AC/DC Let There Be Rock

Rockism and Poptimism: or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Carly Rae Jepsen

I’ve been recently reading about Rockism and Poptimism, two different schools of music criticism. It’s been interesting for me, both to understand my own personal biases and the biases behind other people’s music writing. 

The term Rockism was coined in the early 1980s. The definition of the word has changed over the years, but as I understand it, it’s essentially a derogatory term for music critics and fans who doggedly value the following characteristics in music:

  • “authenticity”
  • self-contained acts who write and sing their own material
  • white, heterosexual acts with guitars (although politically-oriented rappers like Public Enemy or auteurs like Aphex Twin are also acceptable)
  • nostalgic for a past where rock music was culturally dominant

When I was a teenager in the 1990s, the principles of Rockism were well entrenched, both in myself and in the music press that I read. In my university days I was certainly a Rockist – I was busy absorbing the catalogues of The Clash and The Rolling Stones. Even though I enjoyed some of Britney Spears’ hits, I would have been uncomfortable admitting so. From personal experience as a young male, there’s an issue of sexual identity in this reaction – married and comfortable in my sexuality it’s much easier for me to enjoy pop music now.

The Poptimism movement crystallised around 2004, as a counterpoint to Rockism. Poptimism questions the viability of rock music as a lasting medium. It argues that disposable and chart-topping pop songs are just as artistically valid, and that popularity is an important measure of artistic worth. Poptimism’s inclusiveness is certainly a positive step, although writers have argued than Poptimism has become as narrow focused as Rockism was, favouring high-selling artists, and that it’s essentially an attempt to gain more web traffic for music publications by featuring serious discourse on popular acts.

But at the same time, I don’t know that Poptimism has replaced Rockism as the dominant paradigm; if anything it’s augmented it. If you take a look at ratings aggregator Metacritic’s top ten of 2017, it’s dominated by artists that are in Rockist-endorsed territory – the socially-conscious rap of Kendrick Lamar and the emotionally-charged indie-folk of Mount Eerie are the year’s two highest rated albums.

There’s also an argument that we’re currently blessed with top selling pop artists with artistic merit; Beyoncé’s received widespread acclaim for her recent work, Taylor Swift enjoys a reputation as a strong story-teller, while Carly Rae Jepsen has gained a dedicated following (including myself) with her well-realised, 1980s inspired, bubblegum pop.

We live in a world where music is more accessible than ever before – you can instantly access millions of songs from Spotify or another streaming service and make your own mind up. I’ve always thought that the progressive rock vs punk argument was silly – the obvious solution is to cherry pick the best music from both movements – and the same is true for Rockism and Poptimism. There’s lots of great music out there, and it can be a good exercise to understand your own biases. But only if you want to, and I’m not going to judge.


  1. If it sounds good to you, who cares just listen to it! No labels required! That’s why my collection spans Gojira to Lionel Richie, and Charles Mingus to Herbert Von Karajan, etc. Give ‘er!

  2. Believe it or not, I wasn’t familiar with those labels. Most importantly, though, what I’ve taken from this post is that I should listen to the Jepson lass. And I will!

    • Emotion and Emotion: Side B are both great. She got pigeon-holed as a one hit wonder after ‘Call Me Maybe’, but she got really good at pop music with her recent work, but lost commercial favour, probably because the first single from Emotion was essentially a lesser remake of ‘Call Me Maybe’.

      • I’ve added a few to my library- the Emotion albums, Call Me Maybe and Tug Of War. Very intrigued – thanks for throwing her on my radar!

        • I’ve never heard Tug of War but I’ve heard it’s basically folk/country, and the Kiss album that Call Me Maybe comes from was rush-released to take advantage of her success and has a couple of really bad duets.

          So listen to Emotion and Emotion: Side B first. It’s weird using the term artistic growth for someone who’s essentially bubblegum pop, but she suddenly got a whole lot better. Songs like ‘Run Away With Me’, ‘Fever’, ‘Boy Problems’, and ‘Cry’ are great.

          • Oh, I missed Kiss… it was the EP I added. I’ll go get that one, but the advice on which to listen to first has been duly noted.

    • There are different kinds of music snobs out there too, I think. Like musos who will only listen to music if there’s high level of musicianship. I found reading about those schools of thought was a good way to understand my biases.

  3. I guess the idea I find interesting is equating tastes with biases. As organically flawed, self-contained receiving machines, everything we take in is essentially biased, isn’t it?
    I don’t listen to pop music much at all, as it rarely interests me. I have friends who don’t listen to progressive music for the same reason.
    If something moves you in some way, then it’s done at least part of its job. As for the terms, perhaps your comment about selling magazines is the key point. Magazines so love pigeon-holes.

    Thanks for a thought provoking piece.

    • I think tastes and biases are intertwined, but I only addressed the idea of biases in this article. I think I’m quite inclined to like pop, as long as it’s not too brain-dead, but my biases wouldn’t let me when I was younger.

  4. I listened to E·MO·TION and Side B the respective years and I agree showed she is not just a one-hit-wonder. I mean, if she reportedly co-wrote 250 songs throughout the process she must have some ability, right? Carly’s music is fun and at times emotionally relatable. To me, “I Really Like You” stands up with the best 80s pop songs. Not saying I like everything on the Billboard top 100 though, which to me rarely is great these days.

    • There’s supposed to be a new disco flavoured album coming soon too. She kind of is a one hit wonder to the general public – she did this weird 180 with Emotion, probably not even intentionally, where she’s now adored by lots of music geeks but seen as a one hit wonder by everyone else.

        • I’ve always preferred brunettes. I kind of wish we had these discussions on male artists too, for fairness, but I guess men don’t change hair colour much. Do you think Billy Corgan looked better with hair or no hair?

  5. I don’t even remember Billy Corgan with hair 🙂 He looks less masculine in the old days (from the google search I just did). His baldness is kind of his thing so I’d say better without hair.

  6. Poptimism is just an excuse to worship pop stars and only consider the bottom line when it comes to music. The reason that I tend fall into the rockist view is that I find that the musicians who are lauded like Springsteen got their fame by actually by writing songs and learning to play an instrument. I don’t find that it pop music of today. If pop music wants to be taken seriously it has to offer more than what it is currently offering.

      • Motown is great and is considered worth listening to(although I prefer Atlantic soul) more. There is no equivalent of that today at all. When I hear the pop music today the vast majority of pop music is pretty vapid. The fact is that the lyrics of most pop artists are really just at the level of a teenager and is common to have no instruments. The commercial pursuit destroys any creativity.

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