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Is Poptimism Now As Blinkered As The Rockism It Replaced?
Michael Hann , May 11th, 2017 07:29

With every pop release hailed like the coming of a prophet have the big names of the mainstream sucked up too much critical oxygen? Michael Hann asks if poptimism has merely ended up becoming as narrow minded as the rockism it usurped. (Pictured - the "pop South Sea Bubble" of PC Music)

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"A rockist is someone who reduces rock & roll to a caricature, then uses that caricature as a weapon. Rockism means idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star; lionizing punk while barely tolerating disco; loving the live show and hating the music video; extolling the growling performer while hating the lip-syncher."

Those are the words of Kelefa Sanneh, from a 2004 piece in the New York Times that served as a manifesto for poptimism, the belief that pop was being short-changed and needed to be defended. It rallied the lovers of pop against those who would dismiss music for not being, well, made by blokes with guitars. At that time, the strength and worth of Sanneh's words was evident. That was a point at which music's conversation was being dominated by whey-faced rock bands, by the postpunk revivalists coming out of New York and London, by earnest Canadians such as Broken Social Scene and Arcade Fire. It was the highpoint of indie rock's supremacy, the days when the right trousers and a little bit of attitude could buy you a million great reviews, high slots on festival bills, and major label record deals.

That's not the case now, of course, which is no bad thing. But has something else replaced rockism? Try turning around Sanneh's sentences, and they make sense today, 13 years on, but with a very different meaning: "A poptimist is someone who reduces pop music to a caricature, then uses that caricature as a weapon. Poptimism means idolising the latest pop star while mocking the authentic old legend; lionising disco while barely tolerating punk; loving the music video and hating live performance; extolling the lip-syncher while hating the growling performer."

Ideologies congeal. They cease to be alternatives and become hegemonies. Where once they sought to change the debate, they come to dictate it. They become the pigs at the end of Animal Farm, adopting all the grisly accoutrements of whatever they came to supplant. That's as true in music as it is in politics. It happened with punk; it happened with Britpop. Movements that were insurgent became establishment; they were codified with their own set of rules about what and what was not acceptable.

That's true of poptimism, too. Poptimists argued, once, that the disposal and the shiny were as valuable as the self-consciously worthy. They argued that the single was as worthwhile as the album. They insisted that unquestioning reverence for a style of music - reverence that was adopted just because that was the way things were, rather than because of any inherent worth in the music - was unjustified.

Now, though, pop occupies the space that, for many years, rock had colonised: the one in which, in the critic Douglas Wolk's words, rock was "normative", in other words, "rock is the standard state of popular music: the kind to which everything is compared, explicitly or implicitly". That's now the case with pop, and other non-rock genres, such as R&B and hip-hop.

It turns out, though, that the poptimists are just as proscriptive as the rockists. Poptimism has its own sacred cows, which are beyond challenge:

*The solo release by the member of a manufactured group is no longer the sad addendum to the imperial years; it is a profound statement of artistic integrity.

*The surprise release by the big-name act is in itself, a revolutionary act.

*To not care about Taylor Swift or Beyoncé or Lady Gaga or Zayn Malik is in itself questionable. It reveals not your taste in music, but your prejudices. In the worst-case scenario, you may be revealing your unconscious racism and sexism. At best, you're trolling.

*Commercial success, in and of itself, should be taken as at least one of the markers of quality. After all, 50m Elvis fans can't be wrong.

*Just as "authenticity" is worthless as a symbol of a music's worth, so contrivance and cynicism might be elevated and celebrated, as evidence of the maker's awareness of the game they are playing. (The pop South Sea Bubble that was the explosion of excitement around PC Music a couple of years back fits this bill.)

Poptimism's victory was sealed by the rise of algorithms and analytics. They meant editors and publishers, at the upmarket end as well as the downmarket, could see that stories about Beyoncé and Taylor and Rihanna and Justin et al were read, in a way that reviews of Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs weren't. But, if you're upmarket, you can't just be reporting that Bieber's fallen down some steps, or that Beyoncé sneezed. You need to be able to justify your coverage, and that meant thinkpieces hailing the cultural significance of the new pop stars. After all, if your publication is serious, and covers subjects because they matter, you have to prove those subjects matter. And once you've decided these subjects matter, it's hard to turn round and say: "Actually, you know what? This isn't much cop."

