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.

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Numbers and/or Hips

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The Top 40 Pop/Dance Starlet Stats: Pitchfork edition

Rihanna

Young, attractive R&B/dance-pop singer with savvy choices in production talent [Neptunes, Timbaland, etc.]

Number of Rihanna albums reviewed by Pitchfork: 5

Average rating: 6.3

Highest: 7.6

Lowest: 4.5

 

Britney Spears
Young, attractive dance-pop/R&B singer with savvy choices in production talent [Neptunes, Timbaland, etc.]

Number of Britney Spears albums reviewed by Pitchfork: 0

 

Ariana Grande
Former children’s sitcom actress turned dance-pop music and video starlet

Number of Ariana Grande albums reviewed by Pitchfork: 2

The first one, in which we establish a Nickelodeon alumnus as a viable commercial/critical presence: 6.5

The new one, which features a host of Pitchfork-friendly collaborators: 7.7

 

Miley Cyrus
Former children’s sitcom actress turned dance-pop music and video starlet

Number of Miley Cyrus albums reviewed by Pitchfork: 0

 

Final Tally: Pitchfork
In which the numbers all add up to something

Selective application of vaguely-defined “poptimism”: check

Aesthetic integrity and/or clarity of mission or critical perspective: n/a

Poptimis! Rockisn’t! And other nonsensical dichotomies. (Part One.)

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Ah there, Pitchfork! Now You’re Talking Sense.

I had an unfamiliar experience, a little while ago: I read a piece about pop music on Pitchfork that I not only agreed with, but found stimulating and mature. Which sounds ugly and snobbish to say, but there you are. Nevertheless, I recommend reading it in full. It’s by Mike Powell, whose contributions I’ve started checking since then and, despite his avowed affection for Vampire Weekend, have overall been worth it. A relevant (to this blog’s haphazard but ongoing examination of the baffling push to create and attach profundity to pop music, the people who develop it—and its criticism) excerpt:

The boundaries between pop and rock are—and always have been—imaginary.

One of the difficulties of fully embracing pop is that when you do, you can no longer emphasize its significance. It becomes something light, a loose ribbon dazzling in the breeze about which nothing sticky can be said. You hear it, you like it, and it’s over—no mess and no remainder. Analyze it like an epic poem and it risks losing the shine that brought you to it in the first place.

Not to hamstring myself—because this album will soon be the subject of its own post here—but take Janet Jackson’s second album, Dream Street, as an example: If you analyze it and assess and review it, all of the things that detract from it—its derivative nature, its dated palette, its totally clichéd lyrics and self-referential/era-entrenched production flourishes, etc—are also all the things that make it really fun to listen to. (Like, over and over again…! For reals, I haven’t had such a blatantly superficial album exert such a perplexing but pleasurable fascination over me since rediscovering 90125 by Yes, ten years ago.)

So, by using the grown-up standards that we all agree are the best ones to apply to music we want to take seriously, you get a lousy review of record that’s actually really fun. And that’s where a great example of a piece of superficial but totally enjoyable pop fluff loses its fun and magic, as Mike Powell points out in his piece.

What some critics clearly want—and, sure, I’ll name Sasha Frere-Jones, Julianne Shepard, NPR’s Ann Powers and/or Frannie Kelly and Pitchfork’s Lindsay Zoladz and/or Ryan Dombal by name—is to be able to discuss pop music in the same intellectual, academic and serious tones, contexts and with the same thoughtful, head-scratching, chin-in-hand, “I beg your pardon, but if I might interject—” musings that are applied to boring old classical music, jazz or, you know, politics; i.e., the serious, grown-up way of talking about things that are Very Important. They want the best of both worlds; a fun, disposable party-time anthem and then an in-depth conversation about why they’re smart for liking it, as opposed to just being party enjoyers.

