2008.6.2 Something else entirely
Although I already had come up with two dozen other subjects (literally) to write about in the POIB before thinking of this, I wrote this all in one go, and so it's the first subject to be ready for viewing. So here we are with the inaugural POIBP! In this essay, I explore my own place within the world of popular music criticism.
To begin, I should explain that my taste in music is almost always determined:
- foremost by whether I like the timbres of the sounds;
- a close second, by whether there are interesting rhythms;
- third by harmony and melody;
- and last by lyrical content.
This is not to say that I have no appreciation for lyrics, just that, at least while I'm first getting to know a song, the lyrics' message is far less important to me than, say, the sound of the singer's voice. I don't think, intellectually, that this preference is any more valid than the reverse — indeed, I think that if one is trying to be objective about a piece of music, that lyrical content should be given much more weight than I do give it — but in terms of visceral response, that's just how it is for me. Often, once I fall in love with a song and play it over and over, the lyrics (if there are any) sink in and become integral to my understanding and appreciation of the song, but this happens only gradually.
Meanwhile, the context of the music — the history of the artists, their musical environment, their influence — is of secondary importance after the sonic experience, but I do often find it fascinating. I most like the story of the making of a piece of music to be one of exploring interesting sonic territory for its own sake, or some variation on this.
These two preferences — in terms of the sound of the music and in terms of its contextual story — are generally satisfied best by music that is at the fringes of rock, pop, dance, hip-hop, jazz, blues, and other traditions, yet that also grows from elements of several of these. The late 70's/early 80's New York and UK underground music scenes offer a cornucopia of such music. Thankfully, so does today's independent music from many parts of the world. But the ferment of those circa-1980 scenes is especially inspiring, in large part because, to hear artists of that era tell it themselves, a lot of minds and ears were open to just doing whatever they wanted to in making their music. The amazing sounds of the era are the successful result of that attitude.
Punk and new wave were main parts of this universe, of course, but so was early hip-hop, as well as disco after it was declared dead and driven back underground to evolve into house music. A common thread among these disparate genres seems to be an economy of means in the music's execution — reducing it to its most essential components — yet often combined with a deeply experimental nature. This minimalist ethos is a further characteristic that I admire in music. It doesn't hold for all the underground music of thirty years ago, of course, but it does fit a surprisingly wide slice of it accurately. And as I alluded to above, many bands of the time bridged between styles in new ways. This is exemplified for one by those bands that resided in a (reverberating) space between post-punk, dub, and funk, on both sides of the Atlantic: Liquid Liquid, ESG, Public Image Ltd., and A Certain Ratio are probably the best-known among them (i.e. they're the only ones I can think of at the moment). Intersecting with this was the now-vaunted, but deservingly so, New York CBGB's scene, which also fostered many bands with sonically diverse and innovative palettes that diverged greatly from the canonical punk rock of the Ramones: the "nervous funk" (pretty sure I'm copying that descriptor verbatim from somewhere) of Talking Heads, the complex guitar polyphonies of Television, and the synthesizer foreboding of Suicide. It's this kind of adventurousness, this pioneering spirit, often coupled with an economy of means, which I think is the worthiest musical attitude to apply the term "punk" to.
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Two tendencies in popular music criticism that have been given names are rockism and poptimism (or simply popism). The nature of both can be explored in depth elsewhere online, but I'll give a short summary of them. "Rockism" is difficult to nail down exactly, but it is fairly well definable as a point of view that judges popular music based on what the critic perceives to be authenticity. And for a song to be authentic in the rockist point of view, its lyrics should be conceived of by its performer and should strive to reveal truths about the world. The oldest rockism, for which the term was coined, and which I will call "pure rockism," held this to be exemplified best, or only, by rock music, which is why the concept is called rockism in the first place. Nowadays, a description (or accusation) of "rockism" can be applied to any performer who fits this bill and to any critic who holds these views, even if they extend only as far as the definition of musical authenticity and not to the pure rockist viewpoint. Pure rockism has been seen (accurately) as elevating straight white male rock musicians into its pantheon to a much greater degree than other demographic groups — groups just as well-represented in the music world — because it tended to be straight white males who passed the pure-rockist litmus test most frequently. For this reason, rockism has been labelled as racist, misogynistic, and homophobic; I think this is overblown, but on a case-by-case basis, there could easily be an element of truth to it.
Poptimism, then, is essentially a backlash against rockism, especially against pure rockism. It criticizes rockism's criteria of authenticity, and it most certainly rejects pure rockism's belief in rock as a higher art form than other genres of popular music. I find that I strike a balance between the two viewpoints. While I certainly agree with poptimists that many music genres besides rock have just as much merit, I do find the rockist ideal of authenticity the most attractive of all the ways of creating a piece of music — except for the "revealing truths about the world" part, unless it's in a figurative way through provocative sound colors, rhythm, harmony, melody, etc., because, once again, I just don't care about lyrics much usually. At any rate, I find the territory between the extremes of rockism and poptimism easily navigable. This Slate article skillfully explains the falseness of the dichotomy.
Furthermore, I tend not to enjoy so much the music that is upheld by either extreme — say Neil Young or Bruce Springsteen (which is not to say that I find them hard to listen to or don't appreciate their oeuvres) on the rockist side, and the late-90s American teen pop stars (Britney, Christina, Backstreet Boys, N*Sync — and I can't say that I do appreciate their oeuvres) or wealth-glorifying MCs (ditto, to varying degrees) on the poptimist side. Again, what I find far more compelling is music with a punk character, as I defined punk above — sonically adventurous, often breaking genre boundaries, created for the joy of making a different kind of music. Therefore I will apply a different label to myself — a label less well-established yet worth as many accompanying grains of salt as the other two — and dub myself punkist.