Poptimism Isn’t the Problem
Michael Jackson, Beyoncé and Taylor Swift
Illustration by Arturo Torres for the Village Voice
In 2015, having a problem with "poptimism" was more diffuse than ever before. A mode of discourse that was developed following Carl Wilson's 33 1/3 entry, Céline Dion's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, and Kelefa Sanneh's 2004 essay against rockism in the New York Times, "poptimism" is a lens that demands pop music be given a level playing field by music critics. No, really. That's it. It just means that pop music should be considered in the same way critics consider the music of supposedly superior genres. That is what poptimism is supposed to be.
But like all trends in writing, this began, for some, to wear thin — and was viewed as being something more nefarious than just giving Selena Gomez a wider range of writers thinking about her work. Chris Richards, the pop critic at the Washington Post, penned an essay called "Do you want poptimism? Or do you want the truth?" in April 2015 in tandem with the EMP Pop Conference. The keynote of the annual gathering of music journalists and industry professionals was a panel on the same topic. Richards's piece ignited a social- media firestorm, with critics and pop fans alike taking umbrage with his declaration that a certain level of stardom precludes an act from getting bad reviews. As Richards had written, "Now, when a pop star reaches a certain strata of fame [sic] — and we're talking Beyoncé, Drake, Taylor Swift, Arcade Fire levels here — something magical happens. They no longer seem to get bad reviews. Stars become superstars, critics become cheerleaders and the discussion froths into a consensus of uncritical excitement."
This is patently untrue. In fact, Richards's claim is about as over-the-top as the critic believed the conversation around these artists to have become. This view of poptimism suggests that mega-celebs are so thoroughly revered that they have passed beyond reproach. And yet a quick Google search for "beyonce bad feminism" will reveal a load of takes suggesting that she's faking it. Pitchfork, which stamped Beyoncé's last LP with its Best New Music imprimatur, did not even review Swift's 1989 (an album that spawned a tour that dug up a bevy of writerly misgivings about the star's problems); in a year that was probably Drake's best, the same outlet published an essay called "I'm Breaking Up With Drake." Meanwhile, correctives were written about the criticism of Beyoncé's feminism; Swift was portrayed glowingly in GQ; and the entire world lost its mind when Drake graced the cover of Fader, with hardly anyone seeming to care that he might not write his own lyrics. These dichotomies do not exist without poptimism. In a landscape where literally the entire population can write about music, those with the most access have an imperative, both critically and click-wise, to contextualize these artists as they see fit. It cannot just be one view or the other.
Neither has the wealth of internet space dedicated to these artists interfered with the coverage and discovery of lesser-knowns. It just means that a chart-topper will not be dismissed on the basis of being exactly that. It does not mean that they will receive great marks for their Billboard accomplishments, either. Take a look at Halsey, whose first full-length, Badlands, debuted at No. 2 and led to her selling out Madison Square Garden a year in advance, but who was taken to task for lyrics about her generation being "high on legal marijuana" and "raised by Biggie and Nirvana."
Therein lies the real problem with unpacking the concept of poptimism: It has gone from allowing artists like One Direction or Demi Lovato a fair chance in the critical ring to becoming unadulterated revisionist history. Richards's suggestion that the ultra-stars have only cheerleaders for critics is just a sliver of this. In October, Fader published an essay called "Pop Needs Its Warrior Kesha," which did very little to recognize the years of recrimination Kesha — well, Ke$ha — faced in her career. The Boston Globe considered her music "flat and vacuous," while the Guardian has written that she offers "more pain than pleasure" and that her voice is like a "robo-squawk." Citing a review that called her a "hussy" because of the lyrics to "TiK ToK," the Fader essay's author, Aimee Cliff, described the necessity of Kesha's fearlessness in the face of this kind of "archaic" (her words) talk of women. This is not untrue! But for real context, Cliff needed to go harder on the critiques both Animal and Warrior incurred. When the critical discourse about an artist does a 180-degree turn after she is hospitalized for an eating disorder and makes sexual assault allegations against her producer, no one is being done any favors. As critics, we owe it to readers to make it perfectly clear that some re-evaluations are made over time, whether they're revisited because we see someone in a new light after trauma or a new generation of critics doesn't share the same views as the old guard.
Ultimately, there is nothing unethical about being entranced by the machine — it's how the machine is supposed to work. Artists like Beyoncé and Swift were built (and work their asses off) to be the ideal. No one is doing bad journalism when this is recognized. The biggest misconception about music journalism is that it's not a service field. It demands to answer questions for the layman. Criticism and feature-writing are beasts of a different species than music discovery, and not having an industry full of people who are able to do these things in different measures in a variety of genres would be a disaster. But why deny someone who loves Father John Misty the chance to also see the merits in artists like Swift? Why can't you be an authority on new punk bands but also love One Direction or Drake? Shouldn't our deftest critics be able to pinpoint the moment when Beyoncé transcended her girl group and became the Michael Jackson of our time? Have we forgotten that the Beatles were once playing to screaming girls at Shea Stadium before evolving into what's widely considered the most important band in the history of music?
Transitions like this are precisely why critical discourse needs to have an open mouth for genre. And like artists, critical trends change over time. It's easy to forget that most reporting about rap was relegated to Vibe, the Source, and XXL before it, too, became pop music. This most important thing to remember when we talk about Why Things Are Bad Right Now is that these standards, preferences, and trends aren't always going to be just those. There really isn't a problem when there are writers who know how to separate the SoundCloud wheat from the chaff but who also won't deny that "Wildest Dreams" is a banger. You can't prove that Guided by Voices fans were impervious to Michael Jackson. Even Sonic Youth made a whole tribute album to Madonna. Poptimism isn't the belief that millionaire pop stars are unblemished; it's that they deserve just as much truth to be told about them as everyone else does. It would serve critics well to look at that, too, when thinking about what we do.
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