Saturday, April 09, 2016

Our Grade for Overrated Music Critic Robert Christgau: a D-Minus

By MARC McDONALD

To me, the best music critics have always been the ones who simply stick to writing about the music and not calling attention to themselves. For example, off the top of my head, I don't think I can name a single critic for my favorite music magazine, Britain's excellent The Wire. But the reviews in that publication are some of the best around. They're informative, in-depth, well-researched, and they give you a good sense of the music.

By contrast, the reviews of Robert Christgau, the self-appointed "Dean of Music Critics" offer none of these qualities. His reviews are short (often one sentence) and often nasty, mean, cryptic, baffling, and non-sensical. He rates each album with a letter grade, often ranging from "A" to "D."

For all his self-importance as a culture critic, Christgau may be missing the point in his music reviews. The real skill in reviewing a piece of music is not simply assigning it a grade. No, what takes talent and skill is explaining why a record is worthwhile or not.

Christgau may think it takes talent to write one-sentence reviews and hand out letter grades. But in good music criticism, I would argue that the opposite is true. It takes skill to explain, in-depth, exactly why a work deserves our attention. For a start, you've got to do some research on the music. You've got to be able to put the music into context. You've got to give the reader some helpful background on the music so that they can appreciate what they're listening to. Frankly, you can't do this in a one-sentence review.

Christgau has pissed off a lot of people over the years. Famously, the likes of Lou Reed and Sonic Youth slammed him. Christgau, however, does have his supporters. They claim that Christgau's work is important. They even defend his short one-sentence reviews.

I have to disagree. If you look over Christgau's reviews during the forty-plus years he's been a critic, you'll find that his critical radar has simply been wrong so many times that you have to question his credibility.

Take, for example, Christgau's harshly negative 1969 review of King Crimson's epic progressive rock masterpiece, In the Court of the Crimson King.

Now, I really don't have a problem with a critic who "bucks the tide" and gives an album, or movie, a negative rating, when everyone else loves the work. If the critic can back up his unorthodox view and make a case for it, this can often make for interesting reading and help put a work into context. (A good example is The New York Times' critic Richard Goldstein, who famously panned Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band).

History, of course, proved Goldstein wrong on what is now widely acknowledged as an all-time masterpiece. But I will give credit to Goldstein. He wrote an in-depth review and he actually made some good points, which he supported in his review.

Contrast Goldstein's review to what Christgau wrote in his withering put-down review of In the Court of the Crimson King. Here is the review in its entirety:

"The plus is because Peter Townshend likes it. This can also be said of The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. Beware the forthcoming hype--this is ersatz shit."

Christgau (who has long been hostile to virtually all progressive rock) gave King Crimson's album an absurd D+ rating. But he never bothered to explain in the slightest bit as to why the album deserved such a negative review. If you're going to slam an artist's work so viciously (calling it "shit"), you should at least bother to give a reason or two.

Time has not been kind to Christgau's opinion of In the Court of the Crimson King. The album is now regarded as a milestone. It's one of the all-time classics of the progressive rock genre. It features astonishingly skillful musicianship, epic songs, thought-provoking lyrics---in short, just about everything one could ask for in a classic rock album.

For such a short review, Christgau's dismissal of In the Court of the Crimson King is even more stupid, the more one thinks about it. In the review, he manages to get in a swipe at The Crazy World of Arthur Brown as well. In reality, that album was a masterpiece itself (capped by the thrilling Fire, an epic track that just seems to have gotten better since its 1968 release).

Actually, Christgau has never liked progressive rock, period. It's one of the many rock subgenres that he despises, along with heavy metal. Fair enough, I suppose. But given that he has contempt for so many major, popular, and enduring subgenres, one has to wonder why Christgau bothers to write about rock music in the first place.

For my money, though, the worst part of Christgau's writing (besides his self-importance) is that his critical radar is just so flawed.

Spend some time with his reviews and you wonder why anyone would take his writings seriously. When he's not slamming important albums, ranging from Nick Cave to Scott Walker, he's gushing over lightweight artists that I don't believe will stand the test of time. (Take a bow, Taylor Swift).

Christgau's infatuation with Swift is a major, baffling annoyance. I mean, Swift seems like a nice person. And I suppose her music means a lot if you're a teen-age girl hanging out at a mall in a bland suburb like Plano, Texas. But to the rest of us, I'm sorry, but this is lightweight pop of no importance. As the great Morrissey once put it when describing mindless disco, this is music that "says nothing to me about my life."

By contrast, the truly great, enduring music does have the capacity to speak to all of us. For example, these days I know teen-age girls (and loads of people of all ages) who adore the music of John Lennon and Bob Marley. Three decades from now, will Taylor Swift still be shifting millions of units a year?

