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. I’m no expert but I wanted to write down my understanding of them.
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:
- self-contained acts who write and sing their own material
- white, heterosexual acts with guitars (although politically oriented acts like Public Enemy or auteurs like Aphex Twin were 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, and 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 an counterpoint to Rockism. Poptimism questions the viability of rock music as a lasting medium, and argues that inherently 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 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 a lot of acclaim for her recent work, Taylor Swift has always enjoyed a reputation as a strong story teller from her days as a country-pop, guitar strumming starlet, 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.