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The New York Times Doesn't Know Shit About "Poptimism"

Thinkpieces And Shit

By Maura Johnston

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Over the weekend, The New York Times Magazine saw fit to give space over to some complaining about how pop music coverage focused too much on, well, the popular stuff. That the author of said piece—verified Pazz & Jop voter Saul Austerlitz—had written a book on the sitcom, perhaps 20th-century America's most cravenly pop artform, is not the punchline, although it could make for a good one. Instead, the piece was a hundreds-word whinge about how writers just weren't paying enough attention to the National; it was at times incoherent and at other times flat-out wrong, and it showed if nothing else a lack of curiosity about finding solid coverage of left-field artists, something which the internet's vast space is hardly lacking.

Pieces like Austerlitz's (and jazz critic Ted Gioia's similarly pitched, if more flawed, polemic about "lifestyle reporting" taking over Serious Music Writing from a few weeks back) serve a couple of functions. First, saying "these kids today don't know about good music" is a playing-to-the-midtier-seats move as old as time. (Witness the recently released 60 Minutes-sponsored poll in which "Americans" come out as pro-English language music and jazz and anti-hip-hop and Miley Cyrus.) Second, they allow the publication in which they are published to draw bright lines around their own aesthetics. The Brooklyn MC Ka and the gnarly Western Massachussetts band Speedy Ortiz, the Times is saying, are in the box; sullen synthpopper Sky Ferreira, it adds, is not. (Even though all three of them have been pitched to pretty much the same crowd; Ferreira played Pitchfork's eponymous music festival last year, and the two bands deemed "okay" by Austerlitz are on this year's bill.)

But the main flaw in Austerlitz's piece is the simple fact that the world of music writing is way too wide to paint with a single brush of demographics or taste (although it is worth noting that despite there being a lot of "music writers" out there in the world right now, the vast majority of on-staff music critics at major American publications are white and male). This is a good thing; I've been diving back into older music criticism for academic purposes lately, and if you think some of the stuff that gets published on the web today is wanky and full of ill-informed biases, hoo boy, do I have some pieces to show you.

Austerlitz talks about the rise of "poptimism," which he sees as a Panglossian acceptance of any artist with the promotional muscle to put a dent in Clear Channel's playlists, as something new in music criticism, and something that has made music criticism "really weird." To quote:

The reigning style of music criticism today is called “poptimism,” or “popism,” and it comes complete with a series of trap doors through which the unsuspecting skeptic may tumble. Prefer Queens of the Stone Age to Rihanna? Perhaps you are a “rockist,” still salivating over your old Led Zeppelin records and insisting that no musical performer not equipped with a serious case of self-seriousness and, probably, a guitar, bass and drums is worthy of consideration. Find Lady Gaga’s bargain basement David Bowie routine a snooze? You, my friend, are fatally out of touch with the mainstream, with the pop idols of the present. You are, in short, an old person. Contemporary music criticism is a minefield rife with nasty, ad hominem attacks, and the most popular target, in recent years, has been those professing inadequate fealty to pop.

This is an untrue (and overly petulant) perception of the ideal, and in the context it sounds not unlike the whining of people about "men's rights" and "reverse racism." (Oh no, the back of the complainant's brain says, our ethos might be treated with the same amount of disdain that we give to other people.) "Poptimism"—which has long been in place in the ideological arsenals of music critics, from Robert Christgau on down—is not about blindly accepting every piece of radio-ready music that comes down the pike and hailing it as the next important thing. Instead, it's about throwing out the artificial distinctions that elevate Serious Mass-Appeal Music (usually made by men, and with guitars) over Frothy Bubbly Stuff (which often appeals to women as much as, if not more than, it does men). This is not to say that it tosses out complexity in favor of simplicity, or critical-mindedness in favor of a "She loved Big Brother" dullness. It's instead about understanding that the underlying musical complexities of Britney Spears's "Toxic" can be as intricate as, say, those lurking within Jellyfish's "New Mistake." Conversely, it can also be about how music comes off as technically perfect but aesthetically ho-hum—noting that Rihanna's crotch-patting during her live shows seemed kinda listless, or pointing out that the last album by the Brooklyn-beloved atmospheric band The National, who Austerlitz seems to feel are particularly maligned by the poptimist hordes, sounded to these ears like a very ornately accompanied EKG. (That National album did place at No. 21 on the Pazz & Jop Poll, which meant a substantial percentage of the 400 critics who voted liked it better than most of the albums they heard in 2013. Whether or not those critics make up a substantial part of the people Austerlitz is railing against is another story.)

