I don’t wish to bang on about this too much but this is quite hilarious in that we have one writer taking another writer to task for not approaching a pop album in the ‘correct’ way. The line “it infuriates the sort of people who think Wrecking Ball is the year’s best album” is telling – clearly anyone who loves Wrecking Ball and Springsteen must be a conservative listener, right? People couldn’t like both just as a matter of fact – no, the ability to enjoy such diverse artists is the privileged reserve of music writers (undoubtedly in their 30s at least).
Music writing, certainly pop music writing, is saturated in Poptimism. Every week brings another trite piece sneering about ‘guitar music’ and ‘authenticity’; an X Factor contestant like James Arthur is almost instantly mocked for being draped in the trappings of ‘rock’. The default setting for many pop writers is to write against an imagined enemy who thinks music should have ended after Bob Dylan’s first decade. What this fails to recognise is that Poptimism has been the dominant force in music for the past 15 years or so. Acts like U2 and Coldplay fall over themselves to be viewed as part of the pop fraternity while an act like Jake Bugg making silly teenage comments (he’s a teenager, after all) about X Factor is instantly and widely mocked. This enemy who instinctively believes that Bugg is better than Beyonce because he plays a guitar is very much in the minority these days.
Two things frustrate me about this approach. The first is that it’s like the writers have read a couple of summaries of Derrida and they apply it to pop music in a completely half-arsed, embarrassing way which belies their own love for the genre. Tossing off statements about how it doesn’t matter who writes the songs, everything is ‘fake’ and a folk singer is just as ‘contrived’ as Lady Gaga is so par for the course that almost no-one questions what these statements actually mean anymore. Yet this refuses to allow pop music to be a sublime art form (other than in a nihilistic Warholian way – note the reference to Ke$ha’s “ephemerality” in this piece, which is far more damning than anything else.) Instead the attempt is to tear down any artist who actually strives towards greatness, to place Michael Jackson and Prince alongside some soap actor who’s bunged out a catchy hit because ‘all that matters is the song’.
This brings me to the second frustration – the approach bears little relation to how people actually listen to music. As I’ve previously noted, those of us who write about music in any capacity are a tiny minority and our relationship with it is not typical. It’s a misguided effort towards populism which drives an extreme Poptimism that implicitly devalues the worth of pop music – the fact of the matter is that time and time again, ‘casual’ music fans demonstrate that they value very traditional notions of talent. They understand that Michael Jackson was special and ‘authentic’ in ways which modern pop writing seeks to undermine and pretend don’t matter. I found it funny that Jack White’s misunderstood comments about Lady Gaga last week aroused such Poptimist outrage, because they have such relevance to that whole schtick: “The goal of modern celebrity is to make yourself into the lowest common denominator.” In speaking about how ‘image for the sake of image’ was an increasingly dominant notion and one which was deployed towards some facile caricature of being just like everyone else, White neatly speared the central tenet of modern Poptimism. The great irony being, of course, that it’s now so clearly almost entirely the preserve of professional writers who haven’t been in their teens for a long time, who convince themselves that they are bravely combatting the elitism of other professional writers. It is, to put it mildly, complete guff.
The whole Rockism/Poptimism thing undoubtedly arose out of very real attitudes in music writing but it is woefully outdated and having an instinctive mistrust of any genre of music, or someone with a guitar, or someone who doesn’t write their songs, or someone who thinks they have more to offer music than standing and miming badly, is idiotic. Ke$ha is as deserving of serious consideration as anyone else – how refreshing it would be if it was consideration which didn’t rely on an appeal to some external opponent.