What Happened to the Rock Critic?
What Happened to the Rock Critic?
Did Robert Christgau, the self-proclaimed “Dean of Rock Critics,” help kill off his own project?
Going into the City: Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man
by Robert Christgau
Dey Street, 2015, 384 pp.
What a peculiar thing to have been a rock critic. You inhabited a world of perhaps the most subjective taste of all—peoples’ likes and dislikes in popular music. You wrote for a world of fans (indeed, one of the original rock crit publications, Crawdaddy, started as a mimeographed “fanzine” before going slick). You attempted to project authority—speaking the imperative of all criticism: listen to what I have to say—to mostly young people who rejected or at least distrusted authority. You had to take an art form, if that’s what it was, that felt passionate and Dionysian and then whip up something Apollonian about it, those inert words on the page reflecting the stern, rational mind. In other words, you had to push past those famous lyrics of 1970s rock: “It’s only rock and roll but I like it.”
I have used the past tense here, for the “rock critic”—in the most elevated sense of that term—is dead. That’s not to deny the existence of music writers at respectable publications like the New Yorker or those who pop up on occasion on NPR. Nor is it to deny the existence of websites like Pitchfork, where writing about music is done with an eye to promoting new and independent music. But it is to say that we now have a populist culture—a culture of “fans” who vote with their feet or today with their clicks—whose likes and dislikes, thumbs up or thumbs down at Amazon and bellowing blogs and Facebook pages now constitute the audience musicians must cater to. We live in the age of Pandora—the cycling of song after song, based on some preordained formula of likes and dislikes. The act of elevating or even just explaining and analyzing popular taste takes second seat to what Jonathan Franzen once labeled “techno-consumerism.”
In short, the world that combative rock critic Robert Christgau inhabited and writes about in his new memoir, Going into the City, seems like a relic. Kickstarter and numerous web portals are the gateways for musicians today, not magazines like Rolling Stone, Creem, or the Village Voice. What Christgau once called the “rock-critic establishment” has been eclipsed by a more assertive culture of fandom. And although music criticism as an art form—a window onto literature or painting or new forms of journalism or politics in the broadest sense of that term—still exists in pockets, the idea that the critic could serve as a gatekeeper of popular taste sounds preposterous.
I came of age during the last days of the rock-critic establishment. And yet I’ll admit that I came to Christgau’s memoir with trepidation. I had heard him speak only once, at a Brooklyn (where else?) bookstore where he was to interview Richard Hell, whose memoir recently turned paperback. Christgau was a bore, droning on about himself and his own yet-to-be-published memoir rather than engaging Hell in meaningful interview. He brushed aside the broader questions Hell’s memoir generated, preferring to ask banal ones—whether Hell had ever used Google to find historical facts, for example. Hell eventually asked him to stop talking and turned to the audience for questions, which came as a relief.
I was reminded that evening of what I knew about Christgau by this point. His trademark was turning record reviewing into “grading”—literally doling out an A- or B+ to rock albums, and thereby fine-tuning, I suppose, the five or less stars prevalent in other forums. (Now a college professor myself who dislikes quantifying and slapping letters next to students’ names, I cannot imagine why anyone would choose this method of assessment voluntarily.) I also remembered—though more vaguely—how the noisy punk band Sonic Youth, back in the early 1980s, got the better of Christgau. After Christgau gave their debut album a measly C and refused to cover the band’s performances in the New York City area, Sonic Youth laid down these anti-rock establishment lines: “I don’t know why you wanna impress Christgau. . . . Let that shit die and find out the new goal: Kill your idols.” (The song became the title track of Sonic Youth’s 1983 EP Kill Yr Idols, which Christgau gave a B-.) My young, punk, democratic heart sided with Sonic Youth rather than with the man who liked to call himself—why, again, the love of academic decorum?—the “Dean of Rock Critics.”
So I was pleasantly surprised by Christgau’s memoir. I learned that he is a man who has struggled with a two-sided personality: hubris mixed with humility, snob versus democrat. “Some might hold,” he writes, “that if my life has been interesting enough to write about, it cannot have been normal. As a democrat in all things, I say that’s snobbish baloney.” And yet, on the very same page, he not only highlights his stature as rock “Dean” but also describes himself as having been “present at the creation of an influential strain of cultural discourse. . . .” He admits that “some found me arrogant” and then explains that he took “no shit” and “initiated more than my share of altercations.”
Still, when humility wins out in his internal battle and he stops describing his sex life in gory detail, the book becomes powerful in reconstructing a world now gone but that we can still learn from. It was a world where criticism of rock music could lead to larger debates about politics and ethics, where thinking about the relation between democracy and popular art could stir intellectual fervor.
