Music

No Apologies: A Critique of the Rockist v. Poptimist Paradigm

Both rockists and poptimists treat music as not much more than a social commodity, a consumerized product within the spectacle of American capitalism.

I.

York, Pennsylvania, near midnight, outside a Best Western on the last day of July, under a blue moon. In town to visit family, I'm smoking a cigarette outside the hotel and looking at the back of a Quaker Steak & Lube as the kitchen staff hurries to clean up so they can get out to wherever they're going tonight. Pop music quietly ekes out of the open back door, too quiet for me to pick up what it is. Barking laughter from inside, the scent of garbage from the trash closed off from view by a mesh fence: the back of every restaurant in America looks and sounds and smells the same.

What the rockist v. poptimist paradigm shows us is that we have, by and large, become apolitical materialists who have succeeded in spiritualizing the hell out of music.
When they're gone I'll wrap the rockism v. poptimism debate in a napkin, climb the fence and bury the damn thing in the trash, shoving that sucker into the dumpster as far as it will go. I'll do it humming "How It's Gonna Go", the song from the Wavves x Cloud Nothings album No Life for Me, and I'll nod my head as a car rolls by through the parking lot, Fetty Wap's "Trap Queen" blaring vocal drone and tickety-tackety rhythms, and once I've wedged the debate under the layers of chicken grease and industrial-size cans of hot sauce where it belongs, I'll still love both songs and Bruce Springsteen's "Atlantic City" and Sia's "Chandelier" and Kendrick Lamar's "Alright" and any other song I damn well please because I'm free and you are, too.

But first a profane eulogy, delivered not in praise but in good riddance because, let me tell you, for more than a decade I've been by turns bored, mystified, angered and amused by what's become of this whole debate since Kelefa Sanneh wrote "The Rap Against Rockism" in The New York Times in 2004, a sort of ur-text for poptimism. 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.

There's a strong argument for the "rockist" mode in music criticism—that it exists, and that it's harmful—and poptimism has positioned itself as a corrective, an antidote. Fundamentally it asks questions about power. On one level: Why does singing and writing your own music, playing guitars, etc., automatically mean you're a step above the pop singer who might only sing? Sanneh flipped that question over and examined its politics, suggesting that those qualities valued by rockists as authentic not coincidentally privilege certain artists, mainly straight white men. "Like the anti-disco backlash of twenty-five years ago," he wrote in 2004, "the current rockist consensus seems to reflect not just an idea of how music should be made but also an idea about who should be making it." This is valuable, and probably the only valuable thing to have come out of the debate. In general what we call poptimism, or popism, has widened the landscape of what counts, and who counts, and that's a good thing.

But these questions have leaked from their institutional context, from their targets in the industry and the media—who makes the music and who discusses it—and filtered down into our listening habits, creating a well-meaning if weird self-consciousness. Sanneh sought to politicize music and its discourse, but poptimism at its worst has perhaps not unsurprisingly taken that all the way into your earbuds and devolved into a simplified politics of taste, entirely concerned with social status and the prestige or lack thereof of what you listen to.

This is how you end up with an astute critic like Nitsuh Abebe writing a 2012 article titled "Embarrassment Rock" for Pitchfork in which he frets about his listening habits. Having described the anti-rockism movement as "a massive awareness and sensitivity campaign that left many people keenly aware of when they were about to say something silly, regressive, or predictable," Abebe then asks why we're no better able to explain what we like about music. He ends up with the idea that rockism is a form of intense need for a certain sound, a "passing urge", a temporary but totalizing desire, and while that's interesting, it's even more instructive that he almost immediately apologizes for even suggesting something positive might come from thinking about rockism and soon is admitting that "the hunger" for a certain genre, especially rock, "can be rigorously closed-minded."

Hey man, you know you can listen to whatever you want, right? I thought that was supposed to be the bottom-line proposition of poptimists everywhere.

But poptimism usually reminds me of middle school and high school, tellingly enough, when we started wearing our tastes on the fronts of our t-shirts and everyone found their niche; the metalheads listened to AC/DC, the hip-hop kids to NWA, and the cheerleaders to Mariah Carey, and through it all we lied to ourselves that we owned the music, could claim dibs on it like the last box of orange drink in the cafeteria, and in doing so, we made ourselves fit in. There's a poignancy in the number of times Abebe uses the word "embarrassing" in that article (three) and reflects on how liking Cloud Nothings' album Attack on Memory immediately makes him worry about being too rockist. Ultimately, poptimism has less to say about the music and more to say about us as we listen; it reflects the intense social anxiety of a culture where our personalities are put online to be judged, and we end up like a bunch of cowed teenagers afraid to admit that we love what we love.

