or 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.
It figures, really. At the same time that post-punk as buzzword, genre identifier, signpost gained broader currency over recent years—the latest sign was the Neighborhoodies ad I saw with a sad looking post-emo shlub wearing the words “(POST-)PUNK’S NOT DEAD” on his front—rockism re-entered the discourse as well. To the point where talking about it, even mentioning it, caused seizures. I ought to know, having both caused some seizures and suffered others.
Rockism’s origins as term and measure of opprobrium aren’t completely thrilling to me, I admit—it’s a bit like the ‘soul boy’ tag, something that just makes me think of odd references in the occasional Melody Maker piece I devoured in the early nineties (or which can be found in Simon Reynolds’ Blissed Out—a book I suspect which has had a continuing impact on discourse in the same way that so many UK efforts of the late eighties and early nineties had, namely that the home country didn’t want to know after a while but the freaks overseas took it to their heart). Maybe its reappearance was predicated on a sliding scale—“It can only come back if there’s a combination of new bands reworking the past and if the right remasters come out. Make sure there are bonus tracks now.”
Every article, every discussion, anything which involves the word seems to get bogged down or get taken apart in ways which prevent there from being any consensus. Even Douglas Wolk’s excellent summary of the use and re-use of the word had to note that the only definition he could propose was “a very narrow one, to keep its meaning from bleeding too far out,” and who could blame him? It’s a bit like fighting a towering mass of Jello with nothing but your bare hands—you can tear into it but it doesn’t go away and eventually you get a bit bedraggled.
As Wolk and others have noted, though, what lurks at the heart of the term is fear and loathing, of trying to identify something that is what many—not necessarily all—people perceive as the death knell for artistic appreciation, the idea that something somewhere has blinkers, is stopped, is trapped. As joking terms like ‘popism’ and ‘rapism’ and what have you get flung about, sometimes in jest and sometimes in earnest (thankfully more the former as best as can be told), the unspoken fear is more the sense that one wants to hope—for oneself—that one is still open-minded to all, can appreciate everything, doesn’t prioritize certain immanent qualities in terms of acknowledging worth, will not condemn out of hand.
But it’s an ideal, and like all ideals it shows up more when it fails than when it simply is, if it ever is. So identifying the failures, giving it a name, finding some way to mock or joke or set it aside, that’s the key—name what, in the minds of many, is the sin. At the very least name it, even if you find it hard to explain, or if people find themselves arguing over it for some time to come because nobody can specifically agree on the sin, because that way it’s out there to be talked about.
This may seem to be little more than relentless negativity, that in order to talk about this it must be done so in terms of attack and defense rather than discussion. But to quote Wolk again, “Is rockism a bad thing? Well, yeah, it is.” You’re not going to find anyone arguing FOR it any time soon, or at least coming out and saying so—but that’s precisely because of the terms of the discourse. Here’s the trick, though—you have to be involved in the discourse in order to care about rockism or to find it has an impact. Because if you’re not in the discourse, all of a sudden this concept becomes much less of a sin and simply…a preference, something terribly secondary and unimportant. Not that this is surprising, but take the time to consider something here:
Imagine a person who, quite simply, likes what he or she likes. Droll, but if you’re deeply involved in a world where much of the pleasure about art revolves around discussing art in detail, it’s sometimes hard to step out of your shoes and remember a time when you didn’t find yourself thinking about everything you hear without thinking it might be something to post about, blog about, talk about. Lest you think this some sort of creeping elitism distinguishing between those who write and those who do not, ask yourself about those things you enjoy which you don’t spend a lot of time obsessing over, in art or in life.
In the field of painting, for instance, there’s very little I could actively say—I could barely say anything about what’s current aside from what I’ve stumbled across, and many of my favorites are firmly established canon favorites, whether from the start or because they’ve become so over the moons. I know next to nothing in terms of what painting’s critical discourse is like, I recognize the most familiar artists’ names and maybe a critic or two but otherwise I don’t pay attention to them at all. The reason why I know a couple of very specific young painters very well is that I was a friend of theirs first—or a relative! —before I knew their artwork. My scope in what I’ve learned and understood follows a generally Western viewpoint, where non-European (or non-Caucasian American) arts and creations are always seen as ‘the other’ adding on to the larger superstructure.
Without trying to dismiss myself or create too much of a strawman, or so I’d hope, I’d say I was an art rockist, if you will. That said, in the act of talking about where I stand and how I view things I am demonstrating a certain self-awareness, an idea that one can do more—and I can, but there are quite simply many other things which grab my attention more, which will take up more of my time, whether it’s in art or quite simply in life. Ultimately, then, I’m not that worried about it because I’m not that invested in it, and I don’t think anyone’s going to be knocking down the door and arresting me for crimes against painting appreciation (if they are, I’d hope they at least do the decency of letting me dress properly, you want to look good when you’re hauled off, surely).
Now, if I was heavily invested in talking about art, paid for it even, and demonstrated this kind of approach then I could understand people getting annoyed by it and many saying so, or being the topic of conversation. And who could blame them, since public perception would make it seem like that’s all I was. In a way, then, the debate over rockism has followed this line—people engaged in it find themselves often talking about or referring to institutions who exemplify what ‘goes wrong,’ either naming individual critics or larger journals (Rolling Stone in particular being the eternal whipping boy—and frankly I have no problem with that). That, or they seem to fight phantoms, ghostly hordes of people out there in the world who do nothing but google up references to loved or hated bands and then drop in to post something scabrous. In all these cases, the PERCEPTION of a person that is engaged mostly readily, and the hatred can be visceral.
And why is perception important? Let me close with a brief observation—say you knew two people offhand. One you find has very specific musical tastes that in many ways adheres to a dull as ditchwater canon, seems to only listen to classic rock stations (or something equally programmed down to no variation), is open and clear about what is liked and what isn’t (sometimes to your incredible irritation), is as stereotypically rockist as you can get. But this person is never impolite, in fact is really solid through and through, a great soul who turns out to be a good friend over time – sure, not 100% perfect, but who is? Certainly not you. Let’s say the other person has extremely broad-minded tastes, actively seeks out all kinds of music, isn’t limited to perceptions of what’s ‘real’ and what isn’t – and in almost all other ways turns out to be a totally horrible person, just plain unpleasant, an expert but not worth a scrap of difference otherwise.
I’m not drawing from the life with the second observation (so everyone can relax) but I knew people who fit that mold quite well in my distant past. From the first, I am drawing from the life and proud to do so—and it’s a case where ‘rockism’ as targeted, reviled, obsessed over, becomes less the sign of a vicious character flaw than something that...isn’t. At all, not for what counts, for what matters—to refer once again to Wolk’s article, the fact that ‘rockism’ in some minds seems to have the same impact and intent as ‘racism’ strikes me as protesting too much. An obvious point, perhaps. But one we’d do well to keep in mind where we’d want to avoid patting ourselves on the back for our openmindedness, because we the collectively fearful anti-rockists aren’t automatically better people. Granted, nobody’s yet claimed to be. But we should avoid thinking that somehow, in some way, just because of the music we like and the way we like to talk and think about it, we automatically are.
By: Ned Raggett
Published on: 2005-06-01