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Rock Against Rockism: Why Liking The Boss Is Not Conservative
Emily Mackay , March 17th, 2012 14:34

Some daft herbert of a researcher recently claimed that one crunching guitar riff can have you signing on the dotted line as a sexist, truck-drivin' member of the nasty right wing. What twaddle, argues Emily Mackay

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Sometimes you can tell just from a headline that you're about to be made very, very angry. I dom't know what possessed me to click through to an article entitled 'Study suggests that listening to Bruce Springsteen could make you 'racist'' but I did, and now here we are. Aside from the fact that the research in question, from the University of Minnesota, seems about as sociologically solid as a a cottage-cheese clipboard, its conclusions give malnourishing fodder to a lazy assumption that seems more and more prevalent. The equation of rockism, or just listening to mainstream rock, with racism is an extreme form of the common assumption in critical circles that rock music is ipso facto conservative in tendency.

The textbook anti-rockist article, Kelefa Sanneh's Rap Against Rockism, asked: “Rockism isn't unrelated to older, more familiar prejudices… could it really be a coincidence that rockist complaints often pit straight white men against the rest of the world?”. Many lesser critics than him have since picked up this idea and run with it, to the point that admitting a liking for the rock'n'roll canon essentially puts you on the side of the old and the oppressive.

Sanneh's article, an elegant analysis of the way pop music has in the past been dismissed and belittled by old-school critics, made many valuable points. No doubt, there are many racist, sexist rock fans. There are also doubtless a lot of racist, sexist, hip-hop, dance and pop fans. There's no need to look for something inherent in the nature of mainstream rock music that attracts or makes bigots because some idiots like it. The history of rock music, an older form than rap or dance, has historically been dominated by white men. But then, a lot of things have been historically dominated by white men. We're getting there with that, you know, and there's no need to throw the riffs out with the bathwater.

And yes, there are many closed-minded idiots preaching in the cause of rock who cling to false notions of authenticity. But, I'd argue, there are starting to be just as many annoying tits in the anti-rock camp who cling to an illusion of modernity. Pop or dance as the sound of the future, of youth, of shiny surface and Kylie driving her Kraftwerk-engineered car toward the neon boulevards made of synthpop, while Cro-Magnon guitar man screeches and smashes up his axe in frustration on the rocky hard-shoulder. There are critics wheeling out tired tropes on both sides of this false divide, and the most tired trope of all is the continued pitting of rock (whether you're pro or anti) against other genres you perceive to be more progressive by their very nature.

As Sanneh also points out, the ideal here is not to defeat rock – it's to get to a place where we don't need to create such fake tribes. That's not the way most of us listen to music. And it's not like, if you actually look around you, rock is even a dominant form that needs to be overthrown any more. Example, Tinie Tempah, Ed Sheeran and Chase And Status rule the UK charts and live scene, and pop sales are on an equal footing with rock and on an upward trajectory. Far from disparaged from on high, pop is top of the critical pile, with guitar bands falling over themselves to identify themselves as pop fans and writers of pop music. Pop plays freely with rock's regalia and poses, from Britney Spear's 'I Love Rock And Roll' to the X-Factors omivorous cover pickings to Rihanna (and everyone else's) declaration that “Ooh baby I'm a rock star” (This would be the same Rihanna, by-the-by, so beloved of poptimists, that just invited the man who beat her face bloody to guest on her new song. Progressive.)

In Jody Rosen's equally excellent Slate article from 2006, The Perils Of Poptimism, he identifies himself as a pop lover, but says “Poptimism... is a pure product of the zeitgeist, and as such, it's probably wise to keep an eye out for its perils, lest what began as a necessary corrective devolve into, as Sanneh wrote of rockism, a caricature used as a bludgeon against other music.” Rosen warned wisely against poptimism becoming a mere “glib exercise in pseudo-populism and in tweaking the boomers instead of a real effort to engage history and figure out what makes good music and why... Ideally, poptimism shouldn't be about critics working through their daddy issues and straining to prove that they're hipper than Greil Marcus,” he concluded. “It should be about openness to all kinds of music—including music that seems to embody rockist ideals... The rockist-poptimist polarity is often false, and even when it's not, must we choose sides?”

