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Slate: Remembering Christgau

Slate: Remembering Christgau

There’s been debate, discussion, and think pieces written in recent years about the “death of the film critic” or some such anthem. But, now, things are not looking bright for pop music writers, either. The Village Voice has fired Robert Christgau, the beloved and sometimes hated pop music critic who had written feverishly for the newsweekly for over 30 years. Not only was Christgau a brilliant/mad/talented author (he could say more in 100 words than most critics could say in a whole page), but he was wonderfully ahead of his time. Among examples, he’s the inventor of the annual Pazz & Jop Critics Poll, a convergence of various critics from various outlets pooling their opinions for the best of that year (again, something many magazines do these days).

Why was he laid off? Is it part of the ongoing changes happening with Village Voice since it was acquired by New Times Media? He certainly was not out of touch… Christgau is famous for staying on top of current releases. He was an early fan of acts like Outkast, Modest Mouse, and dozens of other avant garde acts that mainstream media never broke until record sales caught up. Anyway, it’s a sad day for music journalism, hell a sad day for the entire music industry. One of the great lovers of music has lost his gig… and who knows what will come next. Jody Rosen at Slate offers up a very astute eulogy:

The even larger loss, for the moment at least, is a regular outlet for the eloquent, often maddening, always thought-provoking words of Robert Christgau. Christgau’s project at the Voice was to create a venue for popular-music writing that assumed a certain readership—one equipped not just with broad cultural knowledge but with a fluency in music history, the pop canon, and all the little meta-narratives of individual artists and their discographies. The goal, in other words, was to talk about pop music in the way literary critics talked about books. Christgau succeeded in making the Voice the indispensable source for serious music writing—in the ’70s and ’80s, it was a local alternative weekly read by music nuts from coast to coast. The critical ideal of serious music writing was best exemplified in his own pieces, packed tight with erudition and insight.

Packed is the operative term: Christgau’s craft is all about compression. He has published hundreds of terrific, expansive essays over the years, but his signature column is the Consumer Guide, a monthly compendium of capsule record reviews that he’s been writing since 1969. To date, Christgau has produced more than 13,000 mini-reviews, a testament to his legendarily voracious listening habits. (On the few occasions I’ve seen Christgau in the flesh, he’s either been wearing headphones or had them at the ready around his neck.) With Pauline Kael, Christgau is arguably one of the two most important American mass-culture critics of the second half of the 20th century—yet he’s devoted the majority of his working life to fashioning 100-word blurbs with letter grades.

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