And for this reason, it has to go. The entire paradigm. Bury it under gnawed chicken bones.

II.

The debate has been flawed from the beginning, starting with its shallow understanding of history. Poptimism presents itself as a radical break in the discourse of popular culture when instead it's an expansion of that discourse—for many reasons, a much-needed expansion, but not exactly radical. Sanneh's 2004 essay is usually referenced as the beginning of this discussion, even though he pointed to the rupture happening in music criticism in the late '70s and the public love/hate affair, mainly hate, with disco.

But this doesn't go far enough, since the core debate is really the centuries-old tension between art and the popular. Even if we stick to the 20th century there's the Frankfurt School and its suspicion of mass culture as typified by Theodor Adorno who more or less believed mass culture was a tool for dumbing down the masses. (Bear in mind that Adorno had witnessed Hitler and the National Socialists' cunning use of propaganda.) Everywhere you look between 1950-1970, there's a pop v. art debate going on: Clement Greenberg all pissed off about Pop Art, the Kefauver hearings on comic books, no-pelvis Elvis.

The first university program in popular culture studies was established in 1972 at Bowling Green State University and the field began to blossom in the late '70s. If you've ever even glanced through an issue of the Journal of Popular Culture, you know that nothing is off-limits: the Powerpuff Girls, Smallville, Stephen Colbert. Certain publications, like the one you're reading, have embraced the legitimacy of pop culture for a long time, so where have you been?

In general the Old Guard of rock critics and journalists is depicted as a bunch of bricklayers for the foundations of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. True in part, which is to say, false. 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, but if it gravitated toward "serious" rock, then someone explain to me why Ellen Willis wrote in 1968, "…who among us has soul so pure that he never liked Pat Boone?" and called Bill Doggett's "Honky Tonk" the "best rock instrumental ever recorded"? Or why Nick Tosches devotes his entire book, Unsung Heroes of Rock 'n' Roll: The Birth of Rock in the Wild Years Before Elvis (1984) to "serious" rockers-turned-social commentators like Louis Prima, Stick McGhee, and The Clovers? Or why the first book of rock history and criticism, written by Nik Cohn in 1969, is titled Awopbopaloobop Awopbamboom and has an entire chapter on "The Twist".

Like any number of movements, though, poptimism has critiqued the historical precedents by erasing them, which is easy to do in a culture wherein history isn't valued much. Rockism itself represents not only the weight of history—certain forms of it, at least, including nostalgia—but the very idea of history. Traditionalism (which would be a better word for rockism) is the policing of the present with the past, and while poptimism has railed against the tradition of rock criticism, it's simply replaced that version with an updated one: the omnivorous listener. As if this person did not exist prior to the internet.

At the same time, poptimism clearly is greatly influenced by internet culture; it's a matter of degrees, really, as the internet gives the omnivorous listener easy access to just about any kind of music. As Saul Austerlitz argued in a 2014 New York Times article unhelpfully titled "The Pernicious Rise of Poptimism", music critics have had to confront the question of what music criticism should be in such a culture. (It's one of his few points I agree with.) Chris Richards argues in a recent Washington Post article, "Do you want poptimism? Or do you want the truth?", that poptimism has led to a degradation of dissent and the rise of overwhelming consensus; poptimism, he says, "rightfully recognizes the complexity of pop music, but it too often fails to generate a justly complex conversation."

Which brings me to the second reason this whole rockist v. poptimist debate has been screwed up from the beginning: ultimately they're the same thing. Both rockists and poptimists treat music as not much more than a social commodity, a consumerized product within the spectacle of American capitalism. In both viewpoints, music is basically a product defined by its categorization into genre, but all of the music in question exists within a consumeristic framework. Rockists tend to ignore that or patently mystify it, pretending that all rock, or "real rock", has been and continues to be anti-commercial, while poptimists embrace the consumerist spectacle but ignore its implications. Ultimately, both mystify the conditions in which music occurs. Rockism commodifies the past, poptimism the present and the future.

