The Poptimism and Rockism Debate

by Brice Ezell, Evan Sawdey, Nathan Stevens

14 January 2016

In 2015, the "poptimism vs. rockism" debate has inspired a rash of thinkpieces and Twitter arguments. Is this debate actually saying anything, though?
Still from Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off" music video 

“Do you want poptimism?” Chris Richards asks in a 17 April 2015 article for The Washington Post, “Or do you want the truth?” This headline is a loaded one: why exactly is poptimism anathema to truth? In his article, Richards makes the argument that poptimism serves as a necessary corrective to the spurious notion that “rock-centric songwriters with rough voices and ‘real’ instruments are inherently more legitimate than pop stars with Auto-Tuned voices and choreographed music videos.” For Richards, however, “poptimist dogma has been misread and misused”, resulting in a hive-mind culture that uncritically props up pop stars.
Richards’ piece is one of an array of “poptimist vs. rockist” thinkpieces that have caused much buzz in the online music community this year, particularly in the realm of music criticism. Though this discussion has been happening for the past ten years, in 2015 there has been a resurgence, with megastars like Taylor Swift and Beyonce serving as lightning rod examples of the poptimist debate. But for all of the talk about the ostensible clash between “poptimist” and “rockist” ideas of music, how credible is the debate, really?

Regular PopTalk contributors Evan Sawdey and Brice Ezell are joined by PopMatters writer Nathan Stevens for a thorough discussion of “poptimism vs. rockism”, incorporating Richards’ piece and many others in an overview of what is going on with the debate at the moment, and what is right and wrong therein.

Evan Sawdey, Brice Ezell, and Nathan Stevens all write for PopMatters, where Evan also serves as Interviews Editor.

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