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  • Assorted Thoughts on Rockism and Poptards

    18 Ago 2013, 9:56

    Grumpy old men are everywhere. Talk about any human activity – sports, politics, journalism, music, television programming, you name it – and you'll come across the following sentiment, repeated a thousand times, with varying degrees of bitterness: 'It used to have heart, soul, substance, depth. It used to be about something. But it's been ruined. Today it's all just commercialism and shallow hype-chasing.'

    In all these areas, the Good Old Days for which the grumpy old men yearn are often specifically the 1970s. Which leads me to wonder, will the stuff we like to dismiss as hyper-commercial trash today be remembered fondly for its true meaning and substance around 2050? I suspect it will. But it's not like the grumpy old men will be around to witness a later generation's nostalgia for One Direction, Wal-Mart and those nice Russian and Arab gentlemen who used to own football clubs.

    Or will they? You don't need to be old, or male, or even particularly grumpy, to think like this. There are countless snotty teenagers who feel superior to their peers because they and they alone can appreciate the True Art of the past (I used to be one of these, as mentioned in my previous journal entry). Still, I'll stick with the term "grumpy old men" because it's a good shorthand for the kind of attitude I'm talking about.

    Grumpy old men annoy me. Not only because of the pompous and pedantic tone in which they usually voice the above opinion, but also because that opinion is an utterly worn-out cliché, and rarely contributes anything meaningful to a discussion. What's more, their nostalgia is often false, only sustainable through ignorance or denial of today's good and yesterday's bad.

    It's Gotta Be Rock & Roll Music

    In music, the grumpy old men are called rockists. Rockism is a swear word among music writers, and almost every article I've read about it starts with a comment on how hard it is to properly define the word. I'll admit that it's not easy to put into words, but anyone who's ever talked about music will instantly recognise the attitude: the pesky notion that music played on real instruments, by the same people who wrote it, and who are trying to be as "authentic" as possible, is somehow inherently superior. Do your beats come from a computer, or something that looks like one? Are your songs written by someone we'll never see on stage? Is topping the charts more important to you than conveying an authentic emotional message? Well, obviously you're not worthy of serious consideration. The best you can hope for is "guilty pleasure" status.

    Rockism got its name because it hugely favours rock over other genres. After all, rock tends to follow these rules more closely than hip-hop, disco or house. Rockism is a bad thing not only because it turns you into a grumpy old man, but also because it leads you to dismiss any kind of music that doesn't sound, feel or act like rock. Judging all music by rock norms is unfair and stupid.

    When observing the grumpy old men, the line between rock & roll purism and simple nostalgia becomes blurry sometimes. Case in point: the 1960s, like all decades, saw an endless string of cheesy one-hit pop wonders. Uninspired, barely-talented musicians who are mostly forgotten today but who can still be found in abundance at any record store that sells vinyl. How do rockists deal with this?

    In my experience, such artists are either memory-holed (as mentioned before, hard-line nostalgia requires ignoring yesterday's bad as well as today's good) or held up as obviously better than their more recent equivalents, simply because they're from the past. Pick any song made before 1989, and look it up on YouTube. No matter which genre, and no matter how awful. The top comments will mostly consist of variations on 'man, back in the day they had real music, not all that crap we have today.' Comparison to Justin Bieber optional.

    Uglier –isms

    The term "rockism", long confined to the inner circles of music writing, was introduced to a larger audience (including me) by Kelefa Sanneh, who wrote The Rap Against Rockism. Sanneh warns that rockism overlaps considerably with 'older, more familiar prejudices' and 'seems to reflect not just an idea of how music should be made but who should be making it.'

    He does have a point. Even if the rockists themselves aren't racists, sexists or homophobes, rockism seems to involve other, and far uglier, biases than just those of genre or time. Female musicians who get the Rockist Stamp of Approval are a small handful of needles in a massive haystack of penis-bearing rockers. Black musicians who get it tend to be dead. Still, we shouldn't be too quick to cry bigotry. As in all discussions, the racism and sexism cards are often played in ridiculous and inappropriate ways – but I'll get to that later.

    Running From the '90s?