Christgau, born in 1942, winds up recreating for his readers a world of second-generation New York Intellectuals—not the world of Irving Howe or Irving Kristol, but that of Christgau’s once-partner Ellen Willis, his friends Marshall Berman (whose book All That is Solid Melts into Air he rightfully praises as a masterpiece of historically infused social criticism) and Greil Marcus (whose “American Studies”–infused Mystery Train, on the connections between rock and democracy, is still a classic), and the gonzo rock journalist Lester Bangs. Like his elders, Christgau talks about adopting socialism at an early age, learning it not from Jewish immigrant culture but from the Presbyterian Church he attended in Flushing as a kid. This overlapped, from an early age, with his love of reading; literature opened up the world for him, as it did for Howe and others. Christgau took especially to Dostoyevsky: he read The Idiot, for instance, “in a fit of adolescent assholery on Aunt Junerose’s living room floor after Christmas dinner.”
Unlike the first-generation New York Intellectuals, Christgau remembers music, in addition to literature, as a formative part of his youth; he remembers not just bebop jazz but tuning in at an early age to Alan Freed, the once-Cleveland-based disc jockey who spun “race records” during the 1950s, exposing listeners to the thronging beginnings of rock and roll. And the Village Voice, not the Partisan Review, was his introduction to the world of literary journalism and social criticism; he subscribed at an early age so he could read libertarian socialists like Norman Mailer as well as liberals like Nat Hentoff, imbibing hipster culture as much as Dostoevsky and progressive politics before the rise of the New Left.
Christgau, as a young adult, felt pushed and pulled into and out of academia, as did his partner Ellen Willis—they were together from 1966–69—who moved to Berkeley in the early sixties “to pursue and abandon a graduate degree in comp lit.” When he studied at Dartmouth, always proud of being in the Ivy League and sporting a high IQ, Christgau dreamed of writing fiction “while teaching college.”
If he had chosen an academic path, it would have been American Studies. He remembers when he hitchhiked across the United States, inspired by On the Road, during that limbo moment after his undergraduate years; the books he hauled around in his canvas backpack, he writes, consisted of a “core of American studies urtexts, from Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land to Morton and Lucia White’s The Intellectual Versus the City.” This pre-1968 version of American Studies traced out the “democratic” basis of American character, explained what made the country exceptional to aristocratic Europe, and often critiqued the destructive nature of American capitalism: Henry Nash Smith, for example, was a left-liberal social critic who waged war against McCarthyism’s influence in American higher education.
This variant of American studies also teased out a connection between democracy and criticism: that the two must go hand in hand. Christgau mentions another classic book, D.H. Lawrence’s infamous Studies in Classic American Literature, again in passing. What this book and the 1950s work it eventually inspired did was to trace out both the repressive side of the American character—its puritanical and provincial elements—while also praising the best of democratic free thought from the past, in Lawrence’s case especially the work of Walt Whitman. The democratic, populist instinct did not necessarily preclude intellectual, historically infused criticism. Indeed, it made it all the more vital. Criticism had to save democracy from its worst elements. Discernment became the essence of American Studies and democratic criticism.
Though he considered it, Christgau never became a novelist; nor, meanwhile, did he ever develop any musical talent or learn to play an instrument. Instead, he gravitated to criticism. There seem to have been two intellectual giants in particular who inspired him, pulling him in the direction of cultural populism. The first was the great intellectual provocateur Dwight Macdonald. Christgau went into emotional-intellectual spin cycle when reading Macdonald’s famous “Masscult and Midcult” essay, which argued that pop culture dumbed down the masses (as industrialization had already deskilled their laboring processes) only to offer fake “middlebrow” culture that pretended to uplift while actually offering only drivel (for instance the 1950s writings of Hemingway and Steinbeck). Macdonald’s screed inspired what Christgau calls “my lifelong cage match” with the Frankfurt School, meaning his own intellectual celebration of the pleasures of “popular culture” and rejection of highbrow disdain. (Still, he remained enamored with Macdonald’s style of being a “belletrist with moxie” and “a journalist at heart” who had “humor and polemical vigor.”)
This reaction to Macdonald led Christgau into the arms of Macdonald’s arch-enemy, the pop social critic Tom Wolfe. Wolfe celebrated popular culture—be it Las Vegas or subcultures of people who customized their cars—as liberatory, as empowering consumers to engage a process of self-invention. As Christgau explains, Wolfe took his hand and led him out of the dreary elitism of Macdonald’s criticism. Wolfe offered “what I’d been waiting for: an American studies connoisseur with an appetite for pop and a baroquely in-your-face version of the word-mad, gag-prone Americanese.” Christgau’s own cultural populism was steeped in the debates of some of the 1960s’ most important social critics.
Both of these public-minded writers inspired Christgau to go it alone as a journalist rather than pursue the academic track, and move to the East—not the already gentrified West—Village to practice the fabled art of literary bohemianism. A young man’s romance with the city is recounted nicely here. Christgau remembers his first time seeing the East Village during an earlier excursion in his youth: “There’d been heavy snow, the streets were empty and silent, and as we made our way past St. Mark’s Church in the chill dark I felt I needed to come back.” (I couldn’t help but recall the photograph that graced Bob Dylan’s Freewheelin’ album of 1963, although that one was taken in the West Village.)
