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Tue April 15, 2014
Why We Fight About Pop Music
Originally published on Wed April 16, 2014 1:03 pm
In 2007, the Canadian music critic Carl Wilson published a book-length experiment in extreme aesthetic sport: a sincere and shockingly comprehensive study of music he had already decided he hated. That book, Let's Talk About Love, named for the Celine Dion album it studied, has become a cornerstone text in the school of criticism known as "poptimism," because it treats seemingly disposable pop music as worthy of serious thought.
Last month, Let's Talk About Love was reissued with a set of new essays by writers like Nick Hornby, Krist Novaselic, James Franco and NPR Music's own Ann Powers. The timing couldn't have been better. In 2014, nothing starts a fight more quickly than a huge pop song. Ann and Carl exchanged notes on why.
- Part One: Is There A Crisis In Music Criticism?
- Part Two: Why Do People Have Beef With Poptimism? Because It's Winning
- Part Three: Five Rules For New Pop Criticism
- Part Four: Don't Front
- Part Five: Music We All Love Has Done Way More Harm Than Miley Ever Will
PART ONE: Is There A Crisis In Music Criticism?
First off, congrats on the new edition of Let's Talk About Love, now subtitled "Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste." I'm proud to be a part of that volume! But I have to ask you: Have you been working a particularly effective marketing campaign for the book? Every week lately a new argument erupts about musical taste and listening practices — exactly what you examine so artfully in your book.
These arguments often focus on music writing, yet they resonate in ways that any ardent music lover would understand. Here's a refresher on a few of the disputes, in case they didn't clog up our readers' Facebook feeds the way they did ours: The new blog My Husband's Stupid Record Collection plays on longstanding ideas about nerdy male record collectors and the women who (barely) tolerate them. A debate between the writer/musician Rick Moody and the musician/writer Dean Wareham about Daft Punk played on ancient tensions about the nature of, ahem, authenticity. A couple of prominent essays decrying music writers' interest in the Top 40 bubbled under with questions about what it even means to care deeply about music in a world where corporate pop rules the airwaves and endless distraction dominates the Web.
Some concerns are realistic: Writers like us, who've devoted years to becoming culturally knowledgeable, are losing jobs to unpaid bloggers, and peer-to-peer recommendation on streaming services eliminates the need for radio disc jockeys and record clerks. Authority has lost its mojo. But more ineffable dread is in the air, reflecting the rise of technologies that make things easy, and easy to treat lightly. Music-making by machine has opened up that practice in wonderful ways, but what about the value of hard musical work? I'm not mourning the diminishment of record-collector obsessiveness, but without hard listening — hours and hours of focus on a few songs, until they become part of you — does loving music become a trivial pursuit? Does the dexterity involved in surfing the huge waves of available sounds make going deep obsolete?
That's a line of despair I don't buy, a new version of the moldy-fig attitude that greeted the jitterbuggers and The Beatles and Madonna and hip-hop in decades past. But I can't figure out why it's resonating now. This is a moment of great empowerment for music lovers. So much is available. Technology constantly offers new tools to enable and organize musical appreciation. And everyone can be a critic, after all, posting playlists and YouTube responses, blogging and Tumbling, telling the world that this is my jam.
So why the whiff of fear right now — not revolving around the music industry falling apart or musicians being able to pay their health insurance, but about more philosophical matters of meaning and authority? Perhaps it's a reaction to the clamor so many soundwaves creates, an attempt to contain the uncontainable.
But I also think we all feel exposed. In her book Alone Together, the sociologist Sherry Turkle mentions music as a source of worry for teens on social media; they're worried that if they "like" the wrong bands — State Radio instead of Spoon is one kid's example — they'll lose the respect of their peers. This resonated with me. Shaming is back in style when we talk about music. A line from your book keeps coming into my mind: "Shame has a way of throwing you back upon your own existence, on the unbearable truth that you are identical with you, that you are your limits." In this vastly open moment when an average person could lose herself in virtually any musical experience, why is the conversation about music so concernt with limits — and with shame?
Looking forward to your insights,
PART TWO: Why Do People Have Beef With Poptimism? Because It's Winning
Thanks so much for inviting me to kick around this can with you, in some ways rusty, in others barely unsealed, always full of wriggly worms — earworms, clickbait and many other species. You're right that I could hardly have arranged for a better moment for the expansion of my book (including your wonderful essay) to appear, with all the passionate fights breaking out about what makes music merit attention.
My new Afterword is partly about the issues you raise: how technology and the millennial generation, among other factors, have altered the skyline of taste. I even speculate if it's possible to conceive of a "post-taste" society, in which hardly anyone maintains a loyalty to any aesthetic guidelines, and we just surf from meme to meme.
