Late last night I found myself in one of the blackest of black holes the internet has to offer. I don’t know how I got there, exactly, but at some point around 1am I wound up at RockCritics.com, an invaluable resource for those of us who care about this stuff, but also, let’s be honest, indisputable evidence as to why so few of us actually do. I started reading a long piece from back in 2002, where Robert Christgau answers a bunch reader-submitted questions. I’ve read it many times over the years, and I’d venture that it’s the perfect place to start for anyone looking to familiarize themselves with Christgau’s work: His answers are funny, unexpected, carefully considered, head-spinningly insightful, and hilariously, at times unbearably arrogant.
At one point, he mentions, albeit indirectly, a small dust-up he had with music critic Richard Goldstein (Village Voice, NY Times) over the perceived homophobia and misogyny on Eminem’s album The Eminem Show. Goldstein wrote a piece called “The Eminem Schtick: What Makes a Bigot a Genius? Presiding Over Guilty Pleasures,” in which he makes the argument that there’s a telling double standard in society’s vastly different reactions to anti-Semitism in art, versus homophobia or violence toward women.
The real effect is less personal than systematic. Why is it considered proper to speak out against racism and anti-Semitism but not against sexism and homophobia? To me, this disparity means we haven’t reached a true consensus about these last two biases. We aren’t ready to let go of male supremacy. We still think something central to the universe will be lost if this arrangement changes.
What is the relationship between that anxiety and the rise of Eminem? That’s a question criticism must confront. It’s not enough to repudiate his sexism in passing. That’s a disclaimer, not an interrogation. It skirts the crucial issue of why this stuff is so hot. And it presumes that we’re drawn to rapine rap despiteits sexual violence. That’s the most dangerous form of denial.
Christgau, of course, accused him of “arrogant moralism” and pointed out that one of the songs Goldstein used in his argument was based specifically on the premise that “anybody who believes words imply action is stupid.” And then Goldstein fired back, “Christgau seems unaware of the standing ovation this rapper has received when he recites these lines in concert… Call it moralism if you like. I call it speaking truth to the power of pop.”
For me, the most striking thing about the entire exchange is that, holy shit, we have been having the exact same conversation for a really long fucking time. If you just changed some of the proper names, there would have been no telling whether any of this had been written all the way back in 2002 or just a few short months ago when everyone was so consumed with the Tyler, the Creator record. I’ve made no real secret about the fact that my stance on the matter is more in keeping with Goldstein’s than Christgau’s, and I can’t help but feel that, if this was problematic a decade ago (which it was), then it’s exponentially more so now—we’ve had all this time to demand more from ourselves and our artists, and we haven’t, and it’s depressing.
It makes you wonder, too, if things would have turned out differently if so many of our best critics hadn’t spent the better part the last ten years writing and worrying about shifts in the industry—in how people discover music, how people pay or don’t pay for it, etc.—rather than remaining focused on what it means when the contents of a song or an album or a live performance reflect the views and feelings of an audience. We’ve spent so much time trying to figure out how to adapt to meaningless changes that we haven’t allowed for any meaningful ones. Maybe everything will be different now that Spotify is here, though?