Robert Christgau: Dean of Rock Critics, King of Beers
Over at WFMU’s excellent Beware of the Blog music site, Canadian writer Brian Joseph Davis has penned a hilarious music review parody, the Ultimate Negative Christgau Review. Davis is no stranger to outrageous satire. His own music-obsessed rant, Portable Altamont, reimagines Don Knotts as a Buddhist philosopher and Margaret Atwood as a gangsta as it delivers delicate epigrams (Sample: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Kid Rock was to remember the distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”)
None of Davis’ earlier work, though, prepared me for his epic spoof of Christgau, whose peerless (and sometimes inscrutable) Consumer Guide recently transformed into a blog, Expert Witness. Davis’ spoof culls negative phrases from more than 13,000 Christgau reviews into a single composite pan. Here are some teasers:
A born liar, showing all the imagination of an ATM in the process, a certain petty honesty and jerk-off humor, a man without a context, a pompous, overfed con artist, a preening panderer, mythologizing his rockin’ ‘50s with all the ignorant cynicism of a punk poser, a propulsive flagwaver attached to UNESCO lyrics about people all over the world joining hands, a simpleton, but also a genuine weirdo, a spoiled stud past his prime, so that while he was always sexy he wasn’t always seductive, a stinker, from Jesus-rock to studio jollity, a tedious ideologue with a hustle, a tough talker diddles teenpop’s love button. Act authentic for too long and it begins to sound like an act even if it isn’t.
Air-kiss soul, alienated patriotic, all clotted surrealism and Geddy Lee theatrics, all form and no conviction, except for the conviction that form is everything. All he proves is that when you dwell on suffering you get pompous. An archetypal indie whiner.
Christgau’s prose, dense with cross-cultural allusions and insider jokes, is ripe for this sort of roasting. He has self-confessed biases (against salsa, metal and prog, and for almost anything African-sounding) and puzzling sources of inspiration (this means you, Black Eyed Peas). Far too cerebral to be considered a gonzo journalist, he’s impassioned and impulsive enough enough to have thrown pie at one of his generation’s finest essayists, former girlfriend Ellen Willis. Christgau only started liking Sonic Youth after they threatened him in a song. When Lou Reed slandered Christgau on a live album, Christgau thanked him for pronouncing his name correctly.
Yet Christgau is one of only three music writers whose work has moved me as much as my favorite fiction authors (the other two are Amiri Baraka, who wrote far less about music, and Lester Bangs, who wrote with more heart but far less consistency). And I admire that after four decades of nonstop listening and writing, he has an insatiable appetite for new sounds and a disdain for sacred cows. I like Radiohead, but won’t forget his take on Kid A: “Alienated masterpiece nothing–it’s dinner music. More claret?” When classic rock still ruled the airwaves, Christgau had this pithy take on Prince’s Dirty Mind: “Mick Jagger should fold up his penis and go home.”
Excerpt from “Robert Christgau: “Rock and Roll Animal” (1999)
(Music: Modern Lovers, “Government Center”)
Just as I was absorbing Davis’ Christagu parody, I discovered that Christgau and his wife, writer Carola Dibble, penned a Consumer Guide to Beer that is almost as funny. Written in the mid-seventies, before the advent of alt-beer and the heyday of Michael Jackson (the Dean of American beer critics, not the singer), the piece is surprisingly sympathetic to flavored-water American macrobrews such as Coors and Budweiser, with nary a reference to obscure Belgian monks.
Still, I love how the Christgaus start with a pedantic lesson on the history of grain fermentation since 6000 B.C. They review San Francisco’s Anchor Steam as if it were a bottled version of the Grateful Dead (“Our bohemian friends found it winy, but we found it one more instance of San Francisco’s chronic confusion of eccentricity with quality”), and describe the Krautrock-worthy Beck’s as if it were a bottle of Can (“This beer is so overbearing that bad-mouthing it seems risky”). As George Clinton would say, can you get to that?
Funkadelic, “Can You Get to That?”
Too Much Joy, “King of Beers”