The sensibility of pop-music criticism has always found its fullest voice in the alternative press. The reason for this is that the most memorable music critics have been self-styled members of an insurgency. In this way they, like the pop musicians they covered, have struck an anti-professional pose. Never mind that many of them were and are literary stylists, products of the Ivy League and its equivalent, with a fair amount of theoretical expertise. They presented themselves as members of the audience, who, by virtue of their position in the press, were able to intervene in the national conversation, and to make room for voices and ideas that might not otherwise find their way into print, or even television and film. When Jon Landau argued for the importance of Bruce Springsteen, or when Greg Tate did similar honors on behalf of Public Enemy, they were both convening an audience and declaring the cultural and political significance of its tastes.
By giving everyone the ability to publish, the Internet represented a victory for this populist sensibility. But it also took the critical prerogative out at the knee. Add to that the fact that during the Web’s rapid maturation, many music writers were preoccupied with un-popular pop music (there’s an oxymoron for you), and it becomes harder and harder to make the case that a professional critic’s opinion should be taken more seriously than that of the Internet Everyman: the blogger.
The Internet did not make the music irrelevant. Indeed, a case can be made that this is a particularly fascinating moment in pop-music history. Hip-hop, which has succeeded rock-and-roll as the dominant genre, is arguably the most direct line to urban black America ever invented. Indie bands like The Shins, the Magnetic Fields, and the Fiery Furnaces have won national audiences without the benefit of mass radio or television exposure. And American Idol is perhaps the presiding cultural metaphor for American meritocracy and the currency of celebrity. Nor did the Internet truly balkanize the broader culture, which has always been a fluid and multifaceted beast. Rather, it revealed the volatility of the cultural moment—and reminded us of just how complicated it can be to get a critical grip on even a song-length fragment of it.
However, before critics could develop a new case for the contemporary significance of pop music, they had a more basic task in front of them: they needed to revive their own interest in what was truly popular. This was the gist of Kelefa Sanneh’s 2004 New York Times piece, “The Rap Against Rockism,” in which he blasted the critical preoccupation with rock (including such subgenres as grunge and punk) to the exclusion of commercial pop. Since the latter was dominated by brown-skinned musicians, Sanneh argued, this favoritism was essentially racist:
Rockism means idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star; lionizing punk while barely tolerating disco; loving the live show and hating the music video; extolling the growling performer while hating the lip-syncher. Over the past decades, these tendencies have congealed into an ugly sort of common sense. Rock bands record classic albums, while pop stars create “guilty pleasure” singles. It’s supposed to be self-evident: U2’s entire oeuvre deserves respectful consideration, while a spookily seductive song by an r&b singer named Tweet can only be, in the smug words of a recent vh1 special, “awesomely bad.”
The rockism argument had been circulating among critics since the 1980s. But Sanneh was the first to so acidly and systematically unravel four decades of critical contortions designed to distinguish legitimate pop from bubblegum.
His manifesto was followed by a widely discussed piece in Slate, which raised the banner for what Jody Rosen called “poptimisim.” Rosen denounced any effort to distinguish high from low in pop music. If a writer thinks that Rihanna’s dancehall single “Pon de Replay” is better than the second side of Abbey Road, then he or she should give it critical love. Pavement is noise pollution? Say it. In this way, poptimism restored Christgau’s idea that pop music (and implicitly, pop-music criticism) is an exercise in democracy, precisely because it does not conform to top-down notions of what the culture should look or sound like.