Bizarrely, Christgau awards virtually all of Swift's albums an A rating. Four in all.

To put that into context, that's more A ratings than Christgau has awarded to the entire combined works of the likes of The Smiths, The Jam, The Swans, Kraftwerk, Black Sabbath and AC/DC. That, of course, is insane. The Smiths alone have more talent, wit, integrity and intelligence in one song than Taylor Swift has in her entire catalog. Well, at least in my opinion.

One thing that has always baffled me about Christgau (besides how anyone could take him seriously) are the so-called standards he uses in evaluating music. For one thing, he doesn't like songs about death (by his own admission). That pretty much rules out dark, challenging work by the likes of Nick Cave.

I guess my question on this is why? What, exactly, is wrong with writing a song about death? It's a fascinating topic, after all. God knows, I'd rather hear Cave sing a haunting song about death than Swift sing yet another syrupy love song with Hallmark lyrics. And, in any case, who needs Swift singing about love when you've got the collected works of Barry White and Prince awaiting your listening pleasure on YouTube?

Another "rule" that Christgau seems to follow is this: he really doesn't like music without a sense of humor. As a result, he routinely trashes dark masterpieces by the likes of everyone from Black Sabbath to Pink Floyd.

Fair enough, I suppose: Christgau is entitled to his opinions. But if you delve into his reviews, you'll find that Christgau gushes all over the likes of the overrated Nirvana and Sonic Youth. Actually, I quite like Sonic Youth. But really, they don't have much of a sense of humor. At least no more than the likes of Pink Floyd---a band that Christgau savages for the "crime" of being humorless.

I find it interesting how Christgau will slam any progressive artist for the "sin" of having a 10 minute guitar solo (even a really good one by, say, King Crimson) and yet he'll praise Sonic Youth's equally indulgent 10-minute guitar feedback drone-a-thons. I guess in Christgau's view, a guitar feedback wankfest takes more skill, and is more worthwhile, than a virtuoso guitar solo.

Speaking of having no sense of humor. I find it interesting that (like most "serious" critics) Christgau has zero interest of the pop gems of ABBA. I mean, really: could there be anything less humorous than yet another white, middle-class, heterosexual, music critic who loves to bash the likes of ABBA?

In any case, ABBA's music has grown steadily in stature since the band's 1970s heyday. I personally find it hard to believe that anyone could hate ABBA. Their work will endure far longer than the likes of Taylor Swift, I believe.

Considering that Christgau typically only devotes a sentence or two to his little reviews, it's amazing how much important music he has never bothered to write about over the decades. In other cases, he does seem to be vaguely aware of seminal bands---but will only review one of two of their records.

Case in point: Kraftwerk. This is an enormously influential band that were decades ahead of their time. Their influence continues to grow today in genres ranging from dance music to hip hop to techno. Much of today's music simply would be unthinkable without Kraftwerk's pioneering work. As the great Paul Morley once wrote, Kraftwerk has been even more influential on modern music than the Beatles. And yet, Christgau has little to say about them, (and what he does write is embarrassingly misinformed).

In fact, if it doesn't come from the U.S. or Britain, Christgau appears to have little interest when it comes to rock and pop. Amazingly, he has virtually nothing to say about the wonderful Krautrock bands of the early 1970s who recorded some of the greatest music ever made: Neu!, Faust, Harmonia, etc. These are enormously important bands that continue to have far-ranging influence today. But Christgau seems unaware of any of them.

The same goes for the revolutionary Japanese rock of the 1970s (Flower Travellin' Band, Les Rallizes Denudes, Far East Family Band, etc.) It was a scene documented by the great Julian Cope, among others. To my knowledge, Christgau has never written a word about this endlessly fascinating and important era of rock history. He has though written a grand total of one review of Cope's own work (the fantastic 1991 environmental apocalypse album, Peggy Suicide), a work that Christgau stupidly dismissed (although typically without bothering to explain why).

Cope is one of those music writers who is far more intelligent and profound than Christgau. And anyone familiar with Cope's work probably understands why: the man himself is a musician who has a decades-long body of powerful, inspired, heart-felt work. When Cope writes about music, he's writing about fellow musicians. He respects them enough to not stupidly dismiss their work with nasty putdowns and insults (at least without explaining why). Cope writes in-depth and with great passion. It's a shame that more people (at least in the U.S.) aren't more familiar with his writings, not to mention music.

Over time, the likes of Julian Cope, King Crimson and Kraftwerk have wound up having the last laugh. Their music will endure forever. By contrast, Christgau will be as forgotten as the disposable pop of Taylor Swift in the years to come.

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