Is Poptimism Now As Blinkered As The Rockism It Replaced?

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)

"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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