Christgau at the 2010 Pop Conference in Seattle
|Born||Robert Thomas Christgau
April 18, 1942
Greenwich Village, New York, U.S.
Robert Thomas Christgau (//; born April 18, 1942) is an American essayist and music journalist. One of the earliest professional rock critics, he spent 37 years as the chief music critic and senior editor for The Village Voice, during which time he created and oversaw the annual Pazz & Jop poll. He has also covered popular music for Esquire, Creem, Newsday, Playboy, Rolling Stone, Billboard, NPR, Blender, and MSN Music, and is a visiting arts teacher at New York University.
Christgau is known for his terse capsule reviews, first published in his Consumer Guide columns during his tenure at The Village Voice from 1969 to 2006. He has written three books based on those columns, along with two collections of essays. He continued writing capsule reviews in MSN Music, Cuepoint, and Noisey—Vice's music section—where they are currently published in his Expert Witness column.
Christgau was born in Greenwich Village and grew up in Queens, the son of a fireman. He has said he became a rock and roll fan when disc jockey Alan Freed moved to the city in 1954. After attending a public school in New York City, he left New York for four years to attend Dartmouth College, graduating in 1962 with a B.A. in English. While at college his musical interests turned to jazz, but he quickly returned to rock after moving back to New York. Christgau has said that Miles Davis' 1960 album Sketches of Spain initiated in him "one phase of the disillusionment with jazz that resulted in my return to rock and roll". He was deeply influenced by New Journalism writers such as Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe. "My ambitions when I went into journalism were always, to an extent, literary", Christgau later said.
Christgau initially wrote short stories, before giving up fiction in 1964 to become a sportswriter, and later, a police reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger. He became a freelance writer after a story he wrote about the death of a woman in New Jersey was published by New York magazine. He was asked to take over the dormant music column at Esquire, which he began writing in early 1967. After Esquire discontinued the column, Christgau moved to The Village Voice in 1969, and he also worked as a college professor.
In early 1972, he accepted a full-time job as music critic for Newsday. Christgau returned to the Village Voice in 1974 as music editor. He remained there until August 2006, when he was fired shortly after the paper's acquisition by New Times Media. Two months later, Christgau became a contributing editor at Rolling Stone (which first published his review of Moby Grape's Wow in 1968). Late in 2007, Christgau was fired by Rolling Stone, although he continued to work for the magazine for another three months. Starting with the March 2008 issue, he joined Blender, where he was listed as "senior critic" for three issues and then "contributing editor". Christgau had been a regular contributor to Blender before he joined Rolling Stone. He continued to write for Blender until the magazine ceased publication in March 2009.
He previously taught during the formative years of the California Institute of the Arts. As of 2007, he was also an adjunct professor in the Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music at New York University.
In August 2013, Christgau revealed in an article written for Barnes & Noble's website that he is writing a memoir. That same month, during an interview with The Wire's Zach Schonfeld, who described Christgau as "notoriously grumpy" and "characteristically cranky", Christgau said he enjoyed pornography, stating that it "performs its arousal function quite well with no outside help".
Christgau is perhaps best known for his Consumer Guide columns, which have been published more-or-less monthly since July 10, 1969, in the Village Voice, as well as a brief period in Creem. In its original format, the Consumer Guide consisted of 18 to 20 single-paragraph album reviews, each of which was given a letter grade ranging from A+ to E−. These reviews were later collected, expanded, and extensively revised in a three-volume book series, the first of which was published in 1981 as Christgau's Record Guide: Rock Albums of the '70s; it was followed by Christgau's Record Guide: The '80s (1990) and Christgau's Consumer Guide: Albums of the '90s (2000).
In 1990, Christgau changed the format of the Consumer Guide to focus more on albums he found worthier than others. Additional space was given to "honorable mentions" (summarized in a phrase) and "choice cuts", which denoted good songs on an album that was otherwise unworthy of listeners' money or time. Wolk said the latter category was "more about tracking his taste than arguing for it". Lesser records were largely relegated to noted-without-comment listings of "Duds" and an annual "Turkey Shoot" column in The Village Voice. Christgau also introduced the "neither" grade (denoted by a frowny face), which is an album that may impress at first with coherent craft and one or two highlights, before failing to make an impression again.
In 2001, robertchristgau.com—an online archive of Christgau's Consumer Guide reviews and other writings from his career—was set up as a co-operative project between Christgau and longtime friend Tom Hull; the two had met in 1975 shortly after Hull queried Christgau as The Village Voice's regional editor for St. Louis. The website was created after the September 11, 2001 attacks when Hull was stuck in New York while visiting from his native Wichita. While Christgau spent many nights preparing past Village Voice writings for the website, by 2002 much of the older Consumer Guide columns had been inputted by Hull and a small coterie of fans. According to Christgau, Hull is "a computer genius as well as an excellent and very knowledgeable music critic, but he’d never done much web site work. The design of the web site, especially its high searchability and small interest in graphics, are his idea of what a useful music site should be".
In December 2006, Christgau began writing his Consumer Guide columns for MSN Music, initially appearing every other month, before switching to a monthly schedule in June 2007. On July 1, 2010, he announced in the introduction to his Consumer Guide column that the July 2010 installment would be his last on MSN.
On November 22, 2010, Christgau launched a blog on MSN, called "Expert Witness", which featured reviews only of albums that he had graded B+ or higher, since those albums "are the gut and backbone of my musical pleasure"; the writing of reviews for which are "so rewarding psychologically that I'm happy to do it at blogger's rates". On September 20, 2013, Christgau announced in the comments section that Expert Witness would cease to be published by October 1, 2013, writing, "As I understand it, Microsoft is shutting down the entire MSN freelance arts operation at that time ..." On September 10, 2014, he debuted a new version of Expert Witness on Cuepoint, an online music magazine published on the blogging platform Medium. In August 2015, the Expert Witness column was relocated to Noisey.