But what about the marketing, some might cry. Aren't pop artists just constructs of the system, pseudo-artistic chimeras who only exist to be force-fed to the masses? As someone whose entrance into full-time music writing coincided with the explosion of the blog-rock era (and who read The Baffler during the '90s alt-rock peak), this makes me laugh—because right now the machinations bringing independent music to critics and reporters and the public are, if anything, much more well-oiled than those on the side of the major labels, which have been decimated both by economic realities and old prejudices toward "print" media.

The pro-pop encroachment making Austerlitz weary is not the result of "groupthink," with the school-ruling mean girls who like Beyoncé not inviting those who might prefer The National to sit with them in the cafeteria. (Which looks an awful lot like Twitter. Oh, the sniping!) "Groupthink" might seem to exist thanks to the way in which arguments among critics, particularly those on social media, play out—by which I mean rapidly, and with ever-increasing invective. But the issue Austerlitz and Gioia are really discussing is one of centering, of finding the equivalent of a mirror in one's media diet. The manner in which people consume media has become more fragmented and simultaneously more all-consuming; a Twitter feed can seem like it holds a lot of information even though it holds a fraction of a fraction of what's happening in the world, and the spot-reading that happens means that fraction is only smaller.

Similarly, it used to be (and it pretty much still is) that certain Important Artists had a particular hold on members of the press—I always think of Lucinda Williams when I try to puzzle out this problem in my head, since she (while very talented!) seemed to have an extremely outsized profile in music writing when compared to any of her singing-songwriting peers in the early '90s—and those Important Artists usually had an element of the "real" about them, whether through pop-music underdog status or the tossing out of signifiers that critics readily lapped up. There are still Important Artists, but the nature of how people seek out media in 2014 (social media, Google alerts, sometimes actually sitting down at a site's "Music" page and clicking links) has shifted the criteria for that capital "I"—it now relies on celebrity as much as it does nebulous knightings by the country's premier critics. It's worth noting that news about, say, Arcade Fire can be much more traffic-goosing as a blurb on a second-tier pop singer, and it's also worth noting that the bands covered by The New York Times Magazine in the past couple of years have fit the old definition of capital-I Importance pretty well. New media's reliance on big names to grease the music-coverage gears can absolutely seem oppressive, especially for those people confusing music criticism and music news (which is the stuff that pays the bills, and is often written about The Usual Suspects as a result). But it can be avoided with block filters, or seeking out new outlets—from The Singles Jukebox to Wondering Sound to The Talkhouse to, yes, Noisey—there are tons of writers handing over pixels to under-covered bands. That these writers aren't talking about those pieces and citing them is the result of a quirk about the way people read online writing—the enticement to click has to be strong, which is why you see even buttoned-up sites dressing up humdrum pieces with the promise of boobs or red-hot anger.

I don't think Austerlitz and Gioia are completely unaware of the marketplace in which they operate, though. Their bits of inside baseball proved a maxim of online content that's been true since the days of sites being updated by hand: Whether it comes from a poptimist, a rockist, or someone who's just plain crabby, trolling other writers with half-formed opinions about their work is a surefire way to get published—and much, much more appealing to a generalist editor than an album review.

 

Maura Johnston will fight you on the internet, and she will win. She's on Twitter @maura

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