Stayin’ Alive

Christopher R. Weingarten is determined to be the last rock critic standing

Christopher R. Weingarten reviews records on Twitter under the name “1000TimesYes.” In January, he decided to make a full set of his 2009 tweet-reviews, neatly typed out on cards, available for purchase. Potential buyers had many options. For nine dollars, you’d get one postcard featuring the tweet-review of your choice, plus a personal phone call from Weingarten so that the two of you could “totally bullshit about bands.” Seventy-five dollars would buy the whole set of 1,000 tweets. For $875, you’d get the full set of tweets encased in a wooden box hand-carved by Weingarten’s father, made from “rich Virginia cherry” and “select American black walnut of gunstock quality,” among other woods.

All told, the sale brought in over eleven hundred dollars, making Weingarten one of the few people so far to have successfully monetized Twitter. Nobody bought the hand-carved box, though, an outcome he blames on his inability to persuade his father to lower his price. “My father told me about all these fantastical woods and antique hinges,” Weingarten said, remembering the dialogue between him and his father. “I said: ‘This sounds amazing.’ He said: ‘A thousand bucks.’ ‘How much is this going to cost you?’ ‘Oh, this is all stuff I have laying around the house.’ ‘Dad, you don’t really understand how DIY works.’ ”

Journalists these days are told that they have to be good at a lot of things: they have to produce for multiple platforms; they have to push their personal brand; they have to do more with less. As much as anybody else in the business, Weingarten has taken that advice to heart. When he’s not reviewing new records on Twitter—he did 1,000 tweet-reviews last year, all of them 140 characters or less—he’s writing slightly longer ones for outlets like Fuse, The Village Voice, and He’s extremely active on the ILXOR music message board, where he goes by the name “Whiney G. Weingarten.” He wrote the cover story for the March/April issue of Revolver, a eleven-page history of hard-rock tattoos. His book about Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back was recently released by Continuum, as part of its 33 1/3 series of books about individual albums. He runs a Web site called Hipster Puppies, featuring photographs of dogs dressed in horn-rimmed glasses and hooded sweatshirts. The “bio” section of his Twitter page reads “Christopher R. Weingarten // Last Rock Critic Standing.”

“I’ve had pay cuts from places I’ve been writing for for years,” he said. “[Village Voice music critic] Richard Gehr said, ‘We’re all working now twice as hard for half as much money.’ Every year it gets harder and harder.” If professional critics are to survive in this increasingly hostile environment, they have to adapt; Weingarten is doing his best to ensure that he evolves faster than anybody else.

“This isn’t a side hustle,” he says. “This is my full-time hustle.”

Weingarten is rarely in total silence. “I try to listen to music as big a percentage of my time as humanly possible,” he says. “Sometimes, when people point me out, they say, ‘Oh, yeah, he’ll be wearing headphones.’ ” His headphones are bulky, noise-attenuating Sennheisers that cup the entire ear; nothing extraneous gets in, nothing musical gets out.

You really couldn’t mistake him for anything other than a professional critic. Part of it’s the look—headphones, music-themed apparel, thick glasses, heavy beard—as if he just stepped off the set of the movie High Fidelity. But it’s mostly the enthusiasm; the cultural excitations that can prompt blunt, rapid-fire disquisitions on the things he likes (hip-hop, the CD format, the critic Chuck Eddy) and the things he does not (Fleet Foxes, singer-songwriter music, the comedians Tim and Eric). He is the sort of person who not only brags about his world-class collection of Christmas rap music, but will forcefully argue the musical merits of certain items from that collection; the sort of person who, when attending a weekend music festival, will try to see all forty-six shows on the bill. He did this in 2008, in rural England, at the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival co-curated by Mike Patton and The Melvins, an experience he calls the greatest weekend of his life. “It was very difficult. My feet were sandbags at the end,” he admits. But, on the other hand, “The Melvins are my favorite band in the world. I didn’t want to miss this day of music that they co-curated.”

Weingarten is thirty. He grew up on Florida’s Gulf Coast and studied journalism at the University of Florida, in Gainesville. There, he wrote about music for the student newspaper, the Independent Florida Alligator, and fronted a band called the Christopher Weingarten Basement Funk Allstars, where he was known, according to the Web magazine Ink19, for “running around like a maniac, hilariously insulting the audience” and “playing the roto-toms, keyboards, and yes, the Theremin.”

