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

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.
 
 
Comments () | Archives (13)

Put out to pasture, 'bout time.

I've read the Consumer Guide every single month since first discovering it in CREEM back in 1977. I will miss it something fierce.

great piece Ann.... even greater coments, Bob.

Great job. Thanks for doing it! To both of you.

Mr Christgau's CG has entertained and enlightened me since the early 80s when a friend converted me from the Rolling Stone Record Guide to his book of 1970s reviews. I've been a reader for 3o years, both of the CG and of his witty, pungent, and informative essays in the Voice and, later, on line. Because of the CG I've taken musical byways and side alleys down which I would never have ventured. I was relieved when the CG survived back in 2006, but I always felt its days were numbered. Now that it's (probably) gone for good, I'll no longer have a reliable source for purchasing new music. What to do? Guess I now have time to listen to that backlog of unlistened-to CDs. Thank you Mr. C.

Music critics are for people who can't make up their own mind about music. Worthless drivel for worthless people.

Wow, if you're so down on music critics why even reading this blog? Yeah, I still have a dog-eared copy of the 70's CG book, along with original RS guide and yes, Roxon's Rock Encyclopedia. Did not always agree with Christgau: still love 'Have Moicy' and some older Afropop, lost the plot on hip hop at Grandmaster Flash (sorry, just could not relate as a white male boomer from NYC who's ended up in Nashville of all places). But CG always helped me try to keep up with the new. Now with Giddins writing mostly on movies and the great Robert Palmer long gone, have to recognize I've accumulated more LP's and CD's than I can actually listen to in what remains based on actuarial tables. Well, all things must pass ... wait, how long since I listened to that!? Bye CG

Mike and Mac:

Criticism, done well, informs your opinion and educates your palate.

You two are in obvious need of both things.

-G.

Damn. I wanted to know what he thought of the new Eminem, The Roots, and M.I.A. Guess we'll have to wait for the Dean's List, which we'd better have.

@Anony - Word

To this young, hipster douche-bags who hate you Bob - I wouldn't worry - they're young - they don't know what they like yet...

u did good bob

Robert Christgau is really something else. His biggest contribution to culture isn't anywhere in the content of his music critiques or predictable bias for politically correct pop music but in molding a commercial literary product of his own: the obtuse yet damning analysis of a mass produced product, neatly worded and packaged in less than a paragraph, sometimes in only a few words or less, that indeed provided a blueprint for all high-end capsule review writers to come. No wonder Christgau's Consumer Guide will be his lasting legacy: nobody would want to read a book full of his writing. And yet he's perfect in tiny doses. His art is the micro-review. It satisfies nearly every need for popular writing in today's jocular, ivy-league Rolling Stone commercial music world: dense enough to satisfy the author's ego, disapproving enough for their conscience, and short enough for casual, lite-reading in magazines for everyone else. It's akin to rough, nasty foreplay: a furrowed, angry disdain that only makes you want the object of so much attention that much more, good or bad. In the end, Robert Christgau is one heck of a salesman.

I use to hate Robert, but I always seemed to be reading his stuff anyways. Recently I relized his genius. I'm going to miss him. He gives everything he listens to a fair chance and was damn hilarious sometimes.


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