Critical Mass, The Blog of the National Book Critics Circle

31 Books in 30 Days: Mark Athitakis on Robert Christgau’s ‘Is It Still Good to Ya?’

by Robert Christgau | Feb-15-2019

In the 31 Books in 30 Days series leading up to the March 14, 2019, announcement of the 2018 National Book Critics Circle award winners, NBCC Board Members review the thirty-one finalists. Today, NBCC board member Mark Athitakis offers an appreciation of criticism finalist Robert Christgau’s Is It Still Good to Ya?  (Duke University Press).

For decades now, Robert Christgau has been known as the Dean of American Rock Critics. He gave himself the title, but it’s one that perhaps hasn’t served him well, or at least mischaracterizes his value as a critic. That “dean” business suggests that Christgau serves as rock and pop’s lead tastemaker, and that all other critics are simply following his lead. It suggests an overly persnickety manner. Lastly, it suggests somebody who’s no fun---did you aspire to hang with your college dean?---in a genre that’s all but defined by joy and pleasure, licit and otherwise.

To be sure, Christgau has handed out a lot of letter grades over the years, and he’s been dinged for his fussiness and presumed authority of his assertions. “I dunno why / You wanna impress Christgau,” Sonic Youth ranted on its song “Kill Yr Idols.” (“I wasn’t flattered to hear my name pronounced right,” Christgau coolly retorted.) But if that “dean” title gets it right, it’s because of this: He does the work, the rigorous yet open-minded work of understanding an artist as deeply as possible, and understanding as much music around the world as possible. Is It Still Good to Ya?, a career-spanning collection of his longform reviews, is a testament to vigorous, big-eared listening. You might have thought he’s been stingy about handing out A-pluses to records in his capsule reviews, but the book makes clear he’s trying to earn one himself.

The book’s subtitle---Fifty Years of Rock Criticism 1967-2017---is somewhat misleading. Most of the book’s essays were written after 2002. At a time when most critics of his generation are either retired or failing to keep up, comfortable with covering warhorses, Christgau has remained an intrepid writer---his appreciations of Lil Wayne, Brad Paisley, M.I.A., and Eminem, are rooted in genuine enthusiasm while skeptical of how the winds of publicity, fandom, and critical consensus have moved perceptions of those artists. And yet, Christgau is also a consistently inviting and generous critic. (“It’s fine not to like almost anything, except maybe Al Green,” he writes.) Across the pages of this book, you can see him being open to different perspectives on musicians, wrestling with his understanding of Thelonious Monk and coming to terms with Sonic Youth, who he once dismissed as “impotent bohos” but now “loves to pieces.”

But while the book speaks to the breadth of Christgau’s journalism, there is also a thematic specificity to the book: Practically every piece is rooted in the notion that music is a prism through which we can better understand race, society, and politics, especially in America. For Christgau, artists old (Billie Holiday, Woody Guthrie, Frank Sinatra, Chuck Berry) and new (Gogol Bordello, Lady Gaga, Jay-Z) evoke a vision of American life that’s been embraced or attacked over time, and will continue to shift. “It was Chuck Berry who had the stones and the cultural ambition to sing as if the color of his skin wasn’t a thing,” he writes, not to deny Berry’s race but to comprehend the cross-cultural fusion he pushed pop music toward. Rock, however you define it, continues to speak to a political ideal we’re still working toward.

This is complicated work, but for a dean it’s plenty fun, and joy to dip into or explore in depth, both for full appreciations and single lines. Offering some tips for “growing better ears” on the book’s first page, he suggests you “spend a week listening to James Brown’s Star Time.” The ensuing pages will keep you listening and thinking for many, many more weeks besides.

Mark Athitakis' reviews and essays have appeared in the Washington Post, LA Times, Humanities, Virginia Quarterly Review, and many other publications. He is the author of The New Midwest: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and Rust Belt. He lives in Arizona and tweets at @mathitak.



Times Literary Supplement

No Depression

Library Journal


31 Books in 30 Days: David Varno on Lacy M. Johnson’s ‘The Reckonings’

by David Varno | Feb-14-2019

In the 31 Books in 30 Days series leading up to the March 14, 2019 announcement of the 2018 National Book Critics Circle award winners, NBCC board members review the thirty-one finalists.  Today, NBCC board member David Varno offers an appreciation of criticism finalist Lacy M. Johnson's The Reckonings (Scribner).

