Published May 06, 2019Robert Christgau is smarter than you.
That's clear from the first paragraph of the "Introduction" in his new collection of book reviews, Book Reports. This is a man who reads more books in a year than many read in a decade (or even a lifetime), an appetite for words that knows few bounds in subject or genre. He takes all comers, high- and low-brow, applying his keen critical eye, honed over more than 50 years as a music journalist, to each, bringing up, say, Faulkner while reviewing the latest from sci-fi author Bruce Sterling. He's also not afraid to toss around critical studies theories under the assumption that if you're reading his review, you should already be looking at the world through such lenses. So make sure you've got a dictionary handy, or Wikipedia open while reading these, cause, hey, the don't call him the Dean for nothing.
Given Christgau's chosen vocation, the bulk of the selections here — many pulled from The Village Voice, as well as publications like The New York Times Book Review, Los Angeles Times Book Review, and Bookforum — deal with pop music directly (histories, biographies, critical compendiums), if not tangentially (musicologies, anthropologies). The former are far more enjoyable to read than some of the labourious reads that fall into the latter category.
The debt owed to black artists by pretty much the entire Billboard 200 any week of any year for the last six decades, remains immense; we could all use the overview of "post modern minstrelsy studies" that opens Christgau's overview of the pop music landscape across the 20th century, "From Black Minstrelsy to Track and Hook." Yet, "In Search of Jim Crow" is a didactic slog, one that assumes far more knowledge on the subject matter than anyone outside of academia is likely to have, a pernicious problem across this entire collection. Still, he was a fierce critic of the injustices done women and people of colour from his earliest years, and he rightly took any author to task for failing to do the same.
Reviews of Bruce Springsteen's autobiography, Jessica Hopper's collection of writings, or John Seabrook's look at the 21st century pop music industry, The Song Machine, come off far better, probably because I've read or have some existing knowledge of the source material. The last third is dedicated to novels (Michael Chabon, Roddy Doyle) and cultural histories (bohemia, pornography, the financial crisis) which will leave any reader who came to this collection via Christgau's music writing (i.e., most readers) feeling untethered to both the source material and the critic's response.
Most of all though, Book Reports has me questioning my own writing, particularly my reviews. I could connect with Christgau's takes on all things pop and pop-music-adjacent. Call me a philistine, but I was utterly lost taking in his review of Marshal Berman's All That Is Solid Melts into Air which (checks wikipedia) "examines social and economic modernization and its conflicting relationship with modernism." Is my own writing any different? I'm not half the critic Christgau is, but was my take on the new Avril Lavigne album also a didactic slog for my non-music obsessed friends? My overview of the career of Alexisonfire a lengthy brouhaha for insiders only?
So along with amassing a sizeable new reading list, I'm questioning everything, ready to change my entire approach to writing; they don't call him the Dean for nothing. (Duke University Press)