Ten days after EMP PopCon kicked off a poptimism discussion that continues unabated, and while any discussion concerns at best a coterie of a coterie, one of the loudest complaints comes from those who think the pop 1 percent get the word count: You won. One Direction pieces get assigned; what’s the problem? Those responses aren’t wrong. A passion for new acts who may never get one thousandth of Beyonce’s streaming income on Spotify is part of being a music critic; we should celebrate these underground acts; we should proselytize on their behalf. But they confuse medium and message. If Grantland and The New Yorker want to assign Ariel Rechtshaid pieces instead of one about a Cincinnati noise band, market forces (i.e. advertising) may have dictated the decision, but it’s not on the writer. These skeptics view their taste as escape — from Clear Channel, Miramax, Time Warner. They don’t want to validate oligarchy’s tastes. What Maura calls their “unease about winner-take-all market capitalism that can be channeled toward an easy target (‘mindless” music targeted toward ‘teenage girls’)” exemplifies the old Adorno school of post-liberal critical thought whereby popular taste had to be shunned.
However, if you ignore writing about what’s popular, the oligarchy wins. I’m not overrating the critic’s power so much as reminding the audience that does care how a critic can explain why and how things work in a culture which demands consumers not critics; and this culture, I might add, was deadlier before the internet. What Tom Ewing wrote yesterday I share:
I am interested in things that are popular. The idea is that there’s value in thinking why something becomes a hit – what people hear or see in it. Popular things aren’t inherently good, but they are inherently interesting. Often shades into sociology, not always very expertly.
My explaining how Rihanna occasionally colors her blankness with hysteria in single after single makes sense as an approach and a redress. To treat pop as wallpaper is a surrender to the forces you despise — that’s what the poptimist critics get wrong. I don’t understand why covering a fecund avant garde prevents one from applying those same critical approaches to pop art. Besides, Adorno himself would scoff at the win vs lose metaphor — is that how we want to regard criticism?