Pop Playground
Rockism Revised



for the rest of 2005, Stylus will be presenting a series of two to three essays each month in the Pop Playground section centered around an idea or theme related to music. These questions will be open-ended, allowing each writer to make of the subject what they will and to explore it more fully than they might do in a normal review or feature. This month: Rockism.

I had pages and pages, I swear. But how would my pages be any different than any other examinations of the subject? From Kelefah Sanneh’s in the New York Times, to Douglas Wolk’s in the Seattle Weekly, to Ned Raggett’s and Erick Bieritz’s right here on Stylus, to the maddeningly endless threads on ILM (the response to Wolk’s article, just one of the threads on the topic, totaled probably 70-80 printed pages after cutting out user names), it’s the hunt that’s keeping us lean and hungry, not the feast.

Rather than start with the buzzing particularities of methodology, where this topic has sweltered indefinitely, I’d like to begin in the cool, shaded corners where the big ideas and underlying fears take refuge in sequestered sentences and afterthoughts. The main fear of the “rockism” disease is that other music is being unfairly marginalized and subjected to a discourse which is prejudiced against it, i.e. the “rockist” discourse that inherently values a centralized artist who plays their own instruments and writes their own material (for example), a perspective that drowns out the magnificently hard work of, say, a pop singer or hip-hop producer.

Rockism is an attitude about evaluating music, and as critics or listeners with critical ears, it would only make sense to be tolerant about the issue, to level the playing field as best we can. Ultimately, these efforts to diversify and democratize seem bent on legitimizing genres or types of music that rockism would inherently devalue. What’s problematic about the whole thing is deciding what factors constitute that value. “Rockism” as a vocabulary, is often credited with growing out of the 60’s—Rolling Stone, Dylan, etc. (which in itself is a huge generalization; Creem, for example, was a magazine that regularly pissed on stodgy, bloated RS, but basically upheld rockist values). At that time, it’s not hard to imagine people who wrote about American popular music or classical music or jazz as looking down long, well-bred noses at shaggy kids making a shit-pile of words out of some disposable ruckus. Now, of course, it’s pop, hip-hop, dance, etc. that has to vie for respect. Crucially, the difference is that these forms of music don’t want the same kind of attention, because they don’t subscribe to the same values. Take, for instance, problems posed by feminists: some say that the existence of female CEOs is an advancement for women, while equally entitled feminists say it’s merely a gain of power on masculine terms, i.e. it’s wrong to assume that we can honor Pop and R&B simply by contorting it to fit into a rockist model of “good.”

The analogy of the metamorphosis of the literary canon seems to be incredibly helpful here. Once the royal “we” became concerned with a new set of values and rulers—feminism, race, class, etc.—the discourse around literature fractured, and the literature included within the wider discussion of “creative writing” became much more diverse. Similarly, a positive evaluation of music judged predominately on say, its rhythmic qualities would comfortably toss the Beatles backseat to Fela.

Drew Daniel (sometime Bjork collaborator and one half of electro-acoustic misfits Matmos) had once made the interesting point on ILM that when these new forms of discourse grew up, people didn’t stop reading Shakespeare, they just started talking about different things in Shakespeare, approaching the literature with a different set of values. Anti-rockists seem to often say that music ought to be taken on its own terms. The impulse is fairly clear: R&B should be judged on R&B’s terms, not rock’s, because on rock’s, it is highly likely to fail from the outset. I wonder, though, if some of the tendencies of rockism wouldn’t be alleviated if one discussed music in a positive light with seemingly irrelevant terms; if you took Led Zeppelin and just discussed the importance and meaning of say, the production quality, sure, you’d be missing a lot, but you might also find something incredibly interesting, in the same way that Jane Austen novels, for example, had a critical rebirth after people approached her novels with theoretical notions of feminism and class issues. It might not solve our problems, but it might go to show that, say AC/DC and Slick Rick have a lot more in common than they seem on the face of it, destabilizing the quality/criteria/genre axes of the debate.

(***As a not-so-side note, we need genres to classify things, but rockism seems to do an exceptionally distressing job of maintaining genre boundaries. By saying that rockism, is, for example, about being “honest” or “direct”—let’s not throw in “authenticity”—it seems to me that we have the difficulty of talking ourselves into a corner from which we can no longer praise another kind of music for the same virtues without seemingly judging it from a rockist perspective. Also, it gets us squirmy around genre-breakers: are we offending jazz by valuing the rock qualities of Miles Davis’ Jack Johnson sessions, or are we acknowledging its creativity, invention, and fearlessness? Or Michaelangelo Matos’ 13 year old self dealing with Prince-as-auteur in his book on Sign ‘O’ The Times? Or Kid Rock's hip-hop/country/southern mash?

Briefly on authenticity, it always struck me as funny how non-rockist so much rock is: what’s more storytelling shtick/song-and-dance than Chuck Berry? If you think the Kingsmen couldn’t e-nun-cee-ate on “Louie, Louie,” that they were just gettin’ their rocks out so hard that all they could do was mumble and drawl, you’ve got to be pretty short-sighted. The Misfits: hilarious. Rock was never all about being “real,” just like rap isn’t either.***)

Ultimately, the debate surrounding rockism is simply self-policing; sometimes it’s productive, sometimes it’s absurd. The current concerns seem like critical growing pains in a time of market globalization and file-sharing (which have contributed significantly to the breadth of music available and the ease of its distribution. Even when these ripples of discourse move through and settle in the critical community, it'll probably be quite a while before things settle in the public consciousness. A lot of critics conscious of the debate ultimately just want people to recognize the amazing amount of music available to listen to and to be open-minded about it—simple. It’s a wonderful impulse, but we’ve also got to lay off when someone says “hey, I don’t give a shit how good the new Mannie Fresh/Superpitcher/Spyro Gyra/whatever album is, it’s my goddamn Civic, and we’re going to rock Cheap Trick/Franz Ferdinand/The Flying Luttenbachers because that other stuff is, well, it sucks.”

We listen to music because we enjoy it (regardless of what constitutes that enjoyment), and nobody’s entitled to rob anyone else of that pleasure, though it’s certainly important to drag out ingrained prejudices. In his Pop Playground essay, Ned Raggett made a helpful analogy in his own uneducated appreciation of painting, rooted in “western” art values. I was reminded of going to Das Moma in Berlin and looking at all the people plopped vacantly in front of Monet’s “Water Lilies” while I coolly occupied the conspicuously empty space in front of Frank Stella. Silently, I mocked them just a little bit, while all the Berlin hipsters down the block snickered at the philistines and tourists waiting 90 minutes to see a bunch of tired-ass, canonized art.


By: Mike Powell
Published on: 2005-06-15
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