The city, with its cafes, magisterial bookstores, and theaters showing arthouse films, felt like the place for a budding young intellectual. Before the days of VHS or internet streaming, New York was one of the few places in the country where a young enthusiast of culture like Christgau could see the masterworks of the French New Wave, along with American avant-garde works by Jack Smith, Stan Brakhage, and Kenneth Anger. Movies inspired him as much as the music he heard in jazz joints and, increasingly, rock clubs, eventually including the infamous Fillmore in the East Village.
As Christgau romanced the city, he also romanced the “smartest person I’ve ever known,” Ellen Willis, and later his current wife, Carola Dibbell. And here Christgau’s memoir again offers a bit of refreshing humility: an admission that his success as a critic was nurtured by women often smarter than himself as well as by urban institutions no longer available to “creatives.” (When he mentions what he paid for an apartment in the East Village—“three hundred twenty five dollars for seven medium sized rooms at Second and 12th”—any reader who knows Manhattan today realizes that this is a world deader than John F. Kennedy.)
As he narrates his trajectory from freelance writer to music editor at the Village Voice to star rock critic of the 1970s and ‘80s, Christgau offers several more revealing tidbits. For example, his trademark—the doling out of letter grades to albums and titling his reviews a “consumer guide”—was developed to annoy “a counterculture that considered consumption counterrevolutionary and didn’t like grades either.” He also argues that his reputation as Dean of Rock Criticism was somewhat tongue in cheek. While he was doing a teaching stint at Cal Arts (an important early entry into academia, without an advanced degree), students printed up t-shirts with Little Richard’s likeness and “Dean/School of Rock & Roll” on them. From that moment on, Christgau called himself the Dean of Rock Criticism, admitting that his own writing often sounded “Latinate and schematic.” (Some might instead use the word “boring” here, especially in contrast to the pyrotechnical writing of Lester Bangs and R. Meltzer, two rock critics whom Christgau both admired and disdained.) Throughout the memoir, he tries his best to take the snob side of his personality and show that, well, he wasn’t being as elitist or stiff-lipped as it might have sounded. After all, “early rock criticism,” in his admission, “was fannish as a matter of principle, excited and informal.” Still, it was criticism.
Christgau’s narrative climaxes with his own I-was-there-at-the-birth story about punk rock in New York City. (Ellen Willis described her ex-partner as a “punk evangelist.”) He remembers his early praise of the cross-dressing, proto-punk New York Dolls and shares fun stories about the growing number of bands playing at CBGBs, from the Ramones to Talking Heads to Television. He evokes not only the potency of that scene but also the intelligence of those on its periphery—the now-forgotten rock journalists like Mary Harron (now a movie director) and Tom Carson (eventually a novelist and TV critic)—as well as the unintelligence of “the drunk-comix Punk” magazine. And he tips his hat to the critic James Wolcott who saw in CBGB “an alt-rock bohemia that would put its distrust of corporate capitalism into DIY practice.”
Here is where Christgau’s story, for the most part, ends; it goes as far as his retirement party in 1984 at none other than CBGBs. By that point, “Rock criticism had certainly devolved from a vocation into a career,” Christgau recounts. In the years since, the urban world he inhabited has only been further gentrified, and the world of serious rock criticism—the sort infused by the premises of American Studies or the literary masterworks of Dostoyevsky—has passed away. Christgau’s counterparts today, if they exist at all, are largely cloistered in academia, a casualty of the broader academicization of intellectual life. Is it any surprise to find that Christgau himself now teaches at New York University?
In 1973, as Christgau’s own career was on the rise, one of America’s most important cultural critics wondered in her diary and journals: “Where does a writer’s authority come from? Where does my authority come from?” For Susan Sontag, the question was provoked by pop art and campy movies, the sort of works that elided heavy-handed interpretation, that provided an experience brimming with surface eroticism and generated a “new sensibility” that lived on from the 1960s to 1970s. Those questions pose problems for cultural populists like Christgau, who celebrated the street sounds of bands like the New York Dolls. If people like something—if they automatically dance to the sounds of hit songs on the radio or customize their cars into love-objects—what does an intellectually sophisticated critic really have to say and why should she or he intervene? Cultural populism, by necessity, demotes critical intellect. From what authority does a critic speak when descending deep down into the realm of so-called popular culture?
Today, the voice of a critic cannot rise above the din of thumbs up or thumbs down at Amazon or the “likes” on Facebook pages. Cultural populism has won the day. And maybe Robert Christgau, knowingly or not, helped kill off his own project of exalted rock criticism. Or perhaps rock critics were always sideline standers, shouting into a void of cheers, for how could their influence ever really be measured? This we know for sure: any pretense that a rock critic stands above and beyond the wishes and loves of fans on the internet has gone down to its inevitable death. In other words, the chair of Dean of Rock Critics—now long vacated by its first self-appointee—will remain unfilled.
Kevin Mattson is on the editorial board of Dissent and is writing a book about the history of American punk.