In 1971, Christgau inaugurated the annual Pazz & Jop music poll. The results are published in the Village Voice every February, and compile "top ten" lists submitted by music critics across the nation. Throughout Christgau's career at the Voice, every poll was accompanied by a lengthy Christgau essay analyzing the results, and pondering the year's overall musical output. The Voice has continued the feature, despite Christgau's dismissal, and although he no longer oversees the poll, Christgau continues to vote in it.
"Christgau's blurbs", writes Slate music critic Jody Rosen, "are like no one else's—dense with ideas and allusions, first-person confessions and invective, highbrow references and slang". Rosen describes Christgau's writing as "often maddening, always thought-provoking ... With Pauline Kael, Christgau is arguably one of the two most important American mass-culture critics of the second half of the 20th century. ... All rock critics working today, at least the ones who want to do more than rewrite PR copy, are in some sense Christgauians." Spin magazine wrote in 2015, "You probably wouldn't be reading this publication if Robert Christgau didn’t largely invent rock criticism as we know it."
Douglas Wolk said the earliest Consumer Guide columns were generally brief and detailed, but "within a few years, though, he developed his particular gift for 'power, wit and economy,' a phrase he used to describe the Ramones in a dead-on 37-word review of Leave Home." In his opinion, the Consumer Guide reviews were "an enormous pleasure to read slowly, as writing, even if you have no particular interest in pop music. And if you do happen to have more than a little interest in pop music, they're a treasure." Fans of Christgau's "Consumer Guide" like to share lines from their favorite reviews, Wolk writes, citing "Sting wears his sexual resentment on his chord changes like a closet 'American Woman' fan" (from Christgau's review of the 1983 Police album Synchronicity); "Calling Neil Tennant a bored wimp is like accusing Jackson Pollock of making a mess" (reviewing the 1987 Pet Shop Boys album Actually); and "Mick Jagger should fold up his penis and go home" (in a review of Prince's 1980 album Dirty Mind).
Christgau has named Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Chuck Berry, the Beatles, and the New York Dolls as his top five artists of all time. In a 1998 obituary, he called Frank Sinatra "the greatest singer of the 20th century". Christgau readily admits to having prejudices and generally disliking genres such as heavy metal, art rock, progressive rock, bluegrass, gospel, Irish folk, and jazz fusion. "I admire metal's integrity, brutality, and obsessiveness", Christgau wrote in 1986, "but I can't stand its delusions of grandeur, the way it apes and misapprehends reactionary notions of nobility". He has said he is not "encyclopedic" about popular music; Wolk wrote that "there are not a lot of white guys in their 60s waving the flag for Lil Wayne's Da Drought 3, especially not in the same column as they wave the flag for a Willie Nelson/Merle Haggard/Ray Price trio album, an anthology of new Chinese pop, Vampire Weekend, and Wussy (who? Well, if Christgau gave 'em an A, maybe you'd best find out)." In his 2000 Consumer Guide book, Christgau said his favorite rock album was either The Clash (1977) or New York Dolls (1973), while his favorite record in general was Monk's 1958 Misterioso. In July 2013, during an interview with Esquire magazine's Peter Gerstenzang, Christgau criticized the voters at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, saying "they're pretty stupid" for not voting in the New York Dolls.
In 1978, Lou Reed recorded a tirade against Christgau and his column on the 1978 live album, Take No Prisoners: "Critics. What does Robert Christgau do in bed? I mean, is he a toe fucker? Man, anal retentive, A Consumer's Guide to Rock, what a moron: 'A Study' by, y'know, Robert Christgau. Nice little boxes: B-PLUS. Can you imagine working for a fucking year, and you get a B+ from some asshole in The Village Voice?" Christgau rated the album C+ and wrote in his review, "I thank Lou for pronouncing my name right." In December 1980, Christgau provoked angry responses from Voice readers when his column approvingly quoted his wife Carola Dibbell's reaction to the murder of John Lennon: "Why is it always Bobby Kennedy or John Lennon? Why isn't it Richard Nixon or Paul McCartney?" Similar angst came from Sonic Youth in their song "Kill Yr Idols" (at the time known as "I Killed Christgau with My Big Fucking Dick"), in which they sing "I don't know why / You wanna impress Christgau / Ah let that shit die / And find out the new goal"; Christgau responded by saying "Idolization is for rock stars, even rock stars manqué like these impotent bohos—critics just want a little respect. So if it's not too hypersensitive of me, I wasn't flattered to hear my name pronounced right, not on this particular title track."
Christgau married fellow critic and writer Carola Dibbell in 1974; they have an adopted daughter, Nina, born in Honduras in 1986. He has said he was raised in a "born-again Church" in Queens, but has since become an atheist.
Christgau has been long, albeit argumentative, friends with critics such as Dave Marsh, Greil Marcus, and Ellen Willis, whom he dated from 1966 to 1969. He has also mentored younger critics such as Ann Powers and Chuck Eddy.
... there are things I don't like or get. Metal—I don't think metal's as bad as I hear it as being.
... Sketches of Spain, which in 1960 catapulted Davis into the favor of the kind of man who reads Playboy and initiated in me one phase of the disillusionment ...
As for my limitations, they're public and they're legion. Metal, art-rock, bluegrass, gospel, Irish folk, fusion jazz (arghh)—all prejudices I'm prepared to defend and in most cases already have, but prejudices nevertheless. I pretty much lost reggae with dancehall; my acquaintance with most techno is a nodding one (zzzz); I've never really liked salsa ...
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