Rockism is a loosely defined pejorative referring to perceived biases in 20th-century popular music criticism, particularly that rock music – or certain fields of rock music – was inherently superior, especially when compared to producer-driven genres like disco, R&B and hip-hop. Coined in 1981 by English rock musician Pete Wylie with his Race Against Rockism campaign, the term was used humorously by self-described "anti-rockist" critics in the British press. "Rockists" may also refer to people who regard rock music as the normative state of popular music.
The term was not generally used outside the confines of small music magazines until the mid 2000s, partly due to the exponential increase in bloggers who used it more seriously in analytical debate. In the 2000s, poptimism (or popism) represented a critical reassessment of pop music, and in the 2010s, it supplanted rockism as the prevailing ideology in popular musical criticism. Opponents of poptimist discourse have criticized the movement, believing that it has resulted in certain pop stars being prevented from negative reviews as part of an effort to maintain a consensus of uncritical excitement.
Origins and definitions
During the 1960s and 1970s, magazines like Rolling Stone and Creem laid the foundation for popular music criticism in an attempt to make popular music worthy of study. Some of these formative critics suggested that enduring pop music art was 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 "guilty pleasure". "Rockist" was coined in 1981 when English rock musician Pete Wylie announced his Race Against Rockism campaign, as former NME writer Paul Morley remembers:
... one or two music journalists writing in the one or two music magazines that existed then were very pleased. I was one of them, and was using the term "rockist" the minute after I read Wylie say it. ... If the idea of rockism confused you, and you lazily thought Pink Floyd were automatically better than Gang of Four, and that good music had stopped with punk, you were a rockist and you were wrong. ... it's got something to do with a) the difference between [Bruce] Springsteen and [Captain] Beefheart, albums and singles, intelligence and stupidity, glitter and denim, and shaky notions of authenticity and artificiality; b) being able to listen to Nick Drake and Christina Aguilera with the same levels of intensity; c) how rock groups hold their guitars and what they do with their legs as they hold their guitars; d) Q magazine, which turned hardcore rockist values into a glossy magazine; e) the fact that Franz Ferdinand are achingly nostalgic for anti-rockism but are themselves intrinsically rockist.
Anti-rockism was always violently pro-pop, largely because we original campaigning anti-rockists had been given such a tough time at school for liking [David] Bowie and [Marc] Bolan and not ELP and Led Zep.
Regarding the definition, music writer Ned Raggett noted: "Every article, every discussion, anything which involves the word seems to get bogged down or get taken apart in ways which prevent there from being any consensus." Accordingly, some people have used rockism as a polemical label to identify and critique a cluster of beliefs and assumptions in music criticism. Rockism is therefore not a connotatively neutral term, according to Raggett: "You’re not going to find anyone arguing FOR [rockism] any time soon, or at least coming out and saying so—but that’s precisely because of the terms of the discourse." Popmatters' Robert Loss wrote that "traditionalism" describes the policing of the present with the past, making it a better word for "rockism". Design critic and indie pop musician Nick Currie (aka Momus) compared rockism to the international art movement Stuckism, which holds that artists who do not paint or sculpt are not artists.
During the 1990s, to be a "rockist" was defined as demanding a perception of authenticity in pop music despite whatever artifice is needed. Seattle Weekly's Douglas Wolk acknowledged the loose definition of rockism and proposed: "Rockism, let's say, is treating rock as normative. In the rockist view, rock is the standard state of popular music: the kind to which everything else is compared, explicitly or implicitly." In 2004, music critic Kelefa Sanneh offered a definition of rockists: "[S]omeone who reduces rock 'n' roll to a caricature, then uses that caricature as a weapon. 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.". He further accuses rockists of projecting a sexist, racist, and homophobic point of view.
Poptimism (also called popism) is a mode of discourse which holds that pop music deserves the same respect as rock music and is as authentic and as worthy of professional critique and interest. It positions itself as an antidote to rockism and developed following Carl Wilson's book about Céline Dion's album Let's Talk About Love and Sanneh's 2004 essay against rockism in The New York Times. In Sanneh's article, he asked music listeners to "stop pretending that serious rock songs will last forever, as if anything could, and that shiny pop songs are inherently disposable, as if that were necessarily a bad thing. Van Morrison's "Into the Music" was released the same year as the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight"; which do you hear more often?" Loss cited Sanneh's article as "a sort of ur-text on poptimism", elaborating:
By its impoverished terms, the rockist represents traditional values of authenticity while the poptimist is progressive, inclusive, and sees through the myths of authenticity. The rockist is nostalgic—the old fart who says they don’t make any good music anymore—while the poptimist looks forward and values the new. The rockist makes Art out of popular music, insists on serious meaning, and demands artists who sing their own songs and play instruments, preferably guitars; the poptimist lets pop be fun and, if not meaningless, slight. The rockist is a purist, the poptimist a pluralist; the rockist is old, the popist is young; the rockist is anti-commercialist, the poptimist could care less.
After Sanneh published his 2004 article, an argument about rockism developed in various web circles. In 2006, music journalist Jody Rosen noted the growing backlash against rock's traditional critical acclaim and the new poptimism ideology. By 2015, Washington Post writer Chris Richards wrote that, after a decade of "righteously vanquishing [rockism's] nagging falsehood", poptimism had become "the prevailing ideology for today’s most influential music critics. Few would drop this word in conversation at a house party or a nightclub, but in music-journo circles, the idea of poptimism itself is holy writ."
