Prolific Music Critic Robert Christgau Knows What He Likes (and Hates)
"One of my gifts as a critic is that I really like music, and I'm open and still excitable. I'm not a bored person, and I'm not tired of life."
Portrait by Hiroyuki Ito
If you started writing record reviews today, and penned one a day for the next 40 years, you still wouldn't have written as many as Robert Christgau, the legendary scribe who has some 15,000 pieces of criticism to his name and an enviably encyclopedic knowledge of music history. Christgau was among the first journalists to tackle rock music as a serious subject and to extend that same critical eye to pop culture, at-large. His Consumer Guide, published weekly by the Village Voice for nearly 30 years, became a bible to young music nerds, at a time when his opinion could help make or break an artist. An infamous grump, Christgau has an ability to garrote an album with poetic precision—often just a couple sentences—and has inspired both admiration and ire. In 1983, Sonic Youth released a song nicknamed "I Killed Christgau with My Big Fat Dick," and Lou Reed's 1978 live album includes a rant where he calls Christgau everything from a moron to a "toe-fucker." None of which fazed him: Christgau, who now writes for Noisey, still approaches each review with enthusiasm, intellectual vigor, and exactitude. Though his process has remained fairly consistent, Christgau acknowledges one recent change: Since he started going to the gym this year, he gets a lot of important thinking about music done on the treadmill. ("I discovered the new Rihanna album on the treadmill.")
VICE: If you were just beginning a career now, as a kid looking to indulge your passions in writing and music, where would you try to break in?
Robert Christgau: I hate to think about it. I think it's a terrible time to be an arts journalist. My ambitions when I went into journalism were always, to an extent, literary. I was very deeply affected by the New Journalists—in particular Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese. But that kind of work takes time. I'm 74 years old. I have retirement money. I own this apartment, and I pay in maintenance less than most people pay for their studio apartments. I couldn't live on what I make as a writer now, and I could work harder and still not make enough. I was telling people not to become music journalists in 2000. But people do it anyway.
When you first started writing about music, how did you get good at it?
I didn't need to get good; I was good. Take a look at my early Esquire columns; they're very written. At that time, a certain kind of concision interested me—the ability to write short, funny things. I guess I still do it.
"One of my gifts as a critic is that I really like music, and I'm open and still excitable. I'm not a bored person, and I'm not tired of life."—Robert Christgau
How do you choose what to listen to from the pile?
I want it to imprint itself on my sensorium in a preconscious way. And then I find out what's actually there. I want to reproduce what it's like to listen to the radio but with albums. So I like to use a CD changer. I'll put things on and won't know what they are because I forgot what I put in there, or I'll see if I noticed when one thing changed to the other.
Do you fuck with the digital realm much? Do you ever dig into Bandcamp or SoundCloud?
No. I go to those places but only for a reason. I have to use Spotify. But I don't like it. I find it impossible to organize in the same way. I'd have to be making playlists, which is somewhat physically delicate and a tedious thing to do.
Who are some of your favorite artists of the past five years?
Most of them are rappers. I'm a big Nicki Minaj fan. And Kanye's a pain in the ass, but he's a genius. In the alt-rock world, I really think a lot of Vampire Weekend. And there are all these Nashville-associated women: Lori McKenna, Miranda Lambert, Brandy Clark, Angaleena Presley, Kacey Musgraves, Ashley Monroe—a tremendous bunch of really first-rate writers.
You've talked about having this feeling in the pit of your stomach when you hear something you especially like for the first time...
Yeah, like right now, the Avalanches just came out with a new album. I found it on Spotify, and the second track seems to mash up a calypso I've never heard. And it's fuckin' great. I have a feeling the rest of it just isn't really that good, but I love that song so much, and I've gotta write about it. So, yeah, I still get that feeling. One of my gifts as a critic is that I really like music, and I'm open and still excitable. I'm not a bored person, and I'm not tired of life. And I'm very sorry I'm as old as I am because it means I don't have that much of it left, and I think about it all the time.
If you were no longer being paid to review records, would you still do it?
I don't think so. I need to be paid. Between jobs, did I write reviews? Yes. Did I write as many as I should have? No. Doing what I do is a lot of work.
But you love doing it, don't you?
It keeps me centered, is what I would say.
I wouldn't be surprised if you find you always have these sentences, that even without the rewriting and perfecting for publication...
Don't kid yourself, lady. They don't pop in my head that way. I think about them. I sit there. Every once in a while does one come to my head? Yeah. But most of the time, I have to sit there and think, What's my first sentence gonna be?