It's not a warning that many critics seem to be heeding. It's become received form to have a sort of guilt about or scepticism towards bands who dared to consist of MEN playing GUITARS. The reformation of the Stone Roses was one recent bone of contention between rockist and poptimist camps, writers rushing to to their barricades. One of the greatest British guitar bands ever! Ladrock chancers! I wasn't around so this means nothing to my flaming youth! Over in no-mans land, I wondered where I was supposed to stand if I was too young for them the first time round, liked Robyn but was actually quite excited because the Stone Roses wrote a lot of amazing songs? (I settled on 'down the front, dancing'). You can automatically criticise, it seems, a band for being into the Roses, or Oasis, or the Jam, without needing further explanation as to why that indicates a stunted taste any more than if they cited Beefheart and Can or Aaliyah and J Dilla. Much as I'm not the biggest Vaccines fan, or the biggest Yuck fan, I do wonder what people are on about sometimes when the just as stylised and retro synthpop and industrial electronica of the likes of La Roux (who I love) or Zola Jesus (who I also love) get no such stick. They're women, you see, with keyboards, so that means they're from THE FUTURE. Are the likes of Client, with their haughty, I-am-a-sex-robot, Euro-froideur more modern because they wear PVC dresses and fetishise cold electronics rather than licks? Or are they pretty much Brother with a different, more critically acceptable set of references?

This assumption that electronic music is automatically more modern and progressive is an odd one. Guitars do not grow in clusters in Arcadian groves, dropping harmonics as they sway in the breeze. They too are meticulously designed machines in the strict sense of the word. That's why the tuning pegs are also called machine heads. That's why Woody Guthrie's (yes, I'm going to talk about Woody fucking Guthrie, get over it) had a sticker on it that read 'this machine kills fascists'. A guitar is no more natural or traditional than a Kaoss pad; the electric guitar and synthesiser were invented in the same decade, and yet guitar rock is routinely disparaged as stuck in the past.

And anyway, even if electronic music did have the future hardwired into it, the shock of the new that poptimists tend to crave is only one kind of shock, and the search for The New Sound can be a wild goose chase. As a younger form of criticism, when attempting to deconstruct pop and rock music, writers have often borrowed the tools or art and literary theory. Postmodernism of course, has much to do with the poptimist debunking of author-centred 'authenticity' and vaunting of commercial pop's sparkly transience, its ironic revelling in itself as product. The bit of my my own undergraduate dabblings I always think of when I think about how songs work, though, is Russian Formalism (stay with me, the hamfisted academia bit doesn't last long). That school of thought viewed literature as a series of devices, a machine for distorting everday language. By the way its form deviates from normal language, it focuses the reader's attention both on the language and what it is saying. As Roman Jakobson put it, “organized violence committed on ordinary speech”. Similarly, the form's deviation from itself, tiny tweaks of the unexpected in a familiar structure, can have a powerful effect. The form used and its antiquity aren't really as important as how you choose to mess with it. Innovation within form is the source of artistic epiphany, not pure innovation, which of course, doesn't exist. Similarly, the most hoary old blues can, by a sudden unexpected word or image, a blast of noise or a leftfield chord meander, slap you awake from its routine in a way that can be just as effective, if not more so, than scouring your ears in a bath of 'progressive' noise. In their survey of racist-makers, our friends in Minnesota also picked on Jack White, the man that more than any this past decade, has been a living example of that. Jack's hero Billy Childish and his Stuckist friends also offer a useful counter to the notion that old methods can only produce tired content. You can still weave tomorrow's trousers out of a frame loom.

