Robert Christgau, Das Racist, and Something About Youth Culture
Every young person who truly cares about rock and roll will at some point stumble on Robert Christgau’s music reviews and get indignant about them. Christgau is the most established pop music critic in America, one of the original guys who started way back when being a rock writer meant making things up as you go along. For thirty-two years he was a columnist and then music editor for the Village Voice, specializing in short, capsule-format album reviews that he calls the Consumer Guide; they are dense and difficult, but by their very terseness they give off an air of casual authority. He founded the annual “Pazz and Jop” poll, which tallies votes from music writers around the country, and serves as the de facto consensus of critical opinion. All of that, plus the fact that he turned seventy earlier this year, make a rather stuffy and unfavorable first impression on your average young music fan. But it’s the saving grace of young people that when we get indignant, we keep on reading.
I spent a lot of time browsing through his archives in college. At first, I just liked it when he trashed bands that I didn’t like. Looking back on my four years at an expensive liberal university campus, that alone meant more to me than I realized at the time. What else was there to talk about? Either you had articulate, well-defined opinions of your own, or you kept to yourself. But as I read more of him, his writing coalesced into something more integrated and deliberate. I came to admire the way he cut swaths through the cultural morass around him. By virtue of his longevity and prominence, his work has achieved some degree of permanence and autonomy, but Christgau unmistakably writes as an individual and not as an institution. “Somebody may very well ask me to write a canonizing record book,” he said in 2001. “But even then, Dr. Dre and Radiohead would not be in that book. Now Radiohead is the most important rock band in the world by acclamation. Bull fucking shit, you know. They suck. And whether I’ll be vindicated or not I don’t know.”
At some point I found out that Christgau grew up in Flushing, Class of 1958 at Flushing High School and son of a fireman and a homemaker. It made a lot of sense when I thought about it. “It takes brats from the outer boroughs to capture the oppressive excitement Manhattan holds for a half-formed human being,” he once wrote in a review of the New York Dolls’ first album. And that pretty much summed up all of us Queens kids when we found out about the wider world, the feeling of being eager but wholly underprepared. Christgau became a rock fan listening to Alan Freed in the 50s, and he had a buddy who subscribed to Cashbox, the old trade magazine. On the weekends they would take the Flushing line to Times Square, walk past the theaters and porn magazines, and buy records.
I always imagined that my friends from the neighborhood — the really honest, abrasive, thoughtful and self-aware ones — would’ve made good critics too, whether it’d be in music or film or literature. You know, if they ever actually took an interest in any of those things.
These days Flushing is not exactly a musical hub, and growing up here your feelings toward music tend to get buried under other priorities. But of course honest, genuine opinions about music are much more than argument fodder or a source of trivia knowledge. It’s an act of self-affirmation. It can mean the difference between setting your own course or being buffeted by forces around you that you don’t quite understand. “One of the things you need to be a critic is not only opinions but to think that they’re important,” Christgau said. “The temptation is to like what you should like – not what you do like. You have to resist that temptation. And then once you know what you like, another temptation is to come up with an interesting reason for liking it that may not actually be the reason you like it. That’s not a good way to write criticism. It’s a discipline. You have to learn how to do it.”
It can also take a certain boldness to judge art forms and cultural products that might be foreign to you. There are difficulties for Christgau, as a 70-year-old white man, to write about hip hop: “I’m slow on the uptake about things. It takes me a while to understand, because I’m not in that world at all and I have to get it solely as music. I have no cultural connection to it at all. And I usually have to read a lot about it and have it explained to me.” But there is a need for it. Sometimes you need to engage and grapple with the dominant cultural forms around you just so you can ground yourself.
I’ve been trying to do that for the past few years, living in the middle of a youth culture that I don’t quite belong to or understand very well. It was less pronounced at Stuyvesant, because although you get an inkling of the outside world, high school was such a bubble for kids like me that not much exposure was necessary. But in college, you meet a great many people who were raised in different circumstances, who seem to know about many other things, and who are more culturally aware. They are smart, engaging, and enthusiastic, despite belonging to some groups that are inevitably a bit exclusionary. I’ve tried to come to terms with how I feel about it all — the music, the art, the shows, the readings, the parties – what I liked, what I cared about, and what I didn’t.
It’s a little too much and not the sort of thing you can easily talk about with your peers, in polite company. And I was too caught up in it. To think about youth culture, it’s sometimes better to be removed from it all, to be interested and engaged but not so entangled in the petty details.
“I’ve never said much about it, and I’m so old that nobody would care anyway,” Christgau said. “I’m just being generationally predictable, right?”
Christgau met me at my apartment on 38th Avenue, because apparently his first girlfriend used to live very close to where I am, and he wanted to come back to take a look. The physical layout of the buildings has changed – or so he thinks, he can’t remember for sure. He gestured in the direction of the parking lot and said that that used to be a basketball court where he spent a lot of his time, and I stood there with him for a little bit trying to imagine it. Then we set off heading east on Sanford Avenue, towards the throughways and commercial streets that he was familiar with. I live pretty close to it all but I never venture much in that direction and I don’t know the area well at all. There are still a lot of parts of Flushing like that for me.