I know that to be true, because (as music editor of The Guardian) I've been commissioning those pieces, knowing they will be read, and knowing that someone more senior than me has noticed Justin Bieber has done something silly and will want some consideration of that fact. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, artists are taken seriously because they are treated seriously, and they are treated seriously because people want to read about them. If no one wanted to read about Taylor Swift, you would never see another thinkpiece about her. Instead, we enter an arms race of hyperbole, as we credit her with forcing Apple to change its streaming terms, dismantling the musical patriarchy, creating new paradigms in music and society.

Poptimism, in practice, has not meant championing those who do not get the acclaim they are due, so much as celebrating the position of artists who don't need their genius proclaimed, because the top of the charts rather than the underground is poptimism's home turf. And the default position of poptimism is to celebrate, rather than to critique. No one wants to be the killjoy, and that mood gets transmitted through the cultural conversation. Hence the uncertain but glowing reviews that poptimist causes celèbre receive from mainstream critics on releasing their new albums: no one wants to be the person who called the Beyoncé album rubbish after they had been allowed to listen to it once. Poptimism wants cheerleaders. It has got them, even among those who are not naturally cheerleaders. And those who benefit are not the outliers of pop, but the superstars and the major labels. Poptimism invites us to adore fame for its own sake, much as rockism invited us to bow down before Dylan and the Stones and Springsteen because, as any fule kno, they are the authentic greats.

Music shouldn't be about taking sides. Of course it shouldn't. And we all know that, which is why most of us bar the most genre-loyalist are happy to have multiple styles of music in our homes. We might even listen to Taylor Swift and Bob Dylan and The Fall on the same day. Most people aren't rockists or poptimists; they just listen to music, and they like it or they don't. But people are people: opinions might be shaped by the tone of a debate, or even by the fact that the debate is happening. If 5,000 thinkpieces appear about Beyoncé in any given week, by the end of that week, an awful lot of people are going to feel the need to have an opinion about Beyoncé, just as a previous generation felt they had to have an opinion about Dylan.

Poptimists need to return to asking the same questions they did when they questioned rockism: Does this record have merit beyond the name of its maker? Am I assessing it in line with a set of my own prejudices, or on its own merits? Is this album's worth defined by its status or its content? Poptimism was a way of interrogating the way people thought about music, about asking them to challenge their own preconceptions and their own confirmation biases about what did and did not constitute good music.

Now it is its own set of preconceptions and confirmation biases. And that’s no use to poptimism, to good critical thinking, or to music itself. The creatures outside looked from poptimist to rockist, and from rockist to poptimist, and from poptimist to rockist again: but already it was impossible to say which was which.

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May 11, 2017 9:37am

A twelve-year-old post on a message board Michael knows well (NB not written by me, but by another Tim):

"But I'd distinguish between two forms of popism here:

1) the popism which is rockist about pop - this is a genuine heartfelt passionate belief that pop and its associated aesthetic approaches are simply better or (uh oh) more authentic than rock.
2) popism as a strategic "identity politics" for the anti-rockist resistance - whereby an alliance with popist values becomes useful as a way of breaking out of rockist tradition - but the value of these values lies more in the fact that by dint of their difference they seem to make the case for critical diversity and open-mindedness.

Were popism ever to become the "new rockism" outside the limited confines of ILX, then the value of the second position would obviously be undermined."

(There's lots of good stuff on that thread on this subject, and lots of nonsense too.)

I'm inclined to think that Michael's probably describing something true, because he lives in this world far more than I do, but I wouldn't half love him to have linked to some of the places where the unassailable sacred cows he describes are actually set out. Without that it's really hard to judge whether the "sacred cows" are in fact "straw men". As Laura Snapes says on a twitter thread related to this article, "most serious pop crit I read (by writers and fans) is really nuanced" - that's my experience too.

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May 11, 2017 9:52am

Sorry if I'm being reductive but wasn't pop supposed to be fun? By all means get arty or even political with it but the problem with Pitchfork pop is it's dry as fuck, where's the fun?

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May 11, 2017 10:30am

In reply to Asunderground:

I agree that fun is very important. Even great records by Great Serious Rockers can be great fun, too.

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May 11, 2017 10:45am

Tim's right. I want to agree with this piece and I mostly do, but it's not rigorous to throw out these blanket statements without supporting evidence in the form of articles and reviews and using really vague language... I believe the material is there, and it would make your point a billion times stronger!

