Enough with poptimism: Music critics have bigger problems

The 2015 Pop Convention keynote

At the Experience Music Project on a recent Thursday night, many of North America’s smartest culture critics gathered to debate a word largely ever used, much less understood, by the 10 people on stage and a handful of their colleagues. It was the opening talk of the annual Pop Convention, a four-day convening of writers, academics and old-fashioned music geeks, and we were about to hear two passionate, colorful hours of debate and discussion on poptimism — a conceptual framework that arose in response to what Kelefa Sanneh once dubbed, or diagnosed, as rockism, a masculine, artisanal, guitar-centric view of music. It’s the view that says “disco sucks” and “rap is crap,” that dismisses rather than seeks out. There’s probably no one alive who would call him or herself a rockist, in, say, the way that rednecks are proud of themselves, but anyone who shared a Beck vs. Beyonce meme in February exemplifies the nature and problem of its influence.

Poptimism didn’t receive a definition on that Thursday, which made the discussion tricky, but across the country, the Washington Post’s Chris Richards provided one in a piece the next morning. Richards approached poptimism on idealogical terms, seeing its initial promise — “that all pop music deserves a thoughtful listen and a fair shake” — warped into a consensus of hero-worship, a climate in which Beyonce can go from “profoundly unconvincing” in 2003’s (quite nuanced!) New York Times to a woman who ran the entire world a startling 40 times in 2014, at least according to a Buzzfeed headline. The Times, and a handful of other privileged editorial outlets, have flooded their moats and continued to encourage criticism with knowledge, depth and honesty, but how long can they last?

Much of what we are debating is not, at its heart, music criticism — an album review, musings from a performance, the consideration of a trending scene or sound. Rather, it’s a political argument, a news item, a fandom love letter: there are some who have not recovered from the way blogging — both as a bloggers-they’re-just-like-us! writing practice and that of the MP3 variety — forever ended the divine authority of the print critic, and we are seeing the extreme end of that now, in headlines that say “STOP YOUR ENTIRE LIFE” when a relevant young diva releases her new Vevo premiere. (I have written some of those myself.)

Richards’ ideas — that critics should do their job, which is to be curious and self-aware, enthusiastic but skeptical, honest but empathetic — should be pretty obvious to anyone who pursues this sort of thing professionally, though the revelation that one’s own uninspected opinions aren’t the beginning and end of taste is somehow a game-changer that doesn’t always arrive. The problem is that there currently is demand for news and identity politics and outright fandom: does anyone need a music critic? (I wrote extensively about the conundrum and the path leading to it last year.)

Sure, five album reviews still show up every morning on Pitchfork, bless their hearts, but other outlets have abandoned them entirely. Why have they done that? Could it be because no one is reading them, or offering to pay for their continued existence?

The thing is, it’s journalism itself, not poptimism, which is the blinkered popularity contest. In the Pop Con debate, Maura Johnston brought up the financial pressures facing writers, who once had the good luck of having no idea how many people ever read their printed work. I can tell you how many views anything I write has up to the minute and every place they came from: more importantly, so can the folks who pay my salary over at my day job. It’s no secret that in online journalism, more is better, and never enough. It’s rare that a music publication has searched for different models, and when they arrive, as Drowned in Sound’s Patreon account did this month, there is no happy clamor among readers to support publications that shy away from the listicles and the soap opera of celebrity news so many say they disdain. Drowned in Sound is among the U.K.’s most influential and well-read music publications: 66 people have agreed to give it a few bucks. Well, 67, since I’ll have signed up by the time you read this. When we give advice to young journalists, they don’t need to hear about nut grafs or Twitter networking: we need to tell them to be as entrepreneurial as the technological forces we bow to, and fix the business models that have subsidized culture criticism out of tenacity and dumb luck for decades.