When Austerlitz 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. It doesn't matter what publication you're read then or what you're reading now. Robert Christgau makes it plain with his Consumer's Guide, but then he's smart and obnoxious like a critic should be. My second reaction was that, on the other hand, Austerlitz's statement, crouched by that word, "priority", is nonetheless cynical; even if the industry is dominated by little more than blurbs, and even if the point of a review is to suggest whether or not the work should be purchased, he ignores the vast amount of commentary out there about music, including everything I've written, which I find totally offensive.

The third point matters the most here, and it's this: telling consumers what to purchase is still the point of a lot of music 'criticism', including the kind that cheerleads for pop stars. In fact, it's even more effective that way because everything is worth listening to, which is the only way to get someone to buy music today. As I finish this article, Rolling Stone has 27 album reviews on its site, and of those, only two receive a rating lower than three stars-out-of-five. Most are three, three-and-a-half, or four. Over on Pitchfork, where reviews are not kept from the public like sacred milk, 40 albums are listed on the first two pages. Of those, only one album gets lower than a 5.0: the hard rock supergroup Teenage Time Killer's Greatest Hits, Vol. 1, which, ha-ha, is their first record. (It got a 4.0, which really isn't that bad, now is it?) Everything else is 6.0 or above. We here at PopMatters are not immune to this grade inflation, but I'm getting tired of counting the reviews. Admittedly this is an inexact survey, but the point is that a general (p)optimism about music works as a way of selling music, or at least, everyone is hunky dory with that.

Maybe the problem is that, as Richards puts it, poptimism "asks everyone to agree on the winners and then cheer louder." It actually seems like in the poptimist paradigm, everyone's a sort-of winner—or at least, not a loser. But the disagreement he asks for won't go very far if we're focused on something as lame as winners and losers, who's got the most clout, who's selling more records, who's hipper, all of it a bunch of consumeristic nonsense I thought we were supposed to outgrow after high school.

The real problem, from the beginning, is that poptimism has bent the knee to the spectacle of consumerism just as much, if not more so, than rockism. This was not, and is not, written in stone. In other words, lest I be accused of being a rockist, pop music is not inherently capitalist anymore than any other kind of music. Richard Dyer put it well in an influential defense of disco published in Gay Left in 1979. Arguing that disco could be and should be used positively in gay culture, he noted that the "major problem for capitalism is that there is no necessary or guaranteed connection between exchange-value and use-value; in other words, capitalism as productive relations can just as well make a profit from something that is ideologically opposed to bourgeois society as something that supports it." Disco, then, could be used for politically leftist purposes even if it was produced by the giants of capitalist industry.

If only this was a major part of poptimist discourse today, or rockist discourse, or any mainstream discourse. Although we have become, like Abebe, self-conscious about what we listen to and how we might be embarrassed socially, we're less conscious or critical about the music industry and the increasingly pernicious and limiting dominance of consumerism. Nearly all of the music discussed is released or distributed by one of the three megamonolithic corporations, Universal, Sony, or Warner. In 2014, according to a Nielsen report, those three accounted for 86 percent of all music distribution in the United States. Squeamishness about corporate sponsorship is a relic of rockist dissent (partly because rockers were happy to sell their songs), and now no one bats an eye when a song like The Orwells' "Who Needs You" is used by Apple to sell its product on the time-tested, adolescent-approved back of rebellion. As artists struggle to make money from online streaming and downloads, we sneer at the admittedly poorly-executed unveiling of Tidal. Presenting itself as inclusive, poptimism doesn't ask about the diversity of those running the labels or the profits of those artists.

In short, I have yet to see a poptimist's take on how the changing music industry and its hilarious pratfalls and self-destructive idiotic mistakes from 1996-2012 have affected the terms of the rockist v. poptimist debate: how the industry's ridiculously misguided "educational lawsuits" against its own young customers over illegal file-sharing might have influenced resentment against the creaky establishment of the record business and the olds like Metallica; how the labels' refusal to nurture talent has resulted in more turnover, creating the sense of more and more musicians out there; how we can still consider a label "independent" when it's controlled by the shareholders of one of three multinational corporations, and how that, I don't know, might detract a bit from a utopian vision of inclusivity; how the difficulty of making a buck from a record might lead to someone like me being kinder to a record than I might be otherwise—in a time of low-value material abundance, we're all okay with handing out three-and-a-half stars.

