Poptimist life: Why liking pop doesn't equal hating rock


If there's such a thing as a music nerd equivalent to total nuclear apocalypse, then Saul Austerlitz's recent New York Times Magazine piece on the detriments of "poptimism" was a DEFCON 2 alert. (That's the one just below "hope you've seen Mad Max a few times.")

To condense a confused, under-sourced, strawman-filled article into its summarized form, Austerlitz claims that music critics' wider enthusiasm and advocacy for mainstream pop music -- as seen in a number of pieces that treat stars like Lorde and Beyoncé with something more respectful than retching contempt -- is "pernicious," "wildly distorted," and "really weird."

If Austerlitz's mission was to irritate the hell out of these poptimist critics, then a cursory scan of music-journalist Twitter feeds over the weekend proves he did a bang-up job. But if he meant to engage with the actual reality of pop-friendly music criticism as it exists right now, he might as well have finished every sentence with a "[citation needed]" -- that's how much of a misreading it was. And here's why.

First off, his interpretation of poptimism as it stands gives that movement the same motivations as the critical standard it was built to battle: the old, lurching beast that is rockism. Austerlitz glibly describes the idea of rockism as merely liking rock music more than pop, as though it's just a matter of "[preferring] Queens of the Stone Age to Rihanna." He cites Kelefa Sanneh's pivotal 2004 NYT piece "The Rap Against Rockism" in his own definition of poptimism, clumsily inverting Sanneh's own words about the rockist mentality to gripe about the championing of "disco, not punk; pop, not rock; synthesizers, not guitars; the music video, not the live show."

The problem is that while it's easy to find long-entrenched examples of rockist music ideologies that prefer punk over disco, rock over pop, guitars over synthesizers, and live shows over music videos, there isn't a single example given of a writer who champions Top 40 at the deliberate expense of more indie-friendly or traditional rock. The closest he comes is to wrinkling his nose at a Grantland piece that states how "if you don't like the new Beyoncé album, re-evaluate what you want out of music." It's good-old-fashioned hyperbole, maybe, but good luck finding a genre's most notable figurehead -- mainstream or niche -- who hasn't been described that way. ("If you don't like the new Arcade Fire album/Todd Terje song/Kendrick Lamar verse, you don't have to, it's a big world and taste is subjective" -- No Critic Ever).
In a field that always benefits from as many perspectives as possible, it shouldn't be a dealbreaker for someone to find critically-adored guitar rock boring --  just as it hasn't been a dealbreaker for decades' worth of critics to summarily dismiss Top 40 pop, electronic dance music, mainstream rap, hair metal, arena rock, prog rock, or any of the other stuff that's too popular for cult status and its accompanying small-press coffee table books full of grainy photos and xeroxed flyers.

But what Austerlitz's interpretation gets spectacularly wrong above everything else is the assumption that the poptimist is about the not when, more commonly (and crucially), they're about the and.

It's not about claiming that pop is superior to rock -- it's about believing that the lack of rock's major elements shouldn't mean that an artist or a record isn't worth giving the time of day. Whether that missing element is the singer-songwriter model, or a feeling of parent-unnerving rebellion, or a guitar riff that apes Johnny Ramone, it doesn't matter -- it can be a chart-dominating, inescapable, mass-culture hit and still be worthy of considering on its own merits.

And if that consideration comes at the expense of anything, it's not a deeper appreciation of independent or traditional rock acts. Go figure -- Austerlitz invokes "the tastemakers at Pitchfork" without mentioning that the Best New Music awarded to Beyoncé has since been followed this year by glowing writeups of the latest Clear Channel-unfriendly releases by Perfect Pussy, Mac DeMarco, St. Vincent, and Sun Kil Moon.

And the artists that Austerlitz champions on his 2013 Pazz & Jop ballot did gangbusters in the critical poll -- his peers, supposedly infected by whackadoo teen-pop fandom, somehow gave albums by Austerlitz faves the National (#22), Kurt Vile (#10), and Vampire Weekend (second only to Kanye) far more of a boost than they gave to the likes of Justin Timberlake (#51), Lady Gaga (#78), or Miley Cyrus (#113). Or Rihanna, for that matter, whose Unapologetic placed 269th -- a long distance behind the #20 finish notched by QOTSA's ...Like Clockwork. The idea that poptimism represents a grave threat to the old order of contemporary music writing is about as rooted in reality as Saul's assertion that there's no difference between giving deep critical analysis to Drake and squeeing for Justin Bieber.

So if poptimism has the ability to be a corrective to any trend in music criticism, it's the idea that pop music isn't worth thinking critically about -- the kind of sentiment Austerlitz's piece seems to assume is self-evident. The likes of Britney Spears and Taylor Swift are going to be written about non-stop anyways, so how about giving all that ink to writers who can approach and maybe appreciate them as musicians, instead of leaving the narrative to gossipy schmucks who think the most interesting thing about the latest chart-topper is who they're sleeping with?

Hell, it might make it a lot easier to reconcile the idea of the indie/pop crossover phenomenon, where the likes of M.I.A. or Sky Ferreira can reach both sides of the thankfully narrowing divide. And it never hurts to be ahead of the curve when the next wave of indie auteurs finds a way to integrate the pop sounds they grew up with (or still listen to) into new, weird buzz-band forms. Otherwise you'll be like that that poor sap who didn't realize what Timbaland was capable of until he did some beats for Björk, and then you're scrambling to catch up.
There are two deep ironies that reveal the flimsy subjectivity at the heart of Austerlitz's argument. The first is when he assumes that music criticism's (supposed) enthusiasm for mainstream fare is uniquely naive, and compares it to a theoretical nightmare of poptimist movie criticism. "Movie critics would be enjoined from devoting too much of their time to 12 Years a Slave (box-office take: $56 million) or The Great Beauty ($2.7 million)," he grimaces, "lest they fail to adequately analyze the majesty that is Thor: The Dark World ($206.2 million)."

What kind of second-rate hack of a wannabe cinephile would approach their medium of choice the way a poptimist does? I mean, besides Roger Ebert, who made it one of his primary missions to judge works based on whether they succeeded in what they meant to do and how they held up primarily in comparison to other films of its kind. He sadly never lived to give us his opinion of Thor: The Dark World -- but he had high praise for all-time box-office champs like Titanic, Avatar, and Skyfall, and put well-known cineplex fare alongside headier arthouse classics in his canon of Great Movies. That's not unlike how the most thoughtful poptimists have room for both Beyoncé and the National -- and might have a way of getting fans of the former interested in the latter, or vice-versa.

The second deep irony of Austerlitz's piece? At the conclusion of his article, he's credited as the author of a book called Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes From I Love Lucy to Community. TV? That vast wasteland?

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