Originally published in: Overdose, Apr. 1975

So You Want to Be a Rock 'n' Roll Critic?

Robert Christgau: Any Old Way You Choose It: Rock and Other Pop Music, 1967-1973
(Baltimore, Penguin, 1973), 330 pages, $2.50 paperback.

The Division of Labor fucks us all over. Not only in the obvious ways, the way people are shuttled into all sorts of demeaning and denigrating work. But also it tricks us: instantly it makes real labor phony and invokes phoniness as the standard of what's real. A fellow named Adorno once wrote that, "Although musical performance presupposes the most exacting labor, the fact that the artist appears in person, the coincidence between his existence and his achievement, together create the illusion that he does it for fun, that he earns his living without honest labor, and this very illusion is readily exploited."

Rock critics must have a tough life. After all, it can hardly be dasy to reach a social niche where one has little more than to listen to records all day long and write things like, "The Monkees are four young men who star in an adolescent TV comedy of the same name and make records that rise to the top of the charts like jellyfish," or "on first hearing, John Wesley Harding sounds monotonous, old-fashioned, and very folky."

But the Division of Labor prevails: not everybody can be a rock critic. Indeed, only a few uniquely talented "experts" can be allowed to live off the record business' fat. Robert Christgau, with columns for Esquire, the Village Voice, and Newsday under his belt, is one of the elect. His new collection fo old columns gives us an occasion to paw over this occupational category, to see what makes it tick.

In fact, Christgau is an ideal specimen, for he work sfully within the logic of the profession. Lacking any pretensions of truth, or for that matter any interest in it, he is simply a fan, his own best reader. Starting out he writes, "I ought tow arn that I am one of the barbarians -- I love rock and roll . . . I have been proselytized by Chuck Berry and Alan Freed, tempted by the Weavers and Thelonious Monk, regenerated by Phil Spector and Dionne Warwick. I feel . . . that rock and roll is popular music. Miles Davis and Cecil Taylor are fine. I like Ella Fitzgerald; I even like Barbra Streisand. But I love rock and roll."

Referring to his profession as a "tour," Christgau is riding the wavae of a rip-off, enjoying it to the hilt. Music is not easily, susceptible to rational analysis, and few even try to do so. No wonder, sine it's usually a drag, while the music is anything but. So it often comes down to taste, and chances are if you share Christgau's taste, you'll dig his book.

Taste, that is, and bullshitting. Christgau is fine on both. In the former he comes up with especially good marks for -- at last -- favorable treatments of Mott the Hoople and New York Dolls, whose great -- our taste -- music is more often trashed than listened to.

And latterwise the book is brimming with gossip, cliché, name dropping and the sort of pretentiousness designed to belie the book's easy-going, anybody-even-me-and-maybe-even-you-can-be-a-rock-critic attitude (as if through a carefully cultivated esotericism -- stock and trade of the rock business -0- he wants to justify his special position, to flaunt his expertise.

But whether or not one digs what Christgau has to say -- ultimately a matter of taste -- his total immersion in his object, his "love" for rock and roll, make this a fascinating document. The history of these years is reflected in vinyl grooves, in what people hear and say and do, and Christgau has a slice of that.

Books that aren't read aren't worth much. In all cases what the reader brings to the book is decisive. Rock writing is often pretentious, in that it attempts to usurp the function of the reader. But then so does this review. Can you dig it?

Postscript: This book review was written before I ever wrote any record reviews: it represents some kind of an anticipation of an experience, which of course is somewhat wrong. Not that I'm copping out, mind you. I can dig it.

Archaeological notes: May 10, 2002

Actually, just the Postscript was written in Apr. 1975. The piece itself goes back further, to sometime before Sept. 1974. Evidently, the piece was published under the Micky Todoroff pseudonym, which may have been a ruse to get it into Student Life after I had left Washington University. At the time I had a pretty severe case of academic burnout, bad enough that I never finished my B.A. work. For the next year-plus, about the only thing I read was rock criticism, mostly from Creem and Crawdaddy, where Lester Bangs and Paul Williams were major touchstones. I always remembered this piece as being a pan, my main argument being that the main thing that Christgau proves is that anyone can be a rock 'n' roll critic. Against this memory, I always thought that my own successful stab at the trade just so much proof of my thesis.