Robert Thomas Christgau (/ˈkrɪstɡaʊ/; born April 18, 1942) is an American essayist, music journalist, and self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics". One of the earliest professional rock critics, he spent 37 years as the chief music critic and senior editor for The Village Voice, during which time he created the annual Pazz & Jop poll. He has also covered popular music for Esquire, Creem, Newsday, Playboy, Rolling Stone, Billboard, NPR, Blender, and MSN Music, and is a visiting arts teacher at New York University.
Christgau is known for his terse capsule reviews, first published in his Consumer Guide columns during his tenure at The Village Voice from 1969 to 2006. He has written three books based on those columns, along with two collections of essays. He continued writing capsule reviews in MSN Music, Cuepoint, and Noisey—Vice's music section—where they are currently published in his Expert Witness column.
Christgau was born in Greenwich Village and grew up in Queens, the son of a fireman. He has said he became a rock and roll fan when disc jockey Alan Freed moved to the city in 1954. After attending a public school in New York City, he left New York for four years to attend Dartmouth College, graduating in 1962 with a B.A. in English. While at college his musical interests turned to jazz, but he quickly returned to rock after moving back to New York. Christgau has said that Miles Davis' 1960 album Sketches of Spain initiated in him "one phase of the disillusionment with jazz that resulted in my return to rock and roll". He was deeply influenced by New Journalism writers such as Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe. "My ambitions when I went into journalism were always, to an extent, literary", Christgau later said.
Christgau initially wrote short stories, before giving up fiction in 1964 to become a sportswriter, and later, a police reporter for the Newark Star-Ledger. He became a freelance writer after a story he wrote about the death of a woman in New Jersey was published by New York magazine. He was asked to take over the dormant music column at Esquire, which he began writing in early 1967. After Esquire discontinued the column, Christgau moved to The Village Voice in 1969, and he also worked as a college professor.
In early 1972, he accepted a full-time job as music critic for Newsday. Christgau returned to the Village Voice in 1974 as music editor. He remained there until August 2006, when he was fired shortly after the paper's acquisition by New Times Media. Two months later, Christgau became a contributing editor at Rolling Stone (which first published his review of Moby Grape's Wow in 1968). Late in 2007, Christgau was fired by Rolling Stone, although he continued to work for the magazine for another three months. Starting with the March 2008 issue, he joined Blender, where he was listed as "senior critic" for three issues and then "contributing editor". Christgau had been a regular contributor to Blender before he joined Rolling Stone. He continued to write for Blender until the magazine ceased publication in March 2009.
In 1987, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in the field of "Folklore and Popular Culture" to study the history of popular music.
Christgau has also written frequently for Playboy, Spin, and Creem. He appears in the 2011 rockumentary Color Me Obsessed, about the Replacements.
He previously taught during the formative years of the California Institute of the Arts. As of 2007, he was also an adjunct professor in the Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music at New York University.
In August 2013, Christgau revealed in an article written for Barnes & Noble's website that he is writing a memoir. That same month, during an interview with The Wire's Zach Schonfeld, who described Christgau as "notoriously grumpy" and "characteristically cranky", Christgau said he enjoyed pornography, stating that it "performs its arousal function quite well with no outside help".
On July 15, 2014, Christgau debuted a monthly column on Billboard's website.
Consumer Guide and Expert Witness
Christgau is perhaps best known for his Consumer Guide columns, which have been published more-or-less monthly since 1969, in the Village Voice, as well as a brief period in Newsday. In December 2006, the column moved online to MSN Music, initially appearing every other month, before switching to a monthly schedule in June 2007. In its original format, the Consumer Guide consisted of 18 to 20 single-paragraph album reviews, each of which was given a letter grade ranging from A+ to E–. "Christgau's blurbs", writes Slate music critic Jody Rosen, "are like no one else's—dense with ideas and allusions, first-person confessions and invective, highbrow references and slang".
In 1990, Christgau changed the format of the Consumer Guide; it now contains six to eight reviews graded upper-B+ or higher, one "Dud of the Month" review graded B or lower, and three lists: Honorable Mention (B+ albums deemed not worthy of full-paragraph reviews), Choice Cuts (excellent tracks on un-recommended albums), and Duds. For several years, there were two annual Consumer Guide columns which strayed from this format: The Turkey Shoot (typically published the week of Thanksgiving), which consisted entirely of reviews graded B− or lower, and a Christmas-season roundup of compilations and reissues, mostly graded A or A+. Both have been discontinued.
