The Anti-Rockist Protests Too Much

James Dankert

Once in a generation, somebody in New York culturati circles--not the real heavy lifters, but the instant-replay analysts--drops a bomb that smolders for decades. Provoking the squeamish entails a lot of hard detail work and talent. The last multi-megaton ordnance to land on the Reading Class (i.e., people who actually care to know the ideologies of the book critics at Salon) was Renata Adler's notorious 1980 attack on Pauline Kael's When the Lights Go Down--a McCarthyite waving of an empty sheet of paper, in which Adler decried the Kael canon as "line by line, worthless." A work of similar sly effrontery, a humble proposition framed in ironically mild language designed to atomize reputations and send fogeys scrambling for their nitro pills, appeared in a recent edition of the New York Times Arts and Leisure section. It worked. It hit me--harder, maybe, than the late returns from Ohio. I've fallen and I can't get up!

"The Rap Against Rockism," by Kelefa Sanneh (the final "a" made me think the writer is a woman, but I thought wrong) slams a Gen-Y door on the 60-year-old-guy mustiness of the bad gray Times. Published on October 31, "The Rap" uses the "flap"--one could not use the word more lightly--surrounding Ashlee Simpson's Saturday Night Live lip-synching to deliver a sexy steel-toed kick in the 'nads to rock-critic phallocentrism. Sanneh spends several thousand words attacking "rockism"--the privileging of old-timey rock 'n' roll over other popular genres. His jeremiad sounds a generational alarum: The days of isolated, tormented, anti-commercial white male geniuses are done and done. The days of rampantly commercial, craftless, contentless, corporate-driven pop, especially as practiced by artless teenage girls, are here. Why is this a good thing? Because these bopsy post-tweens don't come with the self-serious old fartiness of the Springsteens and Costellos of this world (and, by implication, the Hilburns, the Christgaus, the Marcuses). Sure, Sanneh pays lip service to being a uniter-not-a-divider: "The challenge isn't merely to replace the old list of Great Rock Albums with a new list of Great Pop Songs," he writes, "'s to find a way to think about a fluid musical world where it's impossible to separate classics from guilty pleasures." But it is precisely the legacy of these soul-sick, wounded, hemhorrhagingly macho lone wolves of Great Rock that Sanneh seeks to undo.

You'd be hard put to find music fans who don't have at least a few bubblegum ditties in their iPods next to Nick Cave's murder ballads. The conceit that pop potion-making--even of a sheerly greedy, commercial variety--can have a roof-shaking force as great as that of self-conscious "art" is not exactly new. (For an example of pop-ditty criticism more trenchant than Sanneh's, go rent a copy of Kenneth Anger's landmark film Scorpio Rising, in which girl-group doo-wop and novelty toss-offs are given a spectral, alchemic power.) But you've got to be pretty dedicated to living in the moment to believe that we're living in a golden age of popular music. Does Sanneh really believe this stuff, or is he just trying to score points against the Boss-loving boomers he hates so passionately?

You can argue that the shape-shifting feminist hip hop of Christina Aguilera is every bit as radical as the punk rock of the 1970s (and it is), but then you haven't challenged any of the old rockist questions (starting with: Who's more radical?)...The challenge now is to acknowledge that music videos and reality shows and glamorous [magazine photo] layouts can be as interesting--and as influential--as an old-fashioned album.

Note the sly use of '80s academic lingo in this piece. Elsewhere, Sanneh opposes straight white farts with British "new-wave bands that emphasize drum and hairspray": "'Rockist' seems the best way to describe the ugly anti-disco backlash of the late 1970s, which culminated in a full-blown anti-disco rally and the burning of thousands of disco records at Comiskey Park in Chicago in 1979: the Boston Tea Party of rockism."

