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 that rock music is dependent on values such as authenticity and artfulness, and that such values elevate the genre over other forms of popular music. [2] A rockist may also be someone who regards rock music as the normative state of popular music [3] or who promotes the artifices stereotyped with the genre. [4] [2] Poptimism (or popism [1] ) is the belief that pop music is as worthy of professional critique and interest as rock music. [5] Detractors of poptimism describe it as a counterpart of rockism that unfairly privileges the most famous or best-selling pop, hip-hop, and R&B acts. [6] [7]


The term "rockism" was coined in 1981 by English rock musician Pete Wylie. [8] It soon became a pejorative used humorously by self-described "anti-rockist" music journalists. [2] 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] 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. [5]

While poptimism was envisioned and encouraged [9] as a corrective to rockist attitudes, [6] 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. [10] Others argue that the two viewpoints have similar flaws. [7]


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". [12] From the 1960s to the 1970s, music magazines such as Rolling Stone and Creem laid the foundation for popular music criticism [13] in an attempt to make popular music worthy of study. [6] 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), [14] creating a division that gave generic significance to both terms. [12]

"Pop" became associated with music that was more commercial, ephemeral, and accessible. [15] "Rock" became associated with a style of music that was usually heavier and centered on the electric guitar. [16] Besides general differences in musical style, the two words became associated with differing values. [17] Many early rock reporters believed that rock embodied a particular set of values, such as rebelliousness, innovation, seriousness, and sociopolitical intent. [18] 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. [19] 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]

In an essay published in Ulrich Beck's Global America?: The Cultural Consequences of Globalization (2004), sociologist Motti Regev says the canonizing of rock music in the 1960s and 1970s among professional critics had created a status structure and orthodoxy that carried over into other developments in popular music through the next century; as examples of this "continuous canonization" he cites Robert Christgau's series of decade-end "Consumer Guide" collections (for the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s) and Colin Larkin's All Time Top 1000 Albums book. [20] [nb 1]

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. [21] Around this time, the term "rockist" would gain popularity to disparagingly describe music that privileged traditionalist rock styles. [21] According to Pitchfork 's Jess Harvel: "If new pop had an architect, it was Paul Morley." [21]

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. [22] A similar shift occurred in Great Britain where "new wave" was replaced with "New Romantic" and "New Pop". [23] 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. [24]

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". [25] The term was immediately repurposed as a polemical label to identify and critique a cluster of beliefs and assumptions in music criticism. [26] 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". [26] [2] During the 1990s, to be a "rockist" was defined as demanding a perception of authenticity in pop music despite whatever artifice is needed. [13] 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." [4] He further accused rockists of projecting a sexist, racist, and homophobic point of view. [4]

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." [13] Popmatters ' Robert Loss wrote that "traditionalism" describes the policing of the present with the past, making it a better word for "rockism". [6] 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. [27]


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. [5] It positions itself as an antidote to rockism [6] and developed following Carl Wilson's book about Celine Dion's album Let's Talk About Love and Sanneh's 2004 essay against rockism in The New York Times . [10] 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?" [4] 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. [6]

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." [5]

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." [28]

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. [6] 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." [6]

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. [10] Richards argued that poptimism cheerleads the already successful while privileging consensus and smothering dissent. [5] 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. [29] 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." [6] 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'." [6]

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." [7]

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. [30] 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". [31]

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". [32]

See also


  1. Regev elaborates on this in "'Rockization': Diversity within Similarity in World Popular Music" (2004): "The artistic and cultural status of rock pushed other actors in contemporary popular music to adopt the stylistic and sonic innovations explored by rock musicians and turn them into the conventional way of making music. In other words, the canonization of rock triggered the emergence of (in Bourdieu's terminology) an artistic field of popular music structured around a hierarchy of prestige. In this field, the dominant positions are occupied by the already canonized 'avant-garde' of earlier periods and by the upcoming styles and musicians hailed as the new 'avant-garde' by power-holding critics and reviewers in the field." [20]

Related Research Articles

New wave is a form of rock music encompassing numerous pop-oriented music styles popular in the late 1970s and the 1980s. It is rooted in mid-1970s punk rock. New wave moved away from traditional blues and rock and roll sounds to create pop and rock music that incorporated disco, mod and electronic music. It engendered subgenres and fusions, including synth-pop.

Punk rock is a music genre that emerged in the mid-1970s. Rooted in 1960s garage rock, punk bands rejected the perceived excesses of mainstream 1970s rock. They typically produced short, fast-paced songs with hard-edged melodies and singing styles, stripped-down instrumentation, and often political, anti-establishment lyrics. Punk embraces a DIY ethic; many bands self-produce recordings and distribute them through independent record labels.

Pop music is a genre of popular music that originated in its modern forms in the US and the UK 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 quite separated from each other.

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 States and the United Kingdom. It has its roots in 1940s and 1950s rock and roll, a style which drew heavily from the genres of blues, rhythm and blues, and from country music. Rock music also drew strongly from 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 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.