After finishing school in 2002, he quickly made his way to New York, where he set about finding work as a music writer. While “rock critic” has never been a particularly lucrative career choice, it made much more sense back then—there were plenty of outlets for which to write, and reviewers could supplement their income by reselling the advance CDs that came in the mail. (“I do not get as many records as I used to. Labels are sending less CD promos every year,” he complains.)

From 2002 to 2006, he held various positions at CMJ New Music Monthly—intern, associate editor, editorial coordinator, music editor—where he wrote features, reviews, and columns, before leaving to edit a new Web site called Paper Thin Walls. Unlike some other music sites, Paper Thin Walls—which was purchased by Getty Images in 2007—made a point of paying its contributors; because of that, the site attracted several well-known names—Frank Kogan, Michael Azerrad, and Michaelangelo Matos among them. “We had all the best writers,” he says. “We paid writers what they’re worth to write.”

Perhaps predictably, the site shuttered in September 2008, and Weingarten left music writing behind for a while, taking a job writing for a celebrity photo and gossip site called Jamd. The work didn’t suit him, and he was laid off soon thereafter. “I didn’t feel right doing it,” he said. “I don’t feel right doing anything I’m not passionate about.” It was around this time that he started his Twitter account.

When Weingarten began the 1000TimesYes project in January 2009, he was out of professional music writing, on the brink of unemployment, and looking for a way to rejoin the critical conversation. By the time he reviewed his final record of the year, on December 22 (“1000)Susan Boyle/I Dreamed A Dream: Fuck you, 2009.#2.5”), over 5,000 people were following his tweets. He had received multiple speaking invitations, inspired an homage Twitter account, “1000TimesNo,” and was the subject of interviews or feature articles in numerous publications (“If there were a congressional medal for rock criticism, this year’s recipient would be Christopher R. Weingarten,” wrote Toronto’s Eye Weekly). “I did not imagine it being as big as it was,” he says. “I did not expect people to buy fucking boxes of tweets.”

Twitter, he found, was a medium that played to his strengths. “I like short, punchy. I like one-liners,” he says. “I would so much rather write and read a very crisp two hundred words than read a twenty-graf bleating. To me, it’s more important to make those words count. I learned that writing headlines in journalism school.”

Packed with references to other bands, often impressionistic, many of his tweet-reviews will confuse people who aren’t already steeped in modern music culture. Yet when they work, they work well—concise, funny, communicating all you need to know about a record in 140 characters or less, with a one-to-ten rating at the end of each tweet. Take review number 845, of Carrie Underwood’s Play On: “The most complex human emotion rendered as a hilarious puke-stream of pop cliches.#2.” Or 497, of Soft Black’s The Earth Is Black: “Far too soft and not nearly black enough.#4.5.” Or 176, of Bibio’s Vignetting the Compost: “A fourth album of drone-and-strum that’s gorgeous enough for art, not otherworldly enough for bliss.=6.”

Much of his success in the medium is due to the fact that he uses it well. Yet if his tweets work as music criticism, they also work as parody, as rejoinders to the glib, callow enthusiasms that characterize much of the music blogosphere. “They’ll go with whatever comes fastest,” he says, referring to people who like to read about bands on the Internet. “I could spend the whole night trying to find the right words to say something, and they just want information.” With 1000TimesYes, one could argue, Weingarten is both warning the music world of where it is headed and embracing that future as best he can, if only because he has no other choice.

In June 2009, Weingarten gave a very short speech at the 140 Characters Conference, a two-day gathering of Twitter users and enthusiasts in midtown Manhattan. Rick Sanchez, the spirited CNN reporter, was there; so was Ann Curry of NBC; so was Wyclef Jean. In keeping with the medium’s inherent brevity, no speaker was allowed to go for longer than ten minutes. Weingarten’s topic was the Internet’s effect on music criticism, and, from the top, it was clear that he had no interest in pandering to his audience: “I am Christopher R. Weingarten. I am a freelance writer for, The Village Voice, Revolver magazine, Decibel magazine, [the Web site] Idolator, and more. By this time next year, I’m going to need a new job.”

