MARCH 3, 2015
IN HIS RECENT essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “What’s Wrong With Public Intellectuals?,” N+1 editor Mark Greif argues persuasively that we may have gotten the wrong end of the stick in our lamenting for a lost mid-century era of vibrantly engaged “public intellectuals.” We’ve all heard the nostalgic reminiscences for a postwar era when journals like the Partisan Review published rigorous but lively criticism, intended for a general readership and free of the pedantic super-specialization of academia. It’s often presumed that what ails our current intellectual life is, in effect, the stranglehold of an arrogantly inward-gazing academy that does not know how to address the common reader. This is so much the case, Greif suggests, that today a “distaste for academia,” judged as “essentially compromising to writers’ and critics’ practice,” is “a compulsory conceit for maintaining or resuming a place in commercial work.” But Greif suggests that the supposed conflict between “academia” and the “real world” of that common reader may be a fantasy generated out of a misunderstanding. What we need, he argues, are not thinkers who can purify themselves of the taint of the academy and learn to speak more plainly (“it would be wise for intellectuals to stop being so ashamed of ties to universities, however tight or loose; it’s cowardly, and often irrelevant”). Instead, we need more intellectuals, both inside and outside the university, who are willing to expect, to imagine, and to help bring into being a “public” that is “more brilliant, more skeptical,” more intellectually ambitious and challenging, than the one that may currently exist.
Greif’s revisionary account of the current state of the American “public intellectual” offers an apt context for a consideration of the life and career of Robert Christgau, the so-called “Dean” of American rock critics, who has just published his memoir, Going into the City: Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man. The densely written 384-page book contains a personal bildungsroman about a son of a Queens firefighter and homemaker who made his way into Manhattan intellectual life and to national influence; two (occasionally disconcertingly graphic) erotic love stories — one about his 1960s romantic and intellectual partner, noted feminist critic Ellen Willis, the other about his wife of four decades, writer Carola Dibbell; an insider’s account of the rise of the New Journalism in the 1960s and what came after it (especially in relation to the Village Voice); a story about the political evolution of a self-described “anti-bohemian bohemian,” “always left-identified, always the true unbeliever”; a searching look back on the history of pop music since the 1950s; and finally, a story about the rise and fall of pop music criticism as a vocation and a viable career. But the story on which I want to focus is the one about one critic’s attempt to carve out for himself a career as just the kind of ambitious, challenging “public intellectual” Greif calls for.
Christgau is rock criticism’s closest analogue to Pauline Kael — a critic he acknowledges as a major influence on his early sense of what pop music criticism could be and do. Like Kael, Christgau brought to a relatively disrespected popular genre in the 1960s and ’70s a new degree of critical intensity and erudition, delivered with an American vernacular energy and wit and let-it-fly opinionatedness. As music editor at The Village Voice — he began writing for the Voice in 1969, returned as music editor in 1974 after stints at Esquire and Newsday, and stayed until fired in 2006 — he exerted massive influence on pop music writing, both for his own work and (also like Kael) his role as a professional mentor to countless protégés and acolytes. Aside from the new memoir, he’s published two essay collections and three book collections (one each for the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s) of his influential and infamous capsule-length, letter-graded “Consumer Guide” record reviews, of which he has now published almost 14,000. (One of my favorite lines from the book: “To the eternal ‘Opinions are like assholes — everybody’s got one,’ I just say, ‘Yeah, but not everybody’s got ten thousand of them.’”)
The most vivid evidence of Christgau’s influence and notoriety, at their height, probably lies in a famous attack by Lou Reed from his 1978 live album, Take No Prisoners. Reed offers an extended tirade against Christgau — who had championed Reed’s work in the Velvet Underground, but was more critical of his solo recordings of the 1970s:
Critics. What does Robert Christgau do in bed? I mean, is he a toe fucker? Man, anal retentive, A Consumer’s Guide to Rock, what a moron: “A Study” by, y’know, Robert Christgau. Nice little boxes: B-PLUS. Can you imagine working for a fucking year, and you get a B+ from some asshole in The Village Voice?
(Reed was too optimistic: Christgau awarded Take No Prisoners a C+.)
Lou Reed was not the first or last to be irritated by the conceit of the Consumer Guide’s academic-style letter-grade system — with its grades handed out to recording artists by a self-proclaimed “Dean.” (Christgau’s annual best-of-the-year list is even called, you guessed it, “the Dean’s List.”) The academic framing was partly joke, partly provocation. The column was introduced in 1969 under that name, he explains, “to razz a counterculture that considered consumption counterrevolutionary and didn’t like grades either.” Christgau himself did not dislike grades, or school — he graduated from Dartmouth Phi Beta Kappa in English, and drops a reference to his near-perfect SAT scores — and he testifies throughout the book to his belief in the value of rarefied “academic” knowledge and theories for those who work in more popular forums.
No question, Christgau identifies more with Grub Street than with academia (in which he’s dabbled off and on as a visiting professor; he’s taught a class at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music since 2005). Always “invested in the idea of the ordinary,” Christgau pointedly sums up his body of work as “what I’m proud to designate my journalism.” Reading “Ahab and Nemesis,” the essay that concludes A. J. Liebling’s 1956 boxing collection The Sweet Science, first made the young would-be fiction writer realize that “journalism might be the job I wanted to do”; in the mid-’60s, Tom Wolfe’s writing for the New York Tribune showed him “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 I also admired in [Dwight] Macdonald and Liebling and Pauline Kael.” But even as he became a working journalist and editor, Christgau also remained the former English major whose world had been rocked by Dostoevsky and William James, and who had always viewed literature and art as subjects that could be as much fun to argue about as baseball. (He devotes quite a bit of space to a ninth-grade English presentation he delivered on the topic “Why ‘Casey at the Bat’ Is a Better Poem than ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’”) Under Ellen Willis’s influence, he developed what became a lifetime interest in Marxist cultural studies of the “popular,” by the likes of E. P. Thompson, Stuart Hall, and especially Raymond Williams, about whom he published a long essay in the Voice in 1985, and who he came “to value more than Pauline Kael herself.”
