The Perils of “Poptimism.”

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I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.
—Mark Twain

Lindsay Zoladz is a writer for Pitchfork and other folks. She also has a blog/tumblr, from which the excerpts below are taken. It’s a one-sided “debate,” so take my observations with a grain of salt.

Zoladz’ original piece: We Can’t Stop [excerpted below in italics]

The next day [after the Miley Cyrus show]… everybody on Twitter was up in arms about some op-ed the New York Times Magazine had run decrying the rise of “poptimism”. Now, I agree with the general concept of poptimism, but that word never fails to make me want to barf, because 99+% of people who listen to pop music do not have to come up with some kind of factionalized team name in order to enjoy it—they just fucking like what they like.

It strikes me that both the word and the concept behind “poptimism” were invented the same way “rockism” was—by the same people, with an axe to grind. Whether on offense or defense, these teams relate pretty closely to one another. In fact, and unfortunately, they seem to relate pretty much exclusively to one another. Which doesn’t say much for the potential breadth of discourse on the subject.

And it seems as though the only way to really escape the clutches of these terms/premises is—brace yourself—to think about music more broadly. Maybe we don’t have to create straw men to knock down in efforts to justify the music we like, or criticize people for liking the wrong kind(s) of music.

(Incidentally, as a side note, I think most alleged “rockists” might feel the same way you describe about their own listening habits—i.e., liking music without needing to pledge allegiance to a particular camp based on specific enjoyment criteria. See how that works? Rock-likers are people, just like pop-likers! Neat, right? If this concept is too tricky to absorb, check out the entry-level version.)

And maybe that was part of the reason why going to the Bangerz Tour was so refreshing and yes I will even say life-affirming: Nobody there was trying to debate, like, Ted Gioia’s Daily Beast article between sets. 99+% of the girls (yes, they were mostly girls) there would not know/care about what “rockism” meant, or whatever insider-baseball circle jerk the “music writing community” was engaged in that day. They were just there to freak out over the music they loved.

Breaking news: Pop music is fun as hell and teenagers love pop music and fun and not boring things that are dumb.

And I looked around at them… and I remembered being like them and feeling like nobody took seriously the things I liked, all I wanted to do was write things for them. Not above them, or below them, but to them. I am so profoundly bored with writing for the 1%.

Stop the (word)presses: Critic wants validation/appreciation from a specific audience.

I would challenge you, Lindsay Zoladz (who I’ve never met, and I’m sure are a nice person), to admit that you wouldn’t be writing about non-Miley music if you didn’t want to. What you seem to want, though, by implication, is the appreciation/adulation of teenyboppers for your 1%y think-pieces about Cat Power (or whoever).

Maybe the prospect of throwing in the towel on the 1% crap is daunting because you know, in the back of your mind, that the alternative is terrifying: mind-numbing, broadly and deeply commercial/profit-oriented, substance-free and image-indebted; that writing for Teen Vogue, Teen Cosmo and Teen Seventeen will require you to play the pop music money game and whoosh, there goes your critical integrity, your street cred—and your genuine enjoyment of what you’re doing.

A Pitchfork writer complaining that pop music is trivialized except by teenage girls is like the right-wing bellyachers whining about bringing prayer back into schools. In the same way that the Christian God’s name is on every piece of American currency and is invoked at every formal address by every President, pop music is getting plenty of time, space and attention from the masses, old, young and in between. Yes, they’re all (statistically speaking) missing Lindsay Zoladz’ voice among all the hubbub, but by and large, they (and pop) manage to get along.

The difference is how deep you’re willing to go for your cause. The PTA dad demanding that his child be allowed to pray in school isn’t demanding to preach a sermon in class; that’s farther than he’s willing to go, and he knows it’s a little unrealistic. Likewise, the pop critic who wants to bring thoughtful pop-centric insights to mainstream/mass media doesn’t really want to have a column in Entertainment Weekly or People, because it’s unrealistic to expect those masses to be interested in think pieces about the internal motivations behind Katy Perry’s aesthetic pivots. The critic knows that she won’t have the editorial leeway or liberty (or word count, or autonomy, or freedom from commercial interests/influences, etc.) that she enjoys outside the mainstream. You don’t get to write about Cat Power for Maxim—at least, not the way you want to—and you don’t get to criticize Justin Timberlake in Vogue.

You do, of course, get to gush about Ariana Grande or, you know, Miley Cyrus. But wanting to have it both ways is a little disingenuous, don’t you think? If you gaze too longingly into the pop abyss, you’ll feel its gaze on your soul, and it’ll be a lot colder than you would wish.

