Rockism and poptimism
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Rockism is the belief in the superiority of certain rock music values, which often results in discrimination and prejudice against other forms of popular music. A "rockist" may also be someone who regards rock music as the normative state of popular music. Poptimism (or popism) is the belief that pop music is as worthy of professional critique and interest as rock music. It is conversely viewed as a variant of rockism, with the main difference being its preference toward the most famous or best-selling pop, hip-hop, and R&B acts.
Magazines devoted to the serious discussion of popular music first developed in the 1960s and 1970s, with some formative rock critics suggesting 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 as a source of "guilty pleasure". The term "rockism" was coined in 1981 by English rock musician Pete Wylie and soon became a pejorative used humorously by self-described "anti-rockist" critics in the British press. Originally coinciding with the rise of New Pop in the early 1980s, the term was not generally used outside the confines of small music magazines until the mid 2000s, partly due to the increasing number of bloggers who used it more seriously in analytical debate.
In the 2000s, a critical reassessment of pop music was underway, and by the next decade, poptimism supplanted rockism as the prevailing ideology in popular music criticism. While poptimism was envisioned as the "antidote" to rockist attitudes, opponents of its discourse believe that it has resulted in certain pop stars being shielded from negative reviews as part of an effort to maintain a consensus of uncritical excitement.
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. From about 1967, the term "pop" was increasingly used in opposition to "rock", a division that gave generic significance to both terms. Following the release of the Beatles' 1967 album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, magazines drew a sharp line between "pop" and "rock", thus eliminating the "roll" from "rock and roll" (which now refers to the 1950s style). The only artists who remained "rock" would be those who were considered at the vanguard of compositional forms, far from "radio friendly" standards, as Americans increasingly used the adjective "progressive" for groups like Jethro Tull, Family, East of Eden, Van Der Graaf Generator, and King Crimson. Some formative music 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".
In 1976, Robert Christgau wrote an article titled "Yes, There Is a Rock-Critic Establishment (But Is That Bad for Rock?)". Noting that there is a difference between "rock critics" and the "rock press", he lists the "establishment" members as himself, Jon Landau, Dave Marsh, Paul Nelson, and John Rockwell. Christgau also concedes that "Because we are all self-taught (of necessity, since our academy is as yet informal), even the best of our work has the faults of autodidacticism: eccentricity, incompleteness, self-indulgence. The worst of our work, meanwhile, has the faults of drivel. ... Yet I read on, as much from inclination as from duty, and find that a fair portion of what is bad, like some strains of 'bad' rock and roll, has the sloppy appeal of all open, democratic phenomena." Christgau later accused Rolling Stone of promoting a "boring rock-as-idealism myth" and "claiming suzerainty over the music ever since" the magazine was founded in 1967.
Definitions and origins
"Rockist" was coined in 1981 when English rock musician Pete Wylie announced his Race Against Rockism campaign, an inversion of "Rock Against Racism". Former NME writer Paul Morley remembers that the "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." He explains that "it's got something to do with" the following five points:
- "a) the difference between Springsteen and 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."
Morley concludes that "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 true 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 the article, Sanneh asks 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."
Criticism of poptimists
Overlap with rockism
In 2006, Morley derided the seriousness of contemporary music writers: "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. A week later, PopMatters' Rob Horning responded to Rosen's embracing of poptimism and wrote that it is "sad to think the sharpest critics drowning in self-importance while believing they are shedding themselves of it. Basically by rejecting all that was once deemed important by a previous generation and embracing the opposite, you can make the case for your own importance. This is not optimism, it’s reaction." Writing for The Quietus in 2017, Michael Hann argued that "the poptimists are just as proscriptive as the rockists", and lists the following as a few poptimist "sacred cows, which are beyond challenge":
- "The solo release by the member of a manufactured group is no longer the sad addendum to the imperial years; it is a profound statement of artistic integrity."