Advertising worries me, but everything we write under the tyranny of pageviews is in effect a work for two companies: Facebook and Google, the towering forces that mediate the majority of editorial web traffic. The length of a headline, the terms used in it, how much is revealed — all of this is customized for a Google search or a Facebook share, not for readers. Google gives special search treatment to articles that are substantive — over 200 or 250 words, though who really knows — a limit that essentially decimated the old 85-world blurb review that used to be the standard magazine treatment. It’s not a bad thing, to have lengthier criticism in the world, but let’s be aware that the 400-word Pitchfork review exists to appease Google as much as it does any editorial stance. And what gets posted on Facebook? A headline that picks a side, no matter the exaggeration — not one that rambles through the grey middle ground of boring reality that thoughtful cultural criticism tends to.

When a company sets the rules of how we do our jobs, does that not make us its employees? If Facebook and Google are going to restrict us to its algorithms and trending topics, shouldn’t they be sending us checks? Or should we be paying them, for sending us the traffic we slurp up like water in the desert? Google regulates all information this way, and the failure of editorial outlets to generate direct traffic — and direct income sources — is on us, for giving in, for letting others set the boundaries of innovation instead of doing it ourselves. If it’s the role of journalism to speak truth to power, why have we done such a poor job of talking to ourselves?

That I don’t know. But back to poptimism: popular artists draw the most traffic, and it takes the most traffic just to break even, or worse. Clicks are a virtually infinite resource: one publication’s numbers may rise, but only because everyone’s are, and the more of them we all get, the fewer reasons for the marketing business to value any individual 1,000 of them with increasing approval. (Do you know what a CPM is? You should. It’s why you’re broke.) Then there’s the essential inefficiency of a traffic-based business, which acts as a marketing staffed, stand-alone product under the same roof as the content: rather than Google and social media, journalists essentially sell our content and labor to our own in-house middlemen, who sell its attention and prestige to corporations, local businesses and any third party interested in a blinking banner. New-media sites such as Buzzfeed and Vice are ad agencies with a journalism hobby, even if it’s a hobby they really like.

Imagine if a website’s full income came through Patreon subscribers, and that lump sum could go entirely toward producing journalism. A traffic slowdown would also drop the extensive costs associated with serving up pages and images to millions of times a month. Isn’t that how businesses are supposed to work? Patreon has its issues, including a quirky sensibility that’s at odds with a serious news project as well as its associated fees, but at least it’s a one-stop shop. But maybe this is too hard to imagine. I certainly like my job, and cannot complain too heartily about the source of its revenue; I tried to do things different once, and it was a disaster.

We can think about poptimism and rockism and Rihanna being a genius or not instead, as the panel did last week. There are other ways forward that are less binary, less us vs. them: In 2013, I led a South by Southwest panel called “Imagining a Post-Snob World,” whose point was not to say that all music should be heard equally: only that it was created that way, with a new wave of artists, from Grimes to Kanye West, breaking down barriers of genre and taste that the ever-shuffling iPod generation has embraced without outdated worries. Yes, we still have goths and punks and ravers and hip-hop heads: the cultural cliques formed around shared fandom haven’t been replaced, but witness how easy it was for Taylor Swift to hop from country to pop or the Grammy victory of two French house DJs.

To consider music from an accordingly narrow viewpoint — a cynical reading of poptimism, which searches for and imbues meaning in the monied mainstream, or rockism, which fences itself in behind craft, authenticity and dick-having — has been rendered moot: the gap between Katy Perry and Led Zeppelin is now a YouTube or Spotify click away. We no longer have to invest in record collections, and though fandoms remain for those who want them, the Swifties and Katy Cats who spend their days trending away, those tend to be teen pursuits, as the most focused and passionate love affairs always are. We have never had more access to music of all kinds and eras: our minds have been blown open accordingly, and frankly, much of criticism has failed to catch up.

We are all trying to do our best: maybe this debate speaks to you, or you haven’t read Carl Wilson’s Celine Dion book yet. Do that! Have some revelations! Recognize and appreciate the limits or extents of your taste for what they are! But as we wonder whether or not Rihanna’s a pop Einstein, we should be wondering how many people still want to hear us say so.