Music

Critical Democracy: Robert Christgau, Ann Powers, and Rob Harvilla on Pazz & Jop’s Past and Present

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The four former Village Voice music editors who discussed this year’s results collectively oversaw Pazz & Jop for 37 (or 38) out of its 45 (or 46) years. Robert Christgau — music editor from 1974 to 1985, and a Voice senior editor until 2006 — is a columnist at Noisey, and his recent collection, Is It Still Good to Ya?was just nominated for a National Book Critics Circle award in the criticism category. Ann Powers — music editor from 1994 to 1997 — is a critic and correspondent for NPR Music. Rob Harvilla — music editor from 2006 to 2011 — is a staff writer at the Ringer. They spoke with Joe Levy — music editor from 1989 to 1994 — about Pazz & Jop’s transition from graph paper to spreadsheets, its place in today’s year-end pageants, and its confirmation of the Musgraves–Monáe ticket.

Let’s start with some history. How did Pazz & Jop start, and why don’t we know whether this is the 45th or 46th poll?

CHRISTGAU: I was a columnist at the Voice from 1969 until 1972. As an afterthought of one of my Consumer Guide columns at the end of 1971, I described a poll and asked people to vote. I assumed only critics would; in fact, a lot of non-critics voted. So I decided everybody is a critic, tabulated the whole thing, and it was the last thing I published before I moved on to Newsday, where I stayed for two and a half years. The Voice then asked me to be their music editor and we ran the first, or second, Pazz & Jop poll, which was invitation only, critics only. I think there were 26 participants that year, 1974, and it’s continued every year since. For a while we were over 500 voters.

In 1993 there were 309 respondents; in 2000 there were 586; the last couple of years it’s been around 400. And for those who remain perplexed, why is it called Pazz & Jop?

CHRISTGAU: Because the points system was borrowed whole from a magazine called Jazz & Pop, which was primarily a jazz magazine.

So, the resemblance to peanut butter and jelly was purely unintentional?

CHRISTGAU: I never thought of it until this second.

And there was a monthly Pazz & Jop report at some point in the Eighties?

CHRISTGAU: There was a Pazz & Jop Product Report in which ten critics listed ten records that they liked, which I gathered by hand Monday nights, most of it over the phone, once a month, and then added it up.

POWERS: The by-hand aspect of Pazz & Jop was maybe my favorite part of it, Bob: the pencils, the notation, sitting around in your apartment.

CHRISTGAU: Eric Weisbard computerized the thing in ’98 or ’99, telling us that it was all for the better, and I never fully believed it. But I used to do it all by hand on graph paper, writing down every vote, and in the top a little box of the graph putting a number so that I knew who would cast the vote. Each voter had a number —

POWERS: You didn’t do it all by yourself, Bob.

CHRISTGAU: No. I did it with the help of a Poohbah, usually the music editor. Tom Carson did it for a long time.

Doug Simmons served after Tom and before me. Ann, you did after. It entailed three or four days and nights of reading each ballot out loud, giving each voter a number, and watching Bob pull a pencil from a bouquet of freshly sharpened Faber No. 2s to make notes on the graph paper. Rob, by your tenure it was computerized?

HARVILLA: If I remember correctly my first year, 2006, was the first year where you had to vote online. Previous to that you could also phone it in or mail it in. Our tabulation method was this really harrowing Excel spreadsheet, with however many journalism majors trying to do math. One of the big innovations of my tenure was handing that part over to a guy named Glenn McDonald. He literally did in 15 seconds what I failed to over the course of a month. When I came in there were still traces of the very harrowing handmade journalism.

CHRISTGAU: I don’t think there’s anything harrowing about it, and I suspect I was quite fervent about letting people vote by mail if they wanted to.

Ann and Rob, before you worked at the Voice what was your interaction with Pazz & Jop?

POWERS: Pazz & Jop is a huge part of my story as a writer. Eric Weisbard — who we’ve mentioned, and who was my boyfriend and is now my husband, and who was also a music editor of the Voice — when we started hanging out together, we would read the Voice all the time. It was the gold standard for us. I was already a music writer on the West Coast, living in the Bay Area and working for the SF Weekly, and a little bit for the LA Weekly. I had a very West Coast vision of myself and of music writing, and I didn’t really think I could ever make a connection with New York. It just felt like another world. But Eric is from Queens, he had grown up on the Voice, and he convinced me this was not a faraway land of Oz. He encouraged me to submit comments to Pazz & Jop, and Bob took a big chunk of my comments and published them as one of the essays that year. And that was the linchpin of me going from being a Bay Area writer — and potential PhD student and professor — to being a music writer. Soon after that, Joe, you commissioned me to write my first actual Voice piece, and the rest is history.

