A Consumer No More: Robert Christgau Retires His Consumer Guides
Given that fewer and fewer of us are actually music consumers these days, I suppose it comes as no real surprise to learn that music critic Robert Christgau—one of the first (and maybe one of the last) of his breed—is phasing out his famed Consumer Guide column after 41 years. The July edition of the monthly column, which has been published on MSN Music for the past three and a half years, will be Christgau’s last. “Though I always enjoyed the work,” he writes on MSN. “Work it was, and I’ve long been aware there were other things I could be doing with my ears. So while I have every intention of keeping up with popular music as it evolves, being less encyclopedic about it will come as a relief as well as a loss.”
A loss is right. Christgau is well-known (if not well-mocked) for referring to himself as the “Dean of American rock critics”—a statement which has much to do with the fact that the guy was the Village Voice’s music editor from 1974 to 1984 (hugely important rock ‘n’ roll years to be sure, particularly in New York) and created the weekly’s famous and once highly influential Pazz & Jop Poll. But such a self-description would also seem to imply long-winded prose, critical opinions dispensed from on high and a boomer-appropriate Top 10 list that doesn’t stray far from Dylan, Springsteen and the Stones. Nothing could be further from the truth.
His monthly Consumer Guides, which featured around 10 new records, were marvels of economy and scale, and Christgau was unafraid to tackle whatever new punks showed up on his desk, from Wavves to Taylor Swift to Lil’ Wayne. In under 175 words, Christgau managed to pack a Pitchfork’s worth of allusions, plaudits and takedowns. Take, for example, his review of The Arcade Fire’s “Funeral” (to pick something easy), just one of the 12,741 capsule reviews available on his endearingly obtuse website. Besides the first sentence, there’s next to nothing about the actual music in these 154 words, but Christgau gets at the band’s go-for-broke attitude and the zeitgeist surrounding them with eerie, effortless precision. Want something shorter? Check out Christgau’s review of Sonic Youth’s 2002 return-to-form, “Murray Street”: “The diligently realized sound of exhaustion.” Exactly.
In a world where young critics get cred for stuffing an album review into a 140-character tweet as if brevity were invented last year, it’s a cruel irony that Christgau decided to retire his Consumer Guides now. So it goes … long live the Dean.
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