Rockism and poptimism

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Rock musician Pete Wylie is credited with coining "rockism" in 1981. Pete Wylie.jpg
Rock musician Pete Wylie is credited with coining "rockism" in 1981.

Rockism is the belief in certain values thought to be intrinsic to rock music, making the genre superior to other forms of popular music. [2] A rockist may also be someone who regards rock music as the normative state of popular music. [3] Poptimism (or popism [1] ) is the belief that pop music is as worthy of professional critique and interest as rock music. [4] Detractors of poptimism describe it as a counterpart of rockism that instead privileges the most famous or best-selling pop, hip-hop, and R&B acts. [5] [6]

Rock music is a broad genre of popular music that originated as "rock and roll" in the United States in the early 1950s, and developed into a range of different styles in the 1960s and later, particularly in the United Kingdom and in the United States. It has its roots in 1940s and 1950s rock and roll, a style which drew heavily on the genres of blues, rhythm and blues, and from country music. Rock music also drew strongly on a number of other genres such as electric blues and folk, and incorporated influences from jazz, classical and other musical styles. Musically, rock has centered on the electric guitar, usually as part of a rock group with electric bass, drums, and one or more singers. Usually, rock is song-based music usually with a 4/4 time signature using a verse–chorus form, but the genre has become extremely diverse. Like pop music, lyrics often stress romantic love but also address a wide variety of other themes that are frequently social or political.

Popular music is music with wide appeal that is typically distributed to large audiences through the music industry. These forms and styles can be enjoyed and performed by people with little or no musical training. It stands in contrast to both art music and traditional or "folk" music. Art music was historically disseminated through the performances of written music, although since the beginning of the recording industry, it is also disseminated through recordings. Traditional music forms such as early blues songs or hymns were passed along orally, or to smaller, local audiences.

Pop music is a genre of popular music that originated in its modern form in the United States and United Kingdom during the mid-1950s. The terms "popular music" and "pop music" are often used interchangeably, although the former describes all music that is popular and includes many diverse styles. "Pop" and "rock" were roughly synonymous terms until the late 1960s, when they became increasingly differentiated from each other.


Magazines devoted to the serious discussion of popular music first developed in the 1960s and 1970s, with some formative rock critics suggesting that enduring pop music art was made by singer-songwriters using traditional rock instruments on long-playing albums, and that pop hits reside on a lower aesthetic plane as a source of guilty pleasure. [3] The term "rockism" was coined in 1981 by English rock musician Pete Wylie [2] [7] [8] and soon became a pejorative term used humorously by critics who disliked the term in the British music press, in particular the New Musical Express. [2] Originally coinciding with the rise of New Pop in the early 1980s, [8] the term was not generally used beyond the music press until the mid 2000s, partly due to the increasing number of bloggers who used it more seriously in analytical debate. [2]

The album era was a period in English-language popular music from the mid 1960s to the mid 2000s in which the album was the dominant form of recorded music expression and consumption. It was primarily driven by three successive music recording formats, the 33​13 rpm LP record, the audiocassette and the music Compact disc. Rock musicians were often at the forefront of the era.

A guilty pleasure is something, such as a film, a television program or a piece of music, that one enjoys despite understanding that it is not generally held in high regard, or is seen as unusual or weird. For example, a person may secretly like a movie but will admit that particular movie is poorly made and/or generally seen as "not good."

Pete Wylie English singer-songwriter

Peter James Wylie is an English singer/songwriter and guitarist, best known as the leader of the band variously known as Wah!, Wah! Heat, Shambeko! Say Wah!, JF Wah!, The Mighty Wah! and Wah! The Mongrel.

