Apr 15

Taxonomy Domine

FT15 comments • 2,819 views

Sisyphus was a rockist.

Sisyphus was a rockist.

This is a list – scribbled down over lunch, then expanded – of ways that writers who focus on pop music have approached it. I agree with some. I disagree with some. Some of them I’ve tried, some I’ve only read. A few have become fairly orthodox. Others are rare, or at least rare nowadays.

The list is not meant to be exhaustive, and expansion is welcomed. (I think there should probably be something on camp in here, for instance, but I don’t feel I know enough to write it.)

1. Why Is This Popular?: I start with this one, because it’s largely what I do on Popular, which serves as an example. I am interested in things that are popular. The idea is that there’s value in thinking why something becomes a hit – what people hear or see in it. Popular things aren’t inherently good, but they are inherently interesting. Often shades into sociology, not always very expertly.

2. Pop As Expression Of The People: There are a few strands of thinking that really do hold popularity to be at least potentially a good in itself. “Popular culture is folk culture” (a Robert Wyatt paraphrase) would be the tenet here – pop is good because it reflects and represents everyday concerns, lives, dreams… maybe even a kind of will of the people. This type of angle feels unfashionable now, too monocultural (though see #8 below.)

3. Pop As A Site Of Subversion: A type of thinking that semi-inverts #2 – pop music is interesting when things sneak in and slip through that don’t ‘belong’ and that have the potential to question or overturn social norms. Runs the risk of turning into a simple scorecard or being horribly narrow about what constitutes subversion: where have all the protest songs gone, etc.

4. Pop As Success:
Takes pop on purely capitalist terms – the most interesting pop stars are the most successful, and they’re interesting because they’re successful. Few who identify as “critics” would cop to this, but it’s the standard approach to music in the business press and often quite insightful about the processes of pop. Survives also in any Will.I.Am profile, or any other star who speaks this language like a native. But largely superseded by…

5. Pop As Technology Case Study: The distribution, piracy, and pricing of pop is the focus of interest, beyond the artists or music. Unlike #4, a lot of self-identified critics have to write pieces about this on a regular basis. But I think it also counts as an actual worldview – music as part of a wider cosmos of “content” that gets weighed, measured and shifted around the internet. That’s also subtly different from…

6. Pop As Big Data:
…the machine-eye view of music, which includes but is far from limited to “how popular it is”. Algorithmic criticism surfaces most obviously in listicles and infographics (“What Beatles song does each state like?” etc) but also works to filter people’s day-to-day experiences of music via recommendation engines, programmatic advertising, Facebook content suggestions, etc.

7. Taking Pop Seriously: All of the ways of viewing pop so far have relied on it actually being popular – high sales, views, recognition, or reach. We’re now into more slippery territory, where what counts as “pop” is often not very concrete and can include semi-popular or quite marginal music. “Taking Pop Seriously” is a kind-of catch-all for what is often called “poptimism” these days: listening to things with an open mind, not dismissing them outright, questioning your assumptions. Nobody really thinks this is a bad idea, though some disagree it’s what critics are really doing. But almost everyone has a good word to say for Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love, which expresses it very sympathetically and applies it to Celine Dion.

8. Return Of The Repressed (Performers): On its own #7 can seem merely worthy. It catches fire when framed in a more explicitly political way – fair hearings as a way of rebalancing critical attention towards the previously dismissed or marginalised. Which forces you to ask: who is that? And the answer usually involves gender, or race, or class, or sexuality – in-the-moment critical reputation often tracks real-world privilege closely. This rebalancing overlaps with a focus on pop – unfortunately, in the eyes of sceptics, who hint at a clash between social justice goals and writing about millionaires. But it’s also in the tradition of #2 – pop as representation, this time in a fragmented culture.

9. Return Of The Repressed (Audiences):
But pop is about more than who gets let into the critical canon. Taken a step further, the rebalancing extends to audiences too – whose voices are getting heard (and paid) within the critical conversation? Whose experiences as fans are valued? Is pro-pop criticism doing much good if the most prominent, most-viewed voices in favour of Britney, or Celine, or Taylor are from my demographic (40something white dude)? Nope. So diversity in critical voice has become a big movement and battleground in 2010s pop criticism (way more salient than anything to do with “rockism”). Sort that out, runs the theory, and rebalancing of coverage should follow.

