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There was an interesting post at Rockcritics Daily … I’d link directly to the post but I can’t find a permalink. Anyway, Scott Woods stuck the words “rockism/rockist” into Google and posted some of the results. One of those results was me talking about Sgt. Pepper. Funny thing is, I stick by my opinion that New Day Rising is a better album than Sgt. Pepper, and I know that opinion is rooted in “rockism,” but after reading some of the things Scott found, I wonder if I really know what rockism is. Sasha Frere-Jones gets at it in her defense of Justin Timberlake (an artist my own hip-hop-loving son has promoted to his geezer father from the start):

[The] attack on Timberlake’s legitimacy is simply another appearance of the long-standing critical bias toward a certain kind of musician and a received take on how they make records. Take Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Sleater-Kinney, or Jack White, artists who use tools deemed “basic” — guitar, bass, drums. You can hear what each person is doing, physically, with their hands and voices. So the critic assumes a link straight from the artists to the putative listener, and praises the work using that metric. If a producer is listed, his role is brushed off as merely engineering and arranging, since producers usually don’t get songwriting credit.

But other genres — dance pop, hip-hop, R & B — depend on different modes of production that don’t hinge on single auteurs and often lean, happily, on technological innovations. Hip-hop threw a big wrench into the singer-songwriter paradigm by using bits of other people’s records and introducing a layer of digital technology — samplers, keyboards — between the listener and artist. These strategies complicate the status of the individual author for everyone, but the biggest garlic for all vampire critics is the audience these genres depend on: kids, often girls. Few critics complain about the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” but for every Motown encomium, there are a hundred complaints about the virus of “synthetic teen pop” and “bubblegum.” Pop critics call it “rockism,” and the (very) short version of the attack goes like this: Pop music isn’t made by people, but by bands of hired guns on assembly lines, working to rationalized standards established by technocratic committees maximizing shareholder investment. The emphasis of pop songs is on transitory physical pleasures, instead of the eternal truths that rock protects. Pop is also consumed by lots of women and kids, and what do they know?

I hear Sasha, and I know I’m not immune to the problem she describes … hence my preference for A Hard Day’s Night and New Day Rising (not to mention Sleater-Kinney) over Sgt. Pepper and World Clique (not to mention Justin Timberlake).

On the other hand, I tend to listen to rock as if it was pop … I like how stuff sounds, I’m willing to forgive stupid lyrics (esp. if they’re unintelligible) if the track appeals to me. I always thought Husker Du was a pop band that just happened to leave their guitars turned up too loud to appeal to my wife … it’s not like they were Flipper or Sonic Youth, Husker Du songs had hooks, and I love hooks.

Perhaps ironically, even though it’s coincidental, as I read the initial message about rockism at Rockcritics Daily, I was listening to … Little Steven’s Underground Garage. Set that just finished as I type this: the Yardbirds, Courtney Love, Bob Dylan, Apples in Stereo, and the Beatles.

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About Steven Rubio


    Well, I prefer that is made by someone playing an instrument, as opposed to some techno wizardry compiled by one guy with a laptop and an MIDI setup.

    None of that is meant to be a slam on Fatboy Slim, the Chemical Brothers, and other fine electronica or techno creators, I just like to have a more human connection between the instruments and the sounds produced.
    That being said, a producer such as Dr. Dre uses samples and studio musicians to produce some great grooves that are fine to listen to, but I wouldn’t go to a show to hear someone merely rapping or singing over taped tracks. I do like the increasing use of live musicians by rappers in live shows. The classic “MTV Unplugged” episode with LL Cool J and other shows that enrgetic music with a groove doesn’t have to come out of a tape deck.

    As for Timberlake and the rest, there is a fine line between a great singer or performer singing a song written by someone else, and an over-hyped manufactured idol that is the flavor of the month.

  • I don’t understand why there should be any shame in listening to music made by people who play instruments, playing songs they themselves wrote and created. This seems perversely backwards, but follows the continuing trend of dumbing-down an artform so that the audience can feel like they too could do what the people they’re paying do.

  • Brian Pitera

    I made a mistake. I meant to say the article by Kelefa Sanneh in the New York Times.

  • Brian Pitera

    Rockism is alive and pervasive. I just couldn’t articulate it until I read Frere-Jones article. There’s also variations of pure rockism, such “indie-rockism” which mandates that it must not only be made with live instrumentation but not be too popular either.

  • Dave Sims

    I dunno where to start. This same argument has been made in various forms since Crawdaddy. Read Dave Marsh essays from the 70s, or Lester Bangs’ defense of Bubblegum in the RS Illustrated History, or ANYTHING by Chuck Eddy. Simon Reynolds has been making a much more compelling (and nuanced) version of The Pop Argument since the early nineties, and Der Dean Christgau has alwasy given a fair hearing to dance and pop. Joe Carducci might certainly be called “rockist,” but he was reacting to the *dominance* of the “popists” circa, what, 1989???? Maybe we need a new “ism” for cultural critics who construct psuedo-hegemonic phallic straw men to deconstruct, who haven’t realised that this kind of post-Adorno academic wankery was passe around 1998. Sashaism, maybe?

  • Sandra Smallson

    I think that’s a wonderful article by Sasha .F.J. My only problem with it being that I find it blasphemous that he dares to put Justin Timberlake’s name alongside Madonna’s:) In the old days he/she would have been hanged or stoned or at the very least had his/her tongue cut out and fingers chopped off for that level of blasphemy:);)

    The responses he got are just typical but is no surprise. In a world where the people against always seem to have more energy and more time than the people for:) Take the Anti-War protests for example……yet many polls showed that a majority of people were actually pro-War.

    I don’t know what they gain from taking credit away from certain Artists when they know that those Artists have achieved more and have more influence than anything these critics could ever hope for till they die.
    These Artists’s Von Dutch trucker hats or their choice of “religion” or lovers even have more influence or interest than anything these failed musicians(insert critic) will ever do in their lives. I think that is truly the root of this gang mentality against popstars. It would be amusing if it weren’t pathetic. Actually, it’s both:)

  • Isn’t SF-J is a guy?

  • “You can hear what each person is doing, physically, with their hands and voices. So the critic assumes a link straight from the artists to the putative listener, and praises the work using that metric.”

    [Playing the devil’s advocate here]. She misses the point. My personal issue with said ‘bubblegum’ is not that i can’t tell who’s playing what, but that there’s no perceptable ‘heart’ in the music. I can tell exactly what John Mayer and his band members are playing, but that doesn’t mean i like his music. It hits me with a deadpan thud.

    I do agree with Eric though… pop can mean so many things to so many people. To me, John Mayer is pop. Britney is pop too, albeit a little more plasticky. REM can also be pop, but i suppose that comment might set a few BCers at unease…

  • Eric Olsen

    Very interesting Steven, this reminds me what a paucity of escriptive terms we have for popular music: “pop” means so many different things to different people. We could use a whole new vocabulary.