The Perils of Poptimism

Does hating rock make you a music critic?

Britney Spears

By far the most-discussed piece of popular music criticism of the past several years—at least among pop music critics—was Kelefa Sanneh’s October 2004 New York Times article, “The Rap Against Rockism,” which took a long-running conversation in music-wonk circles to the pages of the Gray Lady. For those who haven’t caught up with the debate, rockism is … well, no one quite knows what it is. On the Web site, a “Gallery of Rockism” highlights the lexical confusion, excerpting “Erroneous, Bizarre, and Occasionally Illuminating Usages of Today’s Number-One-With-a-Bullet Buzzword.” As far as I know, the Oxford English Dictionary hasn’t bothered to define rockism (despite the term’s apparent U.K. origins), but a Wikipedia entry, somewhat awkwardly, tries: “The fundamental tenet of rockism is that some forms of popular music, and some musical artists, are more authentic than others … [that] authentic popular music fits the rock and roll paradigm.” Sanneh himself chose to define by example: “Rockism means idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star; lionizing punk while barely tolerating disco; loving the live show and hating the music video; extolling the growling performer while hating the lip-syncher.” Perhaps the most cogent gloss came from frequent Slate contributor Douglas Wolk, who wrote last year in Seattle Weekly that the rockists regard rock as “normative … the standard state of popular music … to which everything else is compared, explicitly or implicitly.”

The term may be slippery, but it’s a useful framework for considering how ideas about taste and authenticity have infected writing and thinking about music over the years. And not just in the rock era: All who have sought to separate high from low, art from trash, the folk-authentic from the synthetic-mass-marketed, the bad new from the good old—the folk revivalists in the 1950s, the Dixieland jazz purists in 1940s, the Victorian parlor-song champions who blasted Tin Pan Alley ragtime in the 1910s—were, in their way, arch-rockists. Undoubtedly there were plainchant rockists back in 13th-century France, thumbing their noses at that god-awful polyphony.

One thing’s for sure: Most pop critics today would just as soon be accused of pedophilia as rockism. This was certainly the case among the journalists, academics, and geeks who gathered at the 2006 Experience Music Project Pop Conference last month. (Full disclosure: I attended and gave a paper. And am a geek.) At EMP, rockism talk was so prevalent that it became a kind of running gag: When the Los Angeles Times’ Ann Powers invoked the term in her paper, she quipped, “Got it in there!” The conference’s theme was “‘Ain’t That a Shame’: Loving Music in the Shadow of Doubt,” and many speakers seized the moment to tackle the question of guilty pop pleasures, reconsidering musicians (Tiny Tim, Dan Fogelberg, Phil Collins) and genres (blue-eyed soul, Muzak) long maligned in rock discourse.

In fact, the wholesale rejection of “guilty pleasures” is a hallmark of the anti-rockist backlash. It’s part of a new generation’s reaction to the conventional wisdom, forged by first-wave critics in the 1960s and ‘70s, that enduring pop music art is a thing made by singer-songwriters using traditional rock instruments on long-playing albums, and that pop hits reside on a lower aesthetic plane, a source of fleeting, and often shameful, enjoyment. There is a name for this new critical paradigm, “popism”—or, more evocatively (and goofily), “poptimism”—and it sets the old assumptions on their ear: Pop (and, especially, hip-hop) producers are as important as rock auteurs, Beyoncé is as worthy of serious consideration as Bruce Springsteen, and ascribing shame to pop pleasure is itself a shameful act.

Lest anyone think I’m getting set to make a straw-man argument about poptimists: I more or less am one. The poptimist critique of rockism squares with my sense of musical history and resonates with my taste. I love hip-hop and commercial R&B and Nashville country and teen pop, and have spent much of my professional life listening to and writing about pre-rock Tin Pan Alley pop, a genre that rockists insult by ignoring completely. I’m not so crazy about most indie rock, never cared much for Neil Young, and will listen to the new Pearl Jam album only out of a sense of professional obligation. I think Britney Spears’ “Toxic” is one of the greatest songs of the new century, that the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” was one of the great ones of the last, and that R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix)” is as transcendent as any Holland-Dozier-Holland Motown classic I’ve ever heard—and what’s more, most other critics I know agree. In fact, arguably today’s two most influential pop critics, Sanneh and TheNew Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones (who was also Slate’s music critic), are firmly in the poptimist camp, although I doubt they would use such a ridiculous term to describe themselves or their tastes.

This turn of events isn’t all that surprising. Inevitably, each generation of critics will swoop in to adjust the excesses of the previous, and besides, current pop is dominated by sonically adventurous hip-hop and dance music while rock’s commercial power and cultural influence is on the wane. I also suspect that many of my colleagues, like me, have embraced the anti-rockist critique with particular fervor as a kind of penance, atoning for past rockist misdeeds—for the party line we’d swallowed whole in our formative years and maybe even parroted under our bylines.

Poptimism, in other words, is a pure product of the zeitgeist, and as such, it’s probably wise to keep an eye out for its perils, lest what began as a necessary corrective devolve into, as Sanneh wrote of rockism, a caricature used as a bludgeon against other music. At the EMP conference, a couple of papers brought the dilemma into focus. One was Randall Roberts’ talk on the Rolling Stone Record Guide and the “creation of the canon,” a whirlwind survey of the magazine’s record guide from 1984. The guide virtually ignored hip-hop and ruthlessly panned heavy metal, the two genres that within a few years would dominate the pop charts. In an auditorium packed with music journalists, you could detect more than a few anxious titters: How many of us will want our record reviews read back to us 20 years hence? Sanneh ended his Times manifesto by writing, “We deserve some new prejudices,” and listening to a previous generation’s blunders you couldn’t help but wonder: How am I blowing it?

