A robust compendium of work by the “Dean” of rock criticism.
Christgau (Going into the City: Portrait of the Critic as a Young Man, 2015, etc.) positions his familiar critical voice to take the long view regarding his lifelong dialogue with music and youth culture, noting, “one does become more weathered as one ages, which is quite different from knowing that getting weathered is in the cards.” Thus, the book is organized into sections that broadly reflect developmental stages over a century of American pop as well as his own maturing perspective—e.g., “A Great Tradition,” “Postmodern Times,” and “Got to Be Driftin’ Along.” The most powerful selections appear first, in “History in the Making.” These longer essays, which deal with the social underpinnings of popular music and the strange machinations of the music business, include a prescient report on the long-term prospects of British punk, published in 1978 in the Village Voice: “I consider their hostility healthy, especially given how much they’ve been maligned.” Later, the author immerses himself in malaise-filled 1990s spectacles like Woodstock ’94 and Lollapalooza, noting that at earlier festivals, “going for the music meant going for the culture in a way it no longer can.” Otherwise, Christgau remains focused on the output of specific artists. This often entails discussions of significant creators he considers misunderstood, including remembrances of (among others) Chuck Berry and Prince, “the most gifted artist of the rock era.” Other rock personages to receive in-depth consideration in multiple pieces include Sonic Youth, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, M.I.A., and the Ramones (“they did conquer the world, if changing rock and roll utterly counts”). At a moment when music criticism seems less empowered for being more fragmented, Christgau still offers an informed, authoritative perspective, self-aware regarding cultural aging and mortality, not stodgy but wry.
A vital chronicler of rock’s story, several decades on.