    Anyone who has ever taken a look at my most played artists on Last.fm, or browsed through my iTunes library, will probably be surprised to hear me argue against rockism. Rockism is an attitude, an ideology, not a taste. But if you looked purely at my musical taste, you'd put me right up there with Statler and Waldorf in the ranking of grumpy old men.

    The canon of classic rock is generously represented. So are those of metal and blues. You'll be hard pressed to find anything from the nineties. From the current century, there's mostly metal (not the particularly adventurous kind, either) and a few decidedly "retro" bands, like the Sheepdogs and DeWolff. Electronic music? A dozen tracks, perhaps, on a grand total that's rapidly approaching six thousand. Hip-hop? What's that?

    My extreme bias against everything that was made since, or shortly before, I was born (1993) makes me even "worse" than the typical rockist, in a way. Hardly any music from this time period does anything for me, not even bands that rockists are supposed to love (Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Oasis, Radiohead…). And for the most part, my distaste lies on a very fundamental, sonic level. It's the sound of the past two decades that I dislike first and foremost, not the styles, the attitude or the commercial model. I suspect this is a side effect of being raised on my dad's old CCR and ZZ Top tapes, and I don't think it's going to change any time soon.

    Similarly, I'll probably never be able to really enjoy Madonna or Kraftwerk. But the magic word here is "probably" – the beautiful thing about musical taste is that it can change, after all. My collection now contains hours upon hours of music that would have horrified me three or four years ago.

    Country? Cheesy trash for half-brained American rednecks! Gospel? Propaganda for one of the most dangerous ideologies in the world! (That's how I saw Christianity at the time). Disco? Sugary-sweet, plastic kitsch! Musicals? What was I, five?

    The Abyss Gazes Also into You

    Even now I've long outgrown these views, and the narrow-minded fanaticism that underpinned them, many anti-rockists are undoubtedly ready to burn me at the stake for my taste. Rockism, like any orthodoxy, sparked a backlash that, in some of its forms, is just as stupid and dogmatic as rockism itself. 'He who fights monsters,' and all that. I propose the name "poptards" for the more monstrous monster-hunters in the anti-rockist camp. (Sadly, a quick Google search reveals I'm not the first to make that pun – you'll just have to take my word for it that I came up with it independently).

    In their most extreme form, poptards are simply inverted rockists, biased against rock just as much as rockists are biased towards it. In perhaps the best article on the subject I've come across so far, Emily Mackay mentions the idea of 'pop or dance as the sound of the future, of youth, of shiny surface and Kylie driving her Kraftwerk-engineered car toward the neon boulevards made of synthpop, while Cro-Magnon guitar man screeches and smashes up his axe in frustration on the rocky hard-shoulder.'

    This attitude is taken to truly ridiculous heights by Jane Dark, who invokes a peculiar form of guilt by association: any music that can conceivably be defended with rockist arguments is automatically terrible, and 'history will judge you harshly' for daring to like it.

    Sasha Frere-Jones judges even more harshly, as singer-songwriter Stephin Merritt learned the hard way. Frere-Jones complains about 'how eager Merritt is to dismiss Beyoncé, OutKast, Britney, and Justin, not just as singers and songwriters but as bearers of meaning. That's a bias. Two women, three people of color and one white artist openly in love with black American music. That's whom he's biased against.'

    Convict first, look for evidence later.

    Some are More Equal than Others

    But even among those who are at least sensible enough not to call someone a racist based on (a tiny sample of) their musical taste, resistance to rockism has its pitfalls. Poptards and "moderates" alike often sound a bit strained when preaching the gospel of pop. It looks almost like a sort of musical self-castigation: 'I have to like Kanye West, Britney Spears and Michael Bublé, or I'm a bigot and a reactionary and an all-around terrible person!' When Sasha Frere-Jones (him again) professes his love for Destiny's Child, he sounds like he's surrounded by an angry mob of the girl group's fans, begging them not to break out the torches and pitchforks: 'I love Destiny’s Child. Not in some condescending indie-rock foo-foo “my pet pop band” way, but truly, madly, deeply. I love D.C. because they sing about things I can understand, rock genuinely without anyone‘s urging and are musically unpredictable.'

