Only When the Money Is Threatened Does Change Ever Come
Still, Austerlitz’s essay did a dirty job, and did it well. In response to the rapidly revived controversy, NPR published a brief correspondence between Carl Wilson and Ann Powers, both of whom could be defined as a breed of Poptimist, discussing precisely what that meant. The headline of Wilson’s first contribution asked and then answered the debate’s most pertinent question: ‘Why Do People Have a Beef With Poptimism? Because It’s Winning.’
I can understand why Wilson might reach this conclusion; it’s where all the empirical evidence seems to point, after all. Representing popular music—the clue to which is in the name—meant that its victory has always been assured. There has never been a time in pop music’s history when its dominance, in one form or another, has ever been threatened, mainly because it constantly evolves. But I cannot agree with Wilson; not just because (if you’ll excuse me sounding like a t-shirt) rock’s not dead, but because you cannot win a self-declared war with a false binary.
Poptimism and its acolytes do not pretend that pop music is relying on them for its survival. Even if pop music isn’t immortal, it does a damn good impersonation, which is perhaps why no one has attempted to preemptively label it ‘dead’. Nevertheless, Poptimism does work on the assumption that certain other things are dying, and it aims to help the mortally wounded reach their fate. Something in me resists that.
As a critical philosophy, Poptimism is not a defence as such, but more an expression of acute paranoia about those few areas where pop is not universally lauded, music criticism being chief among them, because bad reviews are still sometimes written by those who follow their own suspect stars.
It is odd, indeed, it is Poptimism’s central oddity, that Poptimism is so often framed against rock music, as if rock and pop had never been one and the same thing. Arguably, this is because so many of Poptimism’s would-be ideological opponents are defenders of rock’s preeminence, who also happen to be overwhelmingly white and male, an imbalance that is far more important (and destructive) than critical proxy wars.
Here, criticisms are absolutely valid and vital, if we have any hope of undoing those injustices. But it does not follow that, in order to combat sexism, racism, homophobia and the staggering inequalities within music and music criticism, we must buy into Poptimism entirely. Just as the novel may be separated from its criminal economic surroundings, rock may yet escape the prejudices that have made it a musical refuge for white dudes (a reality that, say, Debbie Harry or Jimi Hendrix might take issue with).
And to suggest that the realm of pop music is any less affected by issues of race, gender, class and sexuality would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic. The only difference is, pop is often insulated from the effects of such criticism, just as rock once was, by its consistent commercial success. Only when the money is threatened does change ever come. Also, to put it mildly, those who would plead forgiveness for Miley Cyrus make unlikely advocates for social justice.
If anyone thinks I’m being suspiciously defensive of rock, let me say that a decade or two away from its place on the gravy train may be the best thing that could happen to the genre (if not necessarily the people who create and sustain it). It’s interesting to think that, after decades of building an image around alienation and disaffection whilst simultaneously conquering pop culture, rock may find itself once again on the fringes of society, only practised by the dedicated and the weird for their own unprofitable amusement. Still, that doesn’t mean that the (admittedly hazy) philosophies of rock and those who love it must be eliminated, leaving only scorched earth behind.
Poptimist attempts to kill off what they define as ‘rockism’ are interesting for another reason: if rock music is so exhausted, why does the regard for it that still exists even need to be self-consciously killed off? Much like the novel, why does its grave need to be danced upon, unless there’s a worry that something might dig its way out?
Poptimism, at its worst, isn’t an attempt to defend Pop—which has always held the potential for beauty and greatness, and doesn’t need a bunch of easily offended hacks to confirm the fact—but rather an attempt weed out those last areas of resistance to its unquestioning domination. Dissident opinion shall not be permitted. As Austerlitz put it: “Poptimism now not only demands devotion to pop idols; it has instigated an increasingly shrill shouting match with those who might not be equally enamored of pop music. Disliking Taylor Swift or Beyoncé is not just to proffer a musical opinion, but to reveal potential proof of bias.”
Both Poptimists or Rockists will loudly accuse each other of having a strangehold upon our culture’s critical consensus, warping it to suit their own unjustified prejudices. To determine the truth of either claim, start by asking which one allows for a greater diversity of opinion. Neither camp is innocent.