So it's startling to witness all these cases — to your examples, add this 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll (highly skewed questions and all) — that make it sound like little has changed since I first went through my own version of ex-rock-snob-rehab under the guiding star of Céline Dion. We still have this spectacle of people (mostly straight white men of a certain age) angry that we treat music made with drum machines, or for dance floors, or with rapping (unless it's "political"), or by Beyoncé with the same respect and depth of thought we'd devote to anthems sung by bands of guys with guitars. It seems like this month we're gonna ponder like it's 1999.
But that glimpse is deceptive. Look at the actual music-criticism world, and you'll see Saul Austerlitz in the Times Magazine is right about one thing: Pro-pop forces dominate. There's you at NPR, me at Slate, Jody Rosen at New York magazine/Vulture, Jon Caramanica and his colleagues in the NYT proper, Sasha Frere-Jones at The New Yorker and more at nearly every other prominent mainstream venue you could mention. Even Pitchfork, once a redoubt of indie-rock obscurantism, now devotes generous space to dance, pop, hip-hop and other forms.
And that reflects the range of enthusiasms held by a typical music-loving North American under, say, 35 (whom I suspect is poorly represented in any poll sponsored by 60 Minutes, the former location of Andy Rooney's lawn). As remarked on the Grantland Pop Culture podcast last week, generations who grew up with Napster, iPods, MySpace, streaming services and YouTube are bound to have sampled and imprinted on wider sounds than people who got into music by inheriting records from their older brothers.
Not to say there aren't still hip-hop heads, rockers, folkies, metalheads, noise freaks, ravers and indie introverts alongside the BeyHive, Beliebers and Bangerz, each with their own niche sites and networks. But I bet most of them are more aware of other styles and genres than their likes would've been a decade ago.
Therefore, I have to call what we're hearing from the anti-pop authors a backlash, sour grapes from people just noticing that a cultural battle is over and they "lost." We can sympathize with their sense of bewilderment and status vertigo — the way we can with "men's rights" activists, for instance — without letting ourselves be trolled into rehashing the "disco sucks" debate. Let's not be sore winners.
But yes, theirs is a magnified variety of the insecurity and resentment we all feel on some level. It's about the music, videos, tweets and updates that flood toward us in near-infinite quantities at light speed (I always think of the prescient phrase the pre-punk band Pere Ubu coined in the 1970s: "Datapanik in the Year Zero").
But more than that, in a globalized, polycultural, multilateral, warming, mass-migrating world, we have urgent questions such as, "Where is the center?" "Which information matters?" "Who benefits?" "What does that make me?" They're the same anxieties that have powered the polarization of American political camps.
A painful thing about encountering otherness — even in the form of music you don't get or identify with — is that it makes you aware of your own smallness, your vulnerability and, yes, thus your shame. It undercuts any fantasy that your own lifestyle, traits and priorities might be universal — it tells you that you're specifically bounded by your own context, while other realms may be indifferent to your existence.
If you're straight, white, relatively well-off, cis-male, Anglo-American or any combination thereof, that can be particularly disorienting, coming from a culture that used to pretend reality did revolve around you. But even those who aren't privileged or rock revanchists have to cope with these global realignments. Perhaps one challenge is to find pleasures in the tensions rather than lashing back.
So a question to ask at this point, Ann, is where our pro-pop POV does have blind spots, as any dominant perspective does. What might we be missing out on, as writers and listeners, that might be vital to decoding, critiquing and simply soundtracking this planet in transition (and peril)? Are we suffering from over-consensus? Why? Oh, and with the anniversary of the death of the leader of arguably the last essential rock band, allow me to add: Is there a role left there for rock?
Adieu to déjà vu,
PART THREE: Five Rules For New Pop Criticism
I appreciate a challenge. And you pose exactly the right one by asking me to identify poptimism's blind spots. By the way, though I know some people think the term's silly, I like "poptimism" — because it sounds so pop, like something out of a cheerful ad campaign or a self-help book. Its silliness checks ego. In the spirit of self-help, I'll offer my suggestions in list form: Five Ways to Be a Better Poptimist. These pointers apply to writers, but also might be useful to any fan who goes to see tUnE-yArDs on Friday night and cranks Pink in the gym Saturday morning.
1. Don't insist that pop be hip. A good chunk of mainstream music gains inspiration from more cutting-edge stuff — always has. (Remember when The Monkees went psychedelic?) But plenty of it plays by other rules: It could be rooted in Christian contemporary music, emo, or soft rock. That doesn't make it less meaningful; it just takes work to understand these other legacies. It's cool if you find John Legend corny, but respect that for millions his grounding in group harmony singing and Bacharach balladry signals sophistication. Respect values other than your own.