But you shouldn't have to go to such lengths to explain how brilliant 'Let's Shake Hands' or 'Atlantic City' are. There shouldn't be any shame involved in enjoying good mainstream rock music that walks the main road of blues and rock history; it's not a guilty pleasure any more than chart pop is. To paraphrase Peaches on her witty guest spot on Chicks On Speed's 'We Don't Play Guitars', I listen to guitars, and love it. This does not make me a bad feminist, dim or limited, asinine or retrogressive in my taste. It most definitely does not make me a bit on the racist side. You can write open-minded, open-hearted music as well on a lute as you can an iPad. Or as the same Mr Bruce Springsteen put it in his wonderful, funny and firmly pro-pop SXSW keynote address: “The elements you're using don’t matter. Purity of human expression and experience is not confined to guitars, to tubes, to turntables, to microchips. There is no right way, no pure way of doing it. There's just doing it.” A good workman never blames his tools. And as Banarama once sang, it ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it. They didn't play guitars either, but that wasn't the point.

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Mar 17, 2012 7:45pm

You could easily take Springsteen's argument a step further and suggest that making contemporary music--admittedly a subjective category--on acoustic instruments is much more radical than innovation through technology. I don't see how anyone has made anything more radical than Ornette Coleman's "Free Jazz" in the years since, if we take radical to mean going to the root of in this case musical conceptions.

That, and we get to how radically humane Springsteen's songs are in their narratives. He never does slogans, only people.

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Mar 18, 2012 2:17am

Liking Bruce Springsteen in no way makes one racist! That's claptrap!

It does make you boring, though. The best writing that really articulated exactly why I've never liked his music appeared in the book "The Mansion on the Hill: Dylan, Young, Geffen, Springsteen, and the Head-on Collision of Rock and Commerce" by Fred Goodman. In it, he describes how Springsteen didn't create rock; instead he created a Broadway simulacrum of it!

"Bingo!" said I!

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Mar 18, 2012 4:07am

Electronic music IS more progressive. Not because of the technology, but because it is much more experimental, and much more willing take on different compositional styles. This is why pop music is considered more progressive as well. They're more willing to take on new influences and change the beat. They don't just reinvent the trousers they change the actual skeleton.

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Mar 18, 2012 4:56am

In reply to Andrew:

When was the last time you listened to "Free Jazz"? That record is an ass-kicker.

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Mar 18, 2012 5:53am

In reply to Bill:

Yes, but I found it was a little off topic in a rock vs. pop type discussion. Naturally, if you dip into jazz and modern classical you're going to find a lot of radical stuff. I am continually surprised by what can be done live with acoustic instruments. Derek Bailey is one guitarist that comes to mind. As I said, it's not the instruments or the technology. It's the composition and the willingness to mess with form.

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Mar 18, 2012 6:50am

In reply to postpunkmonk:

I don't think anyone ever accredited the invention of rock to Springsteen.

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Mar 18, 2012 8:58am

"the shock of the new that poptimists tend to crave is only one kind of shock, and the search for The New Sound can be a wild goose chase."
This line made me LOL. Who is actually creating such a thing in the world of pop? I haven't been "shocked" by a "new sound" for at least a decade. The pop music I've been hearing lately strikes me as very tired, uninspired and recycled, like a bad collage. But perhaps that is due to my lack of cultural amnesia and the fact that I was somewhat conscious throughout the 80's and 90's.
BTW style, form and media do not, in and of themselves, qualify a piece of work. And there's no such thing as a "new" beat, just one that is new to the listener.
Regardless, I get the impression that a lot of these arguments are made within a very limited scope, both culturally and temporally.

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Mar 18, 2012 11:50am

In reply to Andrew:

no, electronic music is not inherently more progressive than rock music, nor any more willing to take on other influences, although you could get that impression from the big commercial rock acts, which generally seem to be entirely tiresome - but then big commercial electronic acts are hardly pushing the avant-garde, either. is, say, david guetta somehow more progressive than kasabian? or are they both just rehashing tired old unimaginative nonsense that sounded dated a decade ago?

this is a false duality. there are tedious adherents to form and interesting, forward-thinking musicians in all kinds of music, regardless of broad genre. the progressive is always there, but it largely happens at the margins.

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Mar 18, 2012 1:31pm

Listening to Brucie just makes you boring.

