On the “Pernicious Rise of Poptimism”


April 4, 2014 by admin

“Poptimism now not only demands devotion to pop idols; it has instigated an increasingly shrill shouting match with those who might not be equally enamored of pop music. Disliking Taylor Swift or Beyoncé is not just to proffer a musical opinion, but to reveal potential proof of bias. Hardly a week goes by in music-critic land without such accusations flying to and fro.”
Saul Asterlitz, New York Times

My full length rebuttal is here.

11 thoughts on “On the “Pernicious Rise of Poptimism”

  1. Dave says:

    Jesus, how dumb do you have to be to get paid to write about music these days?

  2. Don Allred says:

    Not crazy about his tendency to counter-preach, but agree that the pressure to get those clicks (incl. but not limited to lifestyle/gossip rehashes and zings) goes with some o’erweenieing poptimist trendencies, though kneejerkism and ism of all stripes the basic prob (reminded to day of Meltzer, long ago on “Xerox rock,” which can also apply to pop/all genres: copies of copies of copies, graying out, as time goes by. Also, the news/biz cycle, and “Pattern recognition gets us all in the end,” as Jane Dark warned a while back, though I doubt that he’s stopped caring and listening and writing).

  3. sw00ds says:

    I just don’t glean much of anything from this one, Don (another one to add to the pile). Further to Dave’s point, it’s irritating (on some levels; on other levels I couldn’t give a shit) that the Times would pay for this drivel. I’m starting to question the wisdom of obtaining an “outside voice” on this stuff.

    The honest-to-God frustrating thing about articles like this, and Gioia’s (and Moody’s?) is that I bet there’s a good chance that most people who write and read rock criticism in 2014 would agree that there are a lot of things wrong with music writing these days, but none of these writers come anywhere close to even assessing the damage, never mind formulating solutions (I’d be fine without the latter, if they could at least hint at the former). Their aggravation with the situation seems puny and self-centered (by which I mean, they mostly just seem to be griping about things happening in music criticism that offend their sensibilities). This inspires people to respond with thoughtful pieces about why it hasn’t all gone to hell, but while such responses are more persuasive and grounded in reality, they’re ultimately reactive–problems still aren’t being addressed.

  4. Phil says:

    Everyone’s jumping on this guy so swiftly, I did something I normally wouldn’t do: I read what he wrote. I don’t hate the piece at all. Some of it I agree with.

    He makes two mistakes. One, he gets specific about his own tastes, his own tastes turn out to be very conventional, and he seems unaware that they’re very conventional. It’d be like me writing a similar piece and working up to a point where I say, “…and you should instead be listening to Yo La Tengo—they’re amazing, and no one knows who they are.” I don’t say things like that because I know that most everyone reading would already know who Yo La Tengo are, most would have already decided they’re boring, and me loving Yo La Tengo is the most conventional thing in the world.

    Also, the piece is based on a couple of jargon words that were a big deal five and ten years ago but are now out of date. I found those two words even more laughable five and ten years ago when everybody was using them earnestly—today I’d be more inclined to laugh at “deep cuts,” which people seem to say with great earnestness today. But if you want to use jargon, you’ve got to keep up.

    But I think I’ve experienced, in rough outline, some of what he’s trying to say. “Disliking Taylor Swift or Beyoncé is not just to proffer a musical opinion, but to reveal potential proof of bias.” In a general sense, I don’t disagree with that at all. I was trying, I think, to say the same thing in a comment I posted right here a few months ago, responding to a Pazz & Jop-related post you had: (“Is Pazz & Jop Critically Ill?”): “It used to be therapeutic to get all angry when dumb pop stuff got shut out to make room for Midnight Oil. Now the dumb pop stuff does really well.”

  5. sw00ds says:

    I was one of the jumpers-on, and it was obvious that a pile-on would ensue (as it will with the next piece of this ilk… Carry on, Campers and all that), but honestly, Phil, I just don’t see any clearheaded, compelling arguments in the piece (which I also made sure to read before quoting). I won’t speak for why other people are reacting so sharply to this, but for me, it’s not that the writer dares to say something critical about rock criticism or pop music (I welcome such pieces, sincerely), but that a) he writes his rant in such broad strokes (see the phrases I bolded in my quotation from the piece), with little recent evidence to support his case (not convinced there is one, frankly), and b) I can think of a number of other things more problematic in music writing these days, beyond the fact that some critics, at some well-known publications, happen to like a lot of pop music. I agree with you, and presumably Don, about the web mindset to just start pouncing on this stuff without considering what the guy’s actually trying to say, but I really believe in this case (less so in Ted Gioia’s case) the writer himself didn’t think through what he was trying to say–it’s incredibly muddled and vague. And I always, with stuff like this, fall back on the same conclusion–which is to say I blame the Times, and lack of editorial oversight in general, for this mess (for them it’s not a mess, it’s a triumph, in that people are actually talking about something in the Times). Moreso than I blame the writer himself. Maybe a good editor could have helped shape this into something better, I don’t know. I sure would have tried to.

