POPTIMISM vs. ROCKISM: You’re Both Wrong

Let’s start by defining terms, in case you came in late or, heaven forbid, you don’t follow the politics of music journalism:

POPTIMISM/POPTIMISTS refers to a number of music journalists who espouse an unabashed affection for artists and genres currently favored among the lowest common cultural denominator (Beyoncé, Ke$ha, Miley Cyrus, Kanye West, et al), as opposed to standard-bearing (but usually less popular) critical favorites; and

ROCKISM/ROCKISTS refers to a number of music journalists, currently defined largely in contrast to the poptimists for whom they are anathema, who purportedly subscribe to a certain post-Beatles, guitar-centric classicism, which leads them to defer to a prescribed rock ‘n’ roll “canon” as an aesthetic guideline for their tastes.

I am not expressing my opinion yet, only defining terms. I don’t think that either of these categories accurately characterize any but the most craven of writers. Nonetheless, these are the purported armies with which we are contending.

It’s important to understand these distinctions, you see, because there’s a war going on. Normally, one would be surprised that such a needless war has been so ballyhooed in reputable publications, given its actual cultural relevance. Then again, considering that both sides ballyhoo for a living, it basically stands to reason, if not journalistic prudence or integrity.

As one may infer by circumstances and the players involved, this is only a war of words. That said, it’s a spirited volley, and a high-profile one: an accused poptimist gives substantial ink to the subject of Britney Spears in The New Yorker. Nonplussed, a rockist writer posits his rebuttal in The New York Times Magazine . In response to this piece, Vice throws in its hat against the NYT position, and the beat, as they say, goes on.

The most interesting thing I’ve noticed about this volley is just how little of it actually talks about music, beyond vague genre classifications (indie rock, country-pop, EDM, etc.) and occasional namedrops. More than anything, it seems like the poptimist/rockist “debate” is an excuse for these writers to use their relatively high-profile positions as vantage points for a pissing contest.

Unfortunately, it is usually the readers which constitute a target for these golden showers.

The self-indulgences inherent to this row, then, are why I start off by saying that both sides are wrong. Well, part of why. The other reason is that both sides’ stances totally suck.

Allow me to elaborate:

POPTIMISM, as a concept, is defined by willfully limiting one’s scope of musical coverage to tow a party line, and to appear “of the people”; and

ROCKISM , as a concept, is defined by willfully limiting one’s scope of musical coverage to tow a party line, and to appear “ahead of the curve” and/or “hip”.

Both of these modus operandi are recipes for lousy journalism. In fact, it’s probably part of why, instead of reading music journalism, most modern music fans just write their own blogs.

It would be easy to say that this is really because the internet has rendered music journalism obsolete, and that that’s why nobody cares about it anymore. Explain this, though: more than three decades after his untimely demise, pop and rock aficionados of many different stripes still read the collected works of renowned rock critic Lester Bangs. Ditto Greil Marcus, Robert Palmer, and Jon Savage. Even with technology and the zeitgeist working to cast off their contributions in order to make space for more Game of Thrones ephemera, these writers’ works continue to be passed down to new pop music enthusiasts, despite the fact that their insights often have nothing to do with much of anything in either rockist or poptimist purviews.

Is it because these works are “canonical”? Not really. It’s because these writers offered well-informed, genuinely insightful observations about recorded music, observations which still bear scrutiny today. Some of their points of view were iconoclastic, contrarian, or just plain uncool; some of them, though, were prescient. People still want to read these writers precisely because they disavowed canon, and “good taste” itself, instead favoring discovery and understanding, goals which both rockists and poptimists have seemingly disregarded.

The rockists are right that Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift, and even Kanye “New Slaves” West are completely overseen by capitalist overlords, incessantly publicized in gross and insidious ways, and designed down to the minutest detail for crossover appeal. Guess what, though, rockists? So, in their time, were Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Beach Boys… and oh yeah, the Beatles. The same can be said of modern crit-rock favorites like The Flaming Lips, Radiohead, and Bruce Springsteen, who are only afforded “artistic freedom” with the caveat that they produce saleable product at reasonably regular intervals.

The problem with the poptimists is that they only go halfway in their war on rockism. They’re right to say that most rockist writers are out of touch, and that when an average 13 year old doesn’t care about The National or Wilco, it’s not because vile corporate demons have hypnotized the kids, spiriting them away from “good music”, but because that music is fucking boring. They lose the script, though, when they look almost exclusively to the inanities of corporate slaves in seeking their way out, just because said chattel operate generally outside of rockist aesthetics and are thus more “fun”.

