Christgau at the 2010 Pop Conference in Seattle
Robert Thomas Christgau|
April 18, 1942
Greenwich Village, New York, U.S.
Robert Thomas Christgau (//; born April 18, 1942) is an American essayist, music journalist, and self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics". 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 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.
In 1987, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in the field of "Folklore and Popular Culture" to study the history of popular music.
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".
On July 15, 2014, Christgau debuted a monthly column on Billboard's website.
Consumer Guide and Expert Witness
Christgau is perhaps best known for his Consumer Guide columns, which have been published more-or-less monthly since 1969, in the Village Voice, as well as a brief period in Newsday. In December 2006, the column moved online to MSN Music, initially appearing every other month, before switching to a monthly schedule in June 2007. 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–. "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".
In 1990, Christgau changed the format of the Consumer Guide; it now contains six to eight reviews graded upper-B+ or higher, one "Dud of the Month" review graded B or lower, and three lists: Honorable Mention (B+ albums deemed not worthy of full-paragraph reviews), Choice Cuts (excellent tracks on un-recommended albums), and Duds. For several years, there were two annual Consumer Guide columns which strayed from this format: The Turkey Shoot (typically published the week of Thanksgiving), which consisted entirely of reviews graded B− or lower, and a Christmas-season roundup of compilations and reissues, mostly graded A or A+. Both have been discontinued.
He also used ratings such as "neither" (denoted by a frowny face), which is an album that does not warrant repeated listening despite coherent craft and one or two highlights, and a "choice cut" (denoted by a pair of scissors), which is a good song on an album that is unworthy of listeners' money or time.
Lou Reed recorded a tirade against Christgau in his 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." 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."
On July 1, 2010, Christgau announced in the introduction to his Consumer Guide column that the July 2010 installment would be his last on MSN. On November 22 of that year, Christgau launched a blog on MSN, "Expert Witness", which feature 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.
Pazz & Jop
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.
Style and impact
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, but I can't stand its delusions of grandeur", Christgau wrote in 1986, "the way it apes and misapprehends reactionary notions of nobility". In his 2000 Consumer Guide book, he 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 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?" 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.
Jody 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."
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.
- Any Old Way You Choose It: Rock and Other Pop Music, 1967-1973, Penguin Books, 1973
- Christgau's Record Guide: Rock Albums of the '70s, Ticknor & Fields, 1981
- Christgau's Record Guide: The '80s, Pantheon Books, 1990
- Grown Up All Wrong: 75 Great Rock and Pop Artists from Vaudeville to Techno, Harvard University Press, 1998
- Christgau's Consumer Guide: Albums of the '90s, St. Martin's Griffin, 2000
- Going into the City: Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man, Dey Street Books, 2015
- O'Dair, Barbara (May 9, 2001). "A conversation with Robert Christgau". Salon. Retrieved April 13, 2008.
... there are things I don't like or get. Metal—I don't think metal's as bad as I hear it as being.
- Marquis Who's Who
- "Robert Christgau, Dean of American Rock Critics". robertchristgau.com. Retrieved October 10, 2009.
- Rosen, Judy (September 5, 2006), "X-ed Out: The Village Voice fires a famous music critic". Slate.com. Retrieved August 15, 2009.
- "Robert Christgau". Harper Collins. Retrieved September 30, 2015.
- Christgau, Robert (13 August 2015). "Welcome to Expert Witness". Vice. Retrieved 14 August 2015.
- Christgau, Robert (2015). Going into the City. Dey Street. p. 23. ISBN 978-0-06-223880-1.
- Christgau, Robert (30 December 1971). "Consumer Guide (22)". The Village Voice. Retrieved 18 November 2013.
- Christgau, Robert. "Robert Christgau Biography". Robertchristgau.com. Retrieved 28 January 2014.
- Christgau, Robert (2004), "A Counter in Search of a Culture". Any Old Way You Choose It, Cooper Square Press, p.2.
- O'Dair, Barbara (9 May 2001). "A conversation with Robert Christgau". Salon.com. Retrieved 22 October 2013.
