He’s not dead, and I haven’t read the column in ages. But it still feels like something important has ended with the news that rock critic Robert Christgau‘s monthly “Consumer Guide” column has ended after 41 years. These days I’ve been more likely to read his posts on the National Arts Journalism Program’s blog (where he occasionally does some book criticism) than anything he wrote about new records. Those NAJP posts still contain the voice I grew up admiring and learning from, though—attentive, open-minded, with a sense of humor but little tolerance (or room) for bullshit. The ability to convey all of that in about 125 words while still saying something meaningful is a true gift, and one he pulled off thousands of times in the Consumer Guide. To paraphrase from one those reviews, he invented that barrage, and he perfected it.
Douglas Wolk gets into a little more detail about what made the “Consumer Guide” so great. I bring the column up in a litblog context not just because, like a lot of people around my age who do criticism, I owe Christgau a debt. Though there is that: I know the exact moment when I took an interest in cultural criticism, and it had to do with a Christgau capsule review. I was 16 or 17 when I stumbled across a copy of his 80s collection in a bookstore, having never heard of the author, and began looking up albums I’d admired. This is the review that stopped me short:
It’s got to be deliberate, the voice of the common man or some such. Nevertheless, making all allowances–overlooking quotes/references (“eight miles high”), universals (“the rent is due”), attempted wordplay (“a table for one and a broken heart to go”), and simple idioms (“count me in,” “white flag,” “heaven knows,” “it’s up to you”)–I count an astonishing fifty-six full-fledged clichés on what’s supposed to be a significance move, from “caught in the crossfire” in the first line to “the worst is over” in the third-to-last. And while “Only the Strong Survive,” the biggest offender with twelve, streamrollers across despite it all, neither Don Henley soul nor emergent social conscience justify the dumbness density. I know the salt of the earth is the shape of things to come, but these words of wisdom are beyond the pale. C+
There’s so much good stuff going on here that I’m willing to publicly confess I once admired Bryan Adams‘ Into the Fire to point it out. There’s enough context in the review to explain why Christgau’s bothering in the first place (“what’s supposed to be a significance move”); a jokey alliteration (“dumbness density”) that practically sounds out how little he thinks of the album (say it out loud; it sounds like sputtering); a willingness to concede that it’s not a total failure but that its successes are, at best, modest and artificial (“Don Henley soul”); and, of course, the witty, damning last sentence. But most damning of all was the message embedded into the whole conceit of the review—that counting the number of cliches on the album was more entertaining than listening to the album itself. Reading that review, at that moment, felt a little like realizing that you’ve been walking around all day wearing your shirt half tucked-in. If he was willing to put that amount of work into an album he didn’t care for, what was he dedicating to the good stuff? Like a lot of people, I ended up scouring that book to figure out where my tastes and Christgau’s aligned, and to learn about the things I’d never heard of that gave him a charge—two things a great critic can do, if he or she is doing the job right. Christgau’s 80s guide is the most dog-eared and battered book in my library; there are certain artists whose entries I once had memorized.
Christgau, like every critic, could be full of it sometimes, and his extreme concision could degrade into near-nonsense. (His review of Blondie’s 2004 album, The Curse of Blondie, is an infamous example of the latter flaw.) But there was never evidence that he was slacking off, writing nonsense for nonsense’s sake, or trading on reputation. Nor did it ever seem like he treated the capsule review as a limitation, which speaks to the other reason why I bring up the column. Like everybody else who writes book reviews, I’ve complained about how word counts have diminished in recent years; newspapers rarely have the luxury of the 1,000-word review, certainly not the way they did ten years ago. But if book reviews must continue shrinking, that doesn’t automatically mean they must become more simple-minded and surface level. I’ve wondered sometimes if it would be possible to pull off a “Consumer Guide” for books, with ten capsule reviews a month, plus a handful of briefer mentions. Time, economics, and audience interest would seem to kill the idea dead (I doubt as many people read as broadly and voraciously as do people who consume music), but the short, sharp, Christgau-style capsule review would still have value.
That is, if the critic is willing to apply the necessary work to those capsules. They’ll never replace the essay, and Christgau himself has written some excellent ones. But his particular genius was to suggest that writing reviews at 125 words instead of 1,250 didn’t automatically require dialing down substance or thought.