Friday, May 12th, 2006

Poptomism v. Rockism For Dummies

One of the great things about going to another country for several days is not being caught up in the noise that is North American popular culture. Yaddadamean?

No urban shockjocks trying to increase market value. No Bush TIA surveillance. No EMP-inspired frothing on rockism and racism.

The last topic inspired this and this in Slate, which line up Slaters John Cook and Jody Rosen against the likes of the mighty Sasha Frere-Jones, Jessica Hopper, and Jane Dark/Josh Clover. (Not a fair fight, if you ask me, but Rosen does get a few punches in, keep reading.)

I have a few things to say, although all you reactionaries can put your knives away, because I have no interest in going back to the Da Capo/Nik Cohn thing. All you funboys and ILMers can relive that circus in cyberspace without me.

For background’s sake, I was on the initial EMP Conference planning committee for this year, before bowing out due to ridiculous tour responsibilities. I voted for something having vaguely to do (I think I thought) with the flooding of New Orleans, the looting of Iraq and fighting for and preserving popular music.

Of course, boring earnest old colored me was WAAAY in the minority. It’s cool, I was born that way.

Folks chose instead to go with “Guilty Pleasures”, which as Rosen nails above, was a topic supercharged to continue this popism vs. rockism critical correction that we’ve all been living through over the past 5 years or so.

This is an obscure fucking debate, to be sure. So for those of you who want the backstory to O-dub’s post, here’s your Cliff Notes.

Rockism is the idea that Important Popular Music is created by an elite of Big Statement-Making Heroes who mostly strum guitars, can sing loudly (and/or softly and sometimes for a very looong time), can (quite often) be quite smelly and ugly, and are by definition, mostly white, loved usually by only an elite few, except when they are loved by many, in which case Art has triumphed.

Popism is the idea that Important Popular Music is created by pretty much anyone who manages to get on the Top 40, who may or may not strum guitars, may or may not sing (loudly, softly, or well), can (quite often) be very nice to look at, and are by definition, mostly not white, loved by the masses, except when they are not, in which case their promotional/payola budgets haven’t kicked in yet.

How race came into it is when hip-hop started taking over both critical and popular discourse in the mid-90s. Before that, Rockists didn’t like rap. That was the Black music that didn’t deserve to be taken seriously, just like all the other Black musics before it. Then Rockists figured out that there were rappers who might really be Rockers, in the sense that they were really Important, like, say, Public Enemy. Afterwards rappers could be Rockists too.

But then there was a backlash, especially when rap became really Popular. Then a whole buncha Cultural Studies-trained critics could argue that Popularity was what made music Important. And the road to taking Britney Spears seriously now looked like the 405–jammed with much excessive honking and several bloody accidents.

So now that the Poptomists have triumphed (K. Sanneh at the Times, Sasha at the New Yorker, and Blender Magazine surely denote triumph, yes?), Rockism is becoming the new Anti-Rockism.

Here John Cook represents the old folks that want their Rock back. Sad breed, them. They missed the levelling postmodern and multiculturalist critiques of the 80s, apparently. It’s gut-check time for them, and sadly, Kurt Cobain is dead, the Alarm broke up a long time ago, and the White Stripes may be about to, too. (But seriously though, que viva Billy Bragg.)

Jody Rosen represents the Pop folks who think they might want their Rock back. Confused and mostly unemployed, they are. iPods killed the album stars, and as for the folks who want to write about all that? Well, we’ve all been downsized by New Times to 50-words or less, nice work if you can get it.

Will the EMP do “Cohesive 60+ Minute Statements” or “Come On Guys, Please, Rockism Isn’t Racist We Promise” next year as another correction? Will music journalists continue to be laughably out of touch with the real world, both in terms of interests and representation?

You can stay tuned. I don’t care.