HARVILLA: I can’t say that the Voice is something that I grew up with the way Ann did. I got my first Pazz & Jop ballot around 2000 or 2002. It was my first job out of college at an alt-weekly in Columbus, Ohio, called the Other Paper. I got the email from Bob one day. I don’t remember if it was a form letter, but it was written as an email from Bob, and I wrote back: “Thank you so much. I’m very honored. This is really cool. Can you tell me a little bit more about this project?” And Bob printed that as a comment: “Hey, this is really cool. What is this? — Rob Harvilla.”

POWERS: But you know what? That’s a funny story, but it also gets at the importance of Pazz & Jop. Because Pazz & Jop always welcomed Rob Harvilla from Columbus, Ohio. It always welcomed Ann Powers from Oakland, California. Any person at any daily newspaper, anyone really. That’s so different than, say, a Rolling Stone compendium, which was always the staff, or Billboard. That is democracy in action right there.

On that note, let’s talk about the results of this year’s poll. Women dominated the albums list.

CHRISTGAU: It’s certainly the first time ever that the top five artists have been women. I think in ’93 it was three out of five.

In ’93 Liz Phair was at the top of the albums list, and it was the first time a woman had topped the poll since Joni Mitchell in 1974. The headline was “Pazz & Jop’s Fifth (or Sixth) Year of the Woman.” 

CHRISTGAU: Yes. Because whenever there was an uptick we would notice it. Liz Phair’s year is also just about coexistent with riot grrrl. And riot grrrl seems to me a crucial turning point. Even though there’s not many punk women in the poll, it was that cultural upheaval that created the extraordinary breadth and wealth of female artists, especially in the alt-rock world. Elsewhere, too — Kacey Musgraves and Janelle Monáe are one and two; neither of them are alt-rock.  

POWERS: I think music can never be separated from other cultural developments. This was true in the counterculture and in the early Seventies, when Joni Mitchell and Carole King and Roberta Flack were topping the charts and women’s liberation was a huge movement. Great novels were being written by women, and films were being made, if not always by women, about women’s freedom, like Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. A similar thing was happening in the Nineties: Feminism was reconstituting itself, there was the third wave, there was the sense of a new generation trying to figure out how liberation works for us. And so, while absolutely riot grrrl was crucial, I don’t want to say it was necessarily the prime force. Because I think it’s always a groundswell of movement from all over the vast American demographic that makes a moment like that happen.

Also, the mainstreaming of indie music in the Nineties really helped. Liz Phair was not only a very significant woman artist, she was an extremely significant indie artist, and the way that she came to the fore is really important. She had made these tapes on her own, essentially demos, which circulated in Chicago and made her reputation. I think then, just as now, you could look at the success of a lot of women, even when they’re on major labels, as being connected to the technology, the distribution, the shifting landscape of how we listen to music. So, it’s not just about gender or a moment for women, it’s also about openings and shifting in the culture of music in general.

How do we see that play out in Pazz & Jop?

POWERS: I’ll give you an example: Kacey Musgraves is a major-label artist. She made her first splash as a slightly left-of-center country artist making music that would fit on country radio, although it seems that any man who walks into a studio in Nashville can get played on country radio before a great woman can. But Kacey started her career basically in mainstream country. She gained a following. She became emblematic of a new generation. But she still couldn’t get played on country radio. So with Golden Hour she decided to step outside making a record that would be played on country radio. She worked with these two producers, Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk, in East Nashville, where I live, to make a record that didn’t sound like what you’re hearing within the mainstream. It still connects to country, but I think it’s fair to say it is not strictly or merely a country album.

I would say it’s barely a country album.

CHRISTGAU: The sonic signature is the keyboard, not steel guitar or the pseudo-rock of the Luke Bryan types.

POWERS: Exactly. My point is that she could make that record because she knew that even if she didn’t get played on country radio, she could still reach her audience. She could still make a mark. And that has to do with the different realities that exist because of streaming and the different ways music is received by a younger generation now.