10. Trolling:
Aggressively populist stances piss people off. Aggressively contrarian ones do too. Music criticism lets you hit both buttons at once. And annoying people is fun. Some do it sincerely, some don’t entirely. Some, perhaps the best, are sincere in the opinion and cheeky in its deployment. This goes way back (and is hardly unique to people who dig pop). Paul Morley lost the NME 25% of its 70s readership – so the legend ran – by trolling Jerry Garcia in an interview. These days he’d gain a 250% spike. Which brings us to…

11. Pop As Clickbait: Trolling is about attention. So is its close neighbour – and probably the approach pro-pop writers despair over most (even as they’re financially forced to contribute to it) and anti-pop writers despair over even more. Empty copy about non-stories solely generated because Taylor/Iggy/Rihanna/Bieber/Drake drives attention. Good copy about actual stories becomes part of the same cycle. Miserable stuff. Let’s change the subject.

12. Aesthetics – Hooks:
Almost halfway and it’s finally time to talk about how pop sounds. Since critics who write about pop do often like it. Catchiness and hookiness is a big draw – sometimes this ends up with “perfect pop” as an ideal: rhapsodising about a particular sound and style of pop completely disconnected to its actual success. (And the next step on from that is a kind of resentment.)

13. Aesthetics – Trash:
A lot of pro-pop criticism – see #7 – is about finding a place for pop in the canon, opening eyes up to qualities that might have been dismissed. But there’s also a wide streak of criticism that celebrates disposability, vulgarity, trashiness – that wants zero part of the canon. The internet – where very little is ever actually disposed of – has rather drawn the radical sting from this stance, transmuting it into irony or, even worse, geeky nostalgia.

14. Aesthetics – Innovation:
Selling pop is about a balance between comfort and novelty – and unsurprisingly, the novelty side of that attracts critical partisans, who particularly thrill top pop in the moments when the turnover of new ideas (or new takes on a dominant idea) seems fastest and thickest. This was the impetus behind a lot of the initial wave of pop blogging, back in 2000 or so.

15. Aesthetics – Energy: The idea that pop is valuable because it represents energy, immediacy, things that aren’t respectable. This was roughly the view of Nik Cohn in the 1960s (talking about “Superpop”) and you can map it onto some of the famous 70s critical battles too – Sabbath v Prog, or whatever. It’s interesting because it so completely won – a stance that was quite spikily populist in places got totally accepted to the point that it hardly even registers as being about “pop”.

16. Aesthetics – Youth: The kids are alright, goes this idea, so they should be listened to more. In pro-pop terms, this is often about identifying a particular group (“teenage girls” to pick the obvious one) and valorising it – it’s linked to #8 and #9. It has its seedy sides – it can feel vampiric, or just sleazy, depending on who’s doing the valorising.

17. Aesthetics – Style:
A slightly more distanced blend of #14 and #16 – pop is interesting as a map of fashion, youth trends and subcultures, with an emphasis on the visual. Enjoyed its heyday in the 1980s, when fashion and pop tastes often mapped very closely. Undergoing something of a revival, it seems to me, as music, net.art, and fashion blogging move back together – lightly ironised, and used to exclude as much as include (reversing the basically explanatory job of most pop writing).

18. How Pop Is Made: That leads us nicely on to writing which digs into music as a process and finds insight there – the writers, the producers, the label politics, and ultimately “reviewing the marketing”, which I always like reading, but then I would. People who do the legwork of finding out about this stuff – Katherine St Asaph is one – are rarely given due praise for it.

