Why It's Still Good to Me: Robert Christgau Reflects on a Half Century of Rock Criticism

The critic's new book 'Is It Still Good to Ya?' is out now.

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Nov 6 2018, 5:16pm

The cover for Robert Christgau's new book 'Is It Still Good to Ya?'

I've been a rock critic for half a century, such an unusual feat that I'm often asked: "Howcum?" To which there's really only one response: "Why the fuck not?" I mean, I thought the pop music we called rock and roll was great not just in 1967 but in 1955, and then in 1976 and 1981 and need I go on? I found dozens of albums I loved every year of the early 70s and more in the late 70s and more still in the decades since, partly because I knew more about music by then and partly because there were more to choose from. In late 2018 I'm up around 60 for the year and am certain there'll be more. As I was saying: "Why the fuck not?"

And then there's another thing. Once people write criticism about something—and even in 1967 I was far from alone—they're assuming it's art, and art is supposed to last. Not eternally, that's stupid; not even for multiple centuries. Just a lifetime plus a bit longer, because once you get serious about something you start learning what it was like before you were around. In early rock criticism this meant mainly blues and country, but for me it came to encompass all pop music including jazz and African and, well, blackface minstrelsy and the waltz and Provencal troubadours and Dionysus: music that precedes not just the dawn of electrical recording in 1925, a reasonable cutoff, but any sound recording whatsoever, including genres we know solely through words and pictures because they weren't even notated.

But for almost everyone over, say, 55—anyone who was past college when Run-D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys broke in 1986—what sparks the howcums isn't the old stuff. It's the new stuff. A 76-year-old studying history is fine; a 76-year-old tracking what came out Friday is too big for his relaxed-fit britches. Hip-hop marks a fault line. Punk, disco—OK, they get it, may have cheered one of them on as teenagers. Rhyming over amelodic beats—Not Music. But I always loved the stuff, and after skipping most of 1980 to power out my 70s Consumer Guide book, published my first "rap" column in early 1981. Not only was "rap" exciting in itself, it portended so much more, including developments there was no predicting, although black autonomy was clearly in the offing and black empowerment imaginable. Some oldsters who were put off did eventually get the message. But most did not. You can only adjust to so much history in your life. I still have trouble texting.

The howcums of those born into a world where hip-hop was a natural fact, however, only start with how weird it is for a sixtysomething white guy to hang around Tower so he can buy Late Registration at midnight or concoct a 5000-word Eminem rave that culminates with a mixtape 16. Yet those are the two pieces that begin the "Postmodern Times" section of my just-published Is It Still Good to Ya?: Fifty Years of Rock Criticism 1967-2017, which homes in on 21st-century artists of every description: Lil Wayne, Jay-Z, Radiohead, Shakira, Gogol Bordello, M.I.A., Vampire Weekend, Lady Gaga, Miranda Lambert, more. If my publisher had made room there would have been more still. But in fact Duke University Press's 443 allotted pages already render this quite a hefty collection. Young Noisey readers as well as old fans know me as someone whose specialty is writing short: Consumer Guide and then Expert Witness "album capsules," the brief, letter-graded reviews I'm over the 14,000 mark on. But I go longer whenever somebody offers a decent word rate.

Is It Still Good to Ya?, which I spent months pruning, revising, and reordering so it would flow like a book should, compiles a major hunk of my longer writing. It follows 1973's Any Old Way You Choose It and 1998's Grown Up All Wrong as the third essay collection among the seven books I've published; next April, a second Duke collection called Book Reports will make it four and eight. It's designed to be read front to back, starting with a piece-by-piece historical overview of rock and other pop music that does in fact begin with Dionysus but bears down on post-1990 developments. Then it proceeds through a long section honoring a panoply of 20th-century artists from Louis Armstrong to 'N Sync, shorter tangents tracing the special place of Africa in world pop and the musical heritage of 9/11, the "Postmodern Times" section, and finally a farewell keyed to three obituaries I wrote for Noisey in the awful year of 2016: Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen.

So that's the book and my pitch for it. Buy it, willya? But before I go I'd better go back and address the obvious fact that, speaking of half centuries, many Noisey readers—I'm not privy to the market research, so let's say, umm, half—are half a century younger than I am. So for excellent arithmetical reasons, 25-and-unders have more howcums coming than 55-and-overs. Electrical recording began only 17 years before I was born, and by 1955 the rock and roll that turned me into a critic had hit the charts, with the result that, hip-hop or no hip-hop, the six decades and counting since 1955 are still widely conceived as "the rock era." For 25-and-unders that can be both annoying and daunting, and on many occasions Is It Still Good to Ya? addresses how problematic it is. But it was still written by someone who traces his fondness for both Cardi B and Youssou N'Dour to Chuck Berry's "Maybellene." So when he played a bunch of Chuck Berry songs for an NYU music history class full of aspiring music professionals, he was alarmed to learn that most of them couldn't identify the singer until "Johnny B. Goode" tipped them off.

Which is just to acknowledge that there's reason for both me and you to wonder how many of that panoply of 20th-century artists will mean shit to you. But the answer is more than you can imagine. Because, as I just said, when you're serious about liking something it's an up to glimpse what it was like before you were around. So if you're dubious but also curious I have a proposal for you. Go to robertchristgau.com and find "Let's Get Busy in Hawaiian," one of the pieces Duke let me leave up there while Is It Still Good to Ya? was current—most are embargoed till late 2020. Right, it's almost 4000 words. But since its subject is all of 20th-century popular music, what could I do? Take a look. If you're intrigued, you'll be glad you bought my collection. I guarantee it.

You can buy Is It Still Good To Ya? right here.

Robert Christgau writes his Expert Witness column for Noisey, which publishes every Friday. Follow him on Twitter.