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May 11, 2017 11:32am

From the point-of-view of someone who listens to a lot of so-called art music, I have to say, rockists don't do art either. There's really no shortage of middle-aged men who hate jazz (cause it's notey) but will deify a rock drummer for having a jazz background.

Both rock and pop have their creative forces and creative boundaries. They're both prone to generating commercial schlock and the odd game changers.

The trouble with popism and rockism is that neither of them really respect that the art of listening to music is personal. Their both cynical about individual tastes, and neither really wants to accept that we might simply have something else to listen to.

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May 11, 2017 12:18pm

In reply to Tim:

Sorry but I don't understand this post.

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May 11, 2017 12:25pm

A few posters are asking for the writer to give examples to back up the claims made in his excellent article..... Ladies and Gentlemen I give you "Lemonade" by Beyonce. "A Seat at The Table" by Solange and "Purpose" by Justin Beiber. Albums that are taken far too seriously based simply on who released them. The main problem intellectualising this type of music (pop)...context becomes everything and the music almost fades into the background.

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May 11, 2017 1:48pm

All genres of contemporary popular music (meaning anything referencing notions of "releasing," "fanbases" "airplay" "touring" ,etc.) suffer due to diminishing economic benefit and consumer gratification.

Both pop and indie types release what are essentially demos that lack the attention to detail once provided by conventional label support and promotion (even independent label support and promotion - SST,Frontier, etc.) There is little to engage the listener beyond a few initial "exposures."

Metal, hardcore and "punk" (what exactly is that anymore, anyway?) exist primarily as legacy entertainments or a weekend hobby - lacking any real connection to the angry, confused young folk who were once a vital primary audience.

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May 11, 2017 1:48pm

I see poptamism as the embrace of mediocrity. Something pushed by yuppie music journalists who despise the lower class fans of rock music.
Now, ignoring any opinions on whether they are good music or not, nickleback was the go to major hatred of the hip kids. But at the same time they sold so many albums, topped the charts. Someone out there was buying their crap. And it probably wasn't some coastal urbanite p4k writer.
But you could say the same thing about the insane clown posse, everyone hates them, why? because their fans are a majority of trashy lower class people....also their music sucks.
The poptamists like to push poptamism as some sort of embrace of diversity and women or some crap, when really its just capitalism masked as social progress.
Oh, stop listening to that obscure Japanese afrobeat album, ONLY LISTEN TOBEYONCE, BEYONCE QUEEN BEYONCE JOIN THE CULT OF PERSONALITY FOR A MUSICIANS THATS MEDIOCRE EVEN BY POP STANDARDS, poptamism is blindly accepting and eating whatever pile of dung the record company puts in front of you....dont like it? WHAT ARE YOU A ROCKIST!!!

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May 11, 2017 4:08pm

Michael, you should have written this piece for the Guardian while you still worked there. Over here you're just preaching to the choir.

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May 11, 2017 4:32pm

In reply to Andrew:

I agree with your statement here, Andrew. The final paragraph.

Good discussion thread in general so far, and solid article.

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Terrible Sal
May 11, 2017 4:37pm

I do hope that the pop "think piece" will be a thing of the past. One of the main problems is that so many of these pieces are written so poorly, coming off like some recent graduate who has transferred from their college school paper with an axe to grind writing vacuous and hyperbolic schlock while under the gun from his/her parent company who's main interest are the amount of clicks the page gets. Pop or rock. Fun or serious. Is it any good? As others have mentioned, so much of this has reduced the actual music itself. Also, is there anything else more sad and dull than "indie gossip"?

Thank you Quietus for being one of the few music/culture sites that still has any integrity.

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Ned Raggett
May 11, 2017 4:52pm

In reply to Tim:

Now I have to admit, seeing a Tim Finney comment on a thread that was started due to a piece of my own on the subject back in 2005 does bring back the memories...

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May 11, 2017 6:22pm


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May 11, 2017 9:39pm

Bah. Poptimism, rockism, whatever. I'm rooting for noisism. Until there's a hijokaidan record in every home then we can't hardly be said to have progressed as a society, now can we?

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Beep Beep
May 11, 2017 9:54pm

This could have been a Really Good Piece. Unfortunately, much like The Guardian's music pages, it's just a barely coherent rant. A jumble of words that tries too hard to fit under the umbrella of its title.

There is nothing wrong with being a fan of pop. There is nothing wrong if you appreciate it, amidst various other genres. The reason Poptimism sucks is because Poptimists are about as prejudiced and hypocritical as the most staunch "Music hasn't been good since Free split up" classic rock fan.

