Like anyone who chooses an apartment on the basis of how well the space will accommodate his music collection, I’m one of those assholes who believes that there’s a difference between enjoying rock ‘n’ roll and understanding it. The problem is that I enjoy a lot and understand very little, which is why I’ve always appreciated Robert Christgau, a critic who by knowing a hell of a lot and digging a little bit of everything has made a life out of understanding as much as he can.
Christgau is an intellectual workhorse who’s almost certainly listened to and understood more records than anyone else ever, but above all he’s a fan. In his collection of pop-music musings, Grown Up All Wrong, Christgau calls the introductory essay “My Favorite Waste of Time,” and in it he states plainly that fandom is a serious thing:
Mixing guesswork sociology with approximate aesthetics, imbued with the utopian suspicion that justice has something to do with fun, I’m driven by a continuing quest for music that will serve some function or other in my life and yours inspire, amuse, enlighten, calm, excite; help a person do the dishes or stay awake on the interstate, get through a bad night or a good marriage, know beauty and feel truth.
Christgau is rightly called the dean of rock critics; no one has done the job as well for longer. Save for a brief stint at Newsday, Christgau’s written for the Village Voice since the early ’70s, where he was hired as music editor in ’74 and today resides officially as a senior editor and unofficially as resident guru. He does his share of freelancing the collection includes a version of his PJ Harvey profile that appeared on Spin’s cover a few years back but for the most part Christgau’s a quintessential Voice arts scribe: more respected and influential than widely read; impenetrable at times; obsessive; skeptical; thinkier than most of his readers, not to mention his subjects. In his Sonic Youth piece, Christgau divulges that the band has called for his assassination; Lou Reed has famously called him a “moron.”
If Christgau occasionally provokes ire, it’s largely because he says what he thinks. This should be a given for most journalists, but since Christgau has spent much of his career writing about celebrities, his autonomy is notable. (Those gushy Details profiles are gushy because that’s the kind of stuff record companies want Details to run; if you want to break the mold, start a fanzine.) The essays in Grown Up are all more or less artist profiles, but even though Christgau says he’s conversed with half of the collected subjects, he rarely quotes them. He doesn’t “do interviews” partly because he doesn’t want to beg for access, partly because he believes stars are knowable through their art, and mostly because he wants to keep his “fannish distance.” In the introduction, he writes, “I know real fans crave access. But they don’t get it, and that leaves us equal.”
It’s a touch disingenuous for someone who undoubtedly gets most of his music for free to align himself with the average listener, and Christgau certainly doesn’t write for those whose disc collections don’t need to be alphabetized. A onetime academic who writes stuff like “[t]he nuevo-Athenian demos and the Frankfurtian ‘mass’ are both hard to get a hold of these days” to be funny (I think), Christgau assumes that his readers know what’s up. Writing down to an audience would only inhibit his intellectual enthusiasm. To Christgau, pop music is an entire world (one that includes pretty much everything but jazz and classical), and he gets away with being high-minded by also not ignoring his topic’s baser rewards. “Ideally, rock and roll enlightens as it excites,” he writes in a piece about Bruce Springsteen’s and Michael Jackson’s ’84 football stadium shows. “But in the absence of dialectical synthesis a good shot of adrenalin will suffice.” In his review of a ’77 Dead show, he admits that the music sounded better after a few tokes.
As someone who began his career at a time when most editors would have laughed at the thought of hiring a full-time rock music writer, Christgau had to figure out how it was done pretty much on his own. He cites A.J. Liebling and Tom Wolfe among his influences, and he has gleaned comic impulses from both. In one throwaway comment about the relationship between George Clinton and his onetime Paisley Park label boss, Christgau says more about hiphop and racial orthodoxy than most issues of Vibe: “[W]here race men unsure of their manhood assumed the supposed worst about the flamboyant little Twin Cities mulatto, the benevolent Uncle Jam didn’t care how much bitch Prince had in him as long as his beats warped and woofed.”
In many ways, Grown Up is long overdue. Christgau’s only other works readily available in book form are his record guides, compilations of his short-form record reviews that have been released as decade surveys. The guides represent a big part of who Christgau is as a writer; many of the reviews are taken from his Voice Consumer Guide columns, where the critic often says more in 150 words or less than most of his colleagues can in a thousand.
Grown Up is Christgau’s first collection of long-form writing, and fans of the furtive, funny, astute prose in the record guides will notice how well those virtues serve the writer when he’s got room to say more. But the collection also confirms that Christgau’s a critic first, a writer second. In essay form, Christgau the critic can’t help putting the canon in order as he sees fit my least favorite of his habits, if only because I like his writing. The space he devotes to deciding which George Jones hits collection is most worthy has something to do with his assessment of the artist, but not enough to keep me from wishing he’d quit being a geek and let himself go. Christgau’s wonky fussiness, however, is what makes so many of these essays read like the first and last word.
The book’s divided sort of chronologically (the “Where ‘Rock and Roll’ Began” section, for instance, includes Nat King Cole, B.B. King, and Elvis, among others) and sort of by genre (“They Are the World” contains world-music musicians, whom Christgau covers better than anyone). The history of modern pop music in the second half of the century serves as the book’s de facto narrative arch, and Christgau’s personal experiences with that story bring it to life. Now in his mid-50s, Christgau uses age to his advantage. He’s no moonbeam, but it’s obvious he lived through the ’60s: He spends the great majority of his story on Lynyrd Skynyrd, whom he did interview, wondering if he can excuse the band for supporting George Wallace.
The pieces about Public Enemy, whom he both hates and loves, and KRS-One, whom he considers indispensible, are clearly the products of a white guy who understands that there’s more to blackness than just rap.
The title of the collection suggests that it was written by a sort of man-child, and in a way it was. Rock has kept Christgau young whether he likes it or not; in terms of youthful enthusiasm, his essays on Janis Joplin (first published in ’75) and DJ Shadow (’96) are equal. Christgau’s old enough to trust only his personal tastes and make his confusions plain, but his playful spirit is still largely intact. (For the record, the New York Dolls are his favorite band; James Brown’s the ultimate rock ‘n’ roller; George Clinton, Al Green, and Neil Young are peerless; and the critic was listening to Lucinda Williams before any of you.) Knowing that the love of pop music has sustained Christgau for as long as it has is comforting and it’s more than most of his subjects can say.