau's dismissal leaves a big hole in the pop critical community. One of Christgau's signal achievements was the Voice's annual Pazz & Jop critics poll, which, in addition to being the definitive annual best-of list, served, both before and after the Internet, as a kind of virtual powwow, a way for critics to "gather" each year to talk about music and their perennially embattled profession. With the dean deposed, pop critics have lost their clubhouse.
The even larger loss, for the moment at least, is a regular outlet for the eloquent, often maddening, always thought-provoking words of Robert Christgau. Christgau's project at the Voice was to create a venue for popular-music writing that assumed a certain readership—one equipped not just with broad cultural knowledge but with a fluency in music history, the pop canon, and all the little meta-narratives of individual artists and their discographies. The goal, in other words, was to talk about pop music in the way literary critics talked about books. Christgau succeeded in making the Voice the indispensable source for serious music writing—in the '70s and '80s, it was a local alternative weekly read by music nuts from coast to coast. The critical ideal of serious music writing was best exemplified in his own pieces, packed tight with erudition and insight.
Packed is the operative term: Christgau's craft is all about compression. He has published hundreds of terrific, expansive essays over the years, but his signature column is the Consumer Guide, a monthly compendium of capsule record reviews that he's been writing since 1969. To date, Christgau has produced more than 13,000 mini-reviews, a testament to his legendarily voracious listening habits. (On the few occasions I've seen Christgau in the flesh, he's either been wearing headphones or had them at the ready around his neck.) With Pauline Kael, Christgau is arguably one of the two most important American mass-culture critics of the second half of the 20th century—yet he's devoted the majority of his working life to fashioning 100-word blurbs with letter grades. He's a public intellectual who unwittingly invented the reviews section of Entertainment Weekly.
Of course, Christgau's blurbs are like no one else's—dense with ideas and allusions, first-person confessions and invective, highbrow references and slang. They are far too insidery for general readers, and even the biggest music geek can find his writing hard to decipher. Take the February 2001 review of Radiohead's Kid A. It reads, in full:
I guess the fools who ceded these bummed-out Brits U2's world's-greatest-rock-band slot actually did care about what bigger fool Thom Yorke had to say as well as how he made it sound. Why else the controversy over this bag of sonics? Me, I'm so relieved Yorke's doing without lyrics. Presaging too damn much but no more a death knell for song than OK Computerwas for organic life, this is an imaginative, imitative variation on a pop staple: sadness made pretty. Alienated masterpiece nothing—it's dinner music. More claret? A-
Like many Consumer Guide entries, this assumes lots of knowledge—about Radiohead and the larger rock-critical discourse surrounding them, not to mention the album Kid A itself, whose music Christgau glancingly describes as a "bag of sonics." But if you catch the references, you'll get Christgau's contrarian take on Radiohead: why they're overrated (they're pretentious and bombastic and the lyrics stink) and what's actually good about them (they make very pretty mood music). And come to think of it, that judgment rings true. It's no mean feat to boil a nuanced argument down to a bagatelle of six sentences and 89 words, and to crack a good joke while you're at it. It takes a great listener and a writer who has learned, through years of practice and self-discipline, to write smart and short.
All rock critics working today, at least the ones who want to do more than rewrite PR copy, are in some sense Christigauians. But like Kael and her Paulettes, Christgau has his hard-core cultists. At various times, the Voice music section embodied the worst aspects of Christgau's influence, publishing articles that were lumpy goulashes of rock-crit arcana and in-jokes. Christgau is probably too peculiar a writer to be an ideal model. His imitators can't match his chops. Christgau's secret weapon, though, is old-fashioned lefty-secular-humanist warmth. He overflows with love for music and a joie de vivre that makes his fits of critical pique more principled than mere hipsterish provocations. The truth is, Christgau's writing does shut out a lot of readers, but it has helped to create, and to fortify, a community—the brotherhood and sisterhood of music obsessives.
Consumer Guide, of course, is a misnomer. You don't go to Christgau for CD shopping advice any more than you read Kael to decide whether or not to rent The Seven Samurai. The idea is to revel in the whirling of the critic's mind—and to argue with him. You can discover almost the entire Christgau oeuvre on his eponymous Web site. Breezing through three-plus decades of Consumer Guides, it's possible to tease out some aspects of Christgau's tastes. He gravitates toward song-oriented forms, wit, formal rigor, and musicianship in unlikely places. When I asked writer and critic Eric Weisbard, Christgau's former colleague at the Voice, to describe Christgau's musical aesthetics, he replied, "Chuck Berry." That about sums it up.
Of course, the dean's loathings are at least as much fun. He's been on the record about his dislike of metal, art rock, bluegrass, and techno, among other genres. He's engaged the tough moral and aesthetic questions raised by gangsta rap more doggedly than anyone else, and he's given Dr. Dre a very hard time in the process. He really dislikes laid-back '70s songwriters—it's a riot reading Christgau on the Eagles and other, as he calls them, "El Lay" types. I have to agree with Christgau there, but I can't fathom his dislike for salsa or U2, and a few thousand words later, I still don't understand why Ice Cube's violent misogynist fantasies are so bad but Eminem's aren't. And the Christgau style can rankle—his bursts of jive talk and abbreviations jar my ear like an ill-tuned piano. Why, oh why, Bob, must you call keyboards "keybs"?