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


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.


Critic vs. critic: Staging the set.

A multi-point agenda for a discussion of pop music.

darwin mayflower: world! domination!

Okay. I’ve been skirting the issue for long enough. In the coming days and weeks, I’m going to be digging into a lot of the things that initially inspired me to start this blog. It’s going to be a tough but enjoyable challenge to keep it light, concise, positive and entertaining—I definitely tend toward the verbose and cranky.

Among these will be posts, observations, deliberations and (ideally, even) discussions covering such topics as the following:

1. “Poptimism” vs. “rockism” and other false dichotomies.

Stipulating that music is often “product,” and that this is the case in the majority of popular/“pop” music, how do we navigate the blurred lines* between works of artistic worth and songs/albums/artists whose existence is predicated on calculated profitability? This is in or around, say, the Mountain Goats and Britney Spears (to use two examples of artists with whose work I’m only passingly familiar).

2. “If it’s popular, it can’t be good,” and other fallacies/straw men.

Get under the hood of the whole, “Listen, people wrote off the Beatles as fluff, at the time—but now we know they were geniuses,” thing and hunt around for valid and meaningful examples of this poptimist platform plank. See also: Motown…

Counterpoint: Consider, say, the Neptunes and Timbaland as examples of musical innovators whose work and influence may transcend their immediate context(s); see also: Phil Spector.

3. “Guilty pleasures” and other copouts.

Recognizing that some music we enjoy may not comfortably fit into the critical matrix we’ve cultivated—and identifying and evaluating various methods for coping with this; e.g., denial, secrecy, ironic flaunting, blatant hypocrisy, unabashed ownership, re-assessing objective/subjective critical/aesthetic standards, expansion of tolerance/perception, etc.

Establish the difference between A) reconciling a guilty pleasure to fit within (or hide behind) a set of musical preferences and B) figuring out ways to approach music we like that can accommodate a breadth of styles and sounds without requiring exceptions or explanations. This might involve taking a step back and considering the way(s) we enjoy music, first, before we get literal and bring the kinds of music we enjoy into the discussion. Whoa. (Surely this has been done before; I’ll look into it.)

4. Maintaining consistent standards of evaluation, and other challenges.

What do we expect from pop music? When we hold it up to the standards we apply to “real” music (or “authentic” music, if we apply the rockist perspective), is it acceptable/odd/irrational/unrealistic/poptimistic—even for its most ardent defenders—to be disappointed when it falls short?

Are poptimists just grasping to identify and adore the next Beatles, so as to short-circuit the period of critical disdain and get to the fun part where we all get to take it seriously while we’re dancing? Do people just want to be pre-emptively on the right side of this era’s “disco sucks” battle? If so, in whose service is this done; for whose benefit? The artists’? The labels’? The critics’? The (ugh) audience’s?

Side note: It’s always fun to feel like the opposition; like the persecuted minority. Rebellion is historically cool and intrinsically fun. Imagine if your pals on the battlefield were, like, totally hot red carpet celebs? That’s, like, win-win, right? (We’re all still fourteen, right?)

5. Do we need to talk about this?

I mean, apparently, we do. But I’d like to pose the question, just because it’s come up in conversations along the way. From my own perspective, the lines aren’t really all that blurry—it seems pretty clear to me what’s purely product (or so close as to make little difference) and what’s implicitly or inadvertently got “product” in it, but isn’t intrinsically created as or to be product.

But that’s an “I know it when I see it” viewpoint, which, as we know, is not a helpful or objective basis for judgment. So I’m curious as to why the conversation is necessary—and, I admit, I think I have to include this section to explain/justify my own pontifications on the subject. Because clearly it matters enough for me to get so worked up about it that I started this blog and wrote all this stuff. Why do I give this topic—so much of which I find to be superficial and uninteresting—so much thought?

* oh, like you wouldn’t have