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Angus Finlayson
Mar 18, 2012 4:46pm

Great read Emily, thanks. You're right, of course, it would do everybody a lot of good to leave this dualism behind. I think it had a lot of traction a few decades ago - the disco sucks campaign, for example, was essentially an expression of racist & homophobic sentiment thinly veiled with a rockist discourse of 'authenticity', I don't think you could read it any other way - and, although as you say cultural theory as applied to pop music is a comparatively 'young' discipline, these days it seems to fall back heavily on the major theoretical breakthroughs of the 70s, 80s and 90s (when variously disco/house/techno/rave where both shockingly new & excitingly egalitarian, and what was deemed critically worthy in rock music - post-punk, say - tended to rely on the use of dance forms or electronic instruments).
BUT, from a UK perspective at least, I think the post-britpop wave of utterly unimaginative indie that blighted the charts for most of the noughties is a taste still fresh in people's mouths (Brother are an example of how the legacy of Oasis just won't die, and personally I think it's totally legitimate to find that repulsive - just my view though of course). Not to mention the recent ubiquity of the New Twee which, as has been argued on this website, manages to accurately express the gated-community mentality of the white middle class to the exclusion of the poor and disenfranchised - and does so, at least in part, through recourse to notions of earthy, homely, rural authenticity.
So yeah, it's a false dichotomy, but one which I think people could be forgiven for sketching out given the evidence in front of them. Of course that's not to say that Guetta or LMFAO articulate something innately more 'progressive', and those exerting a stultifying force on contemporary culture exist on both sides of the line. I am slightly uncomfortable, though, about the use of the rihanna/chris brown thing as a stick with which to beat mainstream R&B - as to do so inevitably over-simplifies the complex web of issues surrounding what was a very public case of domestic abuse. There's a black sky thinking in that one I'd say.

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Mar 18, 2012 5:15pm

Article put to one side, but nice one for having an unprovoked, irrelevant go at a victim of domestic violence who you know presumably as little about as anyone else. Pick your targets. Generally better form to attack the abuser rather than the abused.

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Mar 18, 2012 5:26pm

In reply to Andrew:

I took it in the context of Springsteen's remark about the technology one uses to make music. Ornette and co. use all-acoustic instruments to deeply radical effect. To be sure, Ornette's done great stuff with electronics as well. My point is that one can use any technology in a reactionary or in a radical way. For techno types, the reactionary position lies in taking a new machine with new parameters and pretending that its limits represent innovation. At one point, it was cool to use a chorus pedal, and people imagined it was somehow innovative. In fact, it was just another button.

Many, or maybe I should say some, techno musicians do in fact develop new relationships to sound through technology, and that's radical.

With Springsteen, I haven't found a white musician who is more capable of using narrative to disarm racist ideas than him, at least not who sold millions of records. I'm thinking particularly of "The Ghost of Tom Joad."

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Mar 19, 2012 8:06am

hardly see bruce in black, unlike electronic artists. he must be racist then.

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John Calvert
Mar 20, 2012 11:29am

Aint nuttin wrong with the boss. Any man who covers Suicide, makes an album cover of his tight buns, and plays a 2 and half hour Glasto headline set, is worth his weight in gold

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John Thomas
Mar 26, 2012 11:32pm

Is this really something that music fans are talking about?
It seems to me it's more a case of a music journalist writing about what another music journalist said, thereby creating a subject for more music journalists to write about.
Jobs for the boys and girls.

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Mar 27, 2012 9:33am

Well said. Poptimism has become too presumptious by far.
Will anyone dare admit that an album like The Joshua Tree has actually aged better than anything by Heaven 17 or that an all-male band like the Manics have probably done more to tune their fans into feminism than the rather muddled notions Beyonce has bestowed upon us or that Johnny Marr created beauty where Quincy Jones deployed bombast?
I'm in complete agreement that everything has its place and keep open ears but I'm sick of being made to feel like I'm some kind of befuddled paleontologist for liking gutiar music.
Even with the whole Lana del Ray issue I found myself wondering if maybe her much-maligned critics might have a point.
We've had a decade of auto-tune, compression, reality/talent show stars and shiny surfaces. Surely in the current climate these things are what is oppressive (not least when the
surface of the complacent-no-longer world around us is losing its varnish and can't afford to re-touch it on this occasion) the call for authenticity that rose up might have been rather simplistic, but it did least show an urge for something different.
Incidentally if preferring rock is implicitly bigoted, well surely there is much about the acceptable music syles where the bigotry is EX-plicit. A lot of pop artistes are let off the hook for a reactionary, self-serving attitude. Compared to which Bruce (and his fans) seem very open and welcoming.

