At the same time, poptimism illuminated the degree to which the politics of pop criticism is at loose ends. Writers have historically treated the music as a stand-in for liberation politics, be they sexual (Lou Reed), racial (Chuck Berry), working-class (Bruce Springsteen), or feminist (Ani DiFranco). Poptimism torpedoed such efforts to distinguish politically good music from bad. It also roped in performers whose manipulation of violence, gender, and race don’t fit the standard liberation narrative: Eminem (modern-day Bob Dylan or homophobic misogynist?), Beyoncé (feminist or debased sex toy?), the whole genre of gangster rap (black male empowerment or hyper-capitalist-racial dystopia?). This expansion of the critical canvas, not so coincidentally, put the fun back in pop criticism. What it could not do was define a function for professional critics now that so much of their political ballast had been thrown overboard.
One solution is to focus more intently on musicality. Sasha Frere-Jones in particular has brought a musician’s expertise to his writing at The New Yorker. His 2007 essay on Mariah Carey’s vocal range is an impressive example of this kind of explanatory journalism. But most critics—even those with a grounding in musical theory—are not musicians. For them, limiting the conversation to the technical facility of a pop star is, as Powers pointed out, a little like thinking about a painting as blue.
No, pop music is about the zeitgeist, and pop-music criticism was invented to reveal and critique it. So what can Powers make of the fifteen-year-old girl and the girl’s mother she observed at the Los Angeles Forum, singing along to Nickelback frontman Chad Kroeger’s lascivious lyrics? Just a few years ago, a band like Nickelback would most likely have been dismissed as too commercial, artistically banal, and politically repugnant to warrant critical attention. Now Powers was determined to crack the cultural code of the band, the genre (which she dubbed Flyover Rock), the girl, the fans, and the middle-class world they inhabited.
Her solution was deep reporting. She interviewed the band, the producers, marketers, fellow critics, and social historians—not to mention the girl’s mother. The argument she staked out was that Flyover Rock creates a fantasy space out of time and political context, in which fans suspend their awareness of real-world tensions. In such an environment, she suggested, an otherwise discerning middle-aged mother can enjoy sexually explicit music with her teenage daughter, without attaching any political or even social meaning to it.
The veracity of Powers’s argument is almost secondary to the case her method makes for the authority of professional criticism. The depth of her reporting distinguishes it from the opinion-driven environment of the blogosphere, where her initial, flawed assumptions about the band and its politics would have found a natural home. And she breaks newspaper convention—which typically makes clear distinctions between news and social criticism—by delivering an authoritative appraisal of how the culture is working. What she didn’t do, as she might have done at the Voice in the early 1990s, was zero in on the band’s troubling gender politics.
Many writers who share Powers’s ambition to use mass culture to develop social arguments have taken refuge in the universities, where they may find it easier to examine the political implications of their research. Josh Kun, for instance, is a professor of journalism and American studies and the director of The Popular Music Project at the University of Southern California. In his book, Audiotopia: Music, Race, and America, he contends that pop music remains a powerful medium of political and cultural opposition in Mexican immigrant communities.
Kun begins his book with a scene of Los Tigres del Norte singing their Mexican-American liberation anthem, “Mis Dos Patrias” (“My Two Homelands”), in the courtroom after their naturalization ceremony. He then proceeds to place the song in the context of California’s immigration debate, which came to a head with the 1994 passage of Proposition 187, which denied health and education benefits to undocumented workers. Kun’s argument: thanks to current immigration policy, Latinos are formulating a political identity in which they see themselves as in, but not of, America.
Like his journalistic colleagues, Kun is still experimenting with the use of pop music as a tool for contemporary cultural analysis. In many cases, he starts with a specific song, then excavates the historical, cultural, political, and human arguments around it. At the moment, though, it’s easy for such individual efforts to get lost in the media sprawl.