At the 2010 Pop Conference in Seattle, Washington
|Born||Robert Thomas Christgau
April 18, 1942
New York City, US
One of the earliest professional rock critics, Christgau is known for his terse capsule reviews, published from 1969 to 2013 in his Consumer Guide columns. He also spent 37 years as music editor for The Village Voice, during which time he created the annual Pazz & Jop poll.
Christgau grew up in Queens, New York City, the son of a fireman. He has said he became a rock and roll fan when disc jockey Alan Freed moved to the city in 1954. After attending a public school in New York City, he left New York for four years to attend Dartmouth College, graduating in 1962 with a B.A. in English. While at college his musical interests turned to jazz, but he quickly returned to rock after moving back to New York. Christgau has said that Miles Davis' 1960 album Sketches of Spain initiated in him "one phase of the disillusionment with jazz that resulted in my return to rock and roll".
Christgau initially wrote short stories, before giving up fiction in 1964 to become a sportswriter, and later, a police reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger. He became a freelance writer after a story he wrote about the death of a woman in New Jersey was published by New York magazine. He was asked to take over the dormant music column at Esquire, which he began writing in early 1967. After Esquire discontinued the column, Christgau moved to The Village Voice in 1969, and he also worked as a college professor.
In early 1972, he accepted a full-time job as music critic for Newsday. Christgau returned to the Village Voice in 1974 as music editor. He remained there until August 2006, when he was fired shortly after the paper's acquisition by New Times Media. Two months later, Christgau became a contributing editor at Rolling Stone (which first published his review of Moby Grape's "Wow" in 1968). Late in 2007, Christgau was fired by Rolling Stone, although he continued to work for the magazine for another three months. Starting with the March 2008 issue, he joined Blender, where he was listed as "senior critic" for three issues and then "contributing editor." Christgau had been a regular contributor to Blender before he joined Rolling Stone. He continued to write for Blender until the magazine ceased publication in March 2009.
He previously taught during the formative years of the California Institute of the Arts. As of 2005, he was also an adjunct professor in the Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music at New York University.
In August 2013, Christgau revealed in an article written for Barnes & Noble's website that he is writing a memoir. That same month, during an interview with The Wire's Zach Schonfeld, who described Christgau as "notoriously grumpy" and "characteristically cranky", Christgau said he enjoyed pornography, stating that it "performs its arousal function quite well with no outside help".
Christgau is perhaps best known for his Consumer Guide columns, which have been published on a more-or-less monthly basis since 1969, in the Village Voice, as well as a brief period at Newsday. In December 2006, the column moved online to MSN Music, initially appearing every other month, before switching to a monthly schedule in June 2007. In its original format, the Consumer Guide consisted of 18 to 20 single-paragraph album reviews, each of which was given a letter grade ranging from A+ to E–. "Christgau's blurbs", writes Slate music critic Jody Rosen, "are like no one else's—dense with ideas and allusions, first-person confessions and invective, highbrow references and slang."
In 1990, Christgau changed the format of the Consumer Guide; it now contains six to eight reviews graded upper-B+ or higher, one "Dud of the Month" review graded B or lower, and three lists: Honorable Mention (B+ albums deemed not worthy of full-paragraph reviews), Choice Cuts (excellent tracks on un-recommended albums), and Duds. For several years, there were two annual Consumer Guide columns which strayed from this format: The Turkey Shoot (typically published the week of Thanksgiving), which consisted entirely of reviews graded B− or lower, and a Christmas-season roundup of compilations and reissues, mostly graded A or A+. Both have been discontinued.
He also used ratings such as "neither" (denoted by a frowny face), which is an album that does not warrant repeated listening despite coherent craft and one or two highlights, and a "choice cut" (denoted by a pair of scissors), which is a good song on an album that is unworthy of listeners' money or time.
Other ratings including 1–3 stars, being various versions of "honorable mention."