Are there critics who give commercial pablum an easy ride because it speaks to their lowest instincts? Do we suffer a surplus of stars who maintain their celebrity by pretending to embody artistic values which they do not practice? Absolutely. But are there also self-important snobs, Rockist or otherwise, who seek more influence over our culture than they truly deserve? Has good music been unjustly sidelined or overlooked because it does not please the tastes of a powerful minority? Again, a strong affirmative. None of these facts are new, and they do not require the formation of a false debate.
None of us, either as a society or as individual fans of music, needs a Rockist critic to tear down pop, or a Poptimist to rip on rock. You might as well send an opera critic to review Nicki Minaj, then treat their bafflement as wisdom. This is why, sooner or later, all critics tend to become specific in their purview, no matter how much they may define themselves as open-minded generalists.
My favourite pop critic right now, if you’re interested, is the consistently brilliant and semi-anonymous ‘Todd in the Shadows’ who, despite his self-identification as a fan of pop music, is entirely capable of highlighting its flaws and vices; he does so better than most, in fact. More to the point, he does so by seeking merit in what he listens to, which is all any critic can do. Even if critics do not recognise it the same way, acknowledging the importance of artistic merit is as close as we can get to any kind of objectivity in music criticism. That belief, unfortunately, places me in the anti-Poptimist camp.
Later in their NPR correspondence, Powers innocently suggested Five Ways to Be a Better Poptimist, which inadvertantly made it clear to me why I could never be one. Number 2 prodded my anti-capitalism, ‘Understand that selling records is the point’. But it was Number 3, ‘Acknowledge that the assembly line is a cornerstone of pop’, which made me a convert in the opposite direction. With no suggestion that this reality disturbs her sleep at night, Powers confidently asserts that “there’s little room in this game for purist notions of artistic integrity.”
Here’s a fun game: imagine the circumstances, any circumstances at all, where that sentence being said, as an instruction for future conduct, is a good thing. Anything? No, me neither.
No one (apart from me, maybe) is arguing that the entire system be realigned to focus on pure artistic integrity and nothing else. But Powers nevertheless argues that there is no room within music journalism for foolish idealists who cling to some idea of art, and who wish to apply it to the medium that is so obviously an art in itself.
Put it like this: if I find myself at a bar after a gig, I’m not going to refuse to drink with any critics calling themselves Poptimists. This is not Gangs of New York, although sometimes I wish it was. However, I will (probably over the course of several rounds) happily argue with them about why Taylor Swift is awful, growing more profane and philosophical as I go along. When Poptimism offends me, it’s when it’s used to try and end such encounters. But we’re critics: you don’t ever end the argument.
This also means I can’t tell the Poptimists to shut up either, because once you start doing that, bad things follow. I can disagree, but I can never and would never demand their silence. This takes us back to the point I made at the beginning of my meandering: this is an argument between critics. It was never intended for you, or anyone else. That limits its relevance somewhat. And I would never demand you care about such an petty brawl, save for the fact you’re reading PopMatters, which implies you have at least a passing interest in what critics, here or elsewhere, have to say about books, music, films, games, comics and our culture in general. Why that is, only you can answer.
“I don’t need you to tell me I’m good.”
—Lou Reed, Take No Prisoners
So where does that leave us? ‘The Novel is Dead’ will rumble on; so will ‘Poptimism v. Rockism’. These are two debates which will never die, unless we consciously decide to stop indulging in them. But if two artforms beyond value are prematurely buried just so these critical clusterfucks can endure, that will be a tragedy that no amount of argument can undo.
This is because art cannot be separated from artists, and both of these arguments are attempts to control what those artists might become. It’s impossible to argue that the novel is dead without arguing that aspiring novelists should give up and apply their talents elsewhere or not at all. Similarly, the Poptimist consensus works on the assumption that music criticism affects the music that comes after it; otherwise, why all the fuss? By proclaiming rock dead, they are, knowingly or not, seeking to kill the dreams of all who believe otherwise.
Personally, I’m not particularly worried. To anyone who has decided the novel is a spent force, I would ask this: think of whatever specific thing you believe the novel can no longer do. Now wait. Given time, you will be pleasantly proven wrong. Literature works like that. The only way the novel is going to die is if the novelists die, too.
As for rock ‘n’ roll? People have been trying to kill rock ‘n’ roll since the moment it emerged into the popular consciousness. Though their tactics have grown more sophisticated, they have always, always failed. With the full benefit of historical hindsight, ask yourself why that might be.
The only people who wish death on art are those who are threatened by it.
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