Further reading:

Gallery of Rockism by Scott Woods

Origins of Totalitarianism by Josh Clover

posted by @ 11:11 am | 21 Comments

21 Responses to “Poptomism v. Rockism For Dummies”

  1. Jody Rosen says:

    Hi Jeff, Jody Rosen here. I think you’ve misread my Slate piece. I’m certainly not “lined up” in any way against “the mighty” Sasha, Jane/Josh, and Jessica. My article had been planned for weeks before the Stephin Merritt episode and only mentions Sasha (who’s work I admire a great deal) in passing, in a reference to his importance as a critic. I allude obliquely to the controversy that erupted surrounding Merritt’s EMP panel appearence, and there’s a link there to John Cook’s piece. But to infer that I’m somehow on Cook’s side is quite a leap. I’ve never met or spoken to Cook, and although Slate chose to cobble together our articles into a “cover package” (my editor’s doing, not mine) they’re quite different in tone and content. For one thing, mine isn’t a polemic; Cook’s is.

    The point is, I don’t want to be tarred with Cook’s brush, or dragged into an argument in which I’ve taken no part. I’m astonished that you read the thing and came away with the idea that it was somehow “against” Sasha, or anyone else for that matter — with the possible exception of John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band. Also, the idea that I “represent the Pop folks who think they might want their Rock back” is a pretty narrow reading, too. My piece might not have been that great, but I think it was clear that I was making a plea for a move beyond facile categories. Oh, and by the way, I’m often confused, but I’m very employed.

    Anyway, just thought I’d throw in my two cents. You wrote a terrific book, btw.

  2. Jeff says:

    lEr, OK yet another reminder that people actually read my blog. Sheesh.

    Hey Jody, terrific book right back at you.

    OK, I take back the stuff about the lining up you against the others part–lesson for young critics: editors suck (it’s true, we do). It was unfair to put you in with the Merritt/Albini/Cook camp.

    Especially when I clearly sympathize with Sasha/Jessica/Jane/Josh. Even if I don’t think this debate is useful anymore. We need something new to get at the real questions that need to be asked–the ones that right now have to do with whether any music or music criticism can help us imagine a better world. I think Josh/Jane is trying to raise those issues, but in a very indirect, obscurantist kind of way.

    For the record, I’m in agreement with you that the categories are facile and need to be moved beyond. But that would also put you–and I–outside, and perhaps in that sense, against–those debating this whole thing.

    You’re pretty well positioned, given your interests and brilliance, to propose a new way of looking at things. So…?

  3. John Cook says:

    And now it’s John Cook. I have absolutely no dog in the rockism fight. I was attacking Frere-Jones and Hopper, not defending Merritt, if that makes any sense. I don’t endorse his ideas, or agree with him much about music, and while I have my thoughts on pop and rock and authenticity and so on, they weren’t on evidence in my piece. I was simply arguing that Frere-Jones and Hopper had no evidence on which to base their claims that Merritt is a racist, and that people should have evidence and arguments if they’re going to write the sort of things that they wrote. Rockism has nothing to do with it.


  4. Jeff says:

    John, you write about racism, and suddenly you’re getting treated to a discussion about rockism. What I’m doing above is trying to provide a little context as to how these two discussions converged.

    There is a body of discourse that goes back at least 5, 8, 30 years that everyone involved here–Sasha, Jane/Josh, Jessica, Albini, Merritt–are drawing on, whether explicitly or implicitly.

    It’s a convo that has been going on for quite a while separate of the participants involved, me and many others included.

    You’ll note in the Gallery of Rockism piece (that Jody also linked to) there’s a subtext of race talk going on in many of the quotes, something that Josh/Jane makes quite explicit in his Voice piece from the P+J poll earlier this year. Rockism is racism, is what Josh/Jane partly argues. He notes that it’s in the structure of the very P+J poll, in the very way music criticism is framed.

    That’s a pretty subtle, provocative, and to me, convincing argument…that apparently no one in the blogosphere talking about any of this stuff apparently wants to hear or think about.

    But I think this is where SFJ and Hopper enter. That rockism perhaps even promotes sexist and racist discourse is a suspicion that Merritt raises and that Albini has (gleefully) confirmed many times all by his damn self.

    Quite beyond the merits of Merritt’s case for being a good white liberal (which, who cares? Right?) the fact is that music criticism is still a very white male-dominant field (as if I have to remind anyone, geezus), and the wounds are always fresh.

    So I am sorry that both you and Jody may have wondered into the minefield by accident, but I can’t apologize for the bombs you’ve both set off.