He went on to speak about how the Internet was destroying decent rock criticism; how the tide of online enthusiasms tended to elevate not the best music, but the music the most people could stand; how, without professional critics to champion legitimately praiseworthy material, that material would never find an audience. “If you let the people decide, then nothing truly adventurous ever gets out, and that’s a problem,” he said, pounding the podium for emphasis.

The speech drew cheers from the crowd, but Weingarten thinks it likely that, rather than cheering his message, they were simply excited to hear “a lot of apoplexy and swearing.” He was serious, though. “If I could wave a magnet over the whole Internet, I would do it in a heartbeat,” he says. “We all wanted to democratize art. And now that we did, nobody’s making money off of art, and art’s not as good.”

The trend toward musical mediocrity, he thinks, is epitomized by the blogosphere’s adulation of guitar-rock bands—“This boring, bland, ‘white people’ guitar music. It fucking sucks. I hate it. This NPR bullshit”—and singer/songwriters like Conor Oberst and Iron & Wine—“James Taylor for people with hoodies.” In bands like these, largely popularized by the Internet hive mind, he finds nothing interesting, nothing daring, nothing necessary.

He often takes refuge in older music. He is currently occupied with acquiring every hip-hop record released between January and December of 1988, which he insists was rap music’s miracle year. He hits one hand into the other, giddy with delight as he lists some bands whose records were released that year. “Public Enemy. N.W.A. Slick Rick. DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince. God, the Marley Marl record. The Kid ’n Play record. It was this period when rappers were still experimenting—Sir Mix-a-Lot! 2 Live Crew! Rap was selling and the studios didn’t know why. It was like the movie studios before Jaws.”

Every couple of months, he spins a set of 1988 hip-hop at a local bar or club. He is proud of his DJ skills, to a point. “I could make it flow, and make it bleed, but I don’t really know who the audience is,” he says. “I think people want to hear music they know, not Krown Rulers. I had this girl come up to me and say, ‘Can you play something I can dance to?’ I thought, ‘If you can’t dance to hip-hop, then the music is not the problem.’ Maybe it’s me.”

He continues to review new records on Twitter, although this year he’s not going to force himself to do a thousand. And while 1000TimesYes has brought him exposure and writing opportunities, his financial outlook remains grim. Formerly the drummer in the experimental Brooklyn band Parts & Labor, he has barely played music since 2007, largely because he cannot afford to rent a practice space. He has no health insurance. He collects receipts for all expenses that are even remotely work-related, in hopes of some future reimbursement check or tax deduction. Still, he has defied his #140conf prediction of impending unemployment. “I think I’ve got another year in me,” he says. “Whether I’ve got another two years? I don’t know.”

“Does anyone have a GPS?” it’s the second day of this year’s South by Southwest conference (SXSW) in Austin, Texas. Weingarten is sitting in the back of a pedicab, on his way to see the rock band Quasi play an afternoon set at a club called Cheer Up Charlie’s, and the pedicab’s driver is hopelessly lost. “I’ve lived here for twenty years,” he explains. “Never heard of that street.”

Weingarten fumbles with his mobile phone. “GPS is fucking terrible in this town,” he says. “In every town, really.” Quasi is scheduled to go on at 4 p.m.; it’s now about 4:40. Weingarten shrugs. “If we don’t see Quasi, we’ll see the next band.”

The pedicab passes a bar called Café Mundi, and the sound of live music spills through the small crowd congregated outside. Weingarten cranes his head to look. “Who’s playing?” he howls. Nobody answers, and he sits back down. The pedicab stops to ask directions from a postman. “You know,” Weingarten says, “we can probably hoof it from here.”

In early March, Weingarten posted a couple of tweets on 1000TimesYes referring obliquely to an upcoming act of “stunt criticism.” It turned out that had hired him to tweet-review a hundred concerts over the four-day music portion of SXSW. By the time I met up with him, less than two days into the conference, he had already seen over thirty shows; while the pace wasn’t nearly as strenuous as his All Tomorrow’s Parties trip in 2008, it was nevertheless beginning to take a mental toll. “They all blur together,” he said. “Things that happened earlier in the day seem to have happened yesterday.”

In addition to his assignment, Weingarten spoke at two panels during SXSW, one about online tastemakers and music curation, the other about music journalism in the post-print era. At both of these, he reiterated the themes he introduced last year at #140conf: the industry is screwed, rock critics are dying, you gotta do what you can to stay alive.