    And then there's forced egalitarianism. Many anti-rockists seem to think that all music is on the same level and must be enjoyed the same way, and any suggestion to the contrary makes you a closed-minded elitist. Sanneh, for example, dreams of a 'fluid musical world where it's impossible to separate classics from guilty pleasures.'

    Okay, so let's talk about ABBA for a moment. I realise I'm going to sound like Frere-Jones gushing about Destiny's Child here, but I love ABBA, I really do. I don't see them as a "guilty pleasure" (I think the whole concept of guilty pleasures is silly: you either like something or you don't). And I'm definitely not just enjoying them "ironically" – do I look like a hipster to you?

    I'm a sucker for good songcraft, and the Swedish disco quartet are absolute masters of this. Everything falls into place: no jarring transitions, no awkwardly shoehorned-in elements, no excessive repetition. And the hooks… A three-second snippet from one of their songs can have you humming the tune all day. That takes talent, a kind of talent for which I have the deepest respect.

    But at the same time, their importance shouldn't be overstated. Did their music really push any boundaries? Is "Waterloo" an intricate and complex composition? Does "Money, Money, Money" offer an interesting and original perspective on capitalism? Are the lyrics to "Dancing Queen" great poetry? No, of course not.

    Agnetha, Benny, Björn and Anni-Frid weren't aiming for any of that, and it would be ridiculous to criticise their music for not being "deep" enough. But it would be equally ridiculous to pretend it is deep. ABBA made very good, very enjoyable music – but let's face it, it's not exactly Dark Side Of The Moon.

    Different kinds of music should be judged on their own merits and by their own standards. This is the main reason why rockism is a bad thing in the first place, but in their quest for unbiased equality, poptards tend to forget this principle. Compare the Village People to the Velvet Underground. Both made excellent music, but their aims, approaches and standards were completely different. And one of those differences is that the latter is a lot more complex, innovative and thought-provoking than the former. That doesn't make the Village People's music worse, or less "worthy", than that of the Velvet Underground – but the difference is there, and let's not pretend it isn't.

    Four Whole Fried Chickens and a Coke

    One L.A. Weekly reader, responding to Frere-Jones on Destiny's Child (quoted above), used the analogy of fast food versus haute cuisine. Let's run with that.

    Rockists go to the local greasy spoon and loudly complain that their hamburger isn't an expertly prepared tenderloin steak, and their can of Coke isn't a glass of fine wine. Poptards insist that the hamburger is just as refined and delicate as the steak. Me? Sometimes I want a good steak from a fancy restaurant, and sometimes a good hamburger from the greasy spoon. Without necessarily enjoying one more than the other, but without pretending they're the same thing, either. And no, that doesn't make me a grumpy old man.
  • Is Time On My Side? The Perks and Perils of Living in the Past

    4 Nov 2012, 20:20

    'Fun fact: I don't regularly listen to any music recorded before 1989,' Jeph Jacques wrote in his commentary for one of the earlier Questionable Content comics. 'Don't know why, but it's true. Thank you in advance for suggesting [insert name of pre-1989 band here] but there is too much stuff being released NOW for me to keep up with. When good new music stops coming out, I'll check out old stuff.'

    I found this amusing and intriguing to read, because it's almost exactly the inverse of what I do. I don't regularly listen to much music recorded after 1989 (actually, make that 1992 - a few damn good thrash metal albums came out in '90 and '91). And to mirror that last sentence, I could say, 'When I've heard all the awesome old music, I'll start checking out new stuff.' No, I don't really think that way - but the fact remains that almost everything I listen to came out over twenty years ago. This has always been the case; what's relatively new is that I'm not sure how to feel about it anymore.

    It used to be easy. As a socially inept 14-year-old desperately looking for a way to be "edgy", I quickly became an insufferable elitist prick, especially when it came to music. Anything made today just had to be vastly inferior to the masterworks of the '60s and '70s. Anything that wasn't metal or classic rock was lame and for wimps. I practised a weird form of doublethink to ignore the glaring contradictions in how I thought about music. I clung to scraps of distorted guitar in Beatles and Stones songs (the intro riff on "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band", the solo on "Sympathy For The Devil"), trying to prove to myself that this really was "tough", "heavy" music. Whenever a Hendrix or Led Zeppelin track that I hadn't heard before turned out to be a sensitive ballad rather than a thundering rocker, I felt disappointed. On the rare occasions that I was at a club and saw my classmates dance to electronic beats, I felt a very deep kind of horror and disgust – as if I saw them attending a neo-Nazi rally, or taking "soma", the drug from Brave New World that kept people happy but sedated. I constructed all kinds of windmills for myself to fight: commercialism, shallowness, the lowest common denominator - you know the drill.