Why do I say this? First of all, the prejudice. Anything that doesn't have a connection to pop, is immediately lazily tagged as "indie", and by default, too serious, not fun, lacking in melody and rhythm, good only for hipsters and sad lonely males, etc. Somehow, the fact that poptimism pratically tells young girls, and gay men, "YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO LISTEN TO AND ENJOY STEPS", is not pointed out as the patronising claptrap it is.

Second, the hypocrisy. Complain, say, The National got a bad review? Poptimist - "Don't be so serious. It's just music. It's just a laugh."
Give Taylor Swift a bad review? Poptimist - "You wanker! Go back to your sad, sexless life listening to Hungarian Indie".

Better luck next time.

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May 11, 2017 11:17pm

Poptimists are the music culture equivalent of New Atheists. Insufferable jerks who claim that the negative aspects of their creed are nonexistent.

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May 12, 2017 12:18am

I like pop music - sure, I do. But the problem with pop artists is that all too often they push a "popular" agenda. They're the beautiful people, they were the popular kids at school (or at least pretend to be), they're arch capitalists. It's all sex and money and the luxuries of life.
Whereas with rock, especially alt-rock or indie, it is a haven for misfits, loners, outsiders, introverts. Somewhere, I fit into one of those groups. I prefer to listen to these people, as they're music (to paraphrase Morrissey) says something to me about my life.
What's so bad about that?

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May 12, 2017 1:06am

In reply to John:

What's so bad about that, John, is that you're a loser and a misfit, and there is no room for losers and misfits in this culture! This society is for the fittest, happiest and most productive - not for the likes of you or me, sadly. Get grinning, get winning and listen to the the generic song about unrealistic love to go with your unrealistic aspirations and unrealistic world view of permanent growth and permanent success for fewer and fewer people.

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May 12, 2017 1:43am

In reply to Ned Raggett:

Same, Ned!

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May 12, 2017 2:13am

Poptamism is cultural capitalism, championed by upper class neoliberal yuppies in order to undermine the working class. The same people who tell you you have privilege even though you are working paycheck to paycheck, the same people phil ochs described in his song "love me im a liberal". The virtue signaling of these people about how much they love beyonce is the musical equivalent of saying "i cant be racist, i have a black friend". They dont like her music, they like that she is a strong black woman™, and if people know you like here, then by golly you must be socially acceptable. People examine poptamism and rockism in a very american way, ignoring class issues. One of the highest selling genres in the america is country music, you wouldnt know that reading p4k, or some other "hip" blog thats embraced poptamism. Everything in america seems like some sort of petty game between the haves and have nots.
What is poptamism really, its the embrace of consumerist culture. You have to make popular music now and only popular music.
The whole thing seems really sinister when you examine it.
What is the end game of poptamism? A world were you turn on the beyonce radio to listen to beyonce, and talk to everyone about beyonce, all the beyonce time.
You know that movie "they live"? I feel like if i put on those they live glasses and looked at p4k or any other music website all it would say is CONSUME CONSUME CONSUME.

Rockism, poptamism, these were bad ideas, divided the world, now you have to be in one camp or the other. Rockism implying only people who like rock are capable of being narrow minded.

Really, these words should be abloished. How about instead we just say....musicism.

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May 12, 2017 2:54am

In reply to John:

I dunno, man. I think rock music has been jock music for a while. Even the indie scene these days is overrun with the sorts of people who aren't nearly as ill-fitting in society as they like to pretend they are. Besides, all fucking music in the world claims to give voice to some kind of outsider (cos dontcha know it's unfashionable to acknowledge that most people are just boring, normal twats?). Morrissey has no more or less claim to be representing society's misfits than does Lady Gaga.

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home page
May 12, 2017 5:21am

thanks for sharing .

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May 12, 2017 6:04am

In reply to :

all the jocks and frat boys migrated to EDM, the corporate abomination promoted by venture capitalists to extract wealth from millennials.
The chainsmokers for instance.
The past decade has been an onslaught and destruction of rock music and a promotion of blind trust in pop.
You look at the rock charts, whats left of it. The closet thing to rock is maroon 5 and coldplay.

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May 12, 2017 12:46pm

In reply to :

I like Lady Gaga, I also like The Smiths. But let me put it this way, Artpop or Born This Way is not as fulfilling a listen as The Queen Is Dead. Also indie still caters to outsider artists: Perfume Genius, Slowdive, Xiu Xiu, and The Magnetic Fields are rocking my world at the moment - they don't strike me as jocks somehow.

