Pop Playground
Rockism Reorientation

for the rest of 2005, Stylus will be presenting a series of two to three essays each month in the Pop Playground section centered around an idea or theme related to music. These questions will be open-ended, allowing each writer to make of the subject what they will and to explore it more fully than they might do in a normal review or feature. This month: Rockism.

There will be no end to the rockism question until those invested in the debate can account for rockism’s widespread presence and create a new framework that does more than just fix rockism’s obvious flaws.

For purposes of this discussion, rockism is an approach to music that uses the values of one genre as an unquestioned set of rules and then judges other music by those values. The normative genre has historically been rock, where modern popular music criticism grew up, and for better or worse the name has stuck.

Rockism is not a pressing problem everywhere it exists. A person sitting alone in her bedroom can listen to whatever she wants, and doesn’t really have to answer to anyone, whether her motivations—if she even cares to identify them—are sound or not. Someone who wishes to engage in a discussion of music, and a critic in particular, is responsible to more than simply their own preferences, which is why rockism is primarily a discussion between critics that has seeped through the Internet’s paper-thin walls into message boards and blogs.

The concept of rockism is truly unique to music; the idea of a critical discourse warped by the values of one genre or school would be more difficult to imagine in film, for example. When asked “Do you take big studio ‘popcorn movies’ more seriously than other critics?” movie critic Roger Ebert responded: “I take all movies seriously. The term ‘popcorn movie’ is the kind of journalese that I try to avoid. Movies are either good or bad, within their genres and spheres of intention, regardless of who makes them.”

Why is rockism so prevalent in music? One possible answer, submitted for consideration: Volume. Not the dial on the stereo, but rather the endless crates of vinyl and towering stacks of CDs and endless seas of digital music files. The circumstances of how, for example, literature and film are made—particularly time for the former and manpower for the latter—limit the amount that can be produced. Music generally does not require a great deal of time or a large number of people to create and distribute, so there is consequently much more of it.

In the last 40 years recorded music has been available in such volume that people could not possibly hope to evaluate and process even a small part of it. More and more of it is made each year, the stuff that’s made reaches more people, and the old stuff is stored—and periodically re-introduced—much more efficiently.

Even a wealthy person with a great deal of time and an enormous appetite would be hard-pressed to digest a small percentage of the total output of the world’s music-makers. Even critics who can test a large amount of music through what they receive for review and what they are paid to investigate are still largely bound by the same limitations.

Listeners deal with this problem by running music through a series of filters, and one of the most far-reaching and influential filters has always been genre. The bewildering array of choices at hand for a music fan is suddenly much more manageable for a rock fan; it’s even more manageable for a metal fan. Critics do the same thing and in that process reinforce those same filters.

For many years people who traditionally identified themselves as, for example, DIY punk rock fans would spend a great deal of time auditioning songs on the radio, because the radio fell outside their filters; fewer still would go out and buy albums by the artists on the radio. Conversely, someone who listened only to Quiet Storm on their local R&B; radio station would have little inclination to learn about an up-and-coming pop-rock band.

That changed with the popularity Internet file sharing in the late 1990s. The practicality of filters was greatly reduced and listeners suddenly found the walls of their musical houses blown down with nothing but limitless frontier stretching out in all directions. A DIY punk kid in 1989 was unlikely to take the time to seek out a Debbie Gibson song, and even less likely to pay for her album. A DIY punk kid in 1999 was far more likely to download a Britney Spears song or album with far less time (a few seconds) money (none) or self-inflicted public embarrassment (again, none) involved. When those walls fell, many of the rockist frames for those walls still stood, and sparked the discussions that go on today.

All this may seem banally obvious, but spelling it out in plain language gets at why a position as essentially illogical as rockism exists. Rockism is in part a defense of genre as something more than just a necessary evil for catching music, tagging it, and releasing it back into the wild.

Discarding those filters does cause problems. Many reformed rockists enter into a modern conceit: They want to wallow in the glorious mud of pop culture while at the same time forbidding others from using it as grounds to dismiss an artist. Can the pop fan praise the over-the-top style and image of Gwen Stefani and then turn around and scold the stodgy traditionalist who insists her appearance and style are a substitute for talent?

Anti-rockism is divided between “it’s just about the music” and “of course it’s a lot more than just the music.” The two sides split violently with the arrival of M.I.A., an MC from Sri Lanka by way of England whose political and cultural background is as unusual—and subject to debate—as her mélange of musical styles. She was criticized from one side as a crass opportunist propping up an album with second-hand leftist rhetoric and borrowed beats that belied her English art school education, and then praised from the other direction as a studious dance floor revolutionary bridging the gap between the different cultures she touched, irregardless of her personal story and its accuracy.

In dealing with these sorts of divisions some anti-rockists have tried to formulate a simple explanation for why they listen to what they do, and it usually comes down to “I enjoy this” or—to cast a slightly wider net that includes purely intellectual stimulation— “this affects me; this resonates with me.”

That reasoning is a wonderful thing, but it risks leaving out important context. A Van Meegeren forgery is not the same as the real Vermeer painting, before or after the viewer knows how to tell the difference. That’s an extreme example, but music, similarly, is not defined entirely by how the listener receives it, and to put too much weight in the listener’s hands risks distorting the way people actually hear music. It is no coincidence that the development of this attitude has paralleled file sharing and the reduction of totemic qualities like album art as music becomes a colorless, faceless stream of digital information.

Pleasure alone—and even resonance alone—cannot serve as a be-all, end-all rule for measuring music. If anti-rockism’s greatest offering is that it returns listeners values to true north after so many years of rockist misdirection, then rockism’s greatest strength is reminding them that those filters, for all their baggage and potential harm, served a purpose too. Rockism will also continue to exist or at least influence some future ideology because it is so innately resistant to over-saturation, which is anti-rockism’s biggest weakness.

At its worst, anti-rockism eats away at the listener who doesn’t try to hear everything, who doesn’t feel obligated to give every dull artist and middling sub-genre a fair chance. Unchecked, it can fool listeners into thinking they have been liberated from rockist judgments when they have merely internalized a less obvious set.

Anti-rockism is an antidote to rockism’s ills, not a new philosophy in itself. The result of anti-rockism’s reassessments, when pursued to their logical end, is a war on context. Listeners can use anti-rockism to correct rockism’s mistakes, but new ways of approaching music are necessary to adapt to the changes that will undoubtedly come in the future.

By: Erick Bieritz
Published on: 2005-06-08
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