Pop is commerce. Having fun on its surface is great, but to willfully blind oneself to the fact that it’s all built on an ever-burning pile of money, the blazing heart of which needs stoking all day, every day, is to deny reality. Fairies aren’t real, wishes don’t come true, and Miley didn’t write that song. Katy didn’t build that. And no matter how much you want him to, or think, wish, hope and beliebe that he will (or know in your heart that he should), Justin doesn’t give a fuck about your little problem with his lyrics, dear.*

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A little while after we posted our write-up, a few Miley fan accounts started tweeting it. One of them called it, “a thoughtful and in-depth review” of the tour; a girl whose Twitter name was Katniss Everdeen called it “one of the best reviews I’ve read in a while.” Maybe it was the lack of sleep of the #BangerzHangover or most likely the tragic death of Floyd Cyrus, but I was already feeling kind of emosh on Friday and seeing those tweets almost made me cry. For some reason, this immediately felt like the highest praise I’ve received in a long time.

…For music writers, it’s easy to write something that will rile up that 1%; it’s harder (but in my mind, a much more noble challenge) to write something that resonates outside the bubble. So I don’t know, maybe next time you’re wasting time and energy on some shirts-vs.-blouses/poptimists-vs.-rockists/us.-vs.-them debate, remember the girl sitting behind you on the Bangerz Express, the one for whom the whole idea of being “an interviewer” is refreshingly foreign and novel. She’s listening, if you’re willing to treat her like a potential reader.

This is kind of like the republican trope about how liberals “condescend” to the lower classes, or whatever; in all honesty, I feel like anything I write “remembers” the teenybopper; why wouldn’t it? I may not think of her/him as a fully-grown adult with mature perspectives and a broad palette of musical familiarity, but… Why should I?

Is your implication that we, as Music Writers, should tailor our content toward the Miley fan demographic? Because if we don’t critically evaluate their current chart faves, we’re somehow leaving them stranded without any serious consideration or attention? That seems odd—and, honestly, condescending. I think they can take care of themselves. Tavi Gevinson is doing pretty well, as are the thousands of girls and boys like her, who have blogs, opinions and, more than likely, readers.

Maybe we should just let the kids have their say and meet them where they hang out, rather than willingly uproot our own perspectives to make sure they get the opportunity to experience our gleamingly brilliant insights. Treat them as adults and make it clear that if and when they want to think and talk seriously about music, we’ll be, you know, ready to hang out?

I’d like to close this by contending that “the kids are alright,” which would kind of tie it all up “cleverly.” But given my lifelong profound ambivalence toward the Who, I’d hate to have that reference used to indict me as a rockist. So I guess I’ll just say that, “we’re the kids in America, whoa-oh—everybody live for the music-go-round.” Which is pretty much in the ballpark (or, you know, the civic arena).

* This is a sadly ideal example of the way that this music who its listeners care about so much clearly does not care about them. See also: Coke drinkers love Coke; Coke doesn’t love them (or their bodies).

It’s product. When our goals are aligned—entertain me, make me feel good, support my fun in exchange for fandom and money vs. I’ll entertain you as long as you follow my antics and my twitter and buy my shit—then we’re all okay; when our goals differ (make me happy vs. I’ll make you unhappy but still pay me, kid) then suddenly we got problems. But these problems could have been seen coming from miles away by anyone looking up from his or her iPod every so often.

Long story short: I wrote a book.

gfnf yo

There’s more to it than that, but the quick version is that a big chunk of the book (at least half, and then some) is up for the download; interested parties should proceed to the online Web site at the following URL:

Greetings from Nowhere Fast, dot com.

(Scroll down to the link in hott pink. Oh, and ignore the part about posting a chapter a day; I put that site together last year. If/when that whole plan gets underway, I’ll let you know…)

Anyhow, at some point I’ll either post the whole book, or put it in some online bookstore or something. Which will involve getting my act together to a degree that’s not likely in the immediate future, so I thought I’d just let this cat out of its bag before it’s old enough to join AARP. (It’s been finished for well over a year now.)

To sum up: If you like books about white, twenty-something guys in bands in Boston around the turn of the (most recent) century, you’re in luck. And if you like those books to have clever and witty dialogue, insightful perspectives on male relationships and a boy-meets-girl love story? Friend, this is the book for you.

So, yes—tell your friends! Don’t miss out. And thanks for any and all interest you might take in this. I hope you like the book, or any portions you end up flipping through. I’m pretty happy with it.