Flavorwire's Elisabeth Donnely argued that literary criticism "needs a poptimist revolution" in order to understand current literary phenomena such as Fifty Shades of Grey and better connect with the reading audience. In 2015, Salon published an article subtitled "Book criticism needs a poptimist revolution to take down the genre snobs," in which Rachel Kramer Bussell argued that book critics ignore often very good work and alienate readers by focusing only on genres considered "literary."
Writing for Salon in 2016, Scott Timberg wrote about critics giving more respect to celebrity chef Guy Fieri saying "Love or hate what is called poptimism, the impulse seems to be coming to food and restaurant criticism". Timberg likened food critics "'in defense of' movement" of Fieri to rock critics who "began writing apologias for Billy Joel and composed learned deconstructions of Britney Spears."
Criticism of poptimists
Overlap with rockism
Morley commented in 2006: "Alas, the prissy, pompous American debate about what rockism is or isn't lacks the key Wylie ingredient of humour. Many of the self-proclaimed American anti-rockists - or popists, or poptimists, or pop pricks - actually write with a kind of fussy, self-important rockist sheen. And for all their studious over-analysis, any definition of rockism is the same today as it's always been." That same year, Rosen forewarned possible excesses of the new movement; that a hierarchy of music biased toward pop is no better than one biased toward rock because both genres have respectable qualities that cannot be ignored.
According to Loss, rockism and poptimism are ultimately the same thing, and both rockists and poptimists treat music as a social commodity while mystifying the conditions in which music occurs. He wrote that "poptimism presents itself as a radical break in the discourse of popular culture when instead it’s an expansion of that discourse—for many reasons, a much-needed expansion, but not exactly radical. ... Like any number of movements, though, poptimism has critiqued the historical precedents by erasing them, which is easy to do in a culture wherein history isn’t valued much." Older rock critics and journalists are usually depicted as "a bunch of bricklayers for the foundations of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame", a notion which Loss disputed: "Like film studies, rock criticism of the late '60s and the '70s was an attempt to make popular music worthy of study; it was poptimism before its day. It’s somehow become generally accepted that rock criticism before the new millennium was overwhelmingly rockist."
After the 2000s, the effects of poptimism attracted a belief that once a pop star reaches a certain level of stardom, many critics will preclude them from negative reviews. Richards argued that poptimism cheerleads the already successful while privileging consensus and smothering dissent. New York Times Magazine's Saul Austerlitz called poptimism a product of click-driven internet journalism that aspired to the lowest common denominator while being actively hostile to people who are fans of genres and bands associated with rockism. He further criticized it for allowing pop music fans to avoid expanding their taste and contrasted the types of music lauded by poptimists with the literature and film praised by book and film critics. Loss agreed with Austerlitz's text: "When [he] wrote that '(m)usic criticism’s former priority—telling consumers what to purchase—has been rendered null and void for most fans. In its stead, I believe, many critics have become cheerleaders for pop stars,' I imagined an editor and a record label exec swooping down on him saying, “Don’t tell them that!” We like to believe criticism is devoid of crass commercialism, but Austerlitz gives away that it never was in the first place." He also noted a minuscule number of lowly-rated albums in publications such as Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and PopMatters, and that "telling consumers what to purchase is still the point of a lot of music 'criticism'."
- Morley, Paul (May 25, 2006). "Rockism - it's the new rockism". The Guardian.
- Sanneh, Kelefa (October 31, 2004). "The Rap Against Rockism". The New York Times. Archived from the original on November 5, 2015.
- Rosen, Jody (May 9, 2006). "The Perils of Poptimism - Does hating rock make you a music critic?". Slate.
- Gormely, Ian (December 3, 2014). "Taylor Swift leads poptimism's rebirth". The Guardian.
- Richards, Chris (April 16, 2015). "Do you want poptimism? Or do you want the truth?". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2015-11-19.
- Lobenfield, Clair (January 12, 2016). "Poptimism Isn't the Problem". Village Voice.
- Wolk, Douglas (May 4, 2005). "Thinking About Rockism". Seattle Weekly. Archived from the original on 2005-06-04.
- Loss, Robert (August 10, 2015). "No Apologies: A Critique of the Rockist v. Poptimist Paradigm". PopMatters.
- Raggett, Ned (June 1, 2005). "Rockism". Stylus.
- Currie, Nick (November 5, 2004). "Design Rockism". Aiga Design Archives. Archived from the original on April 5, 2007.
- Donnelly, Elisabeth (August 28, 2014). "Why Book Criticism and Literary Culture Needs a Poptimist Revolution". Flavorwire.
- Kramer Bussell, Rachel (May 19, 2015). "Simon Pegg has a Franzen moment: Book criticism needs a poptimist revolution to take down genre snobs". Salon.
- Scott Timberg (September 21, 2016). "The Fieri-ssance is here". Salon.
- Austerlitz, Saul (April 6, 2014). "The Pernicious Rise of Poptimism". The New York Times Magazine. Archived from the original on 2015-10-31.
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