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Feelings, Nothing But Feelings

The New York Times misses the point in its attack on "rockism"

The Sunday before last, above the fold in the Arts & Entertainment section of The New York Times, there was a lengthy piece by Kelefa Sanneh about "rockism," which he defines as "idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star; lionizing punk while barely tolerating disco; loving the live show and hating the music video; extolling the growling performer while hating the lip-syncher."

Except for the part about hating lip-synchers, so far so good. Reading that made me feel better about digging Chingy and Pink as much as I do now, and the fact that I would probably take a disco boxed set to a desert island rather than a punk one. Sadly, it was all downhill from there. And by downhill, I mean the expert slopes at Vail.

The flashpoint for Sanneh's essay was the Ashlee Simpson debacle. To Sanneh, the vitriol hurled Simpson's way wasn't an honest response to the unmasking of a nepotism-generated fraud of limited talents, it was part of a "knee-jerk backlash against producer-powered idols who didn't spend years touring dive bars" by people who also disdain the likes of Christina Aguilera and Usher and who sourly whine away their bitter days "grousing about a pop landscape dominated by big-budget spectacles and high-concept photo shoots, reminiscing about a time when the charts were packed with people who had something to say, and meant it, even if that time never actually existed."

And then he notes that most of these "countless" critics are straight white men engaged in a form of cultural imperialism in which all music must aspire toward rockingness, presumably as defined by the canon of great rock albums laid down in the golden age from roughly 1967 to 1975. "Ever wonder why OutKast and the Roots and Mos Def and the Beastie Boys get taken so much more seriously than other rappers?" Sanneh asks. "Maybe because rockist critics love it when hip-hop acts impersonate rock 'n' roll bands. (A recent Rolling Stone review praised the Beastie Boys for scruffily resisting 'the gold-plated phooey currently passing for gangsta.')"

Rockism, Sanneh contends, fails to notice that rock is no longer the center of the music universe, and that we should strive for a day in which we all "acknowledge that music videos and reality shows and glamorous layouts can be as interesting -- and as influential -- as an old-fashioned album."

And as kettle drums thunder, trumpets swell and the string section wafts us heavenward, toward that golden land where Ashlee, Usher and Ja Rule are as revered as rockist icons (to name but three nonwhite examples) Aretha, Ray Charles and OutKast, Sanneh concludes that "Rockism makes it hard to hear the glorious, incoherent, corporate-financed, audience-tested mess that passes for popular music these days. To glorify only performers who write their own songs and play their own guitars is to ignore the marketplace that helps create the music we hear in the first place, with its checkbook-chasing superproducers, its audience-obsessed executives and its cred- hungry performers. To obsess over old-fashioned stand-alone geniuses is to forget that lots of the most memorable music is created despite multimillion-dollar deals and spur-of-the-moment collaborations and murky commercial forces. In fact, a lot of great music is created because of those things."

Sure, Sanneh has some good points here, but what's true in it isn't new and what's new isn't true. Yes, rock probably gets more critical space than its market share warrants, but that's nothing new. Rock has never been the dominant genre in America -- at various times, it has shared space on the pop charts with country, R&B, hip-hop, folk, new wave and jazz, and its status as the universal music of white urban youth is at a fairly low ebb now. And of course it's silly for critics to demand that all "authentic" performers be instrumentalists and songwriters.

But hasn't Sanneh noticed that the Big Four record companies -- all those checkbook-chasing superproducers, audience-obsessed executives and cred-hungry performers -- have been drowning in their own vomit for roughly ten years? And that mainstream radio has been losing thousands of listeners a month to satellite competition?

I'm sure that Sanneh will blame downloading for the industry's woes, but Michael "Blue" Williams has another view. While Williams doesn't write for the Paper of Record, he does happen to be the manager of OutKast, the rockist-friendly Atlanta rap duo whose latest album has sold nine million copies so far. "In my opinion it's not downloading that's killing us, it's [that] we stopped putting out quality music," he told PBS's Frontline earlier this year. "We stopped giving the public something to believe in…And the public caught up to us and was like, 'Hey, we don't want to take it no more, and we get it someplace else.'

"I think that if labels adjusted the game again, started putting out good records, quality records, the public will buy. Our OutKast is at eight million records right now. Eminem just sold eight million. 50 Cent sold six. Norah Jones sold six. The public will buy good music when you give them good music to buy. And that's what it should be about."

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