Thanks to a tweet from Jack Shafer, who knows a thing or two about brilliant curmudgeons, we came across this wonderful interview in the Nieman Reports with former Village Voice rock crit nonpareil Robert Christgau. Christgau is not *just* a brilliant rock critic who, since the 1960s, has turned a clear eye and a finely chiseled pencil toward rock’n'roll music, he is also an editor who, over his long tenure at the Voice, edited dozens, if not hundreds of writers, improving the quality of their prose and their critical thinking. We count ourselves fortunate to have written for Christgau, and have never known an editor who was so willing to challenge every word choice, so likely to take a gleaming scythe to cliche. He was a somewhat frightening, incredibly committed, ultimately warm person under whose tutelage many a young writer improved his or her chops.
As a writer, Christgau is in a different league from other great rock critics of the age. Seems to us, the best rock critics have come in one broad category or another. There are writers, such as Lester Bangs or Byron Coley, who have imbued their writing about the music they love with a stylistic freedom that essentially matches the energy of the music, with verbal riffs and broken rules that are the equal of the best fiction stylists. And then there are other, not necessarily more serious writers who do something every bit as important and thrilling: they apply their critical facilities and writing precision to taking the medium of rock’n'roll music seriously enough to write about it as an art form on a plane with the most important writing, or painting, or yeah, classical music. Christgau is the latter, a man who is moved, essentially, to write about the music that stirs his soul, but with the seriousness and formalism he believes it deserves. The Bangs and Coley approach is maybe more fun to read, and those who pull it off, or even try it, are certainly a dying breed, but the Christgau approach is thrilling in its own right because the prose is so carefully wrought, if you are a serious reader, or an aspiring writer, it produces chills up the spine. Christgau could always convey his passion for the music, which is a lost art, if you are to measure the current state of rock criticism as the distance between the unfunny in-joke self-references and bad writing of the New York Times crew under Jon Pareles’ disastrous reign and the snarky showoffism of the Pitchfork writers, most of whom score a 2.8 on scale of whether they actually like rock’n'roll music.
In the interview, Christgau make some points we greatly enjoyed. Below is a teaser. If you want to get a sense of the man, go to the story and read it for yourself.
Can you talk a little bit about how age impacts your work? Rock ‘n’ roll is considered a young man’s game.
It’s not. An enormous number of really good records are being made by people over 50, 60 and even 70. Because it was once the music of youth, it is now the only popular music that I know of that’s ever really addressed aging as a major issue in one’s life, the only one. It’s not the music of youth. In fact, for various formal reasons, good records by people under 30 are becoming more and more unusual.