He also used ratings such as "neither" (denoted by a frowny face), which is an album that does not warrant repeated listening despite coherent craft and one or two highlights, and a "choice cut" (denoted by a pair of scissors), which is a good song on an album that is unworthy of listeners' money or time.
Other ratings including 1–3 stars, being various versions of "honorable mention".
Lou Reed recorded a tirade against Christgau in his 1978 live album, Take No Prisoners: "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?" Christgau rated the album C+ and wrote in his review, "I thank Lou for pronouncing my name right." Similar angst came from Sonic Youth in their song "Kill Yr Idols" (at the time known as "I Killed Christgau with My Big Fucking Dick"), in which they sing "I don't know why / You wanna impress Christgau / Ah let that shit die / And find out the new goal"; Christgau responded by saying "Idolization is for rock stars, even rock stars manqué like these impotent bohos—critics just want a little respect. So if it's not too hypersensitive of me, I wasn't flattered to hear my name pronounced right, not on this particular title track."
On July 1, 2010, Christgau announced in the introduction to his Consumer Guide column that the July 2010 installment would be his last on MSN. On November 22 of that year, Christgau launched a blog on MSN, "Expert Witness", which feature reviews only of albums that he had graded B+ or higher, since those albums "are the gut and backbone of my musical pleasure"; the writing of reviews for which are "so rewarding psychologically that I'm happy to do it at blogger's rates".
On September 20, 2013, Christgau announced in the comments section that Expert Witness would cease to be published by October 1, 2013, writing, "As I understand it, Microsoft is shutting down the entire MSN freelance arts operation at that time ..."
On September 10, 2014, he debuted a new version of Expert Witness on Cuepoint, an online music magazine published on the blogging platform Medium. In August 2015, the Expert Witness column was relocated to Noisey.
Pazz & Jop
In 1971, Christgau inaugurated the annual Pazz & Jop music poll. The results are published in the Village Voice every February, and compile "top ten" lists submitted by music critics across the nation. Throughout Christgau's career at the Voice, every poll was accompanied by a lengthy Christgau essay analyzing the results, and pondering the year's overall musical output. The Voice has continued the feature, despite Christgau's dismissal, and although he no longer oversees the poll, Christgau continues to vote in it.
Style and impact
Christgau has named Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Chuck Berry, the Beatles, and the New York Dolls as his top five artists of all time. In a 1998 obituary, he called Frank Sinatra "the greatest singer of the 20th century". Christgau readily admits to having prejudices and generally disliking genres such as heavy metal, art rock, progressive rock, bluegrass, gospel, Irish folk, and jazz fusion. "I admire metal's integrity, brutality, and obsessiveness, but I can't stand its delusions of grandeur", Christgau wrote in 1986, "the way it apes and misapprehends reactionary notions of nobility". In his 2000 Consumer Guide book, he said his favorite rock album was either The Clash (1977) or New York Dolls (1973), while his favorite record in general was Monk's 1958 Misterioso.
In December 1980, Christgau provoked angry responses from Voice readers when his column approvingly quoted his wife Carola Dibbell's reaction to the murder of John Lennon: "Why is it always Bobby Kennedy or John Lennon? Why isn't it Richard Nixon or Paul McCartney?" In July 2013, during an interview with Esquire magazine's Peter Gerstenzang, Christgau criticized the voters at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, saying "they're pretty stupid" for not voting in the New York Dolls.
Jody Rosen describes Christgau's writing as "often maddening, always thought-provoking ... With Pauline Kael, Christgau is arguably one of the two most important American mass-culture critics of the second half of the 20th century. ... All rock critics working today, at least the ones who want to do more than rewrite PR copy, are in some sense Christgauians." Spin magazine wrote in 2015, "You probably wouldn't be reading this publication if Robert Christgau didn’t largely invent rock criticism as we know it."
Christgau married fellow critic and writer Carola Dibbell in 1974; they have an adopted daughter, Nina, who is 30 years old as of April 2016.
Christgau has been long, albeit argumentative, friends with critics such as Dave Marsh, Greil Marcus, and Ellen Willis, whom he dated from 1966 to 1969. He has also mentored younger critics such as Ann Powers and Chuck Eddy.