The “Consumer Guide” column’s letter-grading system that so ruffled Lou Reed made jokily explicit what was in fact a lifelong serious attempt on Christgau’s part to bring some of the rigor, depth, and canonizing valuations of academic literary criticism to the “creativity under capitalism” he found within pop music. Going Into the City tries to construct, in piecemeal form, a fully-fledged “theory” of pop music that Christgau at one point hoped to commit to print and never quite did. In the late 1960s, when Christgau formed a journalistic power couple with Ellen Willis (who became The New Yorker’s first ever pop-music critic in 1968), they planned a collaborative book on the topic. But the relationship broke up and the book was also not to be: “Since Ellen and I never wrote our book, our ‘body of pop culture theory’ was never formalized or finalized, but just as it pokes through Ellen’s New Yorker columns, it rises to the surface of my Voice columns […] and […] my correspondence with Greil [Marcus].”
“Intellection consorting with slang, exposition with a crush on the punch line, the persona as aesthetic actor, the audience as aesthetic factor, the audience as political microcosm, reporting shading into criticism and vice versa”: these were some of the critical tenets Christgau defined, both for himself and what became an army of recruits who took the lessons from his editing at the Voice to pop-music-friendly publications throughout the US. Christgau always viewed his project — very much in line with Greif’s prescriptions for the public intellectual today — as one of responding to, as well as educating, pop music’s listeners: helping them bring more exacting, sophisticated, and ambitious expectations to the music, and urging them not to underestimate the value of either the music itself or of their own pleasure in it.
The book tells, among other things, the story of how Christgau, Willis, and Greil Marcus — whose 1975 Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ’N’ Roll Music Christgau acknowledges as the single most influential work of rock criticism ever published — collaboratively helped to invent pop criticism in the late 1960s as a capacious and daringly ambitious celebration of “creativity under capitalism.” As that phrase suggests, all three critics were anti-folkies, suspicious of claims to purity and authenticity on the part of pop musicians; they believed that the greatest pop music does not draw away in disdain from the commercial marketplace, but instead embraces and even flaunts its status as pleasure-giving commodity. (Among Christgau’s rare A+s: Madonna’s The Immaculate Collection, the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill, Kanye West’s Late Registration.) Their heady applied cultural studies offered one of the most fully realized examples we’ve seen of a truly public American popular criticism, one not afraid to make exorbitant demands on its audience.
Christgau’s achievement as a critic can be slightly elusive to grasp because his best and more distinctive work, in my opinion, is found not in the longer essays (he tends to get prolix when given the space — as in this memoir), but scattered throughout the “10,000 [+] opinions” of his single-paragraph Consumer Guide reviews. In totality, these constitute an OCD-level obsessive, endlessly smart and funny, take on the past half-century of pop. (And they are fully searchable online.) For one example, his 1973 A+ review of his beloved New York Dolls’ eponymous debut album:
At least half the white kids who grow up in Manhattan are well off and moderately arty, like Carly Simon and John Paul Hammond. It takes brats from the outer boroughs to capture the oppressive excitement Manhattan holds for a half-formed human being the way these guys do. The careening screech of their music was first heard in the Cooper Union station of the Lexington IRT, and they don’t stop there. Mixing early-’60s popsong savvy with late-’60s fast-metal anarchy, they seek love l-u-v from trash and bad girls. They go looking for a kiss among the personality crises. And they wonder whether you could make it with Frankenstein.
A marvel of concision, the review brings to bear a hard-won, sociologically informed aesthetic, and distills it into a lapidary judgment of 108 words. If it’s easy to see what was so special about the New York Dolls in retrospect, this was much less the case when most listeners dismissed them as a bunch of heavy-metal-playing drag queens in heels and makeup. I especially like this review, too, for the way it reveals itself as covert autobiography. Christgau and Willis first met in Junior High School 16 in Corona, Queens; they, too, were half-formed lower-middle-class brats from the outer boroughs, storming Manhattan and looking for intellectual kicks in high culture’s trash.
Remembering the late 1960s, when he was earning pretty good money writing his first column for Esquire and paying less than $600 a year (yes, that’s per year) for his rent-controlled apartment on the Lower East Side, Christgau comments, “I recall all this action, promise, and selective consumption with affection and a sense of loss — but not, please, nostalgia. Sixties nostalgia has been turning my stomach since approximately 1974.” His contempt for nostalgia is a big part of what has kept him vital as a critic: he currently produces a stripped-down blog version of the Consumer Guide, now titled Expert Witness, at Medium, where this 72-year-old man recently awarded A’s to Sleater-Kinney, Young Thug, and Iggy Azalea.
But for the rest of us, perhaps a bit of envious nostalgia is permissible. For the $50-a-month downtown Manhattan apartment, and for the chance to get paid to go see, write about, and sometimes hang out with the likes of Lennon and Ono, Pete Townshend, Aretha Franklin, and later the Clash, the New York Dolls, and the Ramones. But most of all, nostalgia for an era when postwar affluence, a booming higher education system, and advertising-flush print magazines in need of copy allowed not only Christgau, Willis, and Marcus, but many dozens of others inspired by their example, to earn good livings as adventurous, skeptical, and sometimes even brilliant culture critics — true public intellectuals — writing for a popular audience.