19. How Pop Is Heard: The flipside of #18 is an approach that focuses on the reception of music – fandom, Twitter activity, YouTube remixes, memes and other fan creativity. At its worst, this devolves into voyeuristic articles about One Direction fans. At its best…

20. Personal Pop:
…we have a golden age of personal writing about pop and what it means on an individual level and as part of an individual life – including all the fan creativity mentioned in #19. This can result in fantastic projects like One Week One Band, where what is being written about isn’t as important as who is writing and the way they tell each story. Or Sad YouTube, which mines the humblest of sources – YouTube comments – for revealing and moving stories.

21. Snark:
The flipside of taking everything seriously is taking nothing entirely seriously. Snark can involve the exhausting sense that a writer or outlet is simply above everything, but at its best it gets the wonderful absurdity of music, and its sense of accidental theatre: think Smash Hits in the 80s, or Popjustice in the 00s.

22. The Dark Side Of Pop: A related idea is fascination with pop as something corrupt – the Blue Velvet notion of the pristine exterior hiding seething inner depths and repulsive secrets. This enjoyed a vogue in the 80s and 90s – Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth, a fine book published in the 90s by Re:Search, is full of it. It’s gone out of fashion, but you still find it in the occasional pop long read, though the Kenneth Anger tone of voyeuristic detatchment has been replaced with the earnest sympathy of ‘storytelling’.

23. Pop As Celebrity: One reason ‘dark side’ writing has faded away is that celebrities – pop stars included – are so perpetually present. A fatigue with some parts of modern pop writing – the endless concentration on a small number of stars (see also #11) – is partly down to its absorption into celebrity writing. Though some celebrity profiles and interviews are still strong, well-written, revealing, and psychologically acute.

24. Pop As Mythology:
A step beyond pop stars considered as celebrities is pop stars considered as icons, archetypes, or myths. The “magic” of pop, or pop fandom, is terribly hard to actually capture but it’s a conviction, a messianic tone, that pulses behind a lot of pop writing. Very occasionally people tackle it head-on – Nik Cohn and Guy Peellaert’s Rock Dreams, for instance. (Or stars-as-gods comic The Wicked And The Divine)

25. That Would Be An Ecumenical Matter: Away from the pantheon, some pop writing takes a far wider scope, ignoring boundaries of nationality (or sales) to treat almost anything from anywhere as a potential “pop music”. The ideal of wide listening to find ones thrill is an internet-era, YouTube-era one – sites like The Singles Jukebox let writers move from genre to genre, country to country like globe-trotting surfers hunting the perfect wave.

26. Posi Pop: Vastly increased access to music (compared to 15-20 years ago) puts the “optimism” in “poptimism”. But there’s a school of thought that suggests positivity is a duty in an age where there’s no time to waste on stuff you don’t like. David Eggers’ 2000 essay slamming critics is a much cited example. Make stuff, don’t criticise. If you can’t say anything nice, why say anything at all – these finger-wagging ideas resonate in an era where everyone’s expected to be their own brand and hustle for it. It’s not confined to music, by any means, but it’s had an influence on pop writing too.

27. Everyone’s A Critic: Finally, that same social media environment means that the majority of writing about pop (and any music) doesn’t remotely come under the rubric of criticism and isn’t done by self-identified “critics”. Of course there are plenty of specialists, but critical writing has also gone native – expressed at tweet, paragraph or image length in the chaotic context of a hundred other concerns, events, or joys. This is an “approach to pop writing” as surely as anything here is, but it’s critical dark matter.

There you go – only 27, scratching the surface of ways to think about pop music. I wrote this quickly after skimming some of the recent conversations about “poptimism” that emerged from the EMP conference in Seattle. One of the common themes in the responses was that poptimism’s foes (and possibly its friends) had only the vaguest idea of what a “poptimist” might actually think. And it struck me that the reason for that isn’t lack of definition, but lack of any possible definition: one word was being attached willy-nilly to dozens of individual ideas and practises that quite different writers with a loose interest ‘in pop’ might hold.

Or might just as likely not. Which made that word more than usually unhelpful. “This is terrible” say one side. “It doesn’t exist.” say the other.

