The pop bubble.

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In his piece over at Pitchfork, kris ex takes Nicki Minaj to task for being too Nicki Minaj in everything all the time. It’s called “Maybe It’s Time to Stop Caring About Nicki Minaj.”

It’s a thoughtful commentary and he makes valid points, but here’s the thing: Why single her out in particular? Most, if not all, of his observations—about specific lyrics of hers, about general stylistic and thematic choices, etc.—could easily apply to any other Top 40 artist, or at least any other pop rapper (male or female). So maybe the question isn’t whether or not we should continue to care about Nicki Minaj.

Maybe it’s time to simply stop expecting pop music to be more than it is.

Maybe it’s time to stop expecting pop music to be anything other than a reflection of the pop culture that drives it, shapes it, defines it and consumes it.

Maybe it’s time to stop waiting for pop music to grow up, because its primary listenership is, and always has been, students.

(Related side question: Maybe it’s time to stop reading Harry Potter and Hunger Games and high-school books, and start reading like grownups?)

Maybe it’s time to see pop music for what it is: crafted, marketed product, created for profit, where artistic intention and/or innovative creativity is inherently, intrinsically, inevitably incidental to the process.

Maybe it’s time to allow ourselves to think critically about pop music in a broader way; rather than further scrutinizing the minutiae of Swiftian liner-note obscurities or pondering Rick Ross’ or Pusha T’s internal motivation in constructing yet another verse about selling cocaine and having a lot of money, maybe it’s time to take a broader view and look at trends more than tracks—movements more than moments.

Maybe it’s time to admit that a light, escapist pop song might not be able to withstand a barrage of heavy intellectual and critical inquiry because it’s not—nor has it ever been—designed to.

Maybe it’s time to admit that when we apply our own personal standards and expectations and demands to this massively influential yet utterly impartial behemoth, we only reveal our own arrogance and ignorance.

Maybe it’s time to admit that the microscopic attention we pay to so much of this music is dwarfed by the firehose of ambivalence the music has in response.

Maybe it’s time to stop expecting pop music to care about us.

Maybe it’s time to stop expecting pop music to care what we think about it.

Maybe it’s time to start listening to what pop music says to us.

Maybe it’s time to start caring about what pop music says about us.

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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.

Don’t cry for me, Williamsburg: MIA NFL CYA LOL

Wholesome family entertainment, dawg! Spank it again, Madge! —Maxim

It’s fun 2 B on TV! Sue ya l8rz! J/K Madge lolz! Spank me again! I am not part of this moment!

Okay. This will be a mess, but at least it’ll be a mess with integrity; which is more than I can say for M.I.A. (at least, in this particular context) or for Noisey, the music blog/site arm of the ever-widening Vice mag firehose. Here are a few of the angles Noisey is taking on this tempest(t) in a teapot (note: bolding mine):

MIA’s importance as a cultural figure cannot be denied or argued. Unlike other self-proclaimed political artists, who claim to have an agenda beyond releasing tracks with a message that’s forgotten as soon as they’ve cashed their cheque, MIA is actively involved in humanitarian issues.

I beg to differ. I contend that her importance can be both argued—she’s not intrinsically any more important than Ke$ha (which, yes, is actually an argument, although both of these pop stars do seem to like to feel that they’re making an impact); and, since you mention it—yes, even denied. To wit: Since when have we all agreed that pop music as a commercial genre is the same thing as “culture”?

Seriously; put down the Justin Timberlake and that record by Alan Thicke’s kid and try to remember a time back when you knew how to differentiate hip from hype. Sure, M.I.A. can be a notable pop-cultural figure; why not?—but, well, you know what they say about taking the gold in the Special Olympics.

There are plenty of people out there making more interesting (and less conventional) pop music, not to mention music that’s less overtly constructed out of hit pop single tools, tropes and tricks. There are also plenty of people who less sensationally back up their political philosophies with their actions, rather than shouting from soapboxes made of Sony/Roc-A-Fella/Interscope dough before stepping behind the curtain for the part where the suits swing through to drop off the checks. [Note: Somebody call Chumbawamba and see if they still get Christmas cards from the folks in Crass.]