    Now, having said all that, I think Josh/Jane’s point is incredibly well taken. If someone told me we had to pick a side, I’m jumping in with my homies SFJ and J-Hop.

    But I don’t think any of this stuff gets to the more important question of how our aesthetics function in the world.

    Point blank: Has the 5, 8, 30-year old discussion around popism and rockism helped us establish an aesthetic practice and discourse that changes the world for the better?

    Answer: Nope, it hasn’t done shit.

    So I’ve figured out it’s pretty much a waste of my time.

  5. Max says:

    Jeff, some of the criticism directed against you comes from your choice of source material. Regardless of S/FJ’s “real” opinion of Merritt vis-a-vis “racism” or whatever we want to call it, the six blog entries seem to clearly fall into the humor-through-hyperbole vein (at least to me).

    What I got out of it mostly was that Sasha was accusing Merritt of “unexamined wack biases,” rather than outright racism, which I think seems fairly accurate (at least, until S/FJ adjusted his stance for a clear pattern of “provocation” from Merritt).

    In fact, those of us who aren’t (quite) as radical as Jane Dark might argue that what’s at hand isn’t explicit racism; it’s a set of specific cultural biases that lead certain people–Steve Albini, and, maybe Stephin Merritt–to favor certain kinds of music based on generally meaningless features such as “authenticity.” Whether or not that’s still “racism,” being more implicit and perhaps unintentional, is not for me to decide.

    But to claim that a sweeping denunciation of all rap–or, for that matter, a list of the century’s greatest songs featuring, what, 12 black songwriters?–has nothing to do with race strikes me as disingenuous.

    Even if your article wasn’t a Rockist’s polemic, the posters on the Slate fray certainly seemed to have interpreted it as such, and, frankly, have reacted with a lot of proud ignorance.

  6. Max says:

    Oh, and anyone who chooses a St. Etienne song over “Juicy” as the best record of 1994 is either trying to be wrong, or simply cannot hear at all.

  7. ronnie brown says:

    A primary element of white supremacist domination is the power to EXCLUDE…but another aspect of that domination is the power to DEFINE…to determine what is of value, relevant, desirable, important.

    So none of us should delude ourselves into thinking that a white supremacist mindset could not be expressed in a music review, especially if the primary basis for rendering such a judgement is based on a principle of “authenticity”…

  8. Nate P. says:

    Speaking as the unnamed “dipshit” Sweet Jane got all churlish over in his/her P&J piece, most of the time I feel like I’m obligated as a whiteboy music critic (as in Sonic Youth fan who likes Ghostface, or vice versa) to try and tackle a bunch of treacherous shit that maybe I just don’t have the heart or the head to discuss. I tried pulling off this rockist/popist/racist chainsaw joust multiple times and came out of it knowing even less about how pop works, why I like something and the reasons I wanted to write about this music thing in the first place. Now I just pretty much throw out some whimsical similes and hope nobody notices the rest.

    Also, I’m not sure if the popists won or what, but I do know that The Raconteurs’ “Steady, As She Goes” and Rihanna’s “SOS” are having a cage deathmatch for earworm supremacy in my head right now and it’s not gonna settle itself down for a long-ass time.

  9. Jim says:

    Geez. I think this whole thing is solid proof that there’s absolutely no need for “professional” music critics.

  10. Anonymous says:

    I’ve always considered myself more of a notshittymusicist, really.


  11. jody rosen says:

    Jeff, of course I read your blog!

    As for that “new way”…hmmm…let me get to you on that one.

    Peace, J.

  12. Dave M. says:

    how can you say the discussion around rockism and popism “ain’t done shit?”

    here we are expending enormous amounts of energy trying to examine our prejudices where they seem to take root in the most innocuous of places (ie. what’s on your iPod) and bring to light the fact that, per Jane/Josh, a lot of supposedly non-racist people have very little truck with black culture. it’s not a big jump from a person asking himself why he doesn’t listen to any black music to asking himself why he doesn’t have any black friends, and starting to maybe wake up to the possibility that the world would be a less racist place if the various races were a little more interested in what each other were up to.

    interrogating my own tastes has immeasurably changed my attitudes towards race, and if this discussion sparks that kind of serious reexamination of one’s own prejudices (and not just rhetorical wrangling, though admittedly there’s a ton of it), i don’t see how you can argue that it’s been a waste of time.