Rockism and poptimism alike have succumbed to this silence. Why? Dyer writes that "(o)ne of the dangers of materialist politics is that it is in constant danger of spiritualising itself", and I would suggest, for your consideration, not wishing to offend, that what the rockist v. poptimist paradigm shows us is that we have, by and large, become apolitical materialists who have succeeded in spiritualizing the hell out of music. Our holy, unseen religion is the spectacle as Guy Debord described it way back in 1967, and though he probably didn't have a vision of Twitter, you might think he did when he wrote that "all individual reality has become social reality directly dependent on social power and shaped by it." Or to put it another way, a more direct and terrifying way as described by Alain Badiou, "'freedom' has been reduced to the freedom to trade and consume."

III.

The truth is that we've been duped—by ourselves, by this stupid "debate", by questions like this one from the usually astute Jody Rosen at Slate in 2006: "The rockist-poptimist polarity is often false, and even when it's not, must we choose sides?" Set aside the philosophical problems with the first two-thirds of that sentence. The answer is: no, you never have to choose sides when it comes to art. Why would you even ask?

Poptimism has resulted in an odd kind of snobbery. One comment you read again and again in these articles is how the rockism v. poptimism debate is something only musical wonks are concerned with. Regular people—and to even make that distinction tells you something—don't care about this stuff because they're eclectic in their habits. Lobbying against rockism, Sanneh wrote more or less this, adding, "Are you really pondering the phony distinction between 'great art' and a 'guilty pleasure' when you're humming along to the radio?" For many people, the answer's probably no, of course not. Rosen quotes from Carl Wilson's 2006 EMP conference talk, which led to his book Let's Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste. "A critical generation claiming to swear off all bourgeois elitist bias," wrote Wilson, "seems at least obliged to account for the immense popularity of someone we've collectively deemed so devoid of appeal."

I'm a late Gen-X'er, a bit younger than Wilson I'm guessing, and I don't remember agreeing to swear off elitist bias. In fact, when did I ever belong to the bourgeois in the first place so that I might need to swear it off? And when did liking some music and not liking other music undeniably equate with elitist bias? If the perceived problem is that we, as critics with our clout, are punching down at the masses—don't worry, guys and gals, that's not the problem anymore. We're ordinary people now. And maybe that explains our need to differentiate ourselves as enlightened Everymen and Everywomen, to reclaim some of the high ground.

Maybe this explains why, lurking under this discourse way too often, there's the sneering proposition that regular folks don't care much about what's good and what's not, and don't care to make distinctions about what's art and what's not art. I don't know if you've read any YouTube comments lately, but people do like to argue about this. Taste matters as a social distinction but also as a fundamental way of defining one's self, of defining what one finds beautiful and wonderful, surprising and moving.

And so, thinking through all of this, I've ended up in a weird place: arguing against an obsession with the social repercussions of our private tastes and total hegemony of what Debord called "social reality" while, at the same time, defending my right and your right to define our own tastes. We can all proudly wear our tastes on our t-shirts without having to be so damn self-conscious about it. Maybe that's not so weird; maybe it's just being human.

Because the worst thing about this debate is how it has dehumanized music; instead of an act performed by a human being, a song becomes a product created by a celebrity or a celebrity-in-the-making. Judged entirely by social prestige, what we think about music is dominated by social reality. We become sociologists of ourselves and others, staring at, evaluating, competing with one another, but not really having conversations where we might disagree. The discourse has become the passive murmuring of spectators afraid of shouting, afraid of saying "No" unless there's a chorus of people behind us already saying the same thing.

So it's up into the garbage bin, carrying this lie of rockism v. poptimism wrapped in a respectful shroud so I can plunge it into a mountain of half-eaten cheese fries. All that's good about both sides of the debate—as if there are sides, and not people—will survive since those things were always bigger than rockism v. poptimism. That's why we created those terms in the first place.

Get rid of them. Move past them. Stop using that language and find a new one. If we're to move on from poptimism v. rockism, though, we won't find that language unless we change our viewpoint on the music itself. We might start by reclaiming a new sense of history. We might remember that musicians and listeners are persons, not corporations. The communities we all depend on are incredibly valuable only if they don't reduce themselves to market audiences, genre fans, and faceless swaths of ideas. We can be so much more than that.

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