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Mar 27, 2012 11:32am

In reply to mrg:

Amen to that sir/madam - how right you are

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Apr 1, 2012 12:24am

Dominic, I think you're missing the forest for the trees. There doesn't have to be a headline stating "electronic music is progressive" for that attitude to be enshrined in its imagery and aesthetics. Classic rock stations don't play Kraftwerk. We can all name forward-thinking and formulaic acts in both rock and electronic (and their innumerable subgenres), but the ethos still holds.

Perhaps a way out is to consider form and content? I.e. where are the Billy Braggs, Pete Seegers and Bruce Springsteen of techno? Good rock music, IMO, has always addressed social issues regardless of whether it sounds tired or not. As much as I love electronic, it's almost free from social commentary (e.g. the most abstract and astral of psytrance comes from Israel, where you'd think there'd be plenty to write about.)

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Apr 2, 2012 10:58pm

In reply to John Thomas:

Yeah, maybe I'm too far from the demographic here, being an American, but many of the ideas in this article like the notion that you have to have a political affiliation that is reflected in what band you like or the idea that a woman cannot be progressive if she makes up with a man that hurt her just don't hold any weight to me. I feel like the article got so far from the issue that it was just an exercise in how many topics, references and digressions she could make before reaching the word limit: journalistic masturbation. In the end I don't think a solid point was made about WHY rock music doesn't make one conservative as the title suggests. And why are the future and liberalism equated? I must really not understand life in the UK. Either that or people are looking into this way too deeply. My two cents (and a point I thought the writer was starting to talk about at the beginning before injecting Russian Formalism into the piece): The music you listen to is a small piece of a larger picture that is the environment in which you're brought up. If you know the midwest US, you know it's the upper Christ belt and generally conservative. It's mostly because of the church and its views, as well as the idea that people want to live in small towns and keep their culture (which includes "white music" or "heartland rock"). But to imply that the music itself has any impact on the political stance seems pretty ridiculous. Anyway, that's what I'd have retorted as a mostly liberal American, part minority, part white and lover of music of any genre as long as it's sincere. I really don't think the average person considers the music they listen to to be a reflection of their political stance. It seems like a made up concept in the world of academia and people immersed in the intellectual debate within music. I believe the broad generalizations and hypotheses in this article to be mostly unfounded. Sometimes it befits a person so immersed in the complexities and minutiae of their field of study to step back and realize the molehill they've transformed in their analytic haze. It's only rock n roll, whether you like it or not. Cheers.

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May 18, 2012 3:11am

Conservative = Sexist = Right Wing = Old White Men = Racist

Conflation bonanza!

Stick to music, or whatever this article was supposed to be about.

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David Grant
Aug 9, 2015 1:39am

As a member of Gen X, I grew up listening to the music of 1960's is that I really despised the music of the day. I hated it because it was boring, soulless, and devoid of any sentiment or emotion. Once I found a campus radio station, it challenged my perceptions of the 1980s music and I expanded my choices to include a lot of other musical genres and styles which were authentic. While there are a few songs from the 1980's that I like, I haven't changed my perceptions of that period. The argument that is levelled against people who are rockists(this applies to baby-boomers), I can bet anyone that if I looked at the musical collection of these poptimists, it would be pretty narrow. I remember when my friend played the Animals to a group of his peers, they looked at the exact same way the poptimists rockists behave. In my opinion, people should be trying to stretch the envelope and try to be unique. That is something you can't say is true of the contemporary music, except at a campus or community radio station. Free yourself from the commercial music and check out your local campus station for some music for a change.

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