“Poptimism”: The Death of Pop Criticism

I always suspect people are being disingenuous when they foreground their alleged optimism. It seems like the kind of thing that would never occur to you to remark upon if you actually lived it. Real optimists are grounded in an instinctual self-reliance that isn’t pricked by the complaints and doubts of others. These people don’t need their hopefulness ratified at the expense of others. They seem to be completely secure in their own significance and can thus project an aura of unself-consciousness that directs energy out at others and tends to lift the moods of everyone around them.

That’s not the case for the self-professed optimists though. In the hands of these reactionaries, optimism is invoked to bash the nattering nabobs of negativism who have the annoying habit of questioning the status quo, of expecting more from the institutions that hedge individuals in, of seeking to resist culture-industry manipulation when it’s so much more pleasant and pleasing to simply give in. Self-proclaimed optimists want to shine the light on people who resist and humiliate them — they’d prefer to direct the tanks that rolled into Tiananmen than be the guy getting run over by them, and who can really blame them. (I’m sorry; I know that comparison is way over the top.)

Naysayers always try to encourage people to ask more questions about what they are doing, to analyze one’s own motives, and that is admittedly irritating. Better to simply enjoy what has been made for us to enjoy rather than to ask why it sells our aesthetic capabilities so short. Why not just forget pride or any high-falutin’ notions of dignity and have fun, the fun you’re told to have? Optimism is a dogma to such people, an anti-critical code committed to finding the least-resistant path through the official culture being promulgated by the big media, big government, etc.

So “poptimism” — an antirock attitude in music criticism meant to free us from the Boomer cultural hegemony — as a critical mode seems almost oxymoronic. Optimism in this context is used as pure rhetoric meant to discredit a view that some contemporary critics find out-of-date, restrictive. Here’s how Jody Rosen, in the Slate article linked to above, sums it up:

The poptimist critique of rockism squares with my sense of musical history and resonates with my taste. I love hip-hop and commercial R&B and Nashville country and teen pop, and have spent much of my professional life listening to and writing about pre-rock Tin Pan Alley pop, a genre that rockists insult by ignoring completely. I’m not so crazy about most indie rock, never cared much for Neil Young, and will listen to the new Pearl Jam album only out of a sense of professional obligation.

I think Britney Spears’ “Toxic” is one of the greatest songs of the new century, that the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” was one of the great ones of the last, and that R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix)” is as transcendent as any Holland-Dozier-Holland Motown classic I’ve ever heard—and what’s more, most other critics I know agree. In fact, arguably today’s two most influential pop critics, Sanneh and The New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones (who was also Slate’s music critic), are firmly in the poptimist camp.

Reading this made me depressed; 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. It’s opinion making as posturing. It’s not open-minded or perceptive, it’s just hipsters shitting on shibboleths.

The main problem with this as a critical methodology is that it fixates on the idea of taste being central to the phenomena of popular culture, which to my mind misses the entire point of thinking about the stuff in the first place. It doesn’t really matter who likes what specifically; what matters are the means by which the big players seek to control the entertainment market. Whether that market is in boomer-friendly rock records by 50-year-olds or cross-over hip-hop records is sort of beside the point, and carping over that, over your right to feel cool because you love Britney, means you are ignoring what is really at stake in the realm of culture-production. In capitalist society, culture is business, one that’s always trying to expand. Nice of the poptopian to do the marketers work for them and expand the reach and provide the ideological justification for the hegemony of the big commercial music manufacturers. (“Buy what records they’ve already decided to manufacture the most of; this will make you a positive optimist. Don’t reject what’s already been prepared for you; that’s so last year. It’s your patriotic duty to support blockbusters.”)

Rosen endorses the notion that pop critics “should spend some time trying to understand other’s tastes rather than building ideological buttresses to bolster their own.” That’s probably something we all should do in general, as part of being social human beings. Part of that understanding, though, is not simply fatalistic acceptance but interrogation of those tastes. While critics are pondering the righteousness of their own tastes and biases ad coining clever ways to discredit those of others, they miss the questions that might actually engage others at a more significant level. How are these mass markets made, shaped and controlled? How must entertainment be formulized to achieve this? How do the formulas change– in reaction to what changes in ideology, under pressures from what subcultural swells?– and what are the by-products, the externalities of this market-shaping, after the main goal of boosting profits is met?

As Rosen points out, pop critics of the Boomer mold that these poptopian fans of top-40 ephemera loathe sought to form a canon and some aesthetic criteria to give their discourse a reason to exist. Reversing the old ‘rockist’ criteria may make some of the new generation of critics feel clever and original and iconoclastic, but they are just trapped in the dialectic. And if they are ignoring the dialectic itself and they aren’t erecting new criteria — if they are arguing that people should be left alone to listen to what they enjoy with no interest in investigating where those preferences come from culturally– then they are writing their treasured discourse (which is about canon building and nothing else if it ignores socioeconomic questions in favor of taste spats) right out of existence.

That is not necessarily a bad goal, but probably not what they’re intending. Really these critics are proposing counter-canons and perpetuating rock criticism as one of the supports for building little taste communities, cliques wherein one can discover what’s in and out on any given day by reading the right magazines and scorn those who haven’t taken the trouble to be in the know. Knowing what’s in lets others in the community know you got your priorities straight, and that your mind is on the marching orders.

In the end Rosen endorses “gluttony” — a non-discriminating, non-taxonomizing ingestion of all the varieties of music we can jam on a 60 GB iPod. It used to be that secret discoveries deep in the heart of some specific genre had currency, had meaning to a select few, earned you special admission somewhere — probably a back room in an indie record store with some pasty-faced vinyl snobs. You could be one of the few people who know about some band, some sound. Those days are over, and the criticism that functioned along those lines is over as well. Before the Internet there was a tyranny of the top 40 charts — if you were stuck in the suburbs, you couldn’t escape it, and trying to was an important symbol of freedom to 1980s teenagers (when Blender readers apparently were not yet finished with their cribs).

When access to music was limited — when you couldn’t get the obscure records Rolling Stone writers discussed reverently just by going online, when you couldn’t find out about foreign or underground bands without digging deep into an archive of old magazines (people use to save rock magazines; I kept a stack of Spin magazines from 1985 for seven or eight years because the inofrmation in there seemed so precious and rare) — one had to appreciate the music one could get one’s hands on much more deeply, which invited an intensive close-reading style of criticism of those few albums — even if it was just in our heads, thinking how it was that these songs worked themselves into our minds so deeply, seeming almost to spur the events of our lives.

Now, in the age of pop gluttony, what we seem to be left with is list-making and promotional blurbs. The best we can hope to do is filter some of all that music all out. Slowly but surely, I’ll have my filters perfected, and I’ll enjoy pure silence.