“I don’t listen to that dance crap; I like music with Real Instruments”, I declared in the school playground, an Arctic Monkeys bag slung over my shoulder.
Until my mid-teens, it was all about guitars, indie rock, and punk (which mostly meant Green Day). I cheered on “my” bands like football teams and my hostility towards their “rivals” felt potent and righteous.
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Twenty-five years earlier, in 1981, English singer-songwriter Pete Wylie coined the term “rockism”. In 2004, an influential New York Times article by journalist Kelefah Sanneh further defined it as:
“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.”
This description struck a chord among music fans and industry types. Everyone knows a rockist, be it their dad (while rockism isn’t gender-specific, it seems to appeal mostly to a male demographic), boss, or best friend. To paraphrase the old cliché; if you don’t know one, it’s probably you.
The specifics vary among times and places. For example, most of the original rockists that Pete Wylie started his tongue-in-cheek “Race Against Rockism” campaign to mock hated—rather than “lionized”—punk, preferring the technical virtuosity and more elaborate songs of the Zeppelins and Tulls of the scene.
Although you can’t throw a Rolling Stone at any open mic night without hitting an old rockist, the mentality has been mostly abandoned among the music press. Even most rock fans do their best to steer clear of die-hard rockists now.
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Enter the poptimists. Around the time of Sanneh’s article, discourse shifted from the long-persisting rockist perspective towards a more open-minded approach that set out to seize cultural clout from the bearded old boomers and redistribute it among the chart-loving masses.
At least, in theory.
In 2015, Robert Loss described the poptimist stereotype as “progressive, inclusive” and someone who “sees through the myths of authenticity”, while the rockist “insists on serious meaning, and demands artists who sing their own songs and play instruments, preferably guitars”.
The music that shaped me during my formative years still makes up a huge chunk of my tastes, although it’s undeniable that poptimism’s influence broadened my horizons in my later teens and saved me from the rockist cult. These days, the concept of feeling embarrassed by a Lorde single nestled between Nick Cave and Mountain Goats tracks in a playlist is something from a bygone era. I spend as much time playing with synths, drum machines, and DAWs as I do guitars. However, despite poptimism’s personal and cultural contributions, its limitations are undeniable.
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Rockist dismissal of the artistic merit of the entire loosely-defined “pop” genre due to these trivialities was best confined to the record-shop bargain bin of history. However, the idea of poptimism as radical, forward-thinking, and egalitarian isn’t exactly accurate.
In fact, rockism and poptimism are extraordinarily similar. As Loss describes, “rock criticism of the late ’60s and the ’70s was an attempt to make popular music worthy of study; it was poptimism before its day.” “Popular music” in this context included rock, soul, doo-wop, ska, and anything else likely to be coming from a teenager’s AM radio. The old guard of cultural critics made no distinctions—if it wasn’t jazz, classical, or so-called “art music”, it was “pop”. The original rockists’ push for Beatles and Floyd albums to be considered worthy of artistic consideration makes their distaste of poptimists doing the same especially ironic.
While both were necessary cultural shifts and reactions to narrow-minded snobbery, both rockism and poptimism closed minds in as many ways as they opened them.
Rockist journalism has been widely criticised for slightly ridiculous levels of hero worship, yet poptimist journalism has seen the same, with many reviews in respected publications virtually indistinguishable from Tumblr fan blogs or advertisements from publicists. Pure, unadulterated adoration of an artist is a great joy, but doesn’t usually make for balanced criticism.
The most egregious rockist flaw was its frequent elevation of the white and male at the expense of all else. The white male demographic has dominated rock since the 1960s, and it’s hard to deny that racism, misogyny, and homophobia didn’t play parts in widespread anti-disco sentiment.
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Poptimism’s backlash against this lingering mentality was certainly long overdue. However, tangible positive shifts in representation remain extremely limited outside of the most successful 1%. While the Taylors, Arianas, and Olivias of the industry are cheered on by vast stan armies, the average non-male artist remains significantly less likely than men to succeed—just look at festival lineups! Like the female CEO whose company ignores the conditions of its female workers, poptimism prioritises the aesthetic over all.
The tacit endorsement of obsessive fandom has resulted in Twitter stan accounts instigating pile-ons on strangers over innocuous jokes about their favourite pop stars, and Pitchfork editor Jillian Mapes even receiving death threats for the unforgivable crime of awarding only a mere 8/10 to Taylor Swift’s Folklore. The worship of pop’s sacred cows and hatred of criticism is as cult-like as anything in rockism.
The inherent exaltation of success is another poptimist flaw. Accusing bands of “selling out” is one of the oldest rockist traditions, while, in the words of Robert Loss, “the poptimist could care less.”
Rock fandom’s “anti-commercialism” is often misdirected (think berating smaller artists for charging ticket prices just high enough to avoid bankruptcy), but accurately-directed criticism of the commercial industry is essential. In fact, as Britney Spears’ recent legal battles show, corporate greed causes immense harm even to huge pop artists themselves! While this is an extreme (if not exactly unique) case, the way record companies voraciously seek out the young, conventionally attractive, and mouldable to market is especially ruthless and proficient in mainstream pop.
Combine this with the fast-tracking of inexperienced artists to massive success, and it’s easy to understand why musicians grafting in tiny clubs for years might feel (somewhat misplaced) resentment towards the latest mega-star. Even small artists making pop music are struggling, yet poptimism’s championing of the genre rarely filters down this far!
Disliking pop is often seen as both pretentious and prejudiced. Distaste of, or even simply disinterest in, the sound itself is equated with inherent preference for the white male dominance of the classic rock era and disrespect for a younger, more female demographic. In certain quarters, if you don’t “stan Taylor”, you must either be lying or have something wrong with your character.
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In the early noughties, when pop was generally critically (if not commercially) maligned, poptimism made sense. Now that the genre has been topping Best Album countdowns in respected publications for years while remaining commercially dominant, the “underdog” narrative no longer applies. While there have been bumps in the road, none has been big enough to derail the pop juggernaut so far.
While poptimism started out as something ostensibly broad-minded and accepting, it has become just as tribal, adolescent, and narrow-minded as the rockism it reacted against. If rockism is the outcast schoolboy who turns his nose up at the Top 40, poptimism is the group of classmates that smirk and ask him “are you an emo?”
Thankfully, the old divisions do seem to be weakening. For all its flaws, streaming culture has broadened and diversified tastes steadily by providing listeners with a near-limitless library of artists from all decades and genres (of course, if streaming sites could also pay these artists properly, that would be great). Pop punk and hip-hop are fusing and the kids love it.
Popular music as a whole has always been devalued by tribalism and money. Mercifully, it seems that the influence of at least one of these is disappearing.
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Words: Dan Knight
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