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It’s Time to Kill the Poptimism vs. Rockism Debate

It’s a rule of thumb that you can tell a debate has become really tired when it reaches the pages of the New York Times. So it goes with the rockism vs. poptimism discussion, which has been burbling in critical circles for the best part of a decade, but has finally reached the mainstream in the wake of Ted Gioia’s piece in the Daily Beast about the state of music criticism.

On Friday the NYT ran this piece by Saul Austerlitz, wherein he laments the “pernicious rise of poptimism” and claims that “contemporary music criticism is a minefield rife with nasty, ad hominem attacks, and the most popular target, in recent years, has been those professing inadequate fealty to pop.” There are definitely intelligent things to be said about poptimism and its adherents, and a discussion to be had about its effect on 21st-century music criticism. This reactionary shit does not count among them.

First, a primer for anyone who’s still reading despite wondering what the hell I’m talking about: “poptimism” is an umbrella term for the approach of a bunch of critics working in music today, who start from the basic point of view that pop music should be taken seriously. The idea arose as a reaction against “rockism,” which is essentially the sort of Serious Old Person Music Journalism you read in Rolling Stone and Mojo, wherein Bob Dylan is god, artists who Write Their Own Songs and also Have Something to Say are taken very, very seriously, and everyone else is sort of sneered at as light entertainment for the masses.

Austerlitz’s NYT piece is a reaction against the tenets of poptimism, concluding that “in the guise of open-mindedness and inclusivity, poptimism gives critics — and by extension, fans — carte blanche to be less adventurous… if we are all talking about Miley Cyrus, then we do not need to wrestle with knottier music that might require some effort to appreciate.” It’s written in a tone that gives the impression that Austerlitz would prefer that both pop music and poptimism would just go away, so all the adults could get back to discussing serious matters.

That’s not going to happen, though. There was a steady move from rockism to popism throughout the ’00s, and we’re at a place now where there’s certainly an argument to be made that poptimism is essentially the critical orthodoxy these days (an argument that, ahem, your correspondent was making two years ago), and that regarding the world of the charts with skepticism does tend to get you labeled a reactionary old person. (This is especially if you are white, male, and over 30, all of which I must cop to.)

But. But. There are also other considerations here. The first is that these things tend to go in cycles. You can trace the back and forth between harder and softer sounds through the entirety of rock ‘n’ roll history — the emergence of heavy bands like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath as a reaction to the pop rock of the ’60s, the emergence of synthpop in the ’80s as a reaction to the ’70s, the emergence of grunge in the ’90s as a reaction to the ’80s. In all these cases, you see a group of artists who feel alienated from what’s become mainstream, and create something to express that alienation. And in all these cases, they attract critical attention from writers who share their feelings of alienation. Through this lens, you can see the current ascendancy of pop music — and its critical cousin, poptimism — as an (entirely understandable) reaction to the sort of turgid post-grunge and nü-metal sounds of the late ’90s and early 2000s.

If there’s to be a reaction against poptimism, fine, but I submit that such reaction shouldn’t involve returning to some mythical golden age wherein Serious Music Lovers read Rolling Stone and had conversations about the meanings behind psychedelic lyricism and argued over whether John Bonham was a better drummer than Keith Moon. There are definitely things about the world of pop that I think the fundamentally positive position of poptimism doesn’t address particularly well: the homogenization of pop stars’ images, and its relentless hedonism, and what pop as production line has to say about the commodification of culture in general.

But this isn’t a zero-sum game. Sure, there are critics who cheerlead for both sides, but most writers worth their salaries understand that there is a place for both points of view. I don’t usually enjoy pop music — there are exceptions, of course, but generally any sort of determinedly happy, upbeat music makes me want to break things (I mean, shit, I listen to Leonard Cohen at the gym — I am a hilarious cliché, really). I don’t really share the joy it gives its fans, and its shiny world of attractive stars and pulsating dance floors is more alienating than alluring. But that doesn’t mean I don’t recognize its cultural impact, or that I think artists like Miley Cyrus or, gulp, Beyoncé aren’t worth writing about.

This also gets back to Gioia’s complaints about modern-day music writing and its lack of technical acumen — but curiously, in the case of pop artists, there’s only so much to say about the music, and a lot more to say about its cultural impact. You can certainly break down the music, as Owen Pallett has been doing so fascinatingly for Slate of late, but that’s only part of its value, and arguably not the most important part. Conversely, you could write an entire technical treatise about the music of, say, John Zorn, but you’d do so with the knowledge that his cultural impact is limited to a relatively small sphere of appreciators.

Clearly, the best music writing takes both of these factors into account, and evaluating criticism as a binary of poptimism/”lifestyle” reporting/etc. vs. rockism/serious music criticism is both reductive and not really reflective of reality. It’s worth remembering that the entire idea of rock vs. pop is ultimately a false binary as far as the real world goes. It ignores the wealth of music that falls under neither rubric — most notably hip hop — and the fact that while tribalism in music isn’t entirely dead, genre evangelism is less of a force for the iPod generation than it was for Gen X and the baby boomers.

This is a good thing, I think, and it’s something that criticism should embrace, not fight. People are consuming pop music in unprecedented numbers, and that says something about where culture is at today. What that something might be is of course entirely open for debate, but I’m pretty sure it’s not that we should ignore today’s ascendant artform because we don’t like it.

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3 comments
JeremyShatan
JeremyShatan

Totally agree that this is not binary or zero-sum. Austerlitz also fails to mention what can happen from the other side, when musicians draw on machine-tooled pop tropes to come up with something entirely new. Not all innovation is trickling down from the avant garde to the pop world. It's more like one of those desktop waves, sloshing back and forth constantly, with the blue and clear liquids intermingling and separating ad infinitum.

jaybone23
jaybone23

While one can't agree with him (because he was being largely facetious) I liked when Frank Zappa said "most rock journalism is people who can't write, interviewing people who can't talk, for people who can't read".  There's also the old saw, attributed to many, but most likely paraphrased from something said by Martin Mull about art, which says "writing about music is like dancing about architecture".  Again, not to be taken too seriously, but not meaningless either.  I think there's a reason why the class is often called "Music Appreciation" rather than "Music Criticism".  I like reading music appreciation, or music journalism, but not music criticism.  The criticism today seems to be more about the way music makers conduct their lives, rather than the music itself.  

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