Musgraves and Janelle Monáe were the album winners by a wide margin. Musgraves had 1155 points, with Monáe just 100 behind. And then we take a big 400-point drop to Cardi B and Mitski, who are tied. Why are Kacey and Janelle the runaway winners this year?

HARVILLA: I happened to see Kacey Musgraves live just a few days ago here in Columbus. Two thousand people at a sold-out club. There were a lot of young women, but there were also a lot of bearded dudes like myself. The easiest way to encapsulate her appeal is she covers Brooks & Dunn’s “Neon Moon,” but she also covers “I Will Survive.” She played every single song off Golden Hour, including the one where she was on acid and talking about her mother for like 90 seconds. Ordinarily in a situation like that the crowd is clamoring for the hits — and she played “Follow Your Arrow” and “Merry Go ’Round” off the first record, maybe one or two songs off the second — but it was entirely focused on Golden Hour. And people loved it. They were singing along to every word in polar-vortex Ohio in January. It’s an incredibly heartening thing to see her dominating this poll season. But to be with that many people at a live show in a hostile environment and to have it be this warm and thrilling and totally engaged thing about someone playing their entire new record in full — you don’t see that very often. It was awesome.

POWERS: Well, I had the same experience seeing Janelle Monáe here in Nashville at the Ryman, the mother church of country music. A whole different Nashville emerged. The audience was mostly black, it was very proudly LGBTQ, young, old, alternative, bohemian. And again, as you were saying, Rob, while Janelle did play some of her older favorites, her show was very conceptual, very strongly focused on the narrative aspects of Dirty Computer. Janelle is always creating visuals to go along with her music, and she made what she calls an emotion picture to go along with Dirty Computer. She’s really a multimedia artist. And I think that leads to a very important thing, which is for all of the talk of the album being dead, I think Pazz & Jop this year represents how the album is very much alive, especially in the hands of women.

Now, there’s a historical argument to be made that when technologies are changing, people who have been excluded from the dominant technologies or marginalized can emerge or re-emerge and take hold. So maybe one thing that’s happening is the supposedly dead album, well, women are like, “It’s not dead. We’re still going to make amazing, cohesive, coherent albums. We’re going to offer a chance to sync into a story, or multiple stories, all connected to our audience.” And people are loving it. Mitski, Robyn, Noname, Lucy Dacus — these are all records you want to sit and spend time with, project yourself into, and be seen and heard by.

The resurgence of the album — particularly the concept album — is most clearly defined by hip-hop artists, and goes back to Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. The rise of the hip-hop album coincided with the rise of streaming, with artists responding with albums strong enough that people don’t just come for one track but stay for twelve — or in the case of Migos, fifty-seven. And it’s something we see reflected in Pazz & Jop this year — albums like Dirty Computer, Golden Hour, Be the Cowboy, Honey, and Invasion of Privacy are conceptual in nature. They have either a narrative or an emotional through line.

CHRISTGAU: And a musical through line, too — Cardi B, especially. She made a bunch of mixtapes, and I doggedly listened to them trying to see how good they were. They certainly aren’t awful, but the difference is amazing. She’s said she really wanted to make an album. And her mixtapes are hodgepodges, but Invasion of Privacy just has this power that doesn’t stop.

Well, Cardi got robbed. “I Like It” should have topped the singles list.

CHRISTGAU: I would like to say something else about the album, which has been true for a long time: If you’re an active musician, one of the things you’re going to be doing is writing songs. God knows there’s lots of people who ride their catalog — I hear the Pixies are having a completely boring tour doing precisely that — but what I’ve been finding for many years is older artists putting songs together. And my discovery of the year is a doctor from Chicago named Rich Krueger who quit music to become a neonatologist. And he started making albums again, with these old songs and new songs he had been writing. The albums are called Life Ain’t That Long and Nowthen and they were my number six and fourteen albums of the year. Similarly, this wonderful guitar player named John Kruth — every once in a while he sits down and he makes an album. He’s got enough songs, and he did it again this year. And Willie Nelson made an album called Last Man Standing; he’s 85 years old, there’s not a bad song on that record.

POWERS: He’s made I don’t know how many albums in the past three years. Five?

CHRISTGAU: At least. And they’re all pretty good, but that one is astonishing.