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ratchet bro
May 12, 2017 4:58pm

Poptimism is so baseless and ill-defined that I feel it's not actually possible to address it. (Not that rock is inherently more defensible than pop; not that rock isn't pop.) People write articles about what other people say about the music they like instead of just writing about the music they like. If you want your favs to be "taken seriously", then try taking them seriously yourself — see if you can. Might be harder than you think.

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May 15, 2017 6:53am

"poptimism", in that it's a manufactured, artificial construct, is now, as it ever was, certainly just as "blinkered" as "rockism", another thing that isn't really a thing. it was always a mistake to assume that all self-reported fans of any genre are automatically the equivalent of Comic Book Guy, or worse. very few people out there will only listen to one genre, let alone one subgenre, let alone only one super-underground subgenre. just a bunch of intellectual masturbation, these concepts.

why the shot at Hannah Diamond, who is pictured here but not named? I really like some of her tracks! particularly "make believe" and "fade away" - both really fun, repeatable tracks that are simultaneously earnest and straightforward, yet self-satirizing. what's not to love? I mean that rhetorically, if you're not into stuff like that, great also, who cares? can't people just like what they like and not like what they don't like? and if you step back and give people a bit of time, I think you'll find that their opinions change & evolve over time about art and music as well. people's tastes are refined in this manner far more frequently than think-pieces trying to herd them with generalizations and divisive rhetoric.

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May 18, 2017 11:51pm

What a load of made up guff.

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May 30, 2017 3:57pm

Quit with the labels. And what is with the chickenshit opinion writers who don't have a comments section? IS Stephanie Phillips a total coward unable to defend her racist bullshit ?

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Laura Palmer
Jun 6, 2017 5:03am

hey that's a photo of Hannah Diamond, not PC Music. that's the label she's on.

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Grembo Zavia
Jun 7, 2017 10:51am

Poptimism sucks. At a time where more music than ever is easily accessible, the remaining cultural gatekeepers are forced (by the "attention economy") to spend more and more energy praising the kind of work that's already inescapable.

If Poptimism is defined against Rockism (or pop-cultural snobbery in general) it seems to me that it actually reinforces the same divisions created by rockism in the first place. These divides(punk vs disco, respectable vs disposable, art vs commerce) are in part defined by boundaries in class, race, sexuality etc and by picking a side poptimism contributes to them. Thus a poptimist dismisses indie rock as something for boring, self-regarding whiteboys, and someone who may have found something of value in that genre is discouraged. And perhaps those who do cross that boundary anyway feel more isolated now. Music benefits from cross-pollination (I mean the best pop pulls influences from all over the place), Rockism and Poptimism are two sides of the same coin in that they both discourage it.

Ideally, the music press would expose people to new things, disregarding these divisions. It's not true that the only thing the masses can appreciate is simple, commercial pop. And nor should the elitist muso bubble be immune to the joys of commercial music. But as cultural gatekeepers, poptimist writers are denying others the chance to explore music they may not have found otherwise. It's hard to avoid Beyonce or Bieber. It's easy to miss oneohtrix or sunn 0))) or king gizzard or something. In this sense I can understand the idea of poptimists as agents of capital, encouraging the masses to make do with mass-produced music (though I don't agree with it 100%).

Decades ago, it would take a lot more effort (and time, money) to get into less commercially-minded music, now all you need is the right youtube URL. That the response has been to spew out thinkpiece after thinkpiece about the same cluster of superstars is truly sad. Imagine the flourishing that would occur if people were exposed to a greater variety of music more frequently (that's not to say that people aren't doing their own digging or something). There's no downside.

Poptimism sucks

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Jun 13, 2017 8:36am

Middle aged man overhears his kids music and gets confused and writes a pompous college essay about it.

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Jul 21, 2017 5:54am

In reply to KingP:

That's ridiculous... stop trying to uphold the barrier between so called popular and art music, it has been crossed so many times by now that there is virtually no difference between the two other than the contexts they are presented in - which is completely irrelevant to the music itself. Claiming the latter's superiority over the former today is ignorant and classist.

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happy room
Sep 13, 2017 2:16am

I agree that fun is very important. Even great records by Great Serious Rockers can be great fun, too. I see poptamism as the embrace of mediocrity. Something pushed by yuppie music journalists who despise the lower class fans of rock music.

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