Hi there, I’m the person who wrote that one music criticism article where I got really worked up over the way in which music critics express their opinions, and categorise the worth of pieces of art by ascribing a totally arbitrary score to them. This article is a PSA about a seamy turf-war in music journalism between rockism and the offshoot poptimism. What is rockism? Oh, I am pleased that you asked.
Rockism – noun.
- A perceived bias in rock music communities that discriminates against other forms of popular music. (Wikipedia)
- A way of thinking, conscious or not, that promotes the music your dad listens to with presumed, and often ignorant, authority over basically everything that doesn’t have a sick guitar riff. (My own definition)
Poptimism – noun.
- A mode of discourse which holds that pop music deserves the same respect as rock music and is as authentic and as worthy of professional critique and interest. (Wikipedia)
The Part About Rockism
There’s a lot to unpack here. The term “rockism” was coined in 1981 by English rock musician Peter Wylie as part of his Race Against Rockism campaign. The term was picked up by the press as a way of describing the bias against independent music in favour of music with sexy guys in leather pants. Paul Morley writes “If the idea of rockism confused you, and you lazily thought Pink Floyd were automatically better than Gang of Four, and that good music had stopped with punk, you were a rockist and you were wrong.”
The people that have historically used the term applied it to herald genres which emphasised production over instrumentation, particularly electronic music, which was nigh ignored by the mainstream music press in the 90’s outside of Britain. It wasn’t a term that was meant to start fights, but it did. The term was meant to discuss biases in audience and critic listening habits, and to furthermore stop critics from presuming authority about what constitutes the best albums of all time.
Kelefa Sanneh writes “A rockist is someone who reduces rock ‘n’ roll to a caricature, then uses that caricature as a weapon. Rockism means idolising 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.” Rockism is a bit more complex than that however, because it also describes race and gender biases linked to genre. One of the ugly facts about rock music as a genre is that it is dominated by white males. Rock music forms a large part of the popular music canon, meaning that the canon (no-doubt unanimously defined by these zeitgeist mouthpiece rock critics) is dominated by white males. To rockists, genres like R&B or capital-P pop, which don’t have white male majorities, are ignored. They’ll try to justify this by appealing to “authenticity” or “talent”, when in fact the “talent” they often refer to is a clichéd variation of the dreaded four-chords-simple-melody-about–women-and-cars song. This is also built around the assumption that you also need to have musical ability – but I can tell you right now that I’ve heard some bloody good songs by some people that didn’t know how to play very well (google Beat Happening).
Rockism is therefore an inherently political term. People that could be considered rockist get really offended when you call them thus because it is perceived as an insult. But the fact is that any self-respecting music fan shouldn’t ignore music produced in other genres than their comfort zone, or by people of a different race or gender. Part of this is because people of different races and gender often aren’t given a platform, and the people who can give a platform to these artists are music critics. A lot of this is framed by cultural attitudes and what is commercially sellable, which is why consumers of music need to be made aware of this debate. It is a genuine problem.
Note that Pitchfork’s end of year Album list for 2016 was topped by Solange’s A Seat at the Table, which I feel is quite poetic.
The Part About Poptimism
Poptimism is this whole other kettle of fish, man. Poptimism is noble in its mission statement. It aimed to save capital-P mainstream pop from a torrent of abuse from rockists, to tell people that they were in fact allowed to enjoy capital-P pop, and furthermore to elevate people out of the mire they are consigned to because of the genre of music that they perform. But, popism is also rockism’s dark mirror image. Most of the things that are true of rockism are also true of popism, apart from the whole implied racial and gender bias. Michael Hann writes “Ideologies congeal. They cease to be alternatives and become hegemonies … movements that were insurgent become establishment … codified by their own set of rules about what and what was not acceptable.”
The problem arises when people cease to view music as a constructed artefact, just like any other cultural thing ever. When they forget that pieces of music can be constructed for commercial as well as artistic aims, and that the artistic aims should take the precedent in deciding a piece of music’s worth. Certain artists achieve success and rest into a routine whereby they do the thing that makes them money instead of challenging their listeners by using their platform to try to advance the musical status quo through experimentation. But then you get people like David Bowie and Kate Bush, or more recently Kendrick Lamar and Lorde, as excellent examples of brilliant, commercially successful artists that have innovated upon their formulae.
Poptimism has its own ignorances; by exalting the music that is constructed to make the most money, has the biggest advertising budget, and is played in the most clubs, you deny genuine expression by lesser known artists. This ideology places a glass ceiling over the mainstream dollars. It is now incredibly hard for an unknown to break into the mainstream on their own merits without winning a televised talent contest or by being featured on a song by a better-known artist. Poptimism was, and is, meant to champion people who do not get acclaim, not preserve the same ten artists at the top of the pops throughout the year. It’s a struggle between listening to music because it’s popular and a lot of people are saying it’s good, and finding lesser known music that you genuinely resonate with.
This is why vaporwave and PC music are things. Vaporwave takes parts of corporate pop from the 80’s and twist them into a digital monstrosity, it’s a statement in and of itself, a statement that is tellingly rapidly reaching saturation point, if it hasn’t done so already. PC music, on the other hand, emulates the artificiality of capital-P pop music in its own way, exaggerating the familiar tropes in unique settings to stilted, uncanny valley levels. It is also a statement, music that is aware that it is constructed. In my opinion neither of these genres are that enjoyable to listen to. They are clever and interesting, but it is not something I would listen to casually, like on the train.
We have a self-reflexive problem here – poptimism preserves a vapid bedrock of successful artists, which causes people to look to a canon of rock music that frankly has a lot of problems and complain about the state of “modern-music” or “(c)rap”, which in turn aggravates the (also problematic) poptimist discourse, which in turn aggravates the rockist discourse, all of this to infinity. “Rockism” is a derisive poptimist term, “poptimism” is in turn a derisive rockist term. The entire thing is damp and confusing.
A Solution I Propose
Rising Above It All Before You Drown in Your Own Shit (that’s a reference google it)
Listen to music, more music, all of the music, of all kinds, deviate from your comfort zone, you might actually like it.
Words by Eamonn Kelly