    In short, I was a textbook example of a rockist. I even once wrote, in extremely wooden, pretentious English, an essay called "In Defence of Rockism".

    With maturity – insofar as the age of 20 can be called 'maturity' – my attitude changed. I no longer bash other people for their tastes; I appreciate different kinds of music on their own terms, instead of trying to squeeze them into an artificial frame of "heaviness" like square pegs into round holes; and I can go to a club and dance and have fun, even if I don't necessarily like the music I'm dancing to. I've let go of my dogmas and stopped being a dick about music, and it's made life a lot more enjoyable.

    But here's the weird thing: while my attitude definitely changed, my taste hardly changed at all. It expanded by a tiny amount – I started listening to some country, folk and even gospel – but the share of music released during my lifetime (so from 1993 onward) in my collection remained negligibly small. The only change is that it's a matter of taste now, not principle or ideology. Because even with a mind that's much more open than it was 3-4 years ago, I genuinely dislike indie rock, hip-hop, metalcore, techno, grunge, nu-metal, modern R&B… hell, almost any genre that's been more or less relevant the past two decades. Every now and then, I check out some music of the present – usually stuff that's supposed to be close to my preferences, like Clutch or the Black Keys. And it often sounds good at first, but there's always something about it – the vocals, the tempo, the production, something – that ruins it for me.

    This makes listening to music, and especially discovering new music, a completely different experience for me than it is for people who, like Jeph Jacques, do keep up with the music of today. For them, it must be a bit like riding a train into unknown territory, anxious to see where it will take them next; for me, it's like browsing around in a giant archive of stuff that was made long ago, and picking the things I like from it.

    This has its drawbacks. For example, although I love thinking, talking, reading and writing about music, I could never be a music writer, simply because I have zero affinity with the music of the present day. Sure, I could write down why "Voodoo Chile" is the best song ever, or why I prefer the Stones above the Beatles, or that Nebraska is such a gripping and beautiful album… but who would want to read it? It's all been said a hundred times before, and usually better than I could ever say it.

    Also, with the few artists of today I do listen to – mostly folk-metal bands: Ensiferum, Finntroll, Korpiklaani, TrollfesT – I run into a problem: with every concert, I recognise less and less of the set. Why? Because I only listen to their first two or three albums, and never bothered to check out their newer material as it came out. I'm too used to seeing old legends like Saxon, Judas Priest or Motörhead play the same 30-year-old classics at every show; the whole idea of keeping up with new music is utterly alien to me.

    On the plus side, it's much easier for me to find good music. 'The test of time' may be a cliché, but it definitely works. The things I find as I browse that giant archive have all stood it; everything that truly sucked has been weeded out (well, most of it). Also, the fact that it was all made long ago has an obvious advantage: I don't have to wait until Sticky Fingers or Sheer Heart Attack comes out – it's all already there.

    A third perk of the past: when you're hearing music three or four decades after it was made, it's easier to judge it on its own merits, blissfully ignoring the youth culture it was a part of. I can listen to Buddy Holly without having to grease my hair and wear a leather jacket. I can enjoy Blue Cheer and Jefferson Airplane without buying into the whole flower-power movement. I don't give a damn about my favourite artists' clothes or haircuts and how "cool" those make them; had I been a teenager in the '60s or '70s, I probably would have.

    So, is it a good or a bad thing to focus on the past as much as I do? Like I said at the beginning, I'm not sure how to feel about it. I'm no longer beaming with elitist pride (thankfully), and I'm not about to start wallowing in self-pity, either. In the end, I think that while I will always love the crap out of Deep Purple, Queen, Jimi Hendrix, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Allman Brothers Band and all the other old legends, some newer stuff every now and then would be nice as well. I'm open to suggestions.