Thinking About Rockism

The topic that's lingered most from last month's Pop Music Studies Conference at Experience Music Project is one that's been going around for a while: the idea of " rockism." It's a loaded word, partly because it means a bunch of different things in practice—it's yay close to "racism" the way it's sometimes used. For various people, it's a term of praise for avoiding artifice or a description of unadventurous musical tastes or a word for just liking rock a whole lot. But it's also a potentially useful concept for thinking about the way people write about popular music, and the way people experience it. The trick is to figure out exactly what it means.

Robert Christgau wrote in 1990 about "the 'rockism' debate that raged through the U.K. music press in the early '80s": Rockism, at that point, meant putting stock in rock's "capacity to change lives or express truth"—as opposed to the kinds of pop that (a rockist would say) have more of a capacity to express pretty lies. To be a rockist, then and there, was to demand a perception of honesty in pop music, no matter how much artifice that honesty involved (and when you're standing on a stage, playing an instrument and singing words you've memorized, there's no getting around artifice, but that's a whole other discussion).

This past October, Kelefa Sanneh threw "rockism" back onto the coals in a widely discussed New York Times article. For him, rockism is the aesthetic that defines itself by building barriers against what rock isn't. It means, he says, "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." And Daphne Brooks gave a fascinating talk at the EMP conference, "Guided by Voices: Some Thoughts About Raging Against Rockism," wondering what "a black feminist rock criticism" would be.

Still, there hasn't beena clear definition of rockism, and I'd like to propose one—a very narrow one, to keep its meaning from bleeding too far out. Rockism, let's say, is treating rock as normative. In the rockist view, rock is the standard state of popular music: the kind to which everything else is compared, explicitly or implicitly. So, for instance, it's a rockist opinion that pre-stereo-era blues and country are interesting less in their own right than because they anticipated rock, or that Run-D.M.C. and Alison Krauss are notable because their virtues are also the virtues of rock, or that Ciara's Goodies isn't interesting because it fails to act like rock.

Now, the interesting thing about that formulation of "rockism" is that it's not intrinsically rockist to love rock, or to write about it; you can also mostly care about R&B or norteño or bubblegum pop but discuss them in a rockist way. It's hard to get around rockism, though, because it's built into the way people talk informally about whatever kinds of popular music interest them. (If Usher or Eliza Carthy or Autechre do something amazing, it rocks.)

Most of all, rockism is programmed into the way people write about music. The basic DNA of popular-music criticism came from the people who wrote for Rolling Stone and Creem in the '60s and '70s. They were the first to write about pop interestingly and at length; they loved rock of that pop-historical moment's Beatles/Stones/Dylan school more than anything else; and their language and perspective and taste have been internalized by pretty much everybody who's followed them, even people who've never actually read their stuff. That's the foundation for our house. Note, for instance, that anybody who writes about popular music is a "rock critic."

Is rockism a bad thing? Well, yeah, it is, and nobody's free of it; I'm sure not. But it's pernicious because it makes it harder to understand any other kind of music on its own terms, and it chains both artists and their audience to an ideal rooted in a particular moment of the past, in which a gifted lyricist is by default a "new Dylan" (not a new Charley Patton, not a new Bill Withers, and especially not herself), in which the songwriter and the singer and the main instrumentalist are all on the stage and preferably the same person, in which any instrumentation for performance other than guitar-bass-drums-vocals-and-maybe-keyboards is some kind of novelty, because that is what's normal. Writers don't think this way because "19th Nervous Breakdown" is our favorite song; we do it unconsciously because it's the language we all internalized as pop-magazine-obsessed kids. And it trickles down to everyone who reads what we write.

So how do we get around rockism, if it's already ingrained in the way people talk about music? Mostly just by being aware of it and careful about it. But one shortcut is for music critics to stage raids on other kinds of culture criticism: great writing about movies, about literature, about food. They've all got their own biases and received ideas, defined by their own past masters—but they're not ours, and adopting perspectives, black feminist or otherwise, that don't take the rock canon as their baseline for normalcy can relieve the choking staleness of the way we talk about whatever music we love. They might even offer something new to say about that canon.

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