Xgau Sez: December, 2022
Music without distraction, the Kanye question, liking what you like, murder most foul, being a long-haired Clash fan, and Courtship 101.
Hi Christgau, I love to listen to music when I write. I know you say you’re basically always listening to music, but do you reach for instrumental/foreign-language albums when you want to concentrate? I find that vocals sung in a language I understand can be distracting to my writing. What are your top albums for getting some heavy critical work done? Thanks, love your stuff. — Cas McKenna, Albuquerque
I don’t find lyrics distracting except when they are, which is usually a sign of quality, although not necessarily a decisive one. For over 50 years I’ve run music through my head at every opportunity while almost never finding it a distraction, lyrics or no lyrics. Professionally and going back to when I was a teenager with the radio on, the whole point of nonstop music for me is to find out what insists on closer attention, on being consciously heard, which needn’t be lyrics by any means but when it is matters big-time, so that I often go back to concentrate harder on a second pass at a verse or chorus. Admittedly, however, this happens more often when I’m cleaning up the kitchen than when I’m trying to eke out my next sentence.
What do we make of Kanye’s latest antics? This isn’t the first time one of my heroes has let me down. Learning of Chuck Berry’s misdeeds truly broke my heart. But I’ve always been able to separate the art from the artist. I am still able to enjoy Chuck’s lyricism and his riffs, the memories associated with them, and what they mean for rock and roll. But what about Kanye? Whose personality is so central to his music? Honestly, it's been hard to listen to him again after all the hate he’s been spewing. — Alfonso Godoy, Tegucigalpa, Honduras
I’ve barely listened to Kanye since determining that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy belonged in my best-of-decade list a few years ago, which was before he lost his musical mojo whilst shoving his cruel and clueless current politics in our collective face. Couldn’t get through Donda, by which time I felt no obligation to. The early records remain great; I’m not even sure they’d hint at his madness were I to try to go back and find it there, which I won’t because fuck him. His presidential run appalled me even before one of his electoral votaries ruined the lives of two hard-working black and female south Georgia election officials on top of everything else. Delusory Trumpy paranoia with anti-Semitism on top is not a forgivable personality quirk—as it’s often said in his defense, it’s a sign of mental illness. There are those who believe this illness deserves our attentive compassion in part because he was and in some respects may still remain a genius. Not me. Having lost interest in his “personality” at least a decade ago, I suppose it’s possible he’ll become sane or anyway saner again. But I never identified personally with his genius—just enjoyed the musical consequences and hoped he’d make something socially useful of it, which he never did. And Jesus is in no position to help him now because Jesus never was.
When you started writing about music, rock was seen as bohemian and progressive. Now the kids see it as old-fashioned dad music. All the hip critics scorn it as white male cultural appropriation of black music. (I get the poptimist argument, but I’m just not into their kind of music.) Everyone assumes that it’s on the way out. I feel like an old fart for loving it, but love it I do. You’re older than I am. How do you justify loving to the kids these days? — Richard, Washington D.C.
I don’t know what you’re talking about. What “hip critics”? Do “hip” people even say “hip” anymore? For that matter, do they say “rock”? I count maybe seven what I’d call “rock” records among my provisional 2022 A albums so far: Gogol Bordello, Drive-By Truckers, Superchunk, Derek Senn, Terry Klein, Amyl and the Sniffers, Paranoid Style, arguably Emperor X, how about Craig Finn or Bonnie Raitt, maybe Wet Leg or the Beths or the Mammoth Penguins although perhaps you think the last three are too femme and/or “pop” to make the cut, although how anyone could think Paranoid Style much less Amyl and the Sniffers aren’t “rock” I can’t imagine. So right, Archers of Loaf was a disappointment. Then what? Did the lamentable Foo Fighters put out a record I forgot about in 2022? The even duller 1975 did, right? Do “hip” people really apply the so self-evident they verge on stupid racial points to newer bands? Do they now disallow let’s say the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin altogether on those grounds, which in those cases and many others have been explicitly understood for half a century without meaningfully diminishing their aesthetic originality or bohemian-progressive stature in a history that has of all things moved on with the years? If “the kids” can’t hear that originality am I supposed to waste my time explaining it for the umpteenth time, almost certainly to no avail? Like what you like and don’t worry about being “hip.” Hip is a snake pit.
I have just a small question. Do you have a personal top three songs about killing your girlfriend/spouse? Mine are: “IYDKMIGHTKY,” Type O Negative; “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” the Beatles; “Time of the Preacher,” Willie Nelson. P.S. I had to limit myself to one Type O song. They are all so good! — Hig Hauer, San Luis Obispo
Though I can’t find it in myself to blame Nelson for trying his hand at that immemorial American folksong subgenre the murder ballad, a mode I’ve never had much use for myself, I will note that “Time of the Preacher” is the lead track of what I long ago called Nelson’s most overrated album, Red Headed Stranger. If I ever noticed that “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” was about a bad boy bashing people with an expensive toy, I’d forgotten, though I admit McCartney does fairly well with an inscrutably mock-ironic tone that renders the song a one-shot in his vast if oft lightweight catalogue. As for Type O Negative, if you’re telling some version of the truth about your deep love for this band I urge you to seek psychiatric counsel at your earliest convenience.
During what years did you have long hair, and what made you decide to chop it off? — Nicholas Cox, Cambridge, Massachusetts
I grew my hair out only in late 1967, which means I wasn’t much of a pathfinder, only then stubbornly not to say perversely refused to cut it in the punk years. As a Clash groupie pointed out to me in French after their amazing late-’77 Leeds concert: “Tu as les cheveux longues.” Two-and-a-half years later, however, Carola and I underwent a marital crisis in the wake of five years of infertility trauma, and as often happens to people in such fraught moments I decided to cut my hair. Felt good. Have been patronizing the same barber ever since.
Do you like the Quicksilver Messenger Service? Songs not albums. If not, why send it to Carola? — Milan Nikolich, Belgrade, Serbia
As I keep saying, people like what they like, and if one of them happens to be the most winsome woman you’ve ever met and the appropriate memorabilia comes your way, you give it to her to let her know she’s both entitled to her own opinion and on your mind. That’s just Courtship 101. Wrapping that promotional Quicksikver kite up for the mail was actually kind of tricky. But the effort I made to send it to Carola was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done. I’ve since introduced her to years of music she likes way more than she ever liked Quicksilver.