One rule of thumb, I suppose, is to not replace one flawed canon with another. Last October, Blender magazine published a special “500 Greatest Songs Since You Were Born” cover story, focusing on music released since 1980. (More disclosure: I write for Blender on freelance basis and contributed to the “Greatest Songs” feature, although I had no part in choosing the songs.) This was a kind of poptimist stunt, an answer to unrepentant rockist fogeyism of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs list, which that magazine had issued some months previous. Now, to be fair, Blender has a deeply irreverent editorial stance and specializes in tongue-in-cheek E! Television style lists (e.g., “The 50 Most Awesomely Dead Rock Stars”), and what’s more it was a pretty damn good list, filled with hip-hop and dance-pop and, yep, hair metal. It was also refreshing not to read for the 100th time how the “Satisfaction” guitar riff came to Keith Richards in his sleep, how “Respect” captured the spirit of the civil rights movement, and how incredibly frigging groundbreaking it was for Bob Dylan to release a 6-minute-long single. Still, there’s something a bit show-offy about ranking Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” the 32nd best song of the past quarter-century—if you’re going to include Springsteen-style rock bombast, why not the real article instead of a blowsy karaoke version?—and ultimately, the Blender list seemed to embody the pitfalls of the anti-rockist backlash: poptimism as a glib exercise in pseudo-populism and in tweaking the boomers instead of a real effort to engage history and figure out what makes good music and why.

Ideally, poptimism shouldn’t be about critics working through their daddy issues and straining to prove that they’re hipper than Greil Marcus. It should be about openness to all kinds of music—including music that seems to embody rockist ideals. Back at the opening panel discussion at the EMP conference, the singer-songwriter Stephin Merritt (of Magnetic Fields fame) professed his love for all pop music “except roots rock,” a line that elicited hearty guffaws. (He said other things at the panel that caused a stir—but that’s another ball of wax.) Of course, had Merritt said “except hip-hop” or “except country,” there would have been gasps of horror all around, and those laughs laid bare the poptimist prejudice: It’s not cool to pick on Kanye or Shania, but those rockist avatars, the earnest heartland rockers, are fair game. Where does that leave poor Johnny Mellencamp?

I don’t doubt that Merritt genuinely hates roots rock; I’m not about to load John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band onto my iPod, either. Everyone, even a critic, has a God-given right to his or her musical loathings. The question, for those of us who make our living at this, is how to talk about the music we love, and hate, intelligently and non-ideologically. It’s easier said than done. One of the best papers I saw at the EMP conference was Canadian writer Carl Wilson’s attempt to come to terms with his distaste for Céline Dion, whose massive, gazillion-record-selling, worldwide popularity and almost universal loathing by music critics (himself included) presents a quandary. “A critical generation claiming to swear off all bourgeois elitist bias seems at least obliged to account for the immense popularity of someone we’ve collectively deemed so devoid of appeal,” Wilson said. “Those who find Celine … tacky, gauche, kitschy … must be overlooking something, maybe starting with why those categories exist.” One of Wilson’s tentative conclusions is that critics should spend some time trying to understand other’s tastes rather than building ideological buttresses to bolster their own.

That’s a sensible and humane suggestion, and critics would do well to bear it in mind not just when reckoning with The Céline, but other unfashionable performers and genres—Dave Matthews and frat-boy jam-band music leap to mind—that unlike, say, teen pop, aren’t easily reclaimed as camp or saluted for their cool production values. In the meantime, poptimists might spend some time reflecting on what rockists got right. Rockism was a product of its own historical moment, a time when rock critics had to face down snobs on both their right and left flanks who dismissed the idea that pop music could ever be art at all. It’s a pity that critics succeeded in beating back the cultural elitists by creating their own high-low hierarchies within pop, but to the extent that Madonna and Jay-Z are today spoken of as “artists” without anyone batting an eye, we all owe rockists a big-up.

It’s also helpful to recognize that some truths lurk within rockist rhetoric. Traditional rock critics may spend too much time fetishizing, as Sanneh put it, “the underground hero,” but if you ignore pop’s fringes, you are probably missing tomorrow’s chart-topping sound. (Remember that weird “techno music” that emerged from Detroit in the mid-’80s?) Sometimes pop music is crass and exploitative and vapid, and sometimes confessional songs delivered over Spartan folk-rock accompaniment do deliver emotional truths that high-gloss pop elides in its quest for the broadest possible appeal. The year 1966 was an awfully good one for pop music. So was 1972. Dylan does write one hell of a song, and I still haven’t heard anyone who sings like Marvin Gaye. I’d never swap my record collection for a Mojo magazine subscriber’s, but in a lot of ways the rockist canon-makers were spot on.

And it pays to remember that these categories mean little to the people who actually make music. Think of all the times that rock gods act like pop heroes and vice versa. Two of the best disco songs ever—”Miss You” and “Emotional Rescue”—were recorded by “The World’s Greatest Rock ’n’ Roll Band,” the Rolling Stones. That supreme rockist icon, the concept album, was created by a pop singer named Frank Sinatra nearly two decades before the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

The rockist-poptimist polarity is often false, and even when it’s not, must we choose sides? The overriding sentiment in those corners of the Internet where music nuts gather to discuss such issues is: I want both kinds of music, I want all kinds of music—and then some. Thanks to new technology we can gorge ourselves on the stuff like never before, and thanks to the shuffle feature all the old categories and genre distinctions start to look silly and melt into the digital haze. I shivered slightly the other day when I realized the song count on my iTunes had topped 11,000, but there’s still plenty of room left on my 60 GB gadget, and I intend to fill it. Maybe the real guilty pleasure in 2006 is gluttony. As I reach for the mouse and click download again, I’m reminded of a song by ABBA, those capital-P pop wizards we have learned to love without apology: Gimme, Gimme, Gimme.