- Christgau, Robert (May 21, 1970). "Jazz Annual". The Village Voice. Retrieved September 20, 2013.
... 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 ...
- Eliscu, Jenny (October 26, 2016). "Prolific Music Critic Robert Christgau Knows What He Likes (and Hates)". Vice. Retrieved October 20, 2016.
- Christgau, Robert (2004), "A Counter in Search of a Culture". Any Old Way You Choose It, Cooper Square Press, p.4.
- Bob Christgau (1968-06-22), Correspondence, Love Letters & Advice, Rolling Stone
- Christgau, Robert (March 27, 2009), "Poptastic bye-bye". ARTicles. Retrieved March 4, 2010
- Blender, June 2008, p. 16
- "Robert Christgau". Guggenheim Foundation. Retrieved 8 November 2016.
- Cohen, David (2007-01-16). "Robert Christgau: School of rock". The Guardian.
- Beaudoin, Jedd (2 December 2012). "'Color Me Obsessed: A Film About the Replacements' Paints 'Minor Band' with Major Strokes". PopMatters. Retrieved 29 January 2014.
- Cohen, David (16 January 2007). "Robert Christgau: School of rock". The Guardian. Retrieved 27 March 2016.
- Christgau, Robert (27 August 2013). "Tell All". Barnes & Noble. Retrieved 26 January 2014.
- Schonfeld, Zach (27 August 2013). "Robert Christgau Is Writing a Memoir, Enjoys Porn". The Wire. Retrieved 26 January 2014.
- Gonzalez, Ed (16 July 2014). "Links for the Day: Nathan Rabin Is Sorry for the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Robert Christgau Premieres Billboard Column, Hillary Clinton on The Daily Show, & More". Slant Magazine. Retrieved 27 August 2014.
- "Key to Icons". RobertChristgau.com.
- Wolfsen, Jared (4 May 2002). "Walk On The Wild Side". Archived from the original on July 20, 2002. - fan transcription of the Take No Prisoners album
- Christgau, Robert. "Lou Reed". RobertChristgau.com.
- Christgau, Robert. "Sonic Youth". RobertChristgau.com.
- Christgau, Robert. "Inside Music". MSN. Retrieved July 1, 2010.
- Christgau, Robert (November 22, 2010). "This Blog—The Whats, Whys, and Wherefores". Expert Witness. MSN. Retrieved January 15, 2011.
- Christgau, Robert (20 September 2013). "Odds and Ends 036". MSN Music. Retrieved 22 September 2013.
- Christgau, Robert (10 September 2014). "Expert Witness: The Story Till Now". Cuepoint. Retrieved 11 October 2014.
- Christgau's 2010 ballot
- Roberts, Michael (May 28, 2008). "Q&A with Ahmir ?uestlove Thompson of the Roots". Westword. Retrieved November 2, 2015.
- Christgau, Robert (1998). "Frank Sinatra 1915–1998". Details. Retrieved November 8, 2015.
- Rubio, Steven (July 2002). "Online exchange with Robert Christgau". Rockcritics Archives. rockcritics.com.
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 ...
- Christgau, Robert (December 30, 1986). "Consumer Guide". The Village Voice. New York. Retrieved May 7, 2016.
- Christgau, Robert (2000). "How to Use These Appendices". Christgau's Consumer Guide: Albums of the '90s. Macmillan Publishers. p. 352. ISBN 0312245602. Retrieved November 15, 2015.
- Christgau, Robert (December 22, 1980). "John Lennon, 1940–1980". Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics. Retrieved March 15, 2008.
- Gerstenzang, Peter (July 24, 2013). "Why Aren't the New York Dolls in the Rock Hall of Fame?". Esquire. Retrieved July 20, 2014.
- "Read an Excerpt From Robert Christgau's Memoir Going Into the City". Spin. February 23, 2015. Retrieved July 30, 2015.
- Dickey, Jack (24 February 2015). "How To Survive 13,000 Album Reviews". Time. Retrieved 27 October 2015.
- Devon Powers, Writing the Record: The Village Voice and the Birth of Rock Criticism. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.
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