We live in a world full of both punishment and injustice. What if, rather than continue along with the belief that the former cures the latter, we were to recognize that punishment actually perpetuates injustice? Outside the bounds of the long-held (though glacially affecting) discussion around criminal justice reform and structural racism, this can become a radical proposition. After all, it is human nature to punish, to shame, to seek retribution, to destroy our perceived offenders.

Lacy M. Johnson’s essay collection The Reckonings, a follow-up to her unblinking, transcendent memoir The Other Side (NBCC finalist in 2015), works outward in response to a question she often faces: “What do you want to have happen to him, to the man who did this to you?” “This,” Johnson knows, refers not just to the nightmare she survived and wrote her way out of in her last book, but to “all of the therapy, the nightmares and panic attacks, the prescribed medication and self-medication, the healing and self-harm.” The women who ask her this question understand what she is carrying, and they assume she must want him dead, her ex-boyfriend with whom she was in love, and who raped her, kidnapped her, threatened her with murder, and now lives free in a foreign country with a new life. Johnson’s answer surprises: “I want him to admit all the things he did…and then to spend the rest of his life in service to other people’s joy.”

This vision of atonement, of our global supply of joy restored and sustained by those who have taken from it, forms Johnson’s definition of a proper reckoning in our search for justice “where the crime is not intimate and personal but massive and public.” The essays in The Reckonings address racism, rape culture and misogyny, gun violence, and violence against the environment, building from the core of her own experience and impulse toward self-reflection and growth. The book is a revelation after another dark year of endless blockbuster books that are quick to capitalize on the problems we face but fail to show a new way forward.

If you read The Reckonings, you will begin to contemplate what it might really take for us to reach a reckoning with any one of our massive devastations. In “What We Pay,” she looks at the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill to show that we need more than a payout from BP. All of us who are complicit in the endurance of the fossil fuel industry, she writes, must learn to “give at least as much as we take [from the Earth], to repair all that we’ve harmed.” In “Against Whiteness,” Johnson tracks her initial reaction to Audre Lorde’s critique of white feminism in "The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House." As an undergraduate poetry student who saw herself on the margins of whiteness rather than the peak of privilege, she bristled at the definition of whiteness that was meant to encompass her. Johnson’s candor opens up a space to contemplate the scope of white identity that many whites would prefer to simply reject. Nothing is accomplished by denying that one is a racist, but something could come from recognizing how one is complicit in “violences, large and small, that I am asked to accept,” that whiteness also means “power and privilege [that] depend on this acceptance, and also on the condition that I keep silent about it all my life.” Rather than prompt readers to perform or reject wokeness, Johnson invites them to see the truth for themselves.

Johnson is a writing professor at Rice University, and the classroom often becomes ground zero in her essays’ desire for artists of all backgrounds to create a space for reckoning. In “Art in the Age of Apocalypse,” a student claims, after the 2016 presidential election results, “There is nothing we can do.” “What is art for,” Johnson responds, “if not precisely this moment?” It can feel like an impossible order, but Johnson has heeded the call herself. “Speak Truth to Power” is one of the strongest works to emerge in the wake of recent college and juvenile sexual assault cases and #metoo, and in “The Precarious,” she examines her own relationship with gun culture in the wake of post-Columbine mass shootings. In all of these works, the writing is just the beginning. Art also means seeking opportunities for activism. The book is a work of artist activism of the highest order. Rather than anger, it is fueled by love, compassion, empathy, and self-examination, with the goal to empower the thousands of young developing artists who come up in “suburban garages and church basements…under bridges and on street corners with spray cans, in after-school programs and on playgrounds…putting their hands and voices to work each day trying to remake the world.”

David Varno is the VP of Tech for the NBCC and Digital Editorial Associate at Publishers Weekly. He is a former Dispatches editor for Words Without Borders, and his writing has also appeared in BOMB, the Brooklyn Rail, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Electric Literature, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Newsday, Paste, Tin House, and other publications. 

Selected Reviews:

Lisa Grgas, The Literary Review

Lily Meyer, NPR

Doni M. Wilson, Houston Chronicle


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