>Remember that scene in This Is Spinal Tap where Marty DeBergi is reading off all of the terrible reviews Spinal Tap have accumulated over the years? And he reads off the review of their album Shark Sandwich – “This one’s a two-word review: ‘Shit sandwich'”? And the band gets all upset and says “Is that real? You can’t print that!” If I didn’t know any better I would say that was a little dig at Robert Christgau, so-called “Dean of Rock Critics.”
Now, I’ve been a little hesitant to profile Mr. Christgau, and there’s a simple reason for it: I don’t like the guy very much. He’s kind of a prick. You know the aforementioned “Dean of Rock Critics” bullshit title? Yeah, I’m pretty sure he came up with that himself (I mean, jeez, not even Michael Jackson had the gumption to call himself the “King of Pop” – Liz Taylor did that for him). His short, stylized “capsule reviews” are loaded with abstract verse and often impenetrable language, giving the guy an unflappable air of pretension. I’m not sure who chooses what artist he reviews – it’s either the magazine he writes for or himself, and I’m guessing the latter – but reading his reviews I always get the impression that he is impossibly above the subject he is reviewing, a lousy trait for any good critic. It gets the the point where he will review certain artists he doesn’t like in a wholly dismissive manner, giving them a “shit sandwich” kind of review or simply labeling them as a “dud” and moving on with his life, as if said artist isn’t worth his valuable time. Maybe he’s earned it – considering that he was part of the first wave of rock critics back in the 60s, and he’s still reviewing albums constantly, I guess he deserves to be finicky about what music he writes about. But the fact that the guy is a veteran rock critic doesn’t wash the taste of asshole out of my mouth.
So why profile him? Well, ‘cuz I read Christgau’s stuff all the time. Head on over to RobertChristgau.com and you’ll find tons of his reviews from Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, Blender, and many other sources, not to mention his Consumer Guide capsule reviews that are his trademark. I’m not sure why, but I get a real kick out of reading Christgau’s reviews when I’m bored. It’s like a game for me – I’ll think of any given band and wonder, “Hey, I wonder what Christgau thinks of the Arcade Fire?” I type “Arcade Fire” into the Consumer Guide search, and voila, there’s the review! (Note: He likes the Arcade Fire.) Man, that’s something I need – a quick hit of terse, over-worded cynicism to get my brain boiling. I hate to use the cliche Forrest Gump analogy, but with Christgau, you never know what he’s going to think about a band, and for whatever reason I’m always curious to know.
Now, what I have found out in the year-and-a-half or so of reading Mr. Christgau’s reviews is that I tend to not agree with him most of the time. In fact, he tends to be completely flippant about bands I really like, not to mention somewhat douchey about albums I really really like. That alone isn’t enough to really bother me – everyboy’s entitled to their opinion – but it’s just the way he does it that gets me. Maybe it’s related to his “grading” system – rather than a five-star or out-of-ten gauge that most reviewers use, he uses an A plus-to-E minus system that just makes his personality all the more insufferable. Maybe that’s his schtick or something; he’s the “Dean” of rock critics so he has to grade artists academically, like a schoolmarm. Whatever his intentions, the whole grading business makes it seem like Christgau views pop albums like term papers in Chemistry class, which doesn’t help his “douche” image. You know, I would wager that Robert Christgau is the definitive archetype of the Hated Rock Critic that so many people have decried over the years – condescending, hyper-literate, and often disrespectful, he might be the sole reason that most rock bands (and worse, rock fans) hate rock critics. So in a way he’s ruining it for the rest of us who, you know, would prefer not to be treated like pompous douches.
OK, maybe I’m trailing off into a tangent of hate here. As I said, I read Christgau a lot, and to be honest I do not think he is a bad writer, not by a long shot. He’s obviously a very smart human being. It would also be pretty hypocritical of me to get angry at him over dismissing bands he doesn’t care about – I do it all the time. And once in a while I will find a review page on his site that I very much enjoy. Admittedly, they tend to be ones I agree with: I love his pages on Pavement and the Ramones, and I will give credit to Christgau for writing what I consider to be the best review of Sgt. Pepper’s I’ve ever read. He also does, at times, turn me on to unusual albums I’d never considered hearing, like the Beach Boys’ Wild Honey or the Talking Heads’ Little Creatures. He also has a decent knack for championing great artists before anyone else does, like Prince or the Replacements. There are also some hilarious reviews here that only further Christgau’s classic asshole image, most notably on his Sonic Youth page in which he gives a bad review to “Kill Yr. Idols,” a song that openly called out Christgau by name. (Yes, Robert Christgau is so douchey that Sonic Youth wrote a song about it. Need I say any more?)
Now, something Mr. Christgau can totally 100% be proud of is the annual Village Voice Pazz & Jop Critics Poll, a poll he organized and ran for a solid three decades until he was dismissed from the magazine a couple years back. Over the years, prominent music critics have submitted their choices for the best albums / singles of the year, going as far back as 1971. Looking through these polls, it’s honestly a treasure trove – there are so many interesting choices and obscure favorites buried in these lists, it’s like manna from heaven for any obsessive popular music historian. There’s also tons of weird, unexpected winners here that are so trivial and wonderful I can’t resist looking for more. Guess who won Best Album of 1992? Nope, not Pavement – Arrested Development! Best Album of 1994? Nope, not Pavement – Hole! Guess who won in ’99? PAVEMENT! (Okay, no, it was Moby. My bad. But seriously, Moby??) And hey, how ’bout the whacked-out year that Bob Dylan won Best Album and Hanson won Best Single? Or the even more whacked-out year that Bob Dylan won Best Album and Missy Elliot won Best Single?. Man, I love this stuff! Even if you don’t like Christgau all that much, you should probably check out this list. It’s a hoot!
When I think about it, maybe it’s silly for me to get pissed at Christgau. The guy’s in his 60’s now, and his relevance is dwindling by the year – not only does he not run Pazz & Jop anymore after his aforementioned dismissal from the Village Voice, but he’s working for Blender now. Bleh. But nevertheless, his website is an essential archive for any rock fan, and he’ll always be a definitive figure in rock music journalism, for better or for worse. He’ll never be any Lester Bangs, even if he wants to be, but he is an influential force. After four decades of writing, I guess that’s worth something.