It’s possible that the NFL didn’t do their research. Fine; they brought in Madonna, whose long-expired edge is so blunted that it knows everyone can tell it’s SO HIGH right now DUDE JUST BE COOL OK!!! Safe as houses, right? But to be fair, there’s a chance that the intern whose bro showed him that YouTube clip with the hot Indian (or w/e!) chick didn’t dig a little deeper into the dark, iconoclastic, insurrectionista underworld in which M.I.A. resides, before shooting her name up the pipeline to the half-time show decider committee (who, everyone knows, never leave their houses and only have the Internet on their computers LOL). So, yeah; culpable? Definitely. When you hire M.I.A., you get M.I.A., even if you should have known better and done your (simple-ass) homework. Ignorance of the ignorance of the law is no excuse.

But is M.I.A. a victim here? Similarly, not at all. Maya chose to step up and play with the big kids. She signed on the line, took the check and then willingly opted to use her high-profile moment to be far-out and edgy and freak out the squares, man! And fair enough—I mean, seriously, why not take a moment in the midst of all the glitz and decadence of the Super Bowl half-time show to make a heartfelt, articulate plea on behalf of your suffering siblings—or, you know, just pull an f.u.? But to expect to walk off that Super Bowl field without an invoice clinging to your spiky heel is either profoundly delusional or absurdly naïve. M.I.A. may be the former; she’s certainly not the latter.

But it’s been a little while; let’s get back to the Noisey perspective (and yes, I fixed your dipshit punctuation, son):

And while Maya didn’t hijack the performance to promote a political agenda [OH FUCKING COME ON NOW, REALLY? THANKS FOR THAT CLARIFICATION YO BECAUSE I THOUGHT THIS WAS SINEAD O’CONNOR ON SNL ALL OVER AGAIN], it would be safe to assume that her opting to stick her finger up at the camera wasn’t a immature grasp for attention—as the NFL suggests—but rather, when caught up in the moment, a way of conveying to the largest audience possible, that yes, she “[doesn’t] give a shit.” At least not about a sporting event that grosses over $150 million while her own people are suffering as the rest of the world turns a blind eye.

Look, homes: You can’t have it both ways; either she’s innocent or she’s guilty. If you’re defending her, saying she was “caught up in the moment” diminishes her statement by defining it as a spontaneous whim. If you’re not sympathetic to her, it supports the perspective of her as an opportunistic headline-chaser. But you’re trying to work both angles—saying it was a spur-of-the-moment impulse (hey, take it easy on a gal, lawyers—we’re just playin’!) and a meaningful political statement about her suffering people (hey, can we get some of those Occupy kids to Instagram this moment or something?).

It’s Rage Against The Machine 2.0; wanting to be the spokesperson for the downtrodden via the corporate assembly line. But whether you’re a wannabe agit-pop star or a blog hack for a diluted franchise, you can’t get upset when the multinational conglomerates you’re in bed with don’t play fair. You knew who you were getting jiggy with when you took the money, honey.

(And not to “go there” and all, but yes, it’s great to procreate with a right-on, green-minded, forward-thinking hero of the people; and hey, if he’s the multimillionaire heir to a liquor and record label fortune, that doesn’t hurt either, does it? Come on, you guys—some of these suits have names and faces, okay? They’re people just like you or me! Point taken: Playing for both sides can be fun, as long as everyone sticks with your playbook.)

So, to edge toward wrapping this up: Look—if M.I.A.’s defense is that the NFL isn’t actually as family-friendly as it claims to be, or whatever, then what does that make her (rebellious, spontaneous, iconoclastic, calculated, meaningless, meaningful, on-purpose, on-the-fly) gesture? Was it a statement, somehow, about how the NFL is hypocritical in its messaging? Because if it was, then, dude: We are on—glove thrown, challenge accepted, pistols at dawn, yo. Because the NFL is some bullshit, no argument here. But if that wasn’t the point of her bold-ass middle finger, then… well, her defense is kind of more or less basically a little bit of a sorta cheap copout, right? Like, “OK, maybe I was kinda rude—but you guys were totally rude first! I’m calling it!”

Endnotes

Whew. Well, glad that’s ov—wait, what? Dude, 4 rlz, Chris Brown? Really? That’s the guy you bring in for a hott collabo when your NFL defense hinges on accusations of misogyny? Seriously, are you high (or just pre-emptively terrified of male hegemonic oppressions and stuff or whatever Rihanna call me OK because this guy seems totez nice but maybe he’s got a temper idk lolzzz)?