The Reading Life: On Robert Christgau


My parents would argue that I always had this level of love for popular music, even as a toddler in the backseat of our car singing the Kate Bush part of “Don’t Give Up” with an incredible amount of emotion. (Pause for a second, and think of how it would be to hear your three-year-old belt out behind your neck: YOU WORRY TOO MUCH.) Maybe it’s true. As Marilynne Robinson says of hearing the psalms when she was a child, “I can only imagine that other versions of me, realer than that poor present self forever being discarded in their favor, larger than me and impatient with my immaturity and my awkwardness, simply wanted out.” I quote this stuff with tongue in cheek, but how much does that describe knowing all the words to a Kate Bush song at the age of three? Or, for that matter, the bridge section to “Sledgehammer”? I kicked the habit. Shed my skin. It’s all kind of ridiculous, but we cannot help the era in which we were born. That Peter Gabriel boy, as my dad likes to say, was the village heartthrob.

Maybe here is where I say something about a youth wasted by going up and down store aisles, my yellow brick road of dirty linoleum, learning the names of session musicians and music critics. But I’m too resigned to myself to recognize that this was a bad way to spend my time. I like knowing my esoterica, thank you very much. It’s comforting. I don’t think I truly became ill and obsessive until I was able to read as much of the internet as I wanted. This is probably the case for a lot of self-important discoveries. More to the point of this essay though, I came across the writing of Robert Christgau at a stupidly young age (parental locks don’t know what to look for, I’d say), and that man had his way with my brain.

We can’t shake the memory of our first evangelist. Even now, if Christgau likes something, I must consider it. If he hates something, I am even more compelled toward it, like a moth to cheap wool. This is obnoxious to me, especially if you think of our identities in tandem. A crusty, aggrandizing New York baby boomer unknowingly influences a young girl from California suburbia and only phantom limb memories of a life without a computer. But had I had access to the writings of Ellen Willis before I read Christgau—I’ve thought about this alternate universe, just so you know, and it’s absolutely wonderful—I’d be more or less the same, I think. Too serious about fun. Overthinking what only makes sense if you dance to it. Reverent of the myth of weeklies.

I found Christgau’s jerky terseness far more interesting and easier to relate to than the mustachioed twirling of Lester Bangs. Christgau was persistent in his acknowledgement of variants of power—sexual, political, whatever. God knows what I understood of any of that, but he made an impression on my reaction to the radio. For instance, when my seventh grade classmate put on Celebrity Skin in the car on the way to some volleyball game, I noted out loud that Live Through This was, like, so much better. How sure I was! How wrong I would later consider myself to be! All because I had the voice of an old guy in my head.

Like all parental figures, Christgau hid some pretty important gems from me. Like us all, he is myopic. For example, he hated most metal; this, I would discover, is a big disagreement between us. He dissed Ram, which is fine, I guess, but I learned that he was missing out. As we both got older, Christgau became easier to dismiss just because he’s been there, in my head, for so long. It would take actually seeing him in person to realize his impact, and that is what happened.

Last year I went to a conference held at NYU. The occasion was the publication of Out of the Vinyl Deeps, a compendium of Ellen Willis’s writing that I would definitely recommend to anyone with an interest in 60s rock and pop. Among the crowd, to no one’s shock, was Christgau. My boyfriend at the time went with me, and he had seen Christgau in person once before, at the radio station where he used to work, listening to an All-American Rejects cassingle in an actual Walkman. (That was in 2006.) In spite of that, I think it’s safe to say this sighting had the same kind of impression on both of us.

Christgau and his wife were wearing matching t-shirts that had the face of John McCain on them with the words NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN surrounding his jowls. Christgau’s baggy cargo pants were of the sort you see on high school history teachers when you catch them in the grocery store on the weekend. Christgau wore a facial expression that looked like he wanted to put his feet up on all the chairs. Christgau was, in other words, everything you think he’d be. I think he wore white Reeboks, but maybe that’s my memory going a little too wild.

He got up early and eulogized Willis, his former flame whom he infamously and publicly pied in the face because he was jealous of her talking so much to Greil Marcus at a dinner party. Their love was very passionate, almost embarrassingly so, and his speech was quite moving. Then he sat down in a seat directly across from my boyfriend and me, and he proceeded to heckle the younger generation of writers chosen to speak about current trends in music. My face, I wish you could have seen it. “Does anyone on this panel even listen to hip hop?” he said to no one. To an inane comparison between the Arcade Fire and Mott the Hoople, he grumbled, “The Hoople were better.” My boyfriend and I repeated this phrase to each other like it was a punchline.

Of course I went right home and read the Consumer Guide for hours, searching for my favorite artists, even the ones about whom I knew Christgau’s opinion by heart. I lost so much time scrolling through taut blurbs about bands, their best and their worst moments. He was just as right as I remember him being, just as navel-gazing, just as comfortable in his chosen devotion.

His burns still made me laugh. On Throwing Muses, for example: “When friends turn psychotic, I withdraw. I haven’t found black leotards sexy since I broke up with Sheila in 1962.” And his sincere reflection still touched a nerve. Some of us seriously attend to experiences of seeing or listening. Even Robert Christgau admits to a tendency toward the ridiculous. “The fact that I’m fairly obsessive about rock and roll,” he said about Patti Smith’s Horses in 1975, “indicates that on some sub-intellectual level I need a little apocalypse, just to keep my superego honest.” This, I think, I will always agree with, about as much as I agree with Marilynne Robinson when she asks of the gospels, “What can these strange stories mean?” When she says, with all due respect to heaven, that the miracle is among us. Tongue in cheek, still, but honestly: how much does that justify a love of pop? I ask you.

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