Synth-pop is a subgenre of rock music that first became prominent in the late 1970s and features the synthesizer as the dominant musical instrument. It was prefigured in the 1960s and early 1970s by the use of synthesizers in progressive rock, electronic, art rock, disco, and particularly the "Krautrock" of bands like Kraftwerk. It arose as a distinct genre in Japan and the United Kingdom in the post-punk era as part of the new wave movement of the late 1970s to the mid-1980s.

Alternative rock is a category of rock music that emerged from the independent music underground of the 1970s and became widely popular in the 1980s. "Alternative" refers to the genre's distinction from mainstream or commercial rock or pop music. The term's original meaning was broader, referring to a generation of musicians unified by their collective debt to either the musical style or simply the independent, DIY ethos of punk rock, which in the late 1970s laid the groundwork for alternative music.

Power pop is a form of pop rock based on the early music of bands such as the Who, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Byrds. It originated in the mid 1960s as young music fans began to rebel against the emerging pretensions of rock music, and developed mainly among American musicians who came of age during the British Invasion. The genre typically incorporates melodic hooks, vocal harmonies, an energetic performance, and "happy"-sounding music underpinned by a sense of yearning, longing, or despair.

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 rock is rock music with a greater emphasis on professional songwriting and recording craft, and less emphasis on attitude. Originating in the mid 1960s as an alternative to normal rock and roll and beat, early pop rock was influenced by beat music and surf rock arrangements, and the original style of rock and roll. It may be viewed as a distinct genre field, rather than music that overlaps with pop and rock. The detractors of pop rock often deride it as a slick, commercial product, less authentic than normal rock music. From the mid-60s onwards, pop rock would become a standard and common style of rock, played almost in any rock group. The genre would go on to influence and build the foundations of 90s and 2000s pop punk subgenre, combing with punk rock.

Post-punk revival is a genre of indie rock that developed in the late 1990s and early 2000s, inspired by the original sounds and aesthetics of garage rock of the 1960s and new wave and post-punk of the 1980s. Bands that broke through to the mainstream from local scenes across the world in the early 2000s included the Strokes, the Libertines, the Killers, Franz Ferdinand, the White Stripes, the Kooks, Interpol, the Vines, the Hives, Bloc Party, Arctic Monkeys, the Cribs and Kaiser Chiefs who were followed to commercial success by many established and new acts. By the end of the decade, most of the bands had broken up, moved on to other projects or were on hiatus, although some bands returned to recording and touring in the 2010s.

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Lo-fi is a music or production quality in which elements usually regarded as imperfections of a recording or performance are audible, sometimes as a deliberate aesthetic choice. The standards of sound quality (fidelity) and music production have evolved throughout the decades, meaning that some older examples of lo-fi may not have been originally recognized as such. Lo-fi began to be recognized as a style of popular music in the 1990s, when it became alternately referred to as DIY music.

Kelefa T. Sanneh is an American journalist and music critic. From 2000 to 2008, he wrote for The New York Times, covering the rock and roll, hip-hop, and pop music scenes. Since 2008 he has been a staff writer for The New Yorker.

New Pop was a loosely defined British-centric pop music movement consisting of ambitious, DIY-minded artists who achieved commercial success in the early 1980s through sources such as MTV. Rooted in the post-punk movement of the late 1970s, the movement spanned a wide variety of styles and artists, including acts such as Orange Juice, the Human League and ABC. The term "rockist", a pejorative against people who shunned this type of music, coincided and was associated with New Pop.

Post-punk is a broad genre of rock music which emerged in the late 1970s as artists departed from the raw simplicity and traditionalism of punk rock, instead adopting a variety of avant-garde sensibilities and non-rock influences. Inspired by punk's energy and DIY ethic but determined to break from rock cliches, artists experimented with styles like funk, electronic music, jazz, and dance music; the production techniques of dub and disco; 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.

Punk rap Genre of hip hop

Punk rap is hip hop music influenced by the rebellious ethos, and sometimes musical characteristics, of punk rock. The genre has been described as being influenced by styles such as trap music, punk rock, heavy metal and lo-fi music.

<i>Christgaus Record Guide: Rock Albums of the Seventies</i> Music reference book

Christgau's Record Guide: Rock Albums of the Seventies is a music reference book by American music journalist and essayist Robert Christgau. It was first published in October 1981 by Ticknor & Fields. The book compiles approximately 3,000 of Christgau's capsule album reviews, most of which were originally written for his "Consumer Guide" column in The Village Voice throughout the 1970s. The entries feature annotated details about each record's release and cover a variety of genres related to rock music.

A microgenre is a specialized or niche genre. Historically, writers seeking to define a new style of music, by linking together a group of seemingly disparate artists, labelled a new microgenre using an appropriate protologism of their choosing. Additionally, genres are sometimes retroactively created by record dealers and collectors as a way to increase the monetary value of certain records. Some of the earliest examples are Northern soul, freakbeat, garage punk, and sunshine pop.


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Further reading