Poptimism: A Brighter Way to Talk About Music

As seen in this poster for an exhibition at London's A&D Gallery last year, poptimism has even crept into the world of fine art.
As seen in this poster for an exhibition at London's A&D Gallery last year, poptimism has even crept into the world of fine art.

“Rock is dead” is the prevailing sentiment these days for everyone from Gene Simmons to Tenacious D. Although such sweeping statements are annoying at best, there may be some truth to it in terms of music criticism. Rock-centric criticism, or rockism, has been our foremost paradigm almost as long as rock music has existed. Its reign lasted at least as long as early rock-and-roll-friendly publications such as Rolling Stone and Melody Maker were the primary sources of album reviews.

At its most basic, rockism can be defined as a discussion of music that holds rock as the normative genre, and the basis by which all other types of music are measured. While this approach works perfectly for rock music (which admittedly was the most popular style of music for a good half-century), it is understandably troublesome for a hip-hop or bluegrass artist to be judged by the same standard.

Quick side note: At the very core of my being, I am against both the fishiness of seafood and the cattiness of cats. People that know this about me have tried to pitch their tilapia or their tabby accordingly: “It doesn’t taste fishy, it’s more like chicken,” or “He’s just like a dog!” My response is always the same: The thing is bad if your pitch for the thing is how not like that thing it is. Convoluted phrasing aside, I’m allowed to have this narrow view because I am neither a food critic nor a judge at some kind of cat talent show. Music critics, on the other hand, do not have the same luxury — especially lately. Rockism, due to its insistence that your EDM cat isn’t a dog and is therefore bad, is gradually being ushered out of the mainstream. The now-enormous spread of genres simply cannot be jammed into its value system.

In the last few years, there has been a noticeable shift into a more pop-friendly approach, known as poptimism. Possibly originating in the writings of Melody Maker critic Simon Reynolds, the term is about a decade old. It was initially used disparagingly toward overwhelmingly positive reviews of pop music, but since then has been co-opted by the same critics who critiqued the practice. Popular music criticism is beginning to be defined by this more positive (“optimistic," if you will), form of engagement, in which more credence is given to the opinion of “the masses."

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Whereas rockism lends itself to a music-snob attitude, poptimism has a more inclusive outlook, which is important to keep in mind when considering its potential for longevity. Hopefully attributing value to music made on computers or, God forbid, without guitars, will last us another 50 years, or at least until robots start releasing albums and make us re-assess the system yet again.

Rock-centric criticism had a long and successful run, and much of that success was due to its at-the-time progressive attitudes toward the burgeoning revolution that was rock and roll. Even so, the very tenets of the philosophy that made it so ubiquitous also created the limitations that are now causing it to fall behind. Unknowingly, placing emphasis on authenticity from early in rock’s history built a wall between it and not-yet-imagined art of sampling in hip-hop. Detractors tout authenticity as a badge of honor, claiming “real” instruments have the edge over computer-based sampling due to the skill it takes to play them.

It’s true that bad sampling can be egregious (like, say, lifting the entire chorus of an insanely popular song for your hook), but to make a parallel to traditional instrumentation, this is equivalent to the guy at the party going from G to D to C on the guitar. Skillful sampling often pulls from less obvious sources, and is essentially invisible. Keeping with the guitar analogy, this tracks closer to the intricate playing of someone like Jimmy Page than Gary from the party. Since they are not playing “real” instruments, however, the criteria of a rock-centric dogma don’t allow for that comparison.

The late Lester Bangs, as seen portrayed by Phillip Seymour Hoffmann in Cameron Crowe's 2000 film Almost Famous, could never have been accused of poptimism.EXPAND
The late Lester Bangs, as seen portrayed by Phillip Seymour Hoffmann in Cameron Crowe's 2000 film Almost Famous, could never have been accused of poptimism.

Musical trends can change so fast that a flexible approach to both genre and criticism is important. Change-obsessed Greek philosopher Heraclitus posited that “Nothing endures but change." Music evolves and changes along with everything else, and with it so too must music criticism. So long as it accurately represents the evolution of popular music, poptimism will be the go-to paradigm for criticism. No matter what the name, critics have a responsibility to engage with popular culture on its own terms.

With the Internet age came a Big Bang of music — suddenly it was possibly not only to easily record from your home, but to distribute it to a significant platform; namely, the entire world. This resulted in the most new styles of music being created at once since the late '70s, and trying to keep all that in a single box is no longer possible. Rockism, as it was, isn't dying exactly. It is evolving into its next iteration: poptimism. In that light, rockism isn’t “dead” any more than the Cro-Magnon is; it’s just moving on to the next step.


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