Ricky Gervais (UK Office, Extras, PETA supporter, funny person) and his longtime partner Stephen Merchant had a podcast going for a while, which centered around their producer, Karl Pilkington, and his amusing (generally insipid, ill-informed and/or contrarian) views on life in general and various topics in particular. One episode has Pilkington complaining that people who are experts in some scientific field are given undue credit and acclaim, as opposed to people who might be experts on, say, Eastenders (a long-running UK soap opera). He contends that expertise and mastery of this subject is just as valid an endeavor and merits as much regard as their more hoity-toity academic counterparts.

It’s just not the case. There is substance and there is ephemera. Pop music is intrinsically ephemera. It can influence or shape substance, but by its definition/nature, it’s product for consumption. By and large (but, of course, with exceptions; we’ll come to that), what we’re talking about when we talk about pop music is: commerce. Business. Highly crafted, precisely honed metrics for deriving the greatest possible result from targeted demographics with the use of proven tools.

Which is not to denigrate pop music in the slightest. I love “Waterfalls” by TLC as much as I love, I dunno, the song “Blatant Statement” by Miles (the guy from Demdike Stare) or, say, anything from Time Fades Away by Neil Young.

Those latter two examples are intrinsically “anti-pop”; i.e., niche fare, commercially unmarketable and with no hope of coming within a mile of any pop charts, never mind the top of them. The TLC song is a catchy little number performed by one of innumerable hip-hop inflected R&B girl groups that were kicking around in the mid-90s.

The talent TLC possessed did not make them unique; the pop world is not a meritocracy.* But through good luck, good connections and good performance, they got themselves to a position where they were deemed marketable enough by someone with dough to release an album.

But here’s the thing: they’re still Eastenders; they’re not The Wire. Hanging out and singing along with “Waterfalls” just isn’t the same as actively trying to figure out where Stevie Wonder is coming from, when he releases his first “auteur,” non-Motown-machine-manufactured album.

So, where it gets interesting is in the awkward middle ground—which, I admit, is broad. Grace Jones, Chic, Stevie Wonder/Motown, Peter Gabriel, Grimes, Purity Ring, Chromeo, Scissor Sisters; i.e., artists using pop tools to make more lasting/inventive music. But I think it’s totally uninteresting to try to shoehorn grown-up concepts of art and good music into pop product like Miley Cyrus and/or Ariana Grande. What’s the point? To what end is this effort made?

Anyhow, exploring the, um, blurred lines of that middle ground is too big a task even to outline here, much less attempt. But it’s a crucial element of the discussion and it would be disingenuous (or, to be honest, asinine and/or willfully ignorant) not to admit it’s on the curriculum.

Okay, I think that’s enough for the moment. Trying to “finish” this essay/post will only result in its further delay; it’s already (at least!) four months old. But there’s obviously more ground to cover here. Hope to get back to it before another season passes. Thanks for reading this far (oh, like you have).

* I almost went with “Merrittocracy” there, just to be coy, but that’s another little can of blog-sniping worms that I’m staying the hell away from.

Noisey continues to be the Ozzy Osbourne (modern day) of shock.

Thank you, Dora the Explorer, for bringing twerking back. Love, America.

Thank you, Dora the Explorer, for bringing twerking back. Love, America.

Miley Cyrus is punk as fuck? Daring! Controversial! Someone call the punk police; this dude is in danger of WTFing the Vice readership’s beards right into the East River.

Christ, Noisey. You really are coming off like the jocks who have “Smells Like Teen Spirit” blaring from their SUVs while they slap around that queer emo kid in the parking lot behind the Dairy Queen before letting him loose and throwing your Bud Lite bottles at him as he runs away.

I mean, for real: “Miley Cyrus is punk as fuck”—seriously? And I’m fully aware that your post was conceived, written and titled to engender exactly this response, but trust me—I don’t mean it like, “Seriously, dude? You really think Miley Cyrus is punk rock?” No; what I mean is, “Seriously? That’s how punk as fuck you seriously think you are, that you seriously believe you can say that and seriously make a case to back it up, and seriously look at yourself in the mirror and take yourself seriously?”

