Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Further, and different, expressions of fatigue and/or exasperation with the popism vs rockism debate: Jeff Chang at his blog and Rob Horning at Marginal Utility (the blog of Pop Matters, which very name is anti-poptimistic in tone--Frithy not frothy!)

It's a pity they're called "rockism" and "popism" really, because if you start calling yourself a rockist (or a nu-rockist), people understandably think you're talking about electric guitars and rock being innately superior to other genres, whereas the fact is that the vast majority of electric-guitar based music of the last ooh maybe 20 years fails the nu-rockist's stringent criteria by its dearth of ambition/surprise/edge/shock-of-the-now/whatever axis of intensity one might wish to measure upon. And similarly if you say you're anti-popist, people assume that means you don't like any music in the charts, are a snob about popular culture, only listen to hideous harrowing noise, etc. (Topic for a future thesis: the absolute terror people have of being seen as a snob-- another sign of how culture has become the battleground for blocked egalitarian impulses that in another age would have found expression in actual you know politics) . So although it's true as Jeff argues that a certain kind of rockist a long time ago would have dismissed rap (along with disco, house, techno etc) as not proper music, in a more fundamental sense, hip hop (and this is in part the basis for Merritt's distaste for the music) is riddled with rockism--ideas and ideals to do with authenticity, street credibility, realness, the underground, rebellion, cameraderie. The whole genre is underwritten by the metaphor of music as war/cause/movement/crusade, fueled by the rhetoric of keep-the-faith etc. Most germane to the recent discussion: MCs are mos definitely meant to write their own rhymes (although there is a kept-on-the-downlow phenomenon of ghost-writing in rap) and if they write about being a gangsta it's supposed to be based on true experience. One of my problems with popism is that it cannot explain the persistence and potency of this discourse of the real that you find in rap, grime, dancehall (but also in metal and, I imagine, in country). It can only condescend to it, or recoil from it, embarrassed and squeamish (ick, "authentic"). Or there'll be the gesture of pointedly preferring the commercialized or glossed-up pop version to "the real thing".

A bunch of people have emailed to point out that I do in fact live in a rarified world and that the rockists are out there; they're particularly rife on university campuses apparently. And I'm sure that's right: students have always tended to be a bit middlebrow, in the main, and I imagine the "they write their own songs" notion might still have this perennial, self-reconstituting appeal as a way of positioning oneself above the commercial pablum zone, kids music. This sort of primitive and quaint (and naff) rockism is very much an adolescent attitude, really (whereas the pop-ist sensibilty has always struck me as a post-adolescent reaction against the opinions/tastes formed during sixth form/high school and university years. Unfortunately the reaction often takes the form of a dis-intensification--adolescence is nothing if not a time of urgency and intense emotional investments, whereas in the phase of post-adolescent young adulthood (which lasts until late thirties or beyond these days) that dimension to musical cathexis usually disappears, especially as the onset of relative affluence encourages a music-as-smorgasbord eclecticism. Although these days perhaps downloading has made us all equally "rich," whatever our age or income). But anyways, yeah, I'm aware the general populace has more truck with this kind of thing, but the popism vs rockism dispute is really, if we're honest, overwhelmingly the concern of the commentariat (professional critics but also bloggerati, academics, and maybe a smattering of hipster opinionator types. Really, nobody else gives a shit! And that's what I was addressing: within that internicine zone, I'm really hard pressed to think of a rock critic today who'd be likely to say, as a point of principle, singers must always write their own songs. Even going back to the grand days of High Rockism, e.g the cast of critics who contributed to Stranded, I seriously doubt you'd find anyone among them who didn't think the Spector or Motown assembly lines didn't produce fantastic results that were as much part of the pantheon as Dylan or Van Morrison.

The one rockist bias that does endure within the commentariat (as well as much of the general populace) and that is worth challenging is the fixation on Content, the lit-rock syndrome (Stranded being a perfect example--there's an essay in there by Paul Nelson on Jackson Browne's The Pretender that literally doesn't mention the music once; the record is treated as though it were a novel or series of linked poems, as a font of life-wisdom). Again, though it's worth noting that the "lit-rock" bias is applied equally to the valuation and validation of hip hop: OutKast and Goodie Mob valorized over the base inanities of crunk (and within crunk, David Banner endorsed for having more to say, deeper and more nuanced emotions...). Dance music suffers worse at the hands of this content-bias, seems it's deemed not to have any but to be "merely" functional (the function actually is the content, of course, but to expect critics to go out and be ethnologists is a tall order, apparently). Rather than reject "content" altogether and in a spirit of inverted snobbery set up a new hierarchy that values music in ratio to its contentlessness, deracination, artificiality, lack of depth or substance, etc, the way to go is to recognise the value and the efficacy (past, present, future) of the older notion of content and its related apparatus (the auteur, the album, etc) while also expanding one's net to catch all the instances of intensity that bypass content in that traditional restricted sense of the word. An approach that treats "Smells Like Teen Spirit," "Chime", "One In A Million", "Who Am I?", "___", as equally exceptional--flashes of form that may or may not carry content in the traditionally valorized sense as part of their arsenal of impact, but that always create content through the audio-social ripples and cultural shockwaves they trigger.

I need to come up with a snappy name for this approach, this sensibility...

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