In the 2000s, a critical reassessment of pop music was underway, and by the next decade, poptimism supplanted rockism as the prevailing ideology in popular music criticism. [4] While poptimism was envisioned as a corrective to rockist attitudes, [5] opponents of its discourse argue that it has resulted in certain pop stars being shielded from negative reviews as part of an effort to maintain a consensus of uncritical excitement. [9] Others argue that the two viewpoints have similar flaws. [6]

Music criticism

The Oxford Companion to Music defines music criticism as 'the intellectual activity of formulating judgements on the value and degree of excellence of individual works of music, or whole groups or genres'. In this sense, it is a branch of musical aesthetics. With the concurrent expansion of interest in music and information media over the past century, the term has come to acquire the conventional meaning of journalistic reporting on musical performances.


Early rock criticism

Robert Christgau, pictured in 2005, became one of the first professional rock and pop critics. He later criticized Rolling Stone for promoting the "boring rock-as-idealism myth". Robert Christgau 05 (cropped).jpg
Robert Christgau, pictured in 2005, became one of the first professional rock and pop critics. He later criticized Rolling Stone for promoting the "boring rock-as-idealism myth".

Until the late 1960s, "pop" was considered to have the same definition as "rock" or "rock and roll". [11] From the 1960s to the 1970s, music magazines such as Rolling Stone and Creem laid the foundation for popular music criticism [12] in an attempt to make popular music worthy of study. [5] Following the release of the Beatles' 1967 album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band , such magazines began drawing a contrast between "pop" and "rock" (with "rock and roll" now referring to the 1950s style), [13] creating a division that gave generic significance to both terms. [11]

<i>Rolling Stone</i> American magazine focusing on popular culture, based in New York City

Rolling Stone is an American monthly magazine that focuses on popular culture. It was founded in San Francisco, California in 1967 by Jann Wenner, who is still the magazine's publisher, and the music critic Ralph J. Gleason. It was first known for its musical coverage and for political reporting by Hunter S. Thompson. In the 1990s, the magazine shifted focus to a younger readership interested in youth-oriented television shows, film actors, and popular music. In recent years, it has resumed its traditional mix of content.

<i>Creem</i> magazine

Creem, "America's Only Rock 'n' Roll Magazine", was a monthly rock 'n' roll publication first published in March 1969 by Barry Kramer and founding editor Tony Reay. It suspended production in 1989 but attained a short-lived renaissance in the early 1990s as a glossy tabloid. Lester Bangs, often cited as "America's Greatest Rock Critic", became editor in 1971. The term "punk rock" was coined in May 1971, in Dave Marsh's Looney Tunes CREEM column about Question Mark & the Mysterians.

Music journalism journalism genre

Music journalism is media criticism and reporting about music topics, including popular music, classical music and traditional music. Journalists began writing about music in the eighteenth century, providing commentary on what is now regarded as classical music. In the 1960s, music journalism began more prominently covering popular music like rock and pop after the breakthrough of The Beatles. With the rise of the internet in the 2000s, music criticism developed an increasingly large online presence with music bloggers, aspiring music critics, and established critics supplementing print media online. Music journalism today includes reviews of songs, albums and live concerts, profiles of recording artists, and reporting of artist news and music events.

"Pop" became associated with music that was more commercial, ephemeral, and accessible. [14] "Rock" became associated with a style of music that was usually heavier and centered on the electric guitar. [15] Besides general differences in musical style, the two words became associated with differing values. [16] Many early rock reporters believed that rock embodied a particular set of values, such as rebelliousness, innovation, seriousness, and sociopolitical intent. [17] However, not all critics supported the idea of integrating high culture values into rock music, nor did they all argue for the importance of personal expression. In addition, some believed that such values were merely impositions of the cultural establishment. [18] Nonetheless, a widespread belief among music critics in the 1960s and 1970s was that truly artistic music was made by singer-songwriters using traditional rock instruments on long-playing albums, and that pop hits reside on a lower aesthetic plane, a source of "guilty pleasure". [3]

Electric guitar electrified guitar; fretted stringed instrument with a neck and body that uses a pickup to convert the vibration of its strings into electrical signals

An electric guitar is a guitar that uses one or more pickups to convert the vibration of its strings into electrical signals. The vibration occurs when a guitar player strums, plucks, fingerpicks, slaps or taps the strings. The pickup generally uses electromagnetic induction to create this signal, which being relatively weak is fed into a guitar amplifier before being sent to the speaker(s), which converts it into audible sound.

