The Pleasure Principle

Robert Christgau's Consumer Guide rates the music of the '90s.

Dec 13, 2000 at 4:00 am
"Well, you know ... fuck those people." Robert Christgau, longtime pop-music columnist for the Village Voice, is considering a question about people who dismiss pop songs because they're pleasurable. "Well, I think they're already fucked -- you don't need to fuck them."

Christgau enjoys popular music, and he listens to more of it than practically anyone in the world. He has just published Christgau's Consumer Guide: Albums of the '90s (St. Martin's Griffin), which collects the thousands of capsule reviews and symbolic dismissals run in the Voice over the past 10 years. This is the third such collection of his career.

"There's no point arguing with a puritan," he continues. "They're just going to think you're a sinner and consign you to hell. It's one of the tendencies I've been fighting for my entire life. I hate it in literature, and I hate it in music. But it's especially vile in music, because it's so clear that music's human function, whatever exactly that is -- and nobody understands what it is -- has something to do with pleasure. And what a lot of these people don't admit, in fact, is that they're just perverts." He chuckles. "And they get their pleasure from pain." He laughs harder.

Some concepts come up again and again and again in Christgau's reviews. "Pleasure" is one of them. "Groove" is another. And the idea of "the concrete," or a grounded meaning, is paramount. Christgau cannot be predicted (unless you give him a Sonic Youth album, which he will apparently always like), but he tends to enjoy music that weds rhythmic vitality with catchy presentation while saying something original and worthwhile.

Christgau does not often follow the received critical opinion and, in fact, seems to delight in arguing with it from time to time. Page through the book and catch his disdain for '90s releases by Radiohead, Son Volt, the Flaming Lips, Snoop Dogg, Nas and Elvis Costello, all of which received their share of praise in the press. At the same time, you'll notice rave reviews for works by Collective Soul, Kris Kross, PM Dawn, Garth Brooks, the Bottle Rockets, the Prodigy, Chuck D, Shania Twain, the Backstreet Boys and a host of African artists, all of which were either ignored or roundly dismissed by other critics.

"I think part of the job is to have fun," he explains. "If you don't have fun, you're not doing the job. That's a contradiction, and there's no point in acting as if it's easily resolved. I always tell young writers, "The first part of the job is to figure out what you actually like, and the second part is to figure out why you actually like it.' Many critics never figure out what they actually like. That's one of the signs of a bad critic. They figure out what they're supposed to like instead."

One of the challenges in reading Christgau is figuring out what he means. Christgau writes long, complicated sentences, full of clauses within clauses and loaded with allusions to things that may or may not be common knowledge. He makes jokes both obvious and personal. He packs a feature's worth of ideas and concepts into an average paragraph.

"Yeah, my writing is extremely dense," he says. "There's no point in pretending otherwise. Some people find it forbidding or daunting for that reason. It's some inner imperative about," Christgau pauses, "waste. My first professional writing job was for a crummy encyclopedia company in Chicago. I had just turned 21. I had to write the article on Isaac Babel in 10 lines and the article on baseball in 221 lines. It really instilled habits of compression in me that I've never lost."

Combine habits of compression with a desire to cover music to an absurd degree of comprehensiveness, and you get Robert Christgau's oeuvre. Long ago, Christgau abandoned any hope of hearing every record ever made -- in the introduction to this year's book, he cites a factoid that more music is released each year now than could be played back-to-back in 365 solid days -- but he seems to write about every important or interesting record to come out. Albums of the '90s contains reviews or ratings for some 3,500 CDs.

Will you agree with every word he says in this book? Of course not; nobody will. Christgau's dismissals of favorite records can be brutal; some of them are declared bombs without a word of comment. But casual browsing through this new book will send you rooting through record bins, searching for releases you barely noticed when they came out. He has such good things to say about Bobbie Cryner, Alvin Youngblood Hart and His Name Is Alive, three acts likely to have been overlooked.

Also, be prepared to have Christgau's words question opinions that you've forgotten how you formed. You may remember loving that Emmylou Harris Wrecking Ball album, or Marilyn Manson's Mechanical Animals, but Christgau won't let you defend them in your head without good reasons that may not come easily to mind. The essence of a good critic is that the opinions expressed are clear and arguable.

"I think people read me because I have a track record as somebody who listens to a lot of music and has pretty good judgments," Christgau says. "I think my own audience tends to be pretty literate and inquisitive, and they tend to be able to tolerate a certain amount of cognitive dissonance, which is exactly what I ask of listeners when I recommend records. In other words, they don't expect to understand every single fucking word I say and are even willing to look at things twice sometimes, just as you ought to be willing to listen to things twice sometimes. I think I have a very high-quality readership."