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Rockist vs. popist- who cares?

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Tuesday, May 16, 2006

In Slate, their music scribe Jody Rosen had this recent article: Does hating rock make you a music critic?.  If you haven’t already, take a minute to read it- it’s worth it.  It’s a very good thoughtful piece but the issue obviously deserves some more debate and discussion. 
  
Two things that I really like about this article: 1) the whole pop vs. rock battle is (or should be) B.S. (which Rosen acknowledges), 2) most of the argument being made there almost exclusively exists in “music-wonk circles” as he calls them. Both points are related and they point to a bigger problem, specifically related to us ‘wonks.’


Ask someone outside of the music crit world what they think of the popist/rockist decade and they’ll likely give you a blank stare and think that you’re crazy. We scribes are the ones who sweat over this and debate it endlessly but many of our readers and the many more people who never read us could care less. It’s not just that they don’t know the terminology, it’s also that, frankly, this just doesn’t matter to them and that’s a problem for us scribes.


The way that we are writers react to this is also instructive. We can ignore the facts and plow on with these debates in our little ivory towers. We could confront this apathy and go on a crusade to educate the great unwashed. We also could remain cognizant of the debate and yet stay out of it.


For the crusaders and zealots on the popist or rockist side, these issues matter enough that we want more people to get involved and care about this. The motives for that are also instructive. Some have a stake in a battle like this, whether they’d like to admit it or not- Rosen does seem to (at least to some extent if you go by this article). It not only defines them and their taste, it also informs the way that they’d like to see the world. For better or worse, every music scribe makes decisions about what they support or don’t support depending on what they decide to cover and how they cover it, good or bad. We want people not just to know about the artists that we champion but also to agree with how we see them- when it comes down to it, our reviews or think pieces or even our interviews are our way to persuade the reader to see whatever artists we’re covering the same way that we do.


So if we take sides (or even cover) in something like the popist/rockist battle, obviously we have some kind of agenda ourselves. Rosen deserves credit for making his own prejudices open and clear. Truth be known, I’m brandished with the R symbol somewhere on my body (started with the Beatles, Stones, graduated to the Clash) but I have learned that it makes no sense to piss on a pop star for being what they are. If Motown manufactured their own boy bands complete with their own producers, studio musicians and songwriting stables, it doesn’t make any sense to start hating the latest crop of boy bands because they operate on the same principle. However, I do reserve the right to think that say the Backstreet Boys aren’t as great as Martha and the Vandellas because Martha Reeves had a better songwriting/production team backing her up. As someone much smarter than me pointed out, as long as there’s teens, there’ll be teen pop. As with any genre, some of it will be great (my own recent faves are Annie, Sassy and Custom) and some of it will suck.


But again, in the end, we writers live under the semi-delusion that our words will convert the masses or least help the converted entrench what they already believe. Like it or not, I honestly think most of our readers fall into the later camp even if we like to think that there’s a few of the former around that we can help along. As such, this rock/pop argument ain’t gonna hold much water and not just because it’s lost on many people who’ve already made up their mind and decided that they’re in one camp or the other.


The other reason that these kind of arguments are lost on many people who don’t live in our “wonk” world isn’t that they aren’t smart enough to understand it but because even if they did read up on this debate to understand the positions, they’d think that we were freakin’ out of our minds for blowing this up into such a big deal. To us of course, it IS a big deal but many others (some much saner than us) would say that it’s only music. “Only music??” we counter. “It’s our lives! It’s YOUR life too!” It may very well be but the important distinction is that it’s not as intrinsic to their lives as it is to ours. Rather than pity people like that, many times, I envy them. After all, there’s more to life than music and sometimes we forget that or get too involved in it, arguing about it in newsgroups, mailing lists and ahem, blogs. The end result is that sometimes we get too caught up and forget this, resulting not just in endless flame wars but also the dreaded groupthink were we reach our own consensus with similar minded scribes.


I think it’s also a reason that we don’t see much engaging music criticism outside of the print world. Jim Derogatis and Greg Kot have their Sound Opinions radio program in Chicago, which is about to branch out to Minneapolis next week and maybe elsewhere after that. I asked Derogatis if there were other programs like his on the airwaves and he said that as far as he knew, there weren’t. Mind you, they’ve done the program for a while and are only now branching out. Part of the reason that you don’t hear more of this is because, truth be known, most other writers would probably bore people to tears with these kind of spats. In many polls, despite the infiltration of the Net in our lives, many people still admit that they get news from their local stations and our “wonk” arguments just don’t cut it in a medium like that.


...Which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t have arguments or discussions like this (hell, I’m participating in it right here) but that we should realize where these discussions really circulate and ultimately then, what they’ll mean for those involved. We’d like to think that we write for people who “get it” and it’s too bad if they can’t dig our debates. Then again, it’s too bad that we don’t think about how we do or don’t connect with a larger readership because of that.

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