Class is in session. Self-identified as the “dean of American rock critics,” Robert Christgau was nearly 60 years old in 2001 when he contributed a 100-word squib to Dartmouth Alumni Magazine. Presented as a “10-step program for growing better ears,” the pithy instruction was aimed at his (mostly white, male) former classmates who had stopped investigating current music. It’s part of Is It Still Good to Ya?, a new collection from Duke University Press of pieces culled from Christgau’s half-century of pop coverage for The Village Voice, Spin, Rolling Stone and other venues. Speaking to The Globe and Mail from his home in New York, Christgau explained and elaborated upon his original music-listening tutorial, doing so in a manner that guides neophytes from the feel-good funk ways of James Brown to today’s hip-hop sway.
1. Don’t give up now. ”Here, I’m simply telling people who have settled into their lives that you don’t have to do that. You don’t have to decide that you’ve stopped growing or changing. I have Dartmouth classmates who are dear friends of mine who still love music, but tend to listen to stuff they listened to when they were younger. But, spurred by me I think, they do poke around a bit and get interested in, say, African music.”
2. Have a few drinks – smoke a joint, even. “Again, I’m talking to my people. ‘Loosen up, guys. I know, you’re businessmen, but you smoke a little, right?’ I don’t, by the way. I’ve barely smoked pot in the past 30 years.”
3. At the very least, lighten up, will ya? “Don’t be so uptight. This is related to ‘don’t give up now.’ I had to stretch this list out to No. 10, after all.”
4. Forget about soothing your savage beast. “For most people, music is a way to relax. By the way, you’re aware that the savage beast is a misquote? It’s actually ‘Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast.’ Same thing, though. And that it should go from breast to beast speaks very well to how people feel about rock 'n’ roll. There’s something animal-like and bestial about it, which is not an altogether inaccurate appraisal of one of the reasons it was attractive to us in the fifties and sixties. It’s much more important to want to be enthralled, enlarged or excited by music than to be calmed by it. It’s not to say that wishing to be calmed by music isn’t a completely legitimate goal of listening to music. I do it many times. But I also want that feeling in the pit of my stomach.”
5. Repeat three times daily: The good old days are the oldest myth in the world. Or, alternatively: Nostalgia sucks. “This notion that there was this golden age, which many people associate with their time of hope before the realities of the world hemmed them in, is what sends people back to the music of their youth. People recall this lovely time, as they remember it anyway, that is evoked for them by the music they associate with that time. I’m certainly not saying I don’t do it myself. That would be inhuman. But the real bifurcation of people over 50 is hip hop. Some people have not adjusted to it. And it’s a big deal, because a substantial amount of the best music that’s been put out in the past 20 years has been hip hop.”
6. Go somewhere you think is too noisy and stay an hour. Go back. “We live in a world of noise. Many people – including, I would assume, the vast majority of my Dartmouth classmates – chose their domiciles in suburbia so that noise would be absent, lowered or muffled. But pop music is designed for a world of noise. And you have to learn to live with, absorb, filter out and hone in on that noise to be able to enjoy pop music.”
7. Grasp this truth: Musically, all Americans are part African. “There’s a reason a Southern accent is a Southern accent, right? It’s about rhythm. Willie Nelson, a country-music icon, talks about it all the time – about how the blues, in particular, is imbued into all of the music he listens to. His own phrasing is more like Billie Holiday than it is George Jones.”
8. Attend a live performance by someone you’ve never seen before. “Another way of saying, ‘Open yourself up.’ Instead of going to a show by someone who will sing your old favourites and make you feel good about the person you used to be, attend a show by someone who will make you listen.”
9. Play your favourite teenager’s favourite album three times while doing something else. Put it away. Play it again two days later and notice what you remember. “Taking the 'favourite teenager’ part out, this is how I do my work. I put the music in the background until I either deliberately put it into the foreground, because I’ve prepared myself, or, the better case, the song is so good I want to drop what I’m doing and concentrate on that piece of music. For a piece of music to really do that to me is my best sign that there’s something there.”
10. Spend a week listening to James Brown’s Star Time. “I hate box sets, but this is a work of genius. In my opinion, in terms of changing music, what we took to be a novelty record, Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag in 1965, had a completely different rhythmic basis than any record that preceded it. It marked a change when James Brown learned what he had to do was always in the rhythm. Over the subsequent 10 years, he recorded an enormous amount of music, most of which did not make the pop charts, in which melody or hooks were very seldom what was at issue. Listening to Star Time over and over again, you begin to feel that music. My hope is, after a week, that you will then get hip hop. Because if you want to be able to hear what’s going on in music today, you have to absorb that level of rhythmic complexity. You have to start enjoying it with your body and welcome it with your ears."