In other words, here's that creaky cultural-studies opposition of the naked and the damned on this side (the anguished, boozy, stripped-bare straight white guy) and the masked, periwigged, and artificial on this side (the Queer, the Other, that-which-must-hide-in-pretend). Take it one step further and it's not just gays versus straights; it's the white male subject versus everybody! Quoting a New York Times dig against Mariah Carey, Sanneh attacks the--can one use the word?--seminal band of the '90s: "When did we all agree that Nirvana's neo-punk was more respectable than Ms. Carey's neo-disco?" Um, forever and always, I think?

Let's accept Sanneh's you-would-think-outmoded Binary Opposition: straight white guys in this corner, Others in that one. What he's saying--though he lacks the sand to come out and say it in so many words--is that the "rock establishment" that enshrines the Lone Wolf is, by dint of its Lone Wolf worship, racist, sexist, and homophobic. Okay...accepting that thesis, you'd expect that next Sanneh is going to come out in defense of subversive, openly politicized, rigorously critical queer artists and/or artists of color. A ringing endorsement of Stephin Merritt and Me'Shell NdegéOcello will now follow--right? Hardly. Instead, it's time for a late-night trip to Wal-Mart, for a jumbo bag of Skittles and all the CDs your poor arms can carry!

One of the queer theorists who must loom large in Sanneh's legend is Andy Warhol. Sanneh has taken from the worst of Warhol: not the movies and the philosophical tracts, but the late diary entries. Like Warhol snickering up his sleeve at the fatuous über-butch of Jackson Pollock's black T-shirt, Sanneh is a mall-ratty kitsch queen in love with what the cute, popular kids are liking. He so wants to fit in, it could give you a toothache. "The Rap Against Rockism" starts out as an anti-fogey, kick-out-the-jams flamethrower, but ends in a place of profound complacency. His passive-aggressive gibes at the Lone Wolf rockists' bigotry serve as a smoke screen for his schlocky-pop cravings. Sanneh's point is that we don't live in the world of the Tortured Singer-Songwriter. We live in a world where headless cutie-pies are plucked from the food court and given Eternal Life, either via a pop-starlet career or as a suffering face in a group-living situation on reality TV. Why ask for Patti Smith when Jessica Simpson's edible body glitter is right there at your feet? Why look for thoughts and feelings when the anthem for next year's sixth-grade homecoming is already on the air?

To glorify only performers who write their own songs and play their own guitars is to ignore the marketplace that helps create the music...with its checkbook-chasing superproducers, its audience-obsessed executives and cred-hungry performers. [emphasis mine]

Ahhh, so that's it! At the end of the day, the you-go-girl defense of otherness in combat with smothering white-boyness is a red herring. It's all about how to stop worrying and love...the marketplace. Who needs Elliot Smith and Rufus Wainwright when there's a "checkbook-chasing superproducer" calling the shots? Indeed, give Polly Jean Harvey a permission slip to go home--we've got "audience-obsessed executives" bringing fun snacks to the party. "The Rap Against Rockism" is finally like those blogs I encounter every now and then that begin, "I don't care what people think--I'm starting to think Dick Cheney is hot!" Sanneh is like a Vichy girl who can't believe how fast her heart is beating as she kisses a Luftwaffe colonel--right here in the café, in front of everyone!

This generational screed pretends to "oppose and resist," but is really all about bending over for the "marketplace." Sanneh sees the displacedness and cultural impotence of the rockists and wants no part of that. He'll hang his hat with the red states, thank you very much. He knows la musique de Juicy Couture is here to stay.

No doubt Sanneh wanted to raise hackles and cause many of his fellow--no other word for it, Kelefa!--rock critics to scream in pain. But even allowing for provocateur impishness, "The Rap Against Rockism" is a treasonous polemic, because it's all about giving us permission to surrender to the giggly pleasure of embracing what's bad--and not guilty-cool-disreputable-fun-bad, but bad-bad. It says, "Let's admit there's nothing to the process of making and listening to music but participating in the money machine." Music fans get that message, on average, 23 and a half hours a day. We count on so-called literate music lovers to give us a tiny portion of dissent. Kelefa, take your lunch tray away from the rich kids' table! The losers are much more fun.

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