Grumpy Old Men: Christgau Speaks!

christgau.jpgWelcome to the first of installment of our Grumpy Old Men series, wherein we learn from our elders and soak up all their salty yarns like a Bounty Quicker-Picker Upper. Because we here at Phawker believe that both the old and the young are largely disenfranchised by the MSM. More for us, we say. This what they call a Talking Dog Story. It’s not so important what the dog said, it’s that he talked at all. Late last month Robert Christgau, the Dean of American Rock Critics, was knocked off his longtime perch at the Village Voice by the hatchet men at the New Times alt-media chain, which purchased the beleaguered First Borough weekly last year. We caught up with the Dean when was in town to read at the 215 Fest. We had a really awesome interview with him about the state of criticism, media consolidation and how not to age out of the job. Unfortunately, for reasons the guys down in tech lab are still trying to figure out, our $^%#%#^ tape recorder only recorded OUR side of the conversation. So, as they taught us in J-school, we just made shit up. Kidding, of course. But fortunately we did scribble down some notes with the most pertinent quotes as the conversation was rolling, all of which were fed into the piece we wrote about it for our old Alma Mater, the Allentown Morning Call. So, despite it being a little overstate-the-obvious, as per the dictates of my editors, it will have to do. Besides, we’re fairly certain this consolation prize is still better than YOUR Christgau interview. But feel free to prove us wrong. We love being wrong. It’s how we learn.

October 7, 2006
‘Dean’ of rock critics plots next course of action
By Jonathan Valania Special to The Morning Call
These are strange and difficult days for Old Media. The rise of New Media ? blogs, podcasts, downloaded sitcoms, uploaded news ? has had a seismic effect on the mainstream media, or MSM in blogger parlance. You can almost feel the earth-shaking rumble of plummeting readership, corporate cost-cutting and reporter sacrifices made to the gods of Wall Street. Large fissures have opened up in the once terra firma of the MSM and a lot of good men (and women) have fallen in, never to be heard from again.

Esteemed music critic Robert Christgau is one of the fallen. After some 35 years as the gray eminence of the Village Voice, he was handed his walking papers late last month by alt-media chain New Times, which purchased the Voice last year and has been swinging the ax far and wide, clearing out the old brush on the Voice’s once-admired masthead.

Unlike some, Christgau will land on his feet. He is, after all, The Dean of American Critics, a title he bestowed on himself back in the 1970s and then went on to more than earn. ”I wanna change it to America’s Oldest Living Critic,” jokes the 63-year-old scribe.

Christgau already has signed on to be a commentator on National Public Radio, and another high-profile gig is nearly a done deal, he says, declining to disclose any details but offering cryptic assurances it will all be revealed shortly.

”You know, I haven’t really talked about any of this with anybody, not even my friends,” says Christgau during a phone interview from his home in New York. ”I just signed my separation agreement with New Times. I see no tactical advantage in tossing brickbats.”

More after the jump…

Before any of that happens, however, Christgau will visit Philadelphia on Sunday afternoon, not to see the Eagles take on Dallas, but to give a free reading at A.K.A. Music on the final day of the 215 Festival. Christgau and jazz critic Francis Davis also will share anecdotes from their careers in music writing.

Christgau is sanguine about the impact that new media has had on old media, the way it has atomized opinion from water-cooler conversation into a million tiny niches of specialized interests, and the way the bean counters are re-calibrating their metrics to deal with this new media world.

He mentions that reviews in the Voice actually pay less than they did back in 1974, when he took over as music editor. ”You know, I had my first interview with the guy from New Times back in January and I told him I spent all day trying to get my head around these two albums. And as soon as I said that I knew what he was thinking: ‘I’m not gonna pay this guy a day’s wage to listen to albums he might write four lines about for me.’ After that, it was just a matter of waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

Whatever the future may hold for the venerated critic, helming the vaunted Pazz & Jop poll, the Voice’s annual music supplement, tallying up the votes and commentary of pop critics around the country, is not part of it.

The centerpiece of Pazz & Jop was always Christgau’s long, dense, expansive essay making sense of the year that was in music. ”It’s an enormous amount of work, not just for me but the music editor and a paid researcher. It ruined 25 Januaries for me, so I will not miss it. I always took it very seriously and am proud of the work I did. I would always take seriously all the albums that made the top 40 and would spend the time to get to the bottom of them, good or bad.”

It remains to be seen if there is room in MSM’s bottom line for that kind of deeply informed opinion. And despite his current station, Christgau is optimistic. ”On the mega level, there is a lot of good work being done. Jodie Rosen at Slate, Ann Powers at the L.A. Times and Sasha-Frere Jones at the New Yorker, and that kid is the best critic of any kind to come along in the last 10 years.

”Rolling Stone stopped trying to be Maxim and went back to running long, aggressive pieces on politics with a progressive perspective, so that’s all encouraging. On the micro-level you have Pitchfork and Pop Matters and any number of great hip-hop blogs that I come across and keep forgetting to bookmark. So all is not lost.”

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