Don’t get me wrong: writers, or any other music fan, should certainly like what they like and feel free to say it. It’s okay if it’s popular, or even if it’s dumb (Beck, back when he himself was making music that was both poptimistic AND rockist, referred to these pleasures as “musical cheeseburgers”). The problem is that, as people who observe and report on music, it’s a journalist’s responsibility to discover not just what is popular, not just what will be popular, and certainly not just what sounds like other stuff that you already like.

There’s a LOT of music out there. It is imperative that a music journalist cast the net far and wide, not just in hopes of expanding their own understanding, but also that of their readers and, by extension, popular music. The aforementioned Lester Bangs wrote as fervently about Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Albert Ayler, or Iannis Xenakis as he did about James Taylor, Barry White, or Anne Murray. Sure, he made plenty of proclamations based on his own weird tastes- that’s what critics do, y’know- but he didn’t choose to disregard that which didn’t give him immediate gratification, nor did he ever fall back in his reviews to a narrow, prescribed notion of what constitutes “good music”.

It may seem strange to cast a music journalist who wrote a good portion of his work while under the influence of alcohol, amphetamines, and cough syrup (or some combination thereof) as a paragon of social responsibility, but even that was an integral part of his aesthetic. Bangs’ propensity for reckless gluttony and disavowal of preening and preciousness created a prototype for late-‘70s punk aesthetics bested only by the influence of The Stooges and The Velvet Underground. What poptimist, rockist, or music journalist in general has recently had any impact whatever on the state of pop aesthetics?

This influence wasn’t by design, but by example. Instead of checking what the other guys were writing about and pitching his potential-clickbait rebuttal from there, he would endeavor whenever possible to write about stuff that nobody else wanted to touch. His hunger for the extremes of sound means that most people STILL can’t handle some of his favorites (Teenage Jesus, Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, Contact High with the Godz), but some of it ended up as a guidepost for future generations: hell, even Madonna and Ke$ha have clamored to be associated with Iggy Pop in recent years (of course, most of these influential bands’ descendents got the basics of the sound whilst missing the point entirely, but that’s as eternal a truth as death and taxes, so let’s not tarry there).

None of this is meant as a testament to Bangs’ talent (though it was certainly great), but his joyous openness. Along with that of the other aforementioned critical forebears, Bangs’ example is one which music journalists could use now more than ever. Instead of climbing over a thousand other reporters to write about Kanye’s latest bowel movement/fashion design (if there’s a difference), why doesn’t someone from The New Yorker follow the Laundry Room Squelchers  on one of their International Noise Conference tours, wherein they bring other noise bands from around the country to play 5 minute sets with the locals? Instead of blathering on about the cheap, mawkish blooze pantomime of the Black Keys in the New York Times, why not interview the folks from Sahel Sounds about the effect of widespread cellphone availability on music trading in Africa, and how THAT might influence the musical conversation between Africa, North America, and everywhere else? If we have to talk about Yeezus, why doesn’t Rolling Stone ask Kanye West, who’s supposedly so into “industrial” music and aesthetics right now, to sit down with industrial music innovator/pandrogyne performance artist Genesis Breyer P-Orridge to talk consumerism and identity politics? I know they’re both pretty busy, but c’mon, they live in the same city, don’t they?

This is the tip of a massive global iceberg that is being unchipped by the powers-that-be in music journalism. There’s NO reason to cling to the black and white of Poptimism and Rockism when there’s an infinite color spectrum. After all, it’s all music, right? Rather than taking sides in a war for relevancy that both armies are doomed to lose, I implore the writers in these venues to use their voice to say something that isn’t cheerleading for their respective teams, but instead is a cheer for the wonder of music making in general, in all its forms. No matter how much Katy Perry or The National may or may not suck, there’s a world of other things to hear, many of which are as deserving or more of the attention afforded the subjects typically discussed ad nauseam.

Stop talking. Start listening.

Dustin Krcatovich is a cartoonist, writer, designer, founder of FM DUST, and a collector of certain curios and ephemera (with a focus on 20th century "junk culture"). His writing and illustration work appears frequently in The Quietus, Tiny Mix Tapes, and Esquire's Culture Blog. He is also a former editor and contributor to Secret Zen Garden,Saagara's illustrated mindfulness/wellness blog for young people. He currently resides in Portland, OR.

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