For Christmas 2018 I got the latest anthology of essays by Robert Christgau, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism because I knew I wanted it. I expected to read it in a few weeks, learn a little, and write a review sometime in February or March 2019. It’s October 2020 and I’m just writing this now, so you can tell that my expectations were far exceeded.
I still haven’t finished that book. It’s the first book I’ve had to read piecemeal ever. There’s certainly books I should’ve done that with previously, but this is the first where my brain forces me to do so, as each eight pages contains a wild amount of wisdom that you certainly don’t need to meditate on to get, but if you’re a non-fiction writer of any shade I cannot stress enough how Christgau’s message is brilliantly spoken and essential to your growth as a writer in this field.
And I do mean non-fiction generally. I have a passion for history and journalism that doesn’t get exposed here, but I want an outlet for so desperately I will endure the draconian process of undergrad and PhD work to be able to yell at 19 year olds about how Horace Greeley is hot garbage for a living. As fields, however, history and journalism has the same pitfalls that Christgau sees and drives him to stay the firebrand, relentless challenger of cultural beliefs that he is. If you want to understand this writing in a positive lens, this piece, which is admittedly bogged in 90s web design, is the most brilliant celebration of popular music I’ve yet read. For an assault on the Classic Rock myths that have gotten stupider over time, this piece on Clapton’s work immediately before Layla should shine light on his ideas of what’s “good.” The brutality he has for trite recycling of ideas and idolatry of innovation is inspirational. And still, for the rawest “this is why I do this” view, this interview from 2013 is an hour of gospel wisdom for me.
His outlook, essentially, is a constant push of the envelope, and a dismissal of inflated egos that don’t challenge anything. In the preface to Is It Still Good To Ya, he discusses why he loves New Orleans rap and supports Lil’ Wayne while thinking he’s a subpar example of it. His writing has changed, but his belief that culture criticism needs to be intense if culture is to grow is so passionate and uncompromising, I struggle to find an adequate comparison besides the spiritualism of the Great Awakenings in the 19th century, and the imperfect messenger of it Hunter S Thompson. He encourages everyone to engage, question, have idols and demons, and keep them in rotation, because we’ll all be better for it.
Coming out of Dartmouth in 1962, he had been trained to engage in high art critically and not let idolatry prevent attacks. As the 1960s gave pop art elevation it struggled to have before in a subset of postmodernism brought about by Andy Worhol. Christgau, freshly trained in high art analysis but quickly getting a disdain for it conceptually, saw that pop art was the new high art, and someone needed to push it to justify that with perpetual innovation.
Christgau is now 78 and while he manages to maintain an impressive understanding of our times, his career has slowed and his death in 15 years will end his ability to keep on doing this thing I love. My love for him, hopefully already evident to you, is sincere, but I’ve seen commentators invoke his desire to “push the envelope” in ways that too closely mirror his. If we really want to give his ideas and brilliant writing the honor and respect they deserve, our goal should be to challenge them too, as that’s his very basis.
I won’t do that for many years, because that’s how long it will take me to do so with any depth that matches his. But everyone I’ve put on a pedestal before has crumbled at some point (Springsteen’s inability to do this over 9 years of my life makes me convinced he channels God) and once they have I have grown as a person. For a while my writing will draw on him so much it’s limiting, as some of his essays are so compelling I can’t help but write some continuation of them, but I do it all to match his genius. Once I can attack Christgau with the sophistication that is necessary to not be superficial by comparison, he will be dead and unable to answer me, but I will know that I will finally be his intellectual equal.
Elizabeth von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. Her expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.