High culture form of culture, opposite of popular and mass cultures, that includes cultural achievements that are accepted especially valuable by opinion-elites

High culture encompasses the cultural objects of aesthetic value, which a society collectively esteem as exemplary art. It may also include intellectual works considered to be of supreme philosophical, historical, or literary value, as well as the education which cultivates such aesthetic and intellectual pursuits. In popular usage, the term high culture identifies the culture of an upper class or of a status class ; and also identifies a society’s common repository of broad-range knowledge and tradition that transcends the social-class system of the society. Sociologically, the term high culture is contrasted with the term low culture, the forms of popular culture characteristic of the less-educated social classes, such as the barbarians, the Philistines, and hoi polloi.

New Pop

In the wake of the punk rock explosion of the late 1970s, the new wave and post-punk genres emerged, informed by a desire for experimentation, creativity and forward movement. Music journalist Paul Morley, whose writing in British music magazine the NME championed the post-punk movement in late 1970s, has been credited as an influential voice in the development of New Pop following the dissipation of post-punk, advocating "overground brightness" over underground sensibilities. [19] Around this time, the term "rockist" would gain popularity to disparagingly describe music that privileged traditionalist rock styles. [19] According to Pitchfork 's Jess Harvel: "If new pop had an architect, it was [the writer] Paul Morley." [19]

Post-punk is a broad type of rock music that emerged from the punk movement of the 1970s, in which artists departed from the simplicity and traditionalism of punk rock to adopt a variety of avant-garde sensibilities and diverse influences. Inspired by punk's energy and DIY ethic but determined to break from rock cliches, artists experimented with sources including electronic music and black styles like dub, funk, and disco; novel recording and production techniques; and ideas from art and politics, including critical theory, modernist art, cinema and literature. These communities produced independent record labels, visual art, multimedia performances and fanzines.

Paul Morley English journalist

Paul Robert Morley is an English music journalist. He wrote for the New Musical Express from 1977 to 1983 and has since written for a wide range of publications. He was a co-founder of the record label ZTT Records and was a member of the synthpop group Art of Noise. He has also been a band manager, promoter and television presenter.

<i>Pitchfork</i> (website) online music magazine

Pitchfork is an American online magazine launched in 1995 by Ryan Schreiber, based in Chicago, Illinois, and owned by Condé Nast. Being developed during Schreiber's tenure in a record store at the time, the magazine developed a reputation for its extensive focus on independent music, but has since expanded to a variety of coverage on both indie and popular music.

As the 1980s began, a number of musicians desired to broaden these movements to reach a more mainstream audience. In 1980, the New Music Seminar made its debut. It was designed to help young new wave artists gain entrance into the American music industry. The event grew rapidly in popularity and encouraged the shift away from the use of "new wave" to "New Music" in the United States. [20] A similar shift occurred in Great Britain where "new wave" was replaced with "New Romantic" and "New Pop". [21] Unlike in Great Britain, attempts prior to 1982 to bring new wave and the music video to American audiences had brought mixed results. During 1982, New Music acts began to appear on the charts in the United States, and clubs there that played them were packed. [22]

Definitions and etymology


"Rockism" was coined in 1981 when English rock musician Pete Wylie announced his Race Against Rockism campaign, an inversion of "Rock Against Racism". [7] The term was immediately repurposed as a polemical label to identify and critique a cluster of beliefs and assumptions in music criticism. [23] Former NME writer Paul Morley recalled:

... one or two music journalists writing in the one or two music magazines that existed then were very pleased. I was one of them, and was using the term "rockist" the minute after I read Wylie say it. ... If the idea of rockism confused you, and you lazily thought Pink Floyd were automatically better than Gang of Four, and that good music had stopped with punk, you were a rockist and you were wrong. ... Anti-rockism was always violently pro-pop, largely because we original campaigning anti-rockists had been given such a tough time at school for liking [David] Bowie and [Marc] Bolan and not ELP and Led Zep. [2]