It’s often a surprise for people to find that Christgau is very loose and talkative in person. The way he talks is in great contrast to the way he writes his dense and concise reviews. But it didn’t surprise me, and after all writing is hard, careful work. It was quite hot in the late afternoon but we kept a brisk pace as he recited to me names of candy stores and churches and hangouts along 162nd Street. We passed a sign for a store that he recognized, Beplat Hardware, established in 1910. But the sign itself was a relic, and the store attached to it is now Korean-owned and completely different from the original. He expressed some uncertainty and doubt about the way the street used to be. Some things you remember forever and some things you don’t.
“Flushing was always a waystation,” he said. “Nobody wanted to stay here for too long. Not that it was such a terrible place; it was just the way people thought. I’m interested in Queens, I grew up in Queens, I’m very proud of Queens. But that’s different from wanting to stay here.”
Christgau lived on 159th street, in a white house with a prominent chimney. The layout of the street has changed, maybe, and the houses around him have been remodeled, maybe, but his house wasn’t. He lived there from 1946-1958. His parents, chasing the great suburban dream, moved from Ridgewood to Elmhurst to Flushing, because it was a step up. You could have some more space in the backyard, and rose bushes. Then they moved to Douglaston, another step up. The first Chinese family moved onto the block just as they were getting ready to leave in ’58. Christgau went to study literature at Dartmouth, and when he came back he was interested in Manhattan. “At that time the myth that you were supposed to do better than your parents was in complete ascendency. And of course, back then you could live in Manhattan without being wealthy or having a high paying job. I lived on Ludlow Street; it was a piece of shit.”
So Flushing never stood for much as a place of permanence. It was, as it is now, a place to grow up and feel like you were destined for better things, whatever they might be. Christgau eventually moved to the East Village and wrote for the Village Voice. My friends moved to Murray Hill after getting jobs in investment banking. It’s not that Flushing is so bad; it’s just a natural consequence of growing up here. Of course the process itself is complicated, but the sentiment of moving up is quite forthright and even matter-of-fact. It’s interesting because this seemingly simple attitude actually kind of sets Flushing apart.
If you look at young people in New York, I said, there’s so much distress and handwringing over where you come from and where you are going. The well-off mostly move to Manhattan, and the less well-off mostly to Brooklyn. Both groups have an ambivalent relationship with their financial background and their social status. There are some good bands, and literary scenes, and creative energy, and camaraderie; people are trying to live genuine, thoughtful, courageous lives. But very rarely is there honest and critical assessment of the real exigency of your choices, your alternatives, the tastes you’ve developed or inherited, and the role of your upbringing in shaping what you want out of life. In fact, so much of being young and hip in New York nowadays consists of trying very hard to not think about this stuff, of not examining some basic facts about your life. Doesn’t youth culture – the art, the music, the shows, and all the cultural capital that comes from it — sometimes seem like a big, complex apparatus that’s designed to hide some not-so-complex things?
“So your gripes are about class.” he said.
Well, yeah. I guess.
“Well, you didn’t say that before.” He continued: “Why am I proud of being from Queens, it also has to do with class. But look, it’s so common to be disdainful of hipsters that you better be sure of exactly what the fuck you mean and exactly who you’re talking about. You have to add to this already quite extensive and not especially well-informed and articulated issue.”
But it’s not about attacking hipsters or anyone else, I said. It’s about finding where we fit into it all. The people I know in Flushing are thoughtful and empathetic, but they are not so confused about who they are or who they hope to become. They don’t renounce where they come from, nor do they feel guilty about where they want to be. And of course there are people like this, not just from Flushing but also from Bay Ridge and Indiana and Ohio and any number of places. But this sentiment is so rarely expressed, in music, in art, or in daily conversation. It’s almost purposefully avoided. Wouldn’t everyone be better off if this topic was laid out in the open? And the music and art would be better too, I think.
I was trying to explain myself and not doing a good job of it. But Christgau caught on and I didn’t have to flounder too much.
“In my first book, I called myself an anti-bohemian bohemian,” he said. “That’s how I described myself in 1973, and that’s still how I regard myself. To people I grew up with I’m a bohemian, to the bohemians I’m not a bohemian. On one hand that’s kind of annoying, but on the other hand, that’s the way it ought to be, right? If you’re trying to articulate a position for yourself, my guess is that’s where you’ll have to be as well. In this contrarian but nevertheless alternative identified slot. And you have to figure out how that relates to class, which is a very amorphous category and especially amorphous in this country, or so we think. You need to figure out where you come from, class-wise, and how ideally you want to end up, class-wise. That really ought to be, because it rarely often is, part of the analysis. The more explicit you can be about class, and the more specific you can be about class, the better.”
