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Rockism Isn’t Dead, It’s Hiding Behind a Need for Anti-Pop Stars

Late last week, Dave Grohl quietly took aim at music’s easiest target: pop stars. In the same breath that he lauded Lorde as the future of music, he juxtaposed his sentiments with a diss against “stripper pop.” The comment did not seem all that premeditated, but rather, a routine sentiment from someone who’s been a capital-R, capital G Rock Guy for a quarter of a century. But this pop “othering” is the new M.O. of rockism, and what’s behind the need to deem certain singers — from Lorde to Adele to Lily Allen to M.I.A. — the “anti-pop star.”

“When I first heard ‘Royals,’ it was sandwiched between all of that other stripper pop,” Grohl told Rolling Stone of the decision to have Lorde front Nirvana at their Rock Hall Induction. “I was so fucking relieved. I thought, ‘Hey, this might be another revolution.’ When I met her I said, ‘When I first heard your song on the radio and my kids sang along I felt like there was hope for my kids to grow up in an environment which is more than just superficial.'”

Grohl is known for being a “good guy” and also “telling it like it is” (about EDM, Glee, etc.), two sides that are difficult for a celebrity to balance. It’s an art, really, the balancing act, but too often it requires standing for one thing while tearing down another. And in this case, the Lorde/”stripper pop” binary is really a manifestation of the tired philosophy of rockism, about as original as a Foo Fighters song circa 2014.

There’s something puritan about the way Grohl framed the whole thing, using his daughters — ages five and eight — as an entry point into the compliment/diss. God forbid they hear “We Can’t Stop” or “Roar” or any of that terrible “stripper pop” with all those basic empowering messages even a child could understand. Those heathens Miley and Katy will corrupt his daughters in ways awkward/”real” teen hero Lorde never could… until Lorde inevitably writes something that reflects her sexuality on album two or three.

This will happen, and there’s nothing wrong with it. Lily Allen, another foreign anti-pop star, wrote an entire song about the size of an ex-lover’s penis. Alanis Morissette, the 1990s’ anti-pop star of choice, asked if the other women would go down on him in the movie theater like she did. The sexuality expressed is perceived as more “authentic” and “real” than Rihanna’s double entendre about licking her icing off. The funny thing is, a five-year-old wouldn’t question the birthday cake bit, but she would maybe ask what going down on someone meant. I suppose the latter is fine, in a parent’s mind, because Alanis isn’t wearing hot-pants, but I think the argument is more about authenticity than sexuality.

Rock snobs have always valued authenticity. Or, more accurately, the appearance of authenticity — because there’s nothing more or less authentic about, say, Rihanna, than there is about Lorde. (Indeed, as we discussed last week, indie depictions of female sexuality are often far more coy than those in the pop world — which is perhaps why Dave Grohl feels less threatened by them.) It’s easy for rockists to continue to criticize certain kinds of pop, the types that have been deemed socially acceptable to diss, while simultaneously elevating the anti-pop star. It’s their way of seeming open-minded to music besides their own, while still showing their “outsider” status. They weren’t popular kids in high school, so how could they ever identify with music’s cool kids?

Pop, of course, stands for popular and populist. Rock remains, in the minds of some at least, rebel music. Depending on what era and subgenre a music fan grew up with, rock generally required a gateway drug — it was an active choice to be a rock fan, whereas pop music fandom was seen more as passive acceptance. By extension, rockism and poptimism — two opposing philosophical camps of music criticism — approach their subject material in relatively the same way. Rockism revolves around the notion of being skeptical of what is popular, instead digging in the crates and finding true “authenticity” in rock legends and outliers alike. Poptimism finds artistic merit in what’s at the top of the Billboard charts, interrogating and examining the reasons behind that music’s popularity instead of dismissing it out of hand.

There’s been a lot of debate over poptimism vs. rockism this year alone — from the critical frontlines where these philosophies thrive to the staid pages of the New York Times. But really, the entire debate boils down to the notion that there is good music and there is bad music. Deeming someone an “anti-pop star” acknowledges that despite existing in a so-called wasteland of a genre, they have artistic merit.

And yet, the “anti-pop stars” are held to the same commercial standards as the regular ones. It’s well and good that they can get reviewed by Pitchfork, but their major labels want to see sales, not just high scores and year-end praise. Among regular pop stars — your Katys, your Rih-Rihs, your Britneys, and yes, even your Gagas — reinvention is de rigueur; if any profession will successfully rewrite the phrase “a tiger doesn’t change its stripes,” it will be mainstream pop divas. Forget hair styles and fashion aesthetics — let’s bring in new producers with each new single, and yet somehow craft a press narrative around the album that attempts to tell a story of growth and change.

It takes a literal army of people to pull this reinvention off every couple of years, and it’s not the sort of thing artists with appreciation for organic creativity could stomach easily. The anti-pop star is stuck straddling these two lines, expected by her major label to pull off a radio hit and expected by the press and fans to still set the bar artistically. The results are nearly always fleeting; walking this particular tightrope takes the deft touch of a Beyoncé or a Justin Timberlake, who seem to transcend the whole debate. (I’m curious to see how Adele follows up 21, possibly even later this year.)

Take Sky Ferreira, for example. For years she was poised as EMI’s next big pop hope, but her penchant for rebellion and artistic self-expression left her firmly in the anti-pop star category. It took four years after being signed for her debut album, 2013’s Night Time, My Time, to be released, revealing Ferreira’s true voice. By that point, she had tried on many pop styles, working with major pop songwriters like Greg Kurstin and more “cred”-heavy producers like Dev Hynes. Her label, Capitol Records, seemed to accept that Sky was not their next Katy Perry and finally left her to make her debut in some semblance of peace, but it didn’t stop them from (unsuccessfully) working the album at commercial radio and getting Ferreira an opening slot on the current Miley Cyrus tour. On the press side of things, however, Night Time, My Time was among the most critically acclaimed major label pop albums of the year.

But artists who strike this balance are rare. We’re living in a music culture that’s more genre agnostic than ever. And yet, we can’t move past statements that deem one strain of pop “good” and another socially acceptable to criticize harshly. Villainizing “inauthentic” or “uncool” pop feels decidedly beside the point; it’s a genre that’s meant for all ears, after all. In making the lane of “socially acceptable” pop so narrow, rockists are as bad as the major labels in the pop machine.

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