Feelings, Nothing But Feelings

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 latestalbum 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."

OutKast and Norah are admittedly darlings of the rockist press. So too, in some quarters and increasingly, is Eminem. That leaves us with the gold-plated phooey-spewing gangsta 50 Cent, who is not such a critical darling. But most of the venom that has been slung Fiddy's way has not come from the rock press; instead, it has come from the underground hip-hop crowd.

It's interesting to me that Sanneh cites a line from an alleged rockist at Rolling Stone when he could just as easily have selected words from any of the roughly ten bajillion hip-hop artists, critics or producers who all bash mainstream rap as regularly as they sing the praises of the all-just and all-merciful Africa Bambaataa. Prince Paul, Mos Def, Kanye West, Talib Kweli, KRS-One, Big Boi, Andre 3000 and Chuck D, among many, many others, are all on the record as being as nauseated by gilded phooey as that nameless Stone scribe. Does that make all these black guys rockists too? Does that mean they like only hip-hop acts that act like rock bands?

Or is it just quality and originality that they're after? Are they simple elitists and old fogies longing for glory days that never were, or do they simply have good ears and more talent than the latest bare-chested gangsta bragging about his Cristal, his Glock, his hydro and his hos?

Here's Williams again on the "murky commercial forces" that send us one copycat hitmaker after another and that Sanneh lauds: "We have accountants running two of the four majors right now, and they don't get it. It's a numbers game. And music has always been a feelings game."


And those accountants are the straight white male cultural imperialists Sanneh should be concerned most with. Sure, Jim DeRogatis, whom Sanneh singled out by name as a Big Part of the Problem, is a straight white guy, and he sermonizes his squarish taste from the fairly bully pulpit of the Chicago Sun-Times. Sure, there's a multitude of self-satisfied rockist zealots out there polluting the blogosphere with rants about how all rap sucks and how pop stars don't rock it like Cocker at Woodstock. But these guys are hardly cultural imperialists, for the simple reason that none of them has an empire. None of those people makes any of the decisions that matter. None of them monopolizes pop, rock and R&B radio, nor do they participate in the legal payola that guarantees that pop culture moves at the snail's pace of accountancy rather than the quicksilver swiftness of artistry.

It's worth parroting Williams again here -- people want feelings from music, and some of them even seek a modicum of authenticity from even their most ephemeral pop stars. Sanneh cited the hundreds of abusive posts that appeared post-SNL on Simpson's Web site as the gloating of a grand rockist conspiracy. I think it's more likely that the posters were outraged teenage members of Simpson's base, people who believed in the package she was selling, no matter how dubious that package seemed to the more cynical among us. I'll bet that most of those posters bought that Jessica was a feisty little sister who wasn't gonna let her beautiful big sis or her overbearing daddy or, yes, even the rockists in the media push her around. She was gonna be a pop star her own way: without lip-synching. And when a San Andreas-size crack in that veneer yawned open before their eyes on national TV, they felt duped, just as some in my generation felt about Milli Vanilli and others in generations before felt about the Monkees.

In his article, Sanneh approves of lip-synchers, "big-budget spectacles," "high-concept photo shoots," music reality shows and "glamorous layouts," and also notes that "The problem with rockism is that it seems increasingly far removed from the way most people actually listen to music."

From all his emphasis on the visual, you could get the impression that Sanneh doesn't listen to music; rather he gawks at performers, who may or may not be musicians at all. In his world, that shouldn't matter, and what's more, he hints that those who disagree with him are racist, or sexist, or homophobic. And that, my friends, most decidedly doesn't rock.

And, lest I forget, there was one other thing Sanneh had right in his article. "All critics are wrong sometimes," he wrote, "and some critics (now doesn't seem like the right time to name names) are wrong almost all the time."  

We won't name any names either.

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