Monday, June 11, 2012

Five Great Records that Robert Christgau Trashed

Earlier this week I met Robert Christgau, the "Dean of American Rock Critics." He could not have been friendlier. I did not expect the Pazz & Jop founder (and the guy who once wished death on Paul McCartney instead of John Lennon) to make time for me, but I learned that his demeanor is worthy of his talent.

Christgau's reviews were, for better and worse, a harbinger for Twitter. He specializes in short, sharp remarks that say more about how music feels than how it sounds. Any serious music writer has spent hours with his Consumer Guide books or web site, which are always entertaining and often infuriating. Whatever part of his brain made him one of America's top journalists did not help him at all when it came to appreciating metal.

"I admire metal's integrity, brutality, and obsessiveness, but I can't stand its delusions of grandeur," he wrote in one of his rare positive reviews, for Motörhead's Orgasmatron. He's come to terms somewhat, more recently telling Salon, "I don’t think metal’s as bad as I hear it as being." But for all his virtues, the Dean is not to be trusted when it comes to the headbanger's art. In some ways, he's metal's perfect foil--an artistic, intellectual type who prefers Sonic Youth in his haughty publications. In honor of Christgau's game-changing style and questionable taste, let's give his writing a taste of his own acerbic medicine.

1. Black Sabbath, Paranoid

They do take heavy to undreamt-of extremes, and I suppose I could enjoy them as camp, like a horror movie--the title cut is definitely screamworthy. After all, their audience can't take that Lucifer bit seriously, right? Well, depends on what you mean by serious. Personally, I've always suspected that horror movies catharsized stuff I was too rational to care about in the first place.

Calling metal on its campiness is like making fun of your friends. If you're a proven comrade and appreciator, it's fine, but if it comes with a "C-" you're asking for a fight. In fairness, metal does have audience that's misguided enough to believe in Satan, and they're also into banning books.

2. Van Halen, Van Halen

For some reason Warners wants us to know that this is the biggest bar band in the San Fernando Valley. This doesn't mean much--all new bands are bar bands, unless they're Boston. The term becomes honorific when the music belongs in a bar. This music belongs on an aircraft carrier. 

On an aircraft carrier? What does that even mean? Christgau's prose is often brilliant, but here he's either too smart for me or has no idea what he's talking about.

3. AC/DC, Back in Black

"Shoot to Thrill," "Given [sic] the Dog a Bone," and "Let Me Put My Love Into You" all concern the unimaginative sexual acts you'd imagine, and "What Do You Do for Money Honey" has a more limited set of answers than the average secretary would prefer. My sister's glad they don't write fantasy and science fiction, and if you're female you're free to share her relief. Brothers are more deeply implicated in these matters.

The number one pratfall of music critics is that they respond to lyrics more than music. Personally, I think Back in Black is full of gems ("She told me to come but I was already there,") but any appreciation of AC/DC starts with the riffs. What Brian Johnson sings
about doesn't matter as much as what you can sing along to.

4. Metallica, Master of Puppets

(T)he revolutionary heroes I envisage aren't male chauvinists too inexperienced to know better; they don't have hair like Samson and pecs like Arnold Schwarzenegger. That's the image Metallica calls up, and I'm no more likely to invoke their strength of my own free will than I am The 1812 Overture's.

Confirmation that everyone assumes that the music they detest is enjoyed by their enemies from high school.

5. Nine Inch Nails, The Downward Spiral

Musically, Hieronymus Bosch as postindustrial atheist; lyrically, Transformers as kiddie porn.

Industrial Bosch actually sounds kind of great, though I have no idea where the second part came from. Maybe he meant to write "transformers, kids and porn," and turned it off before he got to "Hurt."


Anonymous said...

Robert Christgau is an idiot. What did yoy expect ?

Anonymous said...

Whatever sympathy one might have with Christgau's assessment of, say, AC/DC's lyrics (and they are juvenile at best), that sympathy evaporates when you discover that he's given "artists" like soulja boy A grades . . . this soulja boy guy makes AC/DC look like a bunch of intellectuals. So, I don't buy that it's the stupidity of the lyrics that he's unable to overcome.

Anonymous said...

Robert Christgau is the biggest idiot to roam the Earth. He has no good taste in music and has the nerves to call himself 'The Dean of American Rock Critics.' The worst thing is that he can't restrain from insulting the band when he gives them a bad review!

Anonymous said...

Christgau is typical of a critic who about the only instrument they can play is the skin flute. Thus he likes Springsteen, Petty, Ramones and Stones. No solos and they play in 4/4 time so Christgau can get his pseudointellectual mind around it. Artists and creative chance takers like Reed, Zappa, Cobham and Sabbath are often pilloried by Christgau out of what me thinks is envy and jealousy. Giving credit where credit is due, purely as a writer, Christgau is quite accomplished. Perhaps he could write obituaries for a local daily instead of metaphorically killing good music with his oft times off the mark reviews.

Anonymous said...

Robert Christgau is such a cuck it is hard to even comprehend.

tovacat said...

Christgau is indeed the schmuck nonpareil of music journalism. In reviewing Alan Price's brief but endearing score for the undersung 1973 "O Lucky Man!", he not only dismisses the music, but he trashes the great director Lindsay Anderson as well. I can think of equally bad critics from the period (Vincent Canby comes to mind), but none worse.