POWERS: I completely agree. Sometimes I think that people over 70 are the most interesting artists. David Crosby made a great record.

CHRISTGAU: Really?

POWERS: He made my list.

CHRISTGAU: No kidding?

POWERS: He’s competing with people half his age. It’s a fantastic record. He’s totally rejuvenated. Again, I think that the shift toward a different way of making music and getting music out there allows for these older artists just as it allows for women who might not have felt they had that access.

But what do you all think about the fact that the album is becoming a more multimedia form? I’m thinking about someone who is a little lower down on the Pazz & Jop album list, Tierra Whack. She made an album of very, very short songs inextricably connected to her video work. The fact that YouTube is the number one way that young people get music has changed the relationship between music and visuals. That’s one reason why Janelle Monáe can have this moment — because she’s been doing that for ten years. Finally technology has caught up to her, and to people like Tierra Whack and others, who are making whole work that goes beyond what we think of an album as being.

CHRISTGAU: I really prefer to listen to music than to watch it. Although in the case of Tierra Whack, it was watching the videos that convinced me to listen a little harder to the album and then say, “Hey, this is pretty good.” In the end I got to like that record so much that it ended up in my Top 10, and I now prefer the album to the videos. The videos were great the first time, not so great the second time, which is the way it is with visual information.

I’ve always been a skeptic about Janelle Monáe on record. I saw her live only once, in Denmark, and she was fantastic. But I’ve always felt she was kind of a thin singer, and I still do. I like this record much more than any of her others and I think it’s really good. But it’s not as good as Cardi B. It’s smarter, but not as strong.

It’s a record I came to connect with while out of the country for a few weeks. It was one of the few things that made me miss America. How do you feel the place of Pazz & Jop has changed in an era where there are more and more year-end lists, and year-end list season seems to start earlier and earlier?

CHRISTGAU: The thing that bothers me about many magazine lists is that they are self-branding exercises. I think it ought to finally be about some combination of pleasure and satisfaction, aesthetic satisfaction, and I think a lot of people don’t do that. They try to make a list that they think represents them in a way they want to be represented in public. What I always try to persuade people to do, and what I really try very hard to do, is to ask which of these records do I like the most? Which one gives me the most pleasure? Whatever its appearance, whatever it says about politics — I mean, Superchunk made a terrific political record and I was really crazy about it. But when I sat down at the end of the year and played it I still liked it, but I didn’t like it as much as the Pistol Annies or Bettye LaVette.

POWERS: To me Pazz & Jop is the final word. It’s the summation.

HARVILLA: But part of that story is the music editors who have been shepherding the Voice and Pazz & Jop in the last decade. Maura Johnston came after me; she had her own crew and a really smart popcentric approach. She and Brian McManus and Hilary Hughes — to keep this poll going and to keep it in the public eye in the past ten years, when the whole year-end list season has become decentralized, it’s really impressive.

There is a guy named Rob Mitchum. He used to write for Pitchfork, but he’s been doing a thing for five or six years now where he aggregates all the individual lists — all the publications and websites — in a hellacious Excel chart that he has a mastery over. He’s tracking it in real time, starting from right around Thanksgiving. He pulls everybody’s year-end list, from Pitchfork to Rolling Stone on down. Everyone wants to do their year-end lists earlier now; it’s an arms race for sure. To watch Rob Mitchum’s tabulations as each new publication comes in and to see the pattern emerge, it demystifies things. You could definitely predict the Top 5 of Pazz & Jop or the Uproxx poll. The application of data to this process basically tells you what’s going to happen before it happens. And there are so many publications now. But it’s heartening to still see Pazz & Jop as the definitive end of it.

POWERS: Those of us who work hard on lists for our own home bases, we would all agree that in each case we have our own processes, we have our own teams, our own groups of thinkers, our own concerns about what our lists look like. I mean, when NPR’s albums list this year came up almost all women in the Top 20, that wasn’t planned, but it was a reflection of the entire year, our process as a group thinking about gender, thinking about how it relates to music. And I think in each case that individual process defines your list.

But with Pazz & Jop I bring a different mind-set to it. I am thinking about the larger community of music writers. And I care about the larger community of music writers a lot. I want us to have a home to be together, and that’s what Pazz & Jop gives us. And so, the fact that this poll still lives, it makes me feel like I still have a bigger home.

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