  13. Jeff says:

    Did I say it was a waste of everybody’s time? No, just my own.

    I don’t want to suggest that we shouldn’t be having a deep discussion about Taste. I also think Josh/Jane is absolutely right to call out one’s ipod playlists. Here’s what I said–quite tentatively–back at the end of 2005 for the Pazz and Jop thingy:

    Is it too late or too earnest or too stupid to suggest that maybe our listening habits ought to help us try to improve our world? I’m happier than ever in my iPod audio-topia. I’m madder than ever at what’s happening all around me. I just think maybe the two ought not to be separate.

    So sure, maybe the way to a new aesthetic is through calling out one’s embarrassing personal habits and stuff.

    But I don’t think that’s the stuff from which revolutions come. So maybe I skipped a question or two.

    Can I just say while we’re still on this topic…that the stupid fucking focus of the MSM this past week on “where’s all the protest music?” could stand a lot of rejiggering.

    Everyone wants to talk aesthetics. But as you know, Dave (this is Dave Marsh right?), the shit has nothing to do with aesthetics–well OK maybe a little bit–and has everything to do with structure.

    So fuck Neil Young and all you self-appointed apologists for young people. I want to hear him and you talk about media consolidation, not why all the young people are supposedly not as angry as he is/you are. I mean, really fuck Mr. “Let’s Roll”. Anyway, Dave, I know you agree with me on that…

  14. Dave M. says:

    i’m flattered, but i’m actually a lesser known canadian journalist named dave m(orris). sorry. (for what it’s worth, we met very briefly at EMP when i was a panelist in ’04.)

    if you’re still reading, i’ll respond anyway: who said anything about trying to discover a new aesthetic? the rockist/popist discussion is and has always been about politics impacting our daily lives, and an attempt to address the fact that whites and non-whites, young and old, red state and blue state are addressed differently (and arguably unfairly) by the group of mostly white males controlling cultural criticism — and in the current debate, stephin merrit is rightly or wrongly the test case.

    this is only a discussion about aesthetics insofar as whether our choice of aesthethics have an impact on, or are a reflection of, our politics. as an activist, you could argue that there are bigger fish to fry than aesthetics, but if you’re going to say that, why are you bothering with music at all?

  15. Jeff says:

    welcome canadian dave m!

    well, i said that i think we ought to be talking about a new aesthetic.

    popism v. rockism won’t get us there.

    and as far as activism/aesthetics, why can’t a dude push it there?

    like the feminists said, the personal is political. and like our boy attali said, music is prophecy.

  16. Anonymous says:

    “Rockists didn’t like rap. That was the Black music that didn’t deserve to be taken seriously, just like all the other Black musics before it.”

    I can understand rockists not valueing “dancefloor” music like disco, electro etc, But I always felt like they held up earlier forms of black music like jazz, soul and particularly the blues as being the the very definition of “authentic” and soulful.

  17. ronnie brown says:

    Jeff, what’s wrong with this picture?!…white people presumptuously debating among themselves in regard to what Black musicial form is considered “authentic” or “soulful”…

    that’s why you can’t wink at this Popism/Rockism mess.

    perhaps you should review my previous post.

  18. Anonymous says:

    “Jeff, what’s wrong with this picture?!…white people presumptuously debating among themselves in regard to what Black musicial form is considered “authentic” or “soulful”…”

    I’m not presuming anything, just disagreeing with Jeff’s definition of what a rockist is.
    I wouldn’t consider myself a rockist, btw.

  19. ronnie brown says:

    YOUR definition of rockism notwithstanding, when certain white writers declare themselves to be the last word on what Black musical expression is “authentic” or “relevant”, i consider that a presumption that demands a chin-check…in a literary way, of course.

  20. Anonymous says:

    Hi, everyone.

    I’m not going to weigh in on anything, but I wanted to say that I am putting together a book of new essays and articles on Merritt’s work. If you are interested in submitting please email for details –



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