2. Understand that selling records is the point. The major players in creating mainstream pop don't care about integrity, in the restrictive sense. They're collaborators, and they're interested in making money. So yes, Dr. Luke encourages his ingénue protégés to trade in feminine stereotypes (sometimes in highly questionable ways), and Avicii goes for obvious beats. Great pop sneaks in subtleties to enrich and even sometimes undermine the obvious elements that make a song pop out of the radio. Appreciating that requires an adjustment of one's aesthetics. Recognize the value in familiarity and big gestures.
3. Acknowledge that the assembly line is a cornerstone of pop. Since the days of Tin Pan Alley, pop's spirit has been one of energizing collaboration and seat-by-the-pants innovation. There's little room in this game for purist notions of artistic integrity. "We Can't Stop" has seven writers and was originally intended for Rihanna. What's interesting about the song is how it transformed in the process of becoming Miley Cyrus's signature. Know the limits of this kind of production while also noticing where the soul can slip in.
4. Physically connect with the mainstream, but don't presume you know what its different corners are all about. Lindsay Zoladz recently wrote on her Tumblr about attending a Miley concert and realizing that — at least sometimes — she wanted to write for the Bangerz, Miley's devotees, not for her fellow Pitchfork nerds. I applaud her insistence that music obsessives need to look outside the confines of their own tribe and learn from non-fetishists. But the desire to identify can sometimes obscure that "otherness" you mention, even for poptimists. As enriching as it is to feel good in a crowd of strangers, it's equally useful to go where things are less comfortable. For every charming fan you might meet at a non-hipster show, there's a drunk one, and one whose political views are really different than your own, and one who (if you go see Kirk Franklin or Mary J. Blige) might ask you to pray with them. As you've said, encountering the other can be difficult — for poptimists too. It should be difficult. Insight comes from wrestling with the awkwardness.
5. Go beyond Beyonce. I think we all need to acknowledge that King Bey is not your average diva-bear, and that putting her on a best-list is not an adventurous move. Assignment for all poptimists: have an opinion about the Jason DeRulo album that drops today.
I've rambled on with my unsolicited advice, and now there's no room to talk about rock! I hope we can take that up in the next round. One thought: in his excellent feature on EMA — whose album The Future's Void is one of my 2014 faves — Sasha Frere-Jones almost calls her music rock, but instead says it's a "hairy, occasionally digital beast." I like that phrase. It sounds like what Jimi Hendrix would play now. In other words, to trace where rock went, we have to agree on what it is. And that isn't easy.
PART FOUR: Don't Front
What a fantastic list of pop self-improvement tips. By the way, I'm touched by your defense of "poptimism" as a term, but it seems like too many people are put off by the neologism. It sounds a little dated to me now, like a slogan from a past generation's protest movement, and its positive-thinking vibe misleads people like Saul Austerlitz to assume it means unthinking approval of all things pop, rather than just being open-minded and critically engaged. "Rockism," on the other hand, still seems useful as an umbrella term for Austerlitz and his ilk's biases.
"Wrestling with the awkwardness" and respecting non-hip values brings me back to another few thoughts about shame, music and identity. Perhaps it's because music as an art form is so fundamentally abstract — a vibration in the air that produces a sound in the brain, rising almost like a thought — that it makes us feel so tentative and unsure about its status and its meanings. So it gets surrounded with visible signs like fashion and photographs, ranked by charts every week and annual lists, straining to make a form so ineffably mobile to hold still.
Writing my book about taste and Céline Dion, and discussing it later, I'm always aware of a tinge of embarrassment that I'm talking about an artist so feminine, flashy, lush and sentimental. I have an impulse to rush to explain that she's only a case study for the sake of a bigger intellectual project. It's as if I sense my stock in the sexual marketplace dropping. But if I'm mindful of that shame and can sit with it, it's valuable — it confers a humility that nurtures the patience and non-judgment to encounter strangers and intimates alike on something closer to their own terms, without reflex posturing. It might seem like a weird exercise, but it's an experience I really recommend.
In the current argument about pop, though, a few friends have confessed that what they now find difficult isn't discussing either superstar phenomena or arty outliers, but the uncomfortably in-between. One person said he'd never tell anyone at a cultural-studies conference that he was really into Beck's sedate new album; another admitted he didn't want others to know he liked Foster the People, saying, "The middlebrow is always the most abject." Big pop is brashly bright, but second-tier pop can seem earnest and ingratiating, as if it's trying too hard. I do think there's a tendency right now to write guitar bands off as either meatheads or dully self-involved white boys, and while there's some justice to redressing their past overestimation that way, it can also be a bit sweeping and self-congratulatory.