Former Chicago Sun-Times rock writer Jim DeRogatis attended the latter panel, and was unimpressed by Weingarten, whose work he dismissed as “verging on annoying gimmickry.” Weingarten noted this on his Twitter account, “In other news: One of my absolute favorite music crits called me ‘annoying’ in the Chicago Sun-Times . . . #killyridols?”

“I mean, what annoys me most is that it comes from Jim—a rock writer who I totally respect and adore,” he told me later in an e-mail. “Like, duh, no shit, I’m gimmicky. I mean I basically took something I loved doing—writing about bands—and put it in a fun concept that non-nerds could enjoy. But the thing is, I never dumbed down my writing or compromised my integrity.”

When he finally makes it to Cheer Up Charlie’s, a cinderblock building on Sixth Street, Quasi is still playing. “Oh, God, what number am I on?” Weingarten asks, to no one in particular. He pulls out a Flip camera and hurriedly makes his way toward the stage. As part of his deal with, he is expected to videotape each band he sees from two different angles. “I gotta get the camera out fast,” he explains. “If I don’t ‘get’ the band, I don’t get to use the review.”

It takes him about ten minutes to ‘get’ Quasi. (“#SXSW 37)QUASI: Sam Coomes seems really psyched to play a sunny, gravelly field on a rickety stage. Maybe he hasn’t done it in a while?”) He heads out while they’re still playing, stopping on the sidewalk to greet an acquaintance. This happens often; SXSW is something of a yearly reunion for America’s music critics. “Yo, Julian!” Weingarten exclaims. The two men slap hands.

“What’s up, man?” Julian asks.

“I gotta walk.”

After a brief stop to hear a Spanish quartet called Delorean (“#SXSW 38)DELOREAN: Fluffy, intimate, bass-bursting glo-punk party in secluded field within throwing distance of a mile-long FADER Fort line”), he stumbles upon a venue called The Music Gym & Lounge, a small bar just east of the highway. An obscure Seattle rap group called Shabazz Palaces is playing a sparsely attended set on the outdoor patio, and for the first time since we met, Weingarten seems surprised by what he’s hearing. “Is that a kalimba?” he asks, referring to the wooden thumb piano being played by percussionist Tendai “Baba” Maraire. He bobs his head and grins broadly as he videotapes the group. “This is fantastic!” he says.

There are no more than twenty people at the show. At least half of them are music critics, most of whom seem to know or recognize Weingarten. A bunch of young music writers from Seattle gather around him to introduce themselves as the band finishes up. “I really enjoyed that,” one says, talking about the 1000TimesYes project.

“What part?” asks Weingarten.

“The part where you debased yourself for a year on Twitter,” says another, smiling.

Although he enjoys being recognized, he is somewhat bemused by the attention. “In the grand scheme of things, I still feel like a fucking nobody,” he says. Earlier that day, he ran into Chuck Eddy, a former music editor at The Village Voice, who praised Weingarten’s tweets. Weingarten is an unabashed Eddy fan—“When the recent Pazz and Jop issue came out, his essay rose above anything in a way that made me worry about the younger generation. Will we ever be able to write that way?”—and he seemed pleased by the words of support. “ ‘It’s good to be known for something,’ he told me,” Weingarten says.

We exit into streets choked with people working their way back to the main strip, grabbing food and making plans before the evening’s shows begin. Eighty-eight official venues have shows scheduled that night, and the bills are laden with popular independent groups like She & Him, Dr. Dog, Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson, The XX, We Are Scientists, Broken Social Scene, and others. Outside The Music Gym, Weingarten leans against a wall and goes silent as he works to compose his thoughts about Shabazz Palaces’ set. “I feel dumb sometimes,” he says, “because it’s supposed to be just ‘Blah! Tweet!’” He ends up giving them 133 characters, and he makes all of them count: “#SXSW 39)SHABAZZ PALACES: Ex-Digable Planet does impossibly funky, dubby avant-rap with shakers, kalimbas, ideas without boundaries.” Then, two minutes later, as if realizing that they could use the help, he tweets about them again: “#SXSW 39)SHABAZZ PALACES: Truly a unique and wonderful mix that deserves to be one of SXSW 2010’s breakout stars. Get Googling!”

The Seattle crew passes by and waves farewell. Weingarten nods. “See you on the Internet!”

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Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.