Not too long ago, I completed the annual music geek’s ritual of filling out my ballot for The Village Voice’s vaunted Pazz & Jop poll. During the past 40 years, The Voice has surveyed critics on their favorite albums and singles in an effort to create something approaching a consensus. In scrambling to put together a Top 10 list that I could live with, I poked through my iTunes playlists, looked at other critics’ 10-bests (it’s allowed!) and flipped through essays by everyone from The New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones to the tastemakers at Pitchfork. My survey of 2013’s critical landscape only reinforced something I’ve suspected for some time now: Music criticism has gotten really weird.
The New Yorker devotes pages to praising the comeback album by Britney Spears. Eight of the 12 essays in last year’s Slate Music Club focused primarily on the kinds of artists normally found on the Billboard Hot 100. (One was actually about the Billboard Hot 100 itself.) The higher reaches of the 2013 Pazz & Jop singles list were dominated by artists like Lorde, Robin Thicke and Icona Pop. The fourth-best album was Beyoncé’s December surprise, which had already prompted a near-avalanche of 140-character hosannas and substantially longer think pieces.
A Grantland article published a few months ago was illustrative of this new mode of critical thought. The author described being disappointed with the new Beyoncé album after having listened to it some 20 times, before eventually changing his mind and pleading guilty to deviations from orthodoxy. “I was wrong to say that I didn’t like the Beyoncé album after two days,” he wrote, eventually concluding by admonishing any others who had not yet seen the light: “If you don’t like the new Beyoncé album, re-evaluate what you want out of music.”
The reigning style of music criticism today is called “poptimism,” or “popism,” and it comes complete with a series of trap doors through which the unsuspecting skeptic may tumble. Prefer Queens of the Stone Age to Rihanna? Perhaps you are a “rockist,” still salivating over your old Led Zeppelin records and insisting that no musical performer not equipped with a serious case of self-seriousness and, probably, a guitar, bass and drums is worthy of consideration. Find Lady Gaga’s bargain basement David Bowie routine a snooze? You, my friend, are fatally out of touch with the mainstream, with the pop idols of the present. You are, in short, an old person. Contemporary music criticism is a minefield rife with nasty, ad hominem attacks, and the most popular target, in recent years, has been those professing inadequate fealty to pop.
Poptimism is a studied reaction to the musical past. It is, to paraphrase a summary offered by Kelefa Sanneh some years ago in The New York Times in an article on the perils of “rockism”: disco, not punk; pop, not rock; synthesizers, not guitars; the music video, not the live show. It is to privilege the deliriously artificial over the artificially genuine. It developed as an ideology to counteract rockism, the stance held by the sort of critic who, in Sanneh’s words, whines “about a pop landscape dominated by big-budget spectacles and high-concept photo shoots” and reminisces “about a time when the charts were packed with people who had something to say, and meant it, even if that time never actually existed.”
Poptimism wants to be in touch with the taste of average music fans, to speak to the rush that comes from hearing a great single on the radio, or YouTube, and to value it no differently from a song with more “serious” artistic intent. It’s a laudable goal, emerging in part from the identity politics of the 1990s and in part from a desire to undo the original sin of rock ’n’ roll: white male performers’ co-opting of established styles and undeservedly receiving credit as musical innovators. Jody Rosen, a music critic I admire greatly, admitted as much in Slate in 2006, writing that “many of my colleagues, like me, have embraced the anti-rockist critique with particular fervor as a kind of penance, atoning for past rockist misdeeds — for the party line we’d swallowed whole in our formative years and maybe even parroted under our bylines.”
Rosen is describing poptimism as a reaction to what I think of as “Rolling Stone disease,” whereby Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen were treated as geniuses and the likes of Marvin Gaye and Madonna as mere pop singers. Obviously there should be no test of race or gender in musical immortality. But now the reaction has swamped the initial problem and created a wildly distorted version of the music world in 2014, as reflected in the way it’s covered.
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. In one particularly ugly contretemps a few years back, led by prominent critics, the indie hero Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields was accused of being a racist for expressing his appreciation for the song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” from the (actually racist) Disney musical “Song of the South,” and his general dislike of hip-hop.
The music historian Ted Gioia recently argued in a pointed Daily Beast article that “music criticism has turned into lifestyle reporting,” more interested in breakups and arrests than in-depth musical analysis. He has a point, although the culprit is not rampant musical illiteracy on the part of critics or the factthat not everyone is Lester Bangs reincarnate, as he suggests. The problem may very well be that music criticism has become so staunchly descriptivist.