There is no widespread consensus for the definition of "rockism". [23] [2] During the 1990s, to be a "rockist" was defined as demanding a perception of authenticity in pop music despite whatever artifice is needed. [12] In 2004, music critic Kelefa Sanneh offered a definition of rockists: "[S]omeone who reduces rock 'n' roll to a caricature, then uses that caricature as a weapon. Rockism means 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." [24] He further accused rockists of projecting a sexist, racist, and homophobic point of view. [24]

Seattle Weekly 's Douglas Wolk acknowledged the loose definition of rockism and proposed: "Rockism, let's say, is treating rock as normative. In the rockist view, rock is the standard state of popular music: the kind to which everything else is compared, explicitly or implicitly." [12] Popmatters ' Robert Loss wrote that "traditionalism" describes the policing of the present with the past, making it a better word for "rockism". [5] Design critic and indie pop musician Nick Currie (aka Momus) compared rockism to the international art movement Stuckism, which holds that artists who do not paint or sculpt are not true artists. [25]


There is a name for this new critical paradigm, 'popism'—or, more evocatively (and goofily), 'poptimism'—and it sets the old assumptions on their ear: Pop (and, especially, hip-hop) producers are as important as rock auteurs, Beyoncé is as worthy of serious consideration as Bruce Springsteen, and ascribing shame to pop pleasure is itself a shameful act.

Jody Rosen, May 2006 [3]

Poptimism (also called popism) [2] is a mode of discourse which holds that pop music deserves the same respect as rock music and is as authentic and as worthy of professional critique and interest. [4] It positions itself as an antidote to rockism [5] and developed following Carl Wilson's book about Céline Dion's album Let's Talk About Love and Sanneh's 2004 essay against rockism in The New York Times . [9] In the article, Sanneh asks music listeners to "stop pretending that serious rock songs will last forever, as if anything could, and that shiny pop songs are inherently disposable, as if that were necessarily a bad thing. Van Morrison's 'Into the Music' was released the same year as the Sugarhill Gang's 'Rapper's Delight'; which do you hear more often?" [24] Loss cited Sanneh's article as "a sort of ur-text on poptimism", elaborating:

By its impoverished terms, the rockist represents traditional values of authenticity while the poptimist is progressive, inclusive, and sees through the myths of authenticity. The rockist is nostalgic—the old fart who says they don’t make any good music anymore—while the poptimist looks forward and values the new. The rockist makes Art out of popular music, insists on serious meaning, and demands artists who sing their own songs and play instruments, preferably guitars; the poptimist lets pop be fun and, if not meaningless, slight. The rockist is a purist, the poptimist a pluralist; the rockist is old, the popist is young; the rockist is anti-commercialist, the poptimist could care less. [5]

After Sanneh published his 2004 article, an argument about rockism developed in various web circles. [2] In 2006, music journalist Jody Rosen noted the growing backlash against rock's traditional critical acclaim and the new poptimism ideology. [3] By 2015, Washington Post writer Chris Richards wrote that, after a decade of "righteously vanquishing [rockism's] nagging falsehood", poptimism had become "the prevailing ideology for today’s most influential music critics. Few would drop this word in conversation at a house party or a nightclub, but in music-journo circles, the idea of poptimism itself is holy writ." [4]

Criticism of poptimists

Overlap with rockism

Paul Morley (left), a longtime critic of rockism, argued that many of poptimism's traits were indistinguishable from rockism. Christopher Austin Paul Morley.jpg
Paul Morley (left), a longtime critic of rockism, argued that many of poptimism's traits were indistinguishable from rockism.

