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Robert Christgau says goodbye to the Consumer Guide: An exit interview

July 1, 2010 |  3:28 pm

Robert_Christgau Robert Christgau is one of the prime forces in writing about popular music. He's my spiritual dad and a role model for many other cultural critics and journalists. Though he's published books and many longer essays and articles, Bob's best-known form of expression has been the Consumer Guide, a project as thick as "Moby Dick" and, within my circle at least, as influential, within which he's published thousands of capsule reviews of albums, starting in 1969 at the Village Voice and wrapping up (at least for now, never say never) this month at MSN.com, the column's host for the last three years.

It's a momentous day for many music writers -- truly worthy of that hackneyed phrase, the end of an era.  Generations of fans have crafted their music collections with Bob's blurbs clutched in their hands (or, later, downloaded on their iPhones.)  Countless writers honed their craft with his voice in their ears: emulating his endlessly deep, intricate, referential but always fun-to-read prose, or reacting against it.

 "All rock critics working today, at least the ones who want to do more than rewrite PR copy, are in some sense Christigauians," wrote Jody Rosen in a Slate column when the Voice let Bob go after more than three decades of labor, putting the Dean in the same category as Pauline Kael. 

When Bob sent out an e-mail this morning announcing his final CG entry -- you can read it here, and he's so totally right about that Rokia Traoré record -- I contacted him to see whether he'd do a little e-mail interview. Here's what he sent back, in its entirety. Edit Robert Christgau? I wouldn't think of it. And when you're done reading this, jump over to his website and spend some time gaining wisdom from his collected Consumer Guide columns. You won't be sorry, though your hard drive will likely be heavier with musical purchases after you're done.

-- Ann Powers

AP: Can you name one central way that doing the Consumer Guide for 41 years has shaped the way you think about popular music?

RC: There's gotta be two, but they telescope into one. The first is how many people are making not necessarily great but pretty damn good pop albums in an enormous variety of modes and genres. The second is how by simple repeated exposure to this vast quantity of music can open you up to it, making your life more interesting, more various, and more fun -- and making you smarter too, which matters to me.
 


AP: The jam-packed concision of the Consumer Guide entries predated, and predicted, writing in new forms like Twitter and blogs. What's your quick take on the state of music writing now?

RC: I think there's plenty of good music writing still being done, but as with music per se it tends to get swallowed up in the truly overwhelming morass of bad music writing, a depressing growth sector for the past decade at least. As far as writing short is concerned, I have mixed feelings about having invented the Entertainment Weekly review section. The only venue I'm aware of where the short review is -- only it's "was," unfortunately -- done with the kind of consistent wit and insight I always strove for is the late lamented Blender.

AP: What's your favorite A-plus record? Your most memorable dud?

RC: Music is too various for me to have a single favorite A plus record. Two of the most durable I can think of are durable in part because they're so playable, not necessarily that intense on a minute-to-minute basis. Both are obscure and now hard to find, and neither, oddly, is by a single artist, though both hold together fabulously as wholes. One is Michael Hurley/The Unholy Model Rounders/Jeffrey Fredericks & the Clamtones Have Moicy! (1976), and the other is a Trevor Herman-picked compilation from Kenya and Tanzania called Guitar Paradise of East Africa (1991).

 As for my most memorable Dud, it's a 1970 album by someone named Kay Huntington (who I just discovered comes right before Michael Hurley in my '70s book! wow!) called What's Happening to Our World? I gave it an E for transcendant awfulness and assume it's still over in my storage unit. Probably isn't as bad as I thought, either. I was young. People tend to abuse the grading privilege when they start out.

AP: I know you've revised scores sometimes when you've compiled entries for your two Consumer Guide books. What's the biggest flip you've done on an album?


RC: Because I've always been good at knowing what I thought and not reviewing prematurely and have gotten better at those things over the years, my flips are rarely that significant. I mean, the Kinks' Muswell Hillbillies went from a C minus to a B plus. But Muswell Hillbillies still isn't that important to me. N.E.R.D.'s In Search of ... started off a B minus Dud of the Month and ended up in my year-end A list, but I haven't played it in years. Maybe now I should -- I have more time.


AP:
If you could push people toward listening to one artist or style of music, what would it be?

RC:
For people my age (68), hip-hop. For people in general, Afropop.

AP: Anything you left out of all those entries that you'd like to mention?

RC: I'm not done yet.
 
Photo: Robert Christgau. Credit: Joe Mabel.
 
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