Lou Reed recorded a tirade against Christgau in his 1978 live album, Take No Prisoners: "Critics. What does Robert Christgau do in bed? I mean, is he a toe fucker? Man, anal retentive, A Consumer's Guide to Rock, what a moron: 'A Study' by, y'know, Robert Christgau. Nice little boxes: B-PLUS. Can you imagine working for a fucking year, and you get a B+ from some asshole in The Village Voice?" Christgau rated the album C+ and wrote in his review, "I thank Lou for pronouncing my name right." Similar angst came from Sonic Youth in their song "Kill Yr Idols" (at the time known as "I Killed Christgau with My Big Fucking Dick"), in which they sing "I don't know why / You wanna impress Christgau / Ah let that shit die / And find out the new goal"; Christgau responded by saying "Idolization is for rock stars, even rock stars manqué like these impotent bohos—critics just want a little respect. So if it's not too hypersensitive of me, I wasn't flattered to hear my name pronounced right, not on this particular title track."
On July 1, 2010, Christgau announced in the introduction to his Consumer Guide column that the July 2010 installment would be his last on MSN.
"Barring miracles unlikely to ensue, this is the final edition of Christgau's Consumer Guide, which MSN has decided no longer suits its editorial purposes. The CG has generally required a seven-days-a-week time commitment over the 41 years I've written it, and I'm grateful to MSN for paying me what the work was worth over the three-and-a-half years I published it here. But though I always enjoyed the work, work it was, and I've long been aware there were other things I could be doing with my ears. So while I have every intention of keeping up with popular music as it evolves, being less encyclopedic about it will come as a relief as well as a loss". Robert Christgau. MSN July 2010.
On November 22 of that year, Christgau launched a blog on MSN, "Expert Witness", which would only feature reviews of albums that he had graded B+ or higher, since those albums "are the gut and backbone of my musical pleasure;" the writing of reviews for which are "so rewarding psychologically that I'm happy to do it at blogger's rates."
On September 20, 2013, Christgau announced in the comments section that Expert Witness would cease to be published by October 1, 2013, writing, "As I understand it, Microsoft is shutting down the entire MSN freelance arts operation at that time..."
Pazz & Jop
In 1971, Christgau inaugurated the annual Pazz & Jop music poll. The results are published in the Village Voice every February, and compile "top ten" lists submitted by music critics across the nation. Throughout Christgau's career at the Voice, every poll was accompanied by a lengthy Christgau essay analyzing the results, and pondering the year's overall musical output. The Voice has continued the feature, despite Christgau's dismissal, and although he no longer oversees the poll, Christgau continues to vote in it.
Style and impact
Christgau names Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Chuck Berry, the Beatles, and the New York Dolls as his top five artists of all time. He readily admits to disliking the musical genres heavy metal, art rock, progressive rock, bluegrass, gospel, Irish folk, and jazz fusion, but in rare instances has recommended albums in most of these genres.
In December 1980, Christgau provoked angry responses from Voice readers when his column approvingly quoted his wife Carola Dibbell's reaction to the murder of John Lennon: "Why is it always Bobby Kennedy or John Lennon? Why isn't it Richard Nixon or Paul McCartney?" In July 2013, during an interview with Esquire magazine's Peter Gerstenzang, Christgau criticized the voters at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, saying "they're pretty stupid" for not voting in the New York Dolls.
Jody Rosen describes Christgau's writing as "often maddening, always thought-provoking... With Pauline Kael, Christgau is arguably one of the two most important American mass-culture critics of the second half of the 20th century. … All rock critics working today, at least the ones who want to do more than rewrite PR copy, are in some sense Christgauians." Spin magazine wrote in 2015, "You probably wouldn’t be reading this publication if Robert Christgau didn’t largely invent rock criticism as we know it."
- O'Dair, Barbara (May 9, 2001). "A conversation with Robert Christgau". Salon. Retrieved April 13, 2008.
... there are things I don't like or get. Metal—I don't think metal's as bad as I hear it as being.
- Marquis Who's Who
- "Robert Christgau, Dean of American Rock Critics". robertchristgau.com. Retrieved October 10, 2009.
- Rosen, Judy (September 5, 2006), "X-ed Out: The Village Voice fires a famous music critic". Slate.com. Retrieved August 15, 2009.
- Christgau, Robert (30 December 1971). "Consumer Guide (22)". The Village Voice. Retrieved 18 November 2013.
- Christgau, Robert. "Robert Christgau Biography". Robertchristgau.com. Retrieved 28 January 2014.