The intellectual life of young people in the 50s, at least at Flushing High School, was dominated by the smaller but more academically prominent Jewish population. Most of the academic stars came from that side of the school. Though it wasn’t very apparent at the time, the legacy of the Holocaust and the ideals of Communism worked in the background to drive an exciting, radically-charged young intellectual atmosphere. “But who was interested in folk music back then? Who was playing Brubeck in ’58? It was also the Jews.” Christgau made the connection, as so many people have before, between the story of the Jews and the future of the new wave of Asian immigrants. And I, as many other people have before, expressed my reservations. None of my friends are interested in folk music.
“Of course, the most intrinsically bohemian thing about the Jews is their history as a minority culture,” he said. “Is there a way anything similar can be said about the Chinese?” And I thought, well.
We had stopped at some combination bodega-pizzeria place run by a South Asian family. This was up around 162nd Street and 46th Avenue. The specific storefronts that Christgau remembers are long gone, but the functionality of the spaces, especially churchland and places of worship, have a way of staying the same. We ordered some sickly sweet ice coffee and the owner turned on the fans for us, but it was still very hot inside the store.
“Back in high school, I was chosen along with two other classmates to go to this stupid Congress thing that the Board of Education ran, where you try to pass a law and learn about how the legislative system worked,” Christgau told me. “The law that we ended up using was limiting vice presidential terms, or some procedural bullshit thing like that. But what we wanted was to repeal the Immigration Acts of the 1920s. That was our law. And I was always very proud of that, of how us three high school kids came up with the idea. Because we were completely right, and it changed America, when those Acts were finally repealed. It was as important as the Civil Rights movement.” We sat in the store for a bit longer. It was a mellow, breezeless day, and when we headed out the sun was still strong.
“Queens today is a much more interesting place than it used to be.”
This past week I went to see Das Racist perform as part of the SummerStage series in Red Hook. Das Racist is two emcees, Himanshu Suri ( AKA Heems) and Victor Vasquez (Kool A.D.), and their hype man, Ashok Kondabolu (Dapwell). Together they’re the most significant act to come out of Queens in my musically-conscious lifetime. Suri and Kondabolu went to my high school. They now live in Brooklyn, although Suri and his family still go to temple at the Hindu Center on Kissena. Their 2011 album Relax was rated by at least one prominent music critic (Robert Christgau) as the best album of the year.
The concert started in the early evening, and it was just before this recent heat wave. I got off at Carroll Street and followed the path down to Red Hook park, and with me were all these young, happy, good-looking people, walking a mile through old industrial Brooklyn in colorful heels. There was a lot of open space, much more than I’m used to, and near the water the old Red Hook Grain Terminal looked pretty majestic against the sunlight. Das Racist was the final act to go up, and by then the crowd had swelled all around me.
The band had a great musical presence, and they crisscrossed the stage with a magnetic kind of intensity. But I kept looking around at the crowd as well. It seemed like a very neighborly gathering, although of course there were also outsiders streaming in from the other boroughs. Christgau was somewhere in the crowd too. As the show went on, some of the people playing soccer in the nearby fields wandered over to join us. The girls wearing flower dresses immediately next to me were singing along and were so excited to be there. The show was good and I enjoyed it very much, but I am from Flushing and I am not used to being excited. And everyone around me knew the lyrics better than I did.
Loving Flushing doesn’t mean you have to live in Flushing. Maybe you have to leave to be a music critic or a rapper or a banker, but that’s fine because that’s the way it’s always been. Maybe you even have to leave in order to have some fun, to take the G train at Court Square and ride out to the Brooklyn Waterfront. Certainly the Flushing I know is a long way from the scene at the concert. Regardless of any latent resentment one might harbor about race or class, the concert still held an alluring and amorphous kind of attraction for all young people. There was still the promise of community for all who were willing to live and act by the principles and values expressed there.
It might be because it was a SummerStage event, but Das Racist didn’t riff much on the sizable portion of their audience who are white. At previous shows they’ve been known to ask all the people of color to come to the front of the audience. At a concert at Columbia University, Suri made a point of giving shout-outs to Queens College and Stony Brook. They’ve even asked all the white people to go home, and although this is taken in stride their fans do not exactly comply. “We’re in a position where we can actually alienate people and make them think about race,” Suri says.
This is taken as social commentary, but because it still makes people uncomfortable, there has been a tendency to probe too much into it. Pitchfork’s review of Relax called Das Racist an “intimidating” artist for a critic to encounter. They come off as enigmatic dudes who dance between joking and not joking, and always threatening their audience by telling them, “You don’t get it.” Maybe the listeners prefer it that way, so they can keep asking themselves, “What do they want from us?” But it really doesn’t seem very complicated to me.
“I’m a middle-class, educated, Indian dude,” Suri says. “I can go up there and antagonize people, and if it doesn’t work, I go get a graduate degree. I’ll be fine.” That there is an explicit and specific comment about class for you. And it means a lot, I think. Here’s another: “These days I’m mostly focused on my bank account/I ain’t backin’ out until I own a bank to brag about.”
Sure, it can be difficult to be honest with yourself and talk frankly about where you come from and where you want to go. But it’s a discipline. You have to learn how to do it.