I spend most of my time, professionally speaking, writing about movies and books, and during quiet moments, I like to entertain myself by imagining what might happen if the equivalent of poptimism were to transform those other disciplines. A significant subset of book reviewers would turn up their noses at every mention of Jhumpa Lahiri and James Salter as representatives of snobbish, boring novels for the elite and argue that to be a worthy critic, engaged with mass culture, you would have to direct the bulk of your critical attention to the likes of Dan Brown and Stephenie Meyer. 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), lest they fail to adequately analyze the majesty that is “Thor: The Dark World” ($206.2 million). What if New York food critics insisted on banging on about the virtues of Wendy’s Spicy Chipotle Jr. Cheeseburger? No matter the field, a critic’s job is to argue and plead for the underappreciated, not just to cheer on the winners.
The issue is not attention — any critic who ignored mass taste entirely would be doing his or her readers a disservice — so much as it is proportion. Music critics are as snobbish as any other variety of critic, but lately, their snobbishness has been devoted to demonstrating just how unsnobbish they are. Given Katy Perry’s string of No. 1 hits, a well-honed argument about her appeal is a welcome addition to the musical conversation. But should gainfully employed adults whose job is to listen to music thoughtfully really agree so regularly with the taste of 13-year-olds?
Poptimism has become a cudgel with which to selectively club music that aims for something other than the whoosh of an indelibly catchy riff. Its Kryptonite is indie rock, subjected to repeated assaults for its self-seriousnessand rockist fervor. Bands? With guitars? And sometimes with beards? Don’t ever tell a poptimist critic that you love the Strokes’ later albums or think the National are geniuses (guilty on both counts). “Rock music,” Slate’s Carl Wilson sniffed when reviewing the National’s most-recent album, “has died and gone to graduate school.”
So why is music criticism more or less alone in this affectation? Unlike those other disciplines, it has had to wrestle with the fact that music is now effectively free. Music criticism’s former priority — telling consumers what to purchase — has been rendered null and void for most fans. In its stead, I believe, many critics have become cheerleaders for pop stars.
It is no accident that poptimism is an Internet-era permutation. Obsessive coverage of stars like Drake and Justin Bieber drives Web traffic in a way that more judicious, varied coverage of the likes of, say, the Tuareg guitar wizard Bombino generally cannot. Once, we learned about new music by listening to the radio, reading Spin or watching MTV. Today MTV is largely a reality-TV channel, and most people prefer their iPods or Spotify playlists or Pandora stations to fusty radio programming.
In this way, poptimism embraces the familiar as a means of keeping music criticism relevant. Click culture creates a closed system in which popular acts get more coverage, thus becoming more popular, thus getting more coverage. But criticism is supposed to challenge readers on occasion, not only provide seals of approval.
In this light, poptimism can be seen as an attempt to resuscitate the unified cultural experience of the past, when we were all, at least in theory, listening together to “Sgt. Pepper’s” or “Thriller.” The dissolution of a shared musical mainstream means that my Speedy Ortiz or Ka may be gobbledygook to someone whose musical hero is Sky Ferreira. But the splintering of tastes should be celebrated, not treated as further cause for doubling down on our focus on a few familiar stars or sounds. Let a thousand Haims bloom!
In the guise of open-mindedness and inclusivity, poptimism gives critics — and by extension, fans — carte blanche to be less adventurous. If we are all talking about Miley Cyrus, then we do not need to wrestle with knottier music that might require some effort to appreciate. And so jazz and world music and regional American genres are shunted off to specialized reviewers, or entirely ignored. If this sounds like a fundamental challengeof the contemporary world — preserving complexity and nuance in a world devoted to bite-size nuggets of easy-to-swallow, predigested information — it should.
Poptimism diminishes the glory of music by declaring, repeatedly and insistently, that this is all it can do. But there is always more to the story. Critics of all stripes have the privilege of devoting their professional lives to hacking a path through the thicket of cultural abundance. There is, now more than ever, too much to listen to, too much to watch, too much to read. All we can do is point out some highlights of our journey. Criticism matters because its virtues are profoundly human ones: honesty, curiosity, diligence, pluralism. We should never sacrifice any of those in the name of an artificial consensus.
And get that Speedy Ortiz album. It’s killer.