It often takes us the longest to stop punishing the merely good artists for not being geniuses, but eventually we do — Hall & Oates just got into the Rock Hall of Fame, for instance, but a decade ago people were still snickering at their 1980s blue-eyed soul-pop, no doubt in shame over having liked it for a while. I wonder if we can learn to skip that middle step? I've admired you for having the maturity to attend to the communal virtues of Mumford and Sons and other neo-folk bands I find icky, for instance. I suspect I dislike them partly because I grew up with 1970s Catholic folk-guitar masses, so such jangly uplift choral music strikes me as oppressively naïve.
Which may lead us to another pro-pop pointer: Beware your own self-projections. We talk a lot about how taste is aspirational — that people are drawn to music that makes them feel more sophisticated, popular, worldly, etc. But taste also can be defensive: We often reject not only music that reminds us of classes of people we look down on, but music that evokes attributes we dislike in ourselves. (I discussed this dynamic at the end of this piece about my antipathy for The National.) A little bit of self-skepticism is great, but too much can be unhealthy.
At the same time it is important in exploring unfamiliar genres and fan communities to always be yourself. We want to meet and learn from people not like us, and allow ourselves to be changed in the process, but that doesn't mean appropriating their experiences. Suburban teens posing as gangsters are always the most obvious example. In the recent New Yorker profile of Hot 97 hip-hop DJ Peter Rosenberg, I loved the tale of how he introduced himself to the station boss with the DJ name he'd been using, "PMD," and was upbraided, "No, you're Rosenberg." As a white, Jewish aficionado of a black-based music, Rosenberg gradually made it a rule only to talk about things he actually knew, like music and sports, and not pretend to understand dealing cocaine, or living in the projects. That's a step in being a conscientious traveler rather than a foolish or exploitive interloper: Don't front.
After all, genuine causes for shame are riddled through pop history: American popular culture has its deepest roots in slavery, the blackface minstrel show, ethnic vaudeville comedy, brothels and burlesque, religious revival movements, rural poverty, urban segregation, mob-run clubs and labels, wheeler-dealer rip-offs and plenty of other not-so-pretty chapters. Cultural theft, pandering, shock and other crass moves are bound up with pop innovation and creativity. Be critical, but don't get on high horses, because very few of our artistic heroes can be disentangled from those dubious, sometimes tragic associations.
Which leads me to another aphorism: Always connect, to misquote E.M. Forster. When an artist seems inexplicable to you, compare them with analogous figures from contexts you do understand. It was hugely helpful for me to think of Céline Dion in the lineage of the 19th-century parlor song, light opera and variety-show entertainment from the stage to radio to early television both here and in Europe, for example. If Kanye West seems obnoxious, remember egotistical, style-violating provocateurs like Little Richard or Marlene Dietrich or even Bob Dylan raising hackles in the past. But also look at linkage points within and between genres — in contemporary global pop, for instance, it's often really illuminating to follow major writer-producers like Max Martin, Dr. Luke, etc., in their work with myriad artists to get a sense of the methodology and craftsmanship behind the hits. But be mindful of the differences too.
In pop, after all, there are only two constants — change and resistance to change. Rock fans right now are in denial that rock's becoming a vintage, heritage music, just like jazz, blues, soul, funk and other period forms. Even rap might be heading the same way. That doesn't mean great work can't be done there, but it will face the puzzle of how to honor its inheritance while speaking to new circumstances. It may never again be where the main cultural heat is, except as a hybrid ingredient. But there's no shame in that.
PART FIVE: Music We All Love Has Done Way More Harm Than Miley Ever Will
I'm excited about the Handbook for Better Pop Listening we've assembled during this chat! Maybe it can be included in the next editions of Let's Talk About Love. And I really appreciate you bringing up another subject some might find academic — American music's deep historical roots in transgressions much more serious than the mild deceptions of Auto-Tune. Obviously, minstrelsy stands out, but beyond that one (once hugely popular) phenomenon, the many ways of belittling others through caricature and uncredited imitation that our rock and pop heroes have devised. The one-year anniversary of Twerkgate is almost upon us, and the crucial discussion about racism and cultural absorption it inspired has been shelved, it seems, to make room for less truly troubling forms of self-analysis — not to mention an endless stream of videos made by kids happy to take up Miley's directives.
But the great thing about popular music, I think, is that it connects so deeply with our bodies that it can move us in new directions. For every time music has been used to promote misunderstanding and oppression, there are many more when it's lifted people up, making them feel better within themselves and helping them better understand others whose differences they feared. I know that on one level, music is abstract — like a thought, as you say. But it's also like a feeling, a real sensual and emotional pull. Music can make you feel like a room without a roof. When that's happening, all the categories we build as thinkers recede, and whatever sound made it happen is glorious.
Love, not just talk,