To start with, let’s skip the whole, “Dude, punk rock is all about being in opposition to the corporate machine and she’s just pop and dude, MTV! Teenybopper! Hannah Montana!” spiel; not because it’s beneath the author of the Noisey piece, but because it’s beneath me (and pretty much anyone else who might be reading this). Those points aren’t even relevant to this discussion. I’ll just start with a quote that articulates the point around which the Noisey argument seems to center:

[Ms. Cyrus is] more punk rock than all the mascara-wearing dorks playing the Warped Tour, more punk rock than old-ass bands on their third reunion tours, more punk rock than you or me.

Look. Come on. Just because punk* sucks now doesn’t mean we just turn on the TV and redefine the word to fit whoever’s currently freakin’ out the squares. There have been spotlight-seeking quasi-iconoclasts for a long-ass time. That doesn’t mean they have anything to do with “punk.”

And you can call this a reactionary or “rockist” response, or whatever, but that’s just avoiding the truth: You might as well have said, “Miley Cyrus is jazz as fuck,” or “Miley Cyrus is rock ‘n’ roll as fuck,” or “Miley Cyrus is James Joyce as fuck”—it would have been just as wrong and just as right: She is causing a commotion and getting parents and other authority figures all up in a tizzy in the same way those things used to, back in the day. It doesn’t mean she has anything to do with anything beyond pop music and kids’ TV shows; trying to squeeze her into some kind of punk paradigm is just… well, it’s as goofy as thinking twerking is some kind of fresh, new thing.

Without even trying, Miley is straight up spinning circles around every single pop star who is trying to be edgy right now. Kanye West? Please. She makes Yeezus look like Kidz Bop 24. Kanye West is a giant narcissist who spends every waking minute thinking of how to cement his place as The Greatest Artist Of All Time™.

Okay, now you’re just being silly. Sure, Kanye is a giant narcissist, but comparing his new album with hers is asinine. While Yeezus doesn’t have a lot to startle anyone who’s had an ear toward underground rap music since the mid-nineties or so, it’s still a pretty oddball record for a chart-topping, multi-platinum artist to release.

Miley Cyrus’ album is by-the-numbers contemporary dance-pop; safe, “risqué” by Mom Standards and as edgy as the last Ke$ha product. Unlike Yeezus, it’s product for profit, not product in spite of its creators’ better judgment. With his album, Kanye West is potentially jeopardizing his stature as a profitable hitmaker and gaining a rep as an iconoclastic hypocrite (e.g., if anyone asks him to reconcile his ambiguous lyrics about oppressively expensive fashion with his $120 t-shirt, etc.).

Either way, you have to try just as hard to dodge that ballsy (even… punk?) element of Yeezus as you do to identify anything transgressive or meaningfully boundary-pushing about a teenage girl wearing tight clothes and dirty dancing in the almost-nude. Or wait, is this 1982? Stop the presses—a hot young pop starlet is showing off her body and being rebellious—the punks are taking over!

I’d say I’ve watched the video five dozen times and I can’t even tell you how the song goes. Most times, I’ll just watch it on mute and drop my jaw at how mind-bogglingly ridiculous it is…

Oh, right—I almost forgot the implicit “I don’t actually listen to the music part” part. It’s an amusing little escape hatch, but come on; either step up and own this shit or step off, Tiger Beat.

Anyhow, in closing, sure; Miley Cyrus as “punk” does make sense from a site littered with ads for Doc Martens, Ray-Bans and The Gap—now that’s punk fucking rock, kid. Garnier Fructis is punk as fuck. You read it here first.

* Note: “Punk” in this sentence refers to “punk” found on iTunes and at the mall. I’m not actually claiming or conceding that punk sucks right now; I’m just keeping the discussion within its stated parameters—Warped Tour and old bands. Personally, I think there’s more to punk than that, but I don’t expect to find it at the mall.