Music

Do you want poptimism? Or do you want the truth?

By Chris Richards

April 17, 2015 at 10:34 AM

When it comes to talking about pop’s biggest acts, there’s rarely any disagreement. (John Jay/John jay)

If you’re truly listening, you already know that today’s music is every bit as magnificent and horrible as it ever was. But read enough contemporary music criticism and you might buy in to a more flattering hallucination.

Now, when a pop star reaches a certain strata of fame — and we’re talking Beyoncé, Drake, Taylor Swift, Arcade Fire levels here — something magical happens. They no longer seem to get bad reviews. Stars become superstars, critics become cheerleaders and the discussion froths into a consensus of uncritical excitement.

This is the collateral damage of “poptimism,” 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.

That’s because poptimists have spent the past decade righteously vanquishing a nagging falsehood: the idea that rock-centric songwriters with rough voices and “real” instruments are inherently more legitimate than pop stars with Auto-Tuned voices and choreographed music videos.

By and large, they succeeded. “Poptimism came of age in 2014 led by the unlikely figure of Taylor Swift,” the Guardian wrote in December, explaining how a blossoming industry juggernaut came to be regarded as a cool, authentic, unassailable, planet-devouring super­genius.

Poptimism’s intentions are true blue. It contends that all pop music deserves a thoughtful listen and a fair shake, that guilty pleasures are really just pleasures, that the music of an Ariana Grande can and should be taken as seriously as that of a U2.

But in practice, the poptimist dogma has been misread and misused. Deployed reflexively, it becomes worshipful of fame. It treats megastars, despite their untold corporate resources, like underdogs. It grants immunity to a lot of dim music. Worst of all, it asks everyone to agree on the winners and then cheer louder.

We should all be choosing our own winners by now. The dawn of the Internet promised listeners a sandbox with no horizons, a borderless playground where niche tastes would be cultivated by robust debate. Instead, today’s pop conversation seems driven by the latent desire for a cozy poptimistic consensus — an obsequious hive-mind tediously churning toward oblivion.

And while poptimism feels so ripe for toppling, it triumphs in a cultural space that continues to feel vast, crowded and exhausting. We need things to hold on to. We’d like to believe that Justin Bieber’s fame isn’t just a cosmic prank. We’d like to tell ourselves that Katy Perry’s infantilizing Super Bowl splurge was somehow heroic. We want to feel as though our irrational universe obeys a hidden logic and that we each belong to something greater than ourselves.

This is where poptimism does us dirty. It rightfully recognizes the complexity of pop music, but it too often fails to generate a justly complex conversation. And when everyone agrees that a shiny new piece of art is unimpeachable, how can we feel as though we’re not missing out on the truth?

***

It has been a year since Saul Austerlitz took to the pages of the New York Times Magazine to slay poptimism once and for all.

Like me, Austerlitz was suffering from consensus fatigue. He also wondered whether the hype machine had finally cracked the formula for perpetual motion: Fame begets fawning praise; fawning praise generates big Web traffic; big Web traffic perpetuates fame; rinse and repeat ­forever-ever.

But the essay whiffed. Austerlitz simply wanted that old thing back — those halcyon days when someone could love the Strokes and resent Miley Cyrus, no questions asked. He argued that the open-heartedness of poptimism was actually a guise that gave listeners “carte blanche to be less adventurous.” (An idea: Let’s all go to a Pitbull concert and a Spoon show and report back on which gig felt like more of an adventure.)

If there’s a poptimist Magna Carta, it’s Kelefa Sanneh’s influential 2004 essay “The Rap Against Rockism,” also published in the Times. In it, the critic blasted “rockism” — a lingering favoritism for rock-and-roll that deems other forms of pop as inauthentic — as an imperialistic, misogynistic way of thinking about music that overlooked the heft and nuance of disco, R&B and vast swaths of radio pop.

Sanneh also believed the rockist purview couldn’t contain the pluralistic tastes being cultivated inside our then-newfangled iPods. “The problem with rockism is that it seems increasingly far removed from the way most people actually listen to music,” he wrote.

More than a decade later, that’s become a problem with poptimism, too. Just as rockism asserts that “today’s music isn’t as good as it used to be,” poptimism overcorrects by saying, “Today’s music is better than ever!” And this can feel so reductive, so constrictive, so patently untrue. Especially during the hangover of a surprise album release.

This year, numerous A-listers will release their albums online with little or no warning. It’s a nifty trick that Beyoncé, Radiohead and Kanye West have used with great success. If-slash-when Rihanna, Drake and others drop surprise albums in coming months, music critics — who were once granted a head start on their opinions through advance listens — will be hearing the music for the first time, right along with the rest of the world.

There’s something refreshingly democratic about this new ritual, but its indifference to our critical metabolism only reinforces the poptimistic consensus.

For a good critic, listening to a recording should be like a skeptical stroll around the new-car lot, not an unwrapping frenzy on Christmas morning. Listening alongside fans on social media, racing toward a verdict, too many writers seem to be getting swept away in the lovefest.

This establishes a hasty and formidable wave of acclaim, and to speak out against it at a later date is to out yourself as a hater, a contrarian, a click-baiter or a troll. Somehow, we seem to be growing more comfortable with this grody polarization of taste. Disagreement is now perceived as a demonstrative act instead of a natural and necessary position.

Another unfortunate side effect of poptimism: How it can tidy up the discussion by excluding skeptics (see: a Grantland review of Beyoncé’s latest that asserted, “There probably isn’t any place for people who dislike this album”), forming ranks (see: “The Music Club,” Slate’s annual roundtable of music critics celebrating one another’s good taste) and stifling debate (see: a recent headline from the Fader, “Kendrick Lamar’s new album is critic-proof, and that’s a good thing”).

Last month, when Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” — an album of dazzling ambition and telling flaws — was released to rapturous reviews from every direction, it was hard to feel that anyone was holding great art to high standards.

If you wanted to ask tough questions, you had to act fast. The morning after these songs fell from the skies, the stone tablets had been chiseled. “To Pimp a Butterfly” was a classic. No art is critic-proof, but the consensus had made another new album seem as though it was.

***

Here’s the thing. There’s an impossible amount of music for us to admire in this world. And obviously, the biggest fun isn’t always happening beneath the biggest tent. But sometimes it is! It’s incredibly complicated.

So complicated that I’d hope any good listener who has learned something from a decade of poptimism is finally ready to gather up their things and get down to the important and much-needed task of disagreeing with others.

It will be messy. But good criticism should reflect the complexity of our engagement by increasing the complexity of the conversation. And good critics should be more excited about getting their boots dirty than making friends on Twitter. We’re all individuals listening closely to the sounds of an increasingly unstable world. A clash of opinions will only help us better understand our own. Plunging head-first into dissensus feels like our best and only option.

Music will always be pushing through the public airspace, landing on our ears, unlocking distinct ideas in our private minds. Let’s at least agree to be honest when we disagree about how it feels.


Chris Richards is The Washington Post's pop music critic.

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