Another stellar entry from Joey Shook:
Once again this year, there’s been a debate going on between music writers about what it means to appreciate that dirty, three-letter genre simply known as “pop”. The spectrum of opinions (and number of those offering them) is of course quite wide—Katy Perry is “genius” vs. “Katy Perry is trash music”—and the two most notable articles (which represent both sides of the argument) have been a NY Times piece by Saul Austerlitz and an NPR piece by Ann Powers and Carl Wilson (Mike Powell’s response to both pieces on The Pitch is also very much worth the read).
Austerlitz’s Times piece is basically a critique of “poptimism” which Austerlitz calls the “reigning style of music criticism today”. Poptimism, as held by its critics, is a reactionary appreciation or embrace of popular non-rock music in light of the overwhelming “rockist” attitudes that classified much of music criticism and appreciation up until this millennium (for classic rockist archetypes, think Philip Seymour Hoffman’s brilliant portrayal of Lester Bangs in Almost Famous or Jack Black’s character in High Fidelity). Austerlitz views the rise in poptimism as an over-correction to such rockist attitudes which now tends to completely write off anything that is rock or guitar-based music. In some ways, he’s on to something. At the same time there’s still a tinge of that old rockist ivory tower attitude that permeates his piece; e.g. “But should gainfully employed adults whose job is to listen to music thoughtfully really agree so regularly with the taste of 13-year-olds?” Yikes.
Powers and Wilson’s NPR piece represents the other side of the coin and much more gracious in its spectrum of music appreciation. It’s essentially a five-part conversation between the two critics in light of the reissue of Wilson’s 2007 book Let’s Talk About Love which was a critical defense of Celine Dion’s music and has become somewhat of a Pentateuch for poptimism. Not only do they defend poptimism, they also delve wonderfully into the identity politics associated with appreciating popular music and the struggle that it creates between our intellectual masks and our true selves. Cue Powers on, you guessed it, the anxiety-then-shame circle that inevitably stems from our musical identities and the bondage of maintaining them:
“But I also think we all feel exposed. In her book Alone Together, the sociologist Sherry Turkle mentions music as a source of worry for teens on social media; they’re worried that if they “like” the wrong bands — State Radio instead of Spoon is one kid’s example — they’ll lose the respect of their peers. This resonated with me. Shaming is back in style when we talk about music. A line from your book keeps coming into my mind: “Shame has a way of throwing you back upon your own existence, on the unbearable truth that you are identical with you, that you are your limits.” In this vastly open moment when an average person could lose herself in virtually any musical experience, why is the conversation about music so concerned with limits — and with shame?”
Shame over liking the “wrong bands” has been commonplace since the invention of rock n roll, but the anxiety seems to have become particularly crippling in the social media-saturated lives of millenials who expose and broadcast all their likes and dislikes to everyone they know or have known. I can remember spending hours trying to update my favorite music on MySpace or Facebook and the stress that resulted from thinking “Should I list the Beach Boys? I love The Beach Boys….but everyone loves the Beach Boys. People wouldn’t understand that I meant mostly late period Beach Boys anyways. I’ll just put Animal Collective.”
But this fear of judgment is two-fold. Meaning, even if we only admit to an appreciation of something deemed more intellectual or high-brow, there is then the fear of our “wrong bands” being brought to light, crumbling our intellectual house of cards. I’ve been nervous to tell people I like something relatively obscure like Black Dice (which I actually do) to only have them look at the Most Played in my iTunes and realize it’s Ariana Grande or Skrillex or something similar.
Popular music is shameful in the sense that it seems shallow, sugar-coated, or fake. Identifying with Pop often amounts to a laying down of intellectual arms. We have no intellectual platform to stand on if we like Katy Perry just like “everyone else”. Popular music equalizes, and the one thing my inner Pharisee hates most is equalization.
So naturally we fight it, and “confident in our righteousness”, thank the Lord that we are not like the tax collector or Miley Cyrus. Our self-justification for liking pop is that it’s “dumb fun” and/or we see something deeper in it that general public does not. But what if we find ourselves gravitating more towards this “dumb fun” and developing a genuine appreciation for it? Everyone has their own categories of “dumb fun” that we try not to truly enjoy too much. How many times is too many to listen to 5 Seconds of Summer’s “She Looks So Perfect” in a row? (Whatever that number is, I’ve surpassed it). Here’s Wilson on his impulse to explain away his appreciation for Celine Dion:
“Writing my book about taste and Céline Dion, and discussing it later, I’m always aware of a tinge of embarrassment that I’m talking about an artist so feminine, flashy, lush and sentimental. I have an impulse to rush to explain that she’s only a case study for the sake of a bigger intellectual project. It’s as if I sense my stock in the sexual marketplace dropping. But if I’m mindful of that shame and can sit with it, it’s valuable — it confers a humility that nurtures the patience and non-judgment to encounter strangers and intimates alike on something closer to their own terms, without reflex posturing. It might seem like a weird exercise, but it’s an experience I really recommend.”
On that note, may we all sit in humility to the sounds DJ Snake’s great wrecking ball of an equalizer, “Turn Down For What”: