At the 2006 Pop Conference in Seattle, Washington
|Born||April 18, 1942
|Occupation||Music critic, essayist, music journalist|
One of the earliest professional rock critics, Christgau is known for his terse capsule reviews, published since 1969 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 New York City, where he says he became a rock and roll fan when disc jockey Alan Freed moved to the city in 1954. He left New York for four years to attend Dartmouth College, graduating in 1962 with a B.A. in English. While at college Christgau's musical interests turned to jazz, but he quickly returned to rock after moving back to New York.
He initially wrote short stories, before giving up fiction in 1964 to become a sportswriter, and later, a police reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger. Christgau 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 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. 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.
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 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 uses ratings such as "neither" (denoted by a frowny face), which "may impress once or twice with consistent craft or an arresting track or two. Then it won't" and a "choice cut" (denoted by a pair of scissors), which, as noted above, "is a good song on an album that isn't worth your time or money."
Lou Reed recorded a tirade against Christgau in his 1978 live album, Take No Prisoners: "Critics…What does Robert Christgau do in bed? You know, is he a toe fucker? Man, anal retentive, A Consumer's Guide to Rock?!? What a moron...A study by me by Robert Christgau...Nice little box and a B+...Can you imagine working for a fucking year, and you get a B+ from an asshole in The Village Voice?” Christgau rated the album C+ and wrote in his review, “I thank Lou for pronouncing my name right.”
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.
Christgau names Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Chuck Berry, The Beatles, and the New York Dolls as his top five artists of all time. In music critic circles, he was an early supporter of hip hop and the riot grrrl movements, along with other music styles. In the 1980s, Christgau was a fervent booster of Afro-pop, a stance that alienated him from some in the critical community, as he seemed insufficiently interested in American and British rock music. In the 1990s, however, Christgau's interest in indie rock seemed to increase.
Christgau 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?"
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."
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