- "The surprise release by the big-name act is in itself, a revolutionary act."
- "To not care about Taylor Swift or Beyoncé or Lady Gaga or Zayn Malik is in itself questionable. It reveals not your taste in music, but your prejudices. In the worst-case scenario, you may be revealing your unconscious racism and sexism. At best, you're trolling."
- "Commercial success, in and of itself, should be taken as at least one of the markers of quality. After all, 50m Elvis fans can't be wrong."
- "Just as 'authenticity' is worthless as a symbol of a music's worth, so contrivance and cynicism might be elevated and celebrated, as evidence of the maker's awareness of the game they are playing."
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 adds that—as is common in "a culture wherein history isn't valued much"—poptimism neglects its historical precedents. As it presents itself as a radical break in the discourse of popular culture, 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 disputes; "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 safeguard 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'."
Hann says that when writers deal with "upmarket" readership, they "need to be able to justify your coverage, and that [means] thinkpieces hailing the cultural significance of the new pop stars. ... And once you've decided these subjects matter, it's hard to turn round and say: 'Actually, you know what? This isn't much cop.'" He recalls his experience as music editor for The Guardian, where he has "been commissioning those pieces, knowing they will be read ... if no one wanted to read about Taylor Swift, you would never see another thinkpiece about her. Instead, we enter an arms race of hyperbole, as we credit her with forcing Apple to change its streaming terms, dismantling the musical patriarchy, creating new paradigms in music and society."
In other fields
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".
- Gormely, Ian (December 3, 2014). "Taylor Swift leads poptimism's rebirth". The Guardian.
- Morley, Paul (May 25, 2006). "Rockism - it's the new rockism". The Guardian.
- Rosen, Jody (May 9, 2006). "The Perils of Poptimism - Does hating rock make you a music critic?". Slate.
- Richards, Chris (April 16, 2015). "Do you want poptimism? Or do you want the truth?". The Washington Post. Retrieved November 19, 2015.
- Loss, Robert (August 10, 2015). "No Apologies: A Critique of the Rockist v. Poptimist Paradigm". PopMatters.
- Hann, Michael (May 11, 2017). "Is Poptimism Now As Blinkered As The Rockism It Replaced?". The Quietus.
- Gorman, Paul (2001). In Their Own Write: Adventures in the Music Press. Sanctuary. p. 281. ISBN 978-1-86074-341-2.
- Stanley, Bob (2014). Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Story of Pop Music from Bill Haley to Beyoncé. W. W. Norton. p. 286. ISBN 978-0-393-24270-6.
- 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 June 4, 2005.
- Gloag, Kenneth (2001). The Oxford Companion to Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 983. ISBN 0-19-866212-2.
- Zoppo, Donato (2014). Prog: Una suite lunga mezzo secolo (in Italian). Arcana. ISBN 978-88-6231-639-2.
- Christgau, Robert (January 26, 1976). "Yes, There Is a Rock-Critic Establishment (But Is That Bad for Rock?)". Village Voice.
- Christgau, Robert (November 1989). "Rolling Stone Presents Twenty Years of Rock & Roll". Video Review. Retrieved April 2, 2017.
- Raggett, Ned (June 1, 2005). "Rockism". Stylus Magazine.
- Currie, Nick (November 5, 2004). "Design Rockism". Aiga Design Archives. Archived from the original on April 5, 2007.
- Sanneh, Kelefa (October 31, 2004). "The Rap Against Rockism". The New York Times. Archived from the original on November 5, 2015.
- Horning, Rob (May 11, 2006). "'Poptimism' The Death of Pop Criticism". PopMatters.
- Austerlitz, Saul (April 6, 2014). "The Pernicious Rise of Poptimism". The New York Times Magazine. Archived from the original on October 31, 2015.
- 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.
- Christgau, Robert (July 24, 2014). "Anti-Rockism's Hall of Fame". The Barnes & Noble Review. Retrieved March 22, 2017.