Poptimism’s Unlikely Reign
Kelefa Sanneh discusses his pivotal 2004 essay about rockism, and what came next.
In October 2004, the New York Times published an essay by Kelefa Sanneh titled “The Rap Against Rockism.” The piece examined a strain of music criticism that held up guitar-centric, album-oriented, live-performance-friendly rock & roll (usually played by white men) as the idealized form. Then, it detailed how that ideal had been used to attack anything that didn’t conform to its standards. If rockism once dominated music criticism, a much broader kind of listening and analysis was already taking root when Sanneh’s piece came out, and these days most outlets (including the one you’re reading) feature much deeper coverage of pop. But rockism still occasionally rears its fussy head. Here, Sanneh, now a staff writer at the New Yorker, discusses the original motivation of his article, the cultural climate it was created in, and a decade of changes in both music and music writing.
“Poptimism is partly about respecting what’s popular as a way of respecting audiences and saying, ‘You’re not crazy to love this stuff. I’m going to try to hear what you hear in it.’”—Kelefa Sanneh
When people mention your essay now, they talk about the rise of poptimism, but you never used the word. People see you as a champion of poptimism, but I’m curious what you think of that concept.
When people hear “rockism: bad; poptimism: good,” it’s hard not to interpret that as “rock music: bad; pop music: good.” Part of what I was trying to say is that rockism actually does a disservice to rock, as well as pop, by turning rock into this humorless standard bearer for all other genres. It obscures what makes the best rock music so awesome. I’m skeptical of any regime that seems to be restrictive or predictable. I ended the essay by saying, “We have lots of new music to choose from—we deserve some new prejudices too.” The best you can hope for is that professional listeners are constantly rethinking their prejudices because there’s no way to get rid of them altogether.
Do you think there’s something inherent in the medium of online writing that guides people towards broadening their taste?
In 2015, where you get a certain amount of fragmentation in music, it can feel like big pop songs are the easiest things to write about because those are the things that have a broad enough audience that people actually argue over them. It’s hard to know exactly how those cultural changes map onto the technological changes. In 2004, a lot of the serious critical conversation was centered around rock bands like the Strokes, the White Stripes, Radiohead, Wilco, and the burgeoning mainstream indie scene. Obviously, if you look at what monopolizes people’s attention now, you see a very different group of artists.
When you wrote that piece, rap music wasn’t getting the critical analysis it deserved. What is music journalism missing now?
Now, it would be easier to make that case with EDM. You have these huge producers, these huge DJs, and you should be interested in having someone who says, “How come you’re not taking this EDM act seriously?” Because people always have different tastes, and their tastes are shaped by what they grew up listening to, everyone’s got blind spots. Those blind spots will always change as music changes.
“If you had told me that I’d get sick of people name-checking Aaliyah, that would have been hard to imagine.”—Kelefa Sanneh
The Beck thing became a good example of the ways in which a lot of people in America and around the world disagree with the critical consensus. A lot of people hate Kanye and think he’s worthless or uninteresting, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a major critic expressing that view. That does point to one of the interesting contradictions of poptimism, which is that poptimism is partly about respecting what’s popular as a way of respecting audiences and saying, “You’re not crazy to love this stuff. I’m going to try to hear what you hear in it.” But the Kanye situation makes me think of the reverse: critics saying to the broader public, “Oh, so you really hate Kanye. Let me listen closer and see if I can hear what you’re hearing that makes you hate it.”
Based on some of the producers and songwriters who people like Beyoncé or Taylor Swift have chosen to work with, would you say pop stars are trying to court more underground-leaning outlets and listeners?
There may be cases where you have big acts that are really inspired by a certain subgenre or a certain artist, but I can’t imagine people are sitting around in a manager’s office saying, “We’ve got to get the readers of this blog on board.” One thing that made a big impression at the time was when Jay Z and Beyoncé were at the Grizzly Bear show [on the Williamsburg Waterfront in 2009]. I don’t think that would make such a big impression now. At the time it was like, “How do these worlds even coincide? This is crazy.” It’s fairly obvious [Jay Z and Beyoncé] weren’t thinking, “We need to get all the Grizzly Bear fans.” I assume it was because they were fans of the band. That kind of thing, which seemed so anomalous when it happened, now wouldn’t be unusual at all. You’ve got every mainstream celebrity trying to go to Coachella, where aside from a couple headliners, a lot of the bands are somewhat obscure.
Is poptimism the new norm?
Lindsay Zoladz at New York magazine wrote a piece that talked about how that sensibility—the eclectic open-mindedness—was threatening to become the new rockism. Which is, among other things, proof that any tendency in musical taste can become super annoying. If you had told me when Romeo Must Die came out that I’d get sick of people name-checking Aaliyah, or even a little sick of people trying to sound like Aaliyah, that would have been hard to imagine. I wanted as much Aaliyah-ish stuff as I could get. But sure enough, even someone like her, who was really underappreciated during her lifetime, can after the fact become so ubiquitous that listeners start wanting something else.