  6. sw00ds says:

    (I’ll leave alone your “dumb pop stuff” construction. I know you well enough that I think I know what you mean, but were you some stranger, I might have pounced!)

  7. Phil says:

    Yes—you know me, so you’ve got some context there.

    I’m looking at the guy’s piece in the most general sense, and I agree with him that something has changed. To back that up, I’d have to go through various ILX threads—I don’t think it’d be hard to find what I’m looking for, though I realize I’d end up cherry-picking things that suit my purposes.

  8. Dave says:

    I think to the extent that people are covering anything — Taylor Swift, Miley, etc. — because “it deserves a fair shake,” there’s almost always going to be fall-out of it being uninteresting, blinkered, or dumb. But that’s not inherent in taking on “it deserves a fair shake” as a project. It’s just that there are a lot of unquestioned assumptions about why some things deserve fair shakes over others that end up amounting to Good-For-You paternalism — (one of) my problem(s) with the Celine Dion book being re-released now.

    But that’s an actual problem I can point to — “a lot of pop-oriented criticism wants me to be way more ‘sober’ about pop than I would like to be and is in effect sucking all the air out of the tires.” And the problem is the air-sucking masquerading as anti-anti-intellectualism (or something).

    (That was an important point that Frank made about rockism here: no one identified as a rockist, only as an anti-rockist, which means that “rockism” is more of a moving target for the collection of anti-rockists who are trying to identify clustered but perhaps disconnected things onto a single entity. Here, poptimism is serving as the same kind of figure; not just a strawman, but a figure that doesn’t stand in for one thing that nobody believes, but rather stands in for lots of little things that lots of people might believe, but usually not all at the same time, if ever.)

    Whereas, “nowadays you have to like Taylor Swift or Beyonce or risk sounding like you’re part of a bigger problem” isn’t exactly true. I’m probably as acceptable to anti-rockist sorta-poptimist whatever-you-want-to-call-them critics as anyone, but it’s because I don’t dismiss out of hand that there MIGHT be something worthwhile in Taylor Swift or Beyonce, and the reason I don’t do that is because, why would I do that? That said, I’m on record saying very critical things about Taylor Swift and missing the boat with Beyonce more or less and I am not in danger of losing my poptimism card, not just because there’s no such thing but because I accept that it’s possible — but not *necessary* — that there’s a there there. (And all that said, imagining that there might be something valuable in Taylor Swift or Beyonce isn’t in itself very interesting. It’s just a prerequisite of listening to them, not a guarantee that I’ll find something there.)

  9. Dave says:

    And FWIW Frank’s complaint isn’t about the diffuseness of the “rockist”:

    “My problem with the antirockists was their tendency to externalize “rockism” as some foreign body that needed to be defeated—or, if internal, as something that needed to be outgrown—rather than as cultural processes that we participate in. And authenticity… I may hate the noun form, but I find the adjectives—“real,” “actual,” “authentic”—absolutely crucial, and the tensions they signal are as alive and burbling and googooing now as the day they were bor

  10. Don Allred says:

    Yes, “cultural processes we participate in”: that’s what I meant by quoting Melzer and Dark: the pop process (which includes rock, and everything else that must be freshly re-packages and promoted, like jazz, like classical, like everything at some point), as part of the news cycle, has a built-in fatigue factor, to some degree, for everybody involved, including the music journalist, whether he (usually a he) presents/promotes himself as a critic or not. It becomes tempting to go along to get along, in my experience, even if you’re just going along with a certain minority (which even could be a minority of one: your own proudly idiosyncratic, ritual-habitual tastes, never challenged or even thought-through particularly well)(but usually some kind of faction). Hearing compilations of Asian takes on 60s-70s rock, from Sublime Frequencies and Subliminal Sounds, African takes on same (plus r&b, funk, electric jazz) on Soundway and Analog Africa also things like The Rough Guide To African Disco, has refreshed my listening to overly familiar elements and approaches, in ways I wouldn’t have thought possible. (ditto the no wave dance of Guerilla Toss’s Gay Disco album; Sky F. when she [sometimes] really gets all the stuff she’s striving for together, the same for Taylor S. and Lady G,, though all three are much more likely to keep making my Singles, rather than Albums, Top Tens). Been a while since music writing did as much of the same, but I surely do get some of that here nowadays. and I surely should try to catch up more often, thanks.

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