In 2006, Morley derided the seriousness of contemporary music writers: "Many of the self-proclaimed American anti-rockists—or popists, or poptimists, or pop pricks—actually write with a kind of fussy, self-important rockist sheen. And for all their studious over-analysis, any definition of rockism is the same today as it's always been." [2] That same year, Rosen spoke positively of the new movement but forewarned of possible excesses; that a hierarchy of music biased toward pop is no better than one biased toward rock because both genres have respectable qualities that cannot be ignored. [3] A week later, PopMatters' Rob Horning responded to Rosen's writing with a more negative view of poptimism, writing that it is "sad to think the sharpest critics drowning in self-importance while believing they are shedding themselves of it. Basically by rejecting all that was once deemed important by a previous generation and embracing the opposite, you can make the case for your own importance. This is not optimism, it’s reaction." [26]

Writing for The Quietus in 2017, Michael Hann argued that "the poptimists are just as proscriptive as the rockists", and listed the following as a few poptimist "sacred cows, which are beyond challenge":

According to Loss, rockism and poptimism are ultimately the same thing, and both rockists and poptimists treat music as a social commodity while mystifying the conditions in which music occurs. [5] He adds that, as is common in "a culture wherein history isn't valued much", poptimism neglects its historical precedents. As it presents itself as a radical break in the discourse of popular culture, older rock critics and journalists are usually depicted as "a bunch of bricklayers for the foundations of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame", a notion that Loss disputes: "Like film studies, rock criticism of the late '60s and the '70s was an attempt to make popular music worthy of study; it was poptimism before its day. It's somehow become generally accepted that rock criticism before the new millennium was overwhelmingly rockist." [5]

Commercial bias

After the 2000s, the effects of poptimism attracted a belief that once a pop star reaches a certain level of stardom, many critics will safeguard them from negative reviews. [9] Richards argued that poptimism cheerleads the already successful while privileging consensus and smothering dissent. [4] New York Times Magazine 's Saul Austerlitz called poptimism a product of click-driven internet journalism that aspired to the lowest common denominator while being actively hostile to people who are fans of genres and bands associated with rockism. He further criticized it for allowing pop music fans to avoid expanding their taste and contrasted the types of music lauded by poptimists with the literature and film praised by book and film critics. [27] Loss agreed with Austerlitz's text: "When [he] wrote that '(m)usic criticism's former priority—telling consumers what to purchase—has been rendered null and void for most fans. In its stead, I believe, many critics have become cheerleaders for pop stars,' I imagined an editor and a record label exec swooping down on him saying, "Don't tell them that!" We like to believe criticism is devoid of crass commercialism, but Austerlitz gives away that it never was in the first place." [5] He also noted a minuscule number of lowly-rated albums in publications such as Rolling Stone , Pitchfork , and PopMatters, and that "telling consumers what to purchase is still the point of a lot of music 'criticism'." [5]

Hann says that when writers deal with "upmarket" readership, they "need to be able to justify your coverage, and that [means] thinkpieces hailing the cultural significance of the new pop stars. ... And once you've decided these subjects matter, it's hard to turn round and say: 'Actually, you know what? This isn't much cop.'" He recalls his experience as music editor for The Guardian, where he has "been commissioning those pieces, knowing they will be read ... if no one wanted to read about Taylor Swift, you would never see another thinkpiece about her. Instead, we enter an arms race of hyperbole, as we credit her with forcing Apple to change its streaming terms, dismantling the musical patriarchy, creating new paradigms in music and society." [6]

In other fields

Flavorwire 's Elisabeth Donnely said that literary criticism "needs a poptimist revolution" in order to understand current literary phenomena such as Fifty Shades of Grey and better connect with the reading audience. [28] In 2015, Salon published an article subtitled "Book criticism needs a poptimist revolution to take down the genre snobs", in which Rachel Kramer Bussell argued that book critics ignore often very good work and alienate readers by focusing only on genres considered "literary". [29]

Writing for Salon in 2016, Scott Timberg commented on critics giving increasing amounts of respect to celebrity chef Guy Fieri, saying "Love or hate what is called poptimism, the impulse seems to be coming to food and restaurant criticism". Timberg likened food critics' "'in defense of [Fieri]' movement" to rock critics who "began writing apologias for Billy Joel and composed learned deconstructions of Britney Spears". [30]

See also

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Further reading