- Christgau, Robert (2004), "A Counter in Search of a Culture". Any Old Way You Choose It, Cooper Square Press, p.2.
- O'Dair, Barbara (9 May 2001). "A conversation with Robert Christgau". Salon.com. Retrieved 22 October 2013.
- Christgau, Robert (May 21, 1970). "Jazz Annual". The Village Voice. Retrieved September 20, 2013.
... Sketches of Spain, which in 1960 catapulted Davis into the favor of the kind of man who reads Playboy and initiated in me one phase of the disillusionment ...
- Christgau, Robert (2004), "A Counter in Search of a Culture". Any Old Way You Choose It, Cooper Square Press, p.4.
- Bob Christgau (1968-06-22), Correspondence, Love Letters & Advice, Rolling Stone
- Christgau, Robert (March 27, 2009), "Poptastic bye-bye". ARTicles. Retrieved March 4, 2010
- Blender, June 2008, p. 16
- Beaudoin, Jedd (2 December 2012). "'Color Me Obsessed: A Film About the Replacements' Paints 'Minor Band' with Major Strokes". PopMatters. Retrieved 29 January 2014.
- Christgau, Robert (27 August 2013). "Tell All". Barnes & Noble. Retrieved 26 January 2014.
- Schonfeld, Zach (27 August 2013). "Robert Christgau Is Writing a Memoir, Enjoys Porn". The Wire. Retrieved 26 January 2014.
- Gonzalez, Ed (16 July 2014). "Links for the Day: Nathan Rabin Is Sorry for the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Robert Christgau Premieres Billboard Column, Hillary Clinton on The Daily Show, & More". Slant Magazine. Retrieved 27 August 2014.
- Christgau, Robert (10 September 2014). "Expert Witness: The Story Till Now". Medium. Retrieved 11 October 2014.
- "Key to Icons". RobertChristgau.com.
- Wolfsen, Jared (4 May 2002). "Walk On The Wild Side". Archived from the original on 20 July 2002. - fan transcription of the Take No Prisoners album
- Christgau, Robert. "Lou Reed". RobertChristgau.com.
- Christgau, Robert. "Sonic Youth". RobertChristgau.com.
- Christgau, Robert. "Inside Music". MSN. Retrieved July 1, 2010.
- Christgau, Robert (November 22, 2010). "This Blog—The Whats, Whys, and Wherefores". Expert Witness. MSN. Retrieved January 15, 2011.
- Christgau, Robert (20 September 2013). "Odds and Ends 036". MSN Music. Retrieved 22 September 2013.
- Christgau's 2010 ballot
- Rubio, Steven (July 2002). "Online exchange with Robert Christgau". Rockcritics Archives. rockcritics.com.
As for my limitations, they're public and they're legion. Metal, art-rock, bluegrass, gospel, Irish folk, fusion jazz (arghh)—all prejudices I'm prepared to defend and in most cases already have, but prejudices nevertheless. I pretty much lost reggae with dancehall; my acquaintance with most techno is a nodding one (zzzz); I've never really liked salsa ...
- Christgau, Robert (December 22, 1980). "John Lennon, 1940–1980". Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics. Retrieved March 15, 2008.
- Gerstenzang, Peter (July 24, 2013). "Why Aren't the New York Dolls in the Rock Hall of Fame?". Esquire. Retrieved July 20, 2014.
- "Read an Excerpt From Robert Christgau’s Memoir ‘Going Into the City’". Spin. February 23, 2015. Retrieved July 30, 2015.
- Any Old Way You Choose It: Rock and Other Pop Music, 1967-1973 (1973)
- Christgau's Record Guide: Rock Albums of the '70s (1981)
- Christgau's Record Guide: The '80s (1990)
- Grown Up All Wrong: 75 Great Rock and Pop Artists from Vaudeville to Techno (1998)
- Christgau's Consumer Guide: Albums of the '90s (2000)
- Going into the City: Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man (2015)
- Devon Powers, Writing the Record: The Village Voice and the Birth of Rock Criticism. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.
- Official web site
- Expert Witness blog on MSN Music
- Consumer Guide on MSN Music
- Users' Guide to the Consumer Guide
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