I thought it might be fun to list those ideas. I have a strange idea of fun. So here are a bunch of approaches I think people actually have taken to pop music, now or once. All of them are sympathetic to ‘pop’, but not always to the same definition of pop, and certainly not to one another. Any individual writer or site will mix three or four at least. Current market conditions greatly favour some, and make others very hard to do except as a hobby. A critical bestiary, then, which you’re welcome to expand.


  1. 1
    DJP on 24 Apr 2015 #

    I’m reading through this list and wondering what happened to “pop as music” as an approach

    (I recognize that it’s likely covered by #18 but that feels like a wider net than what I’m talking about, which is the basic “what does this music sound like?” angle that seems to have fallen by the wayside in everyone’s attempt to divine the sociopolitical impact and historical context of every piece of music under the sun. Which is interesting, but it’s also nice to have someone talk about what it sounds like and whether they think it works or not as a composition.)

  2. 2
    Tom on 24 Apr 2015 #

    There’s a bunch of stuff left out because it applies SO broadly that it didn’t really feel like it had ever been part of a pop-specific conversation. “Does this work as a composition?” is part of that BUT I think I was wrong – it shows up as a “Pop As Craft” strain too, people talking about the Brill Building, the Hit Factory, Max Martin etc. It should go after #18 yes.

    (And it’s part of #1 too – “Why is it popular?” doesn’t have to be about semiotics.)

  3. 3
    DJP on 24 Apr 2015 #

    Fair point! Really I just wanted to whine :-)

  4. 4
    katherine on 24 Apr 2015 #

    Pop-as-craft is closest to what I try to do. Or just “pop criticism.” I’m biased obviously, but I find a lot of other approaches to pop writing end up wanking about What It All Means, and meanwhile the people actually making the music are either just trying to stay afloat or sending things akin to the Sony Spidey email.

    So maybe a distinction between pop-as-craft and pop-reporting-as-political reporting?

  5. 5
    David on 24 Apr 2015 #

    Well, I think that I utilize (or at least, incorporate, then reject or embrace or in between) several of these at once depending on the subject, the venue, etc.

    I studied history & so that is of interest to me, as is ‘innovation’ and ‘mythos’ and a lot of other ideas, in addition to that kind of formalist criticism being discussed upthread. I think most critics will probably have to incorporate multiple approaches in order to stay solvent due to No. 27. You become a jack of many trades because so few of the ‘everyone’s a critic’ folks have the time to do so.

    I’m very curious about ‘return of the repressed’. “Sort that out, runs the theory, and rebalancing of coverage should follow.” While I think most of us agree such rebalancing is a good thing, do you suspect that the ‘theory’ you refer to may be flawed or problematic in some way?

  6. 6
    Tom on 24 Apr 2015 #

    Yeah, my own angle is very much as a hobbyist now (if not a crank, I mean, 1500 words on Westlife?) which I sometimes regret and sometimes not.

    Re. “the theory” – I think it’s worth trying, basically! It’s not likely to end up with a WORSE situation. The problem is matching diversification of voice with payment – I think it was Katherine who pointed out that diverse voices and personal takes often get filed under ‘passion projects’ (i.e. it’s lovely they’re out there, but zero money).

  7. 7
    David on 24 Apr 2015 #

    Ha oh yeah to be clear I am in favor of “the theory”—I mean i think it’s right, for a long time the critical worldview has been really blinkered from what lots of discerning, smart people were already talking about in other spaces.

    I feel like a lot of these anti-poptimist folks are actually trying to have the ‘what is the revolutionary potential of a pop song’ discussion (an interesting one) just without acknowledging that their own favs are just as incapable of bringing about the revolution or whatever

    Interesting that the rebalancing argument replicates the music industry’s problems (high visibility, lower wages than white male CEOs) within the pages of publications covering Beyonce.

    PS: I said this on twitter, but Beyonce is such a bad cause for the anti-poptimist forces to pick up on cuz her last album was hella dope…they should look for more contentious wiffs

  8. 8
    sterl on 24 Apr 2015 #

    the yonce album, if they listened to it and read about it, also hit lots of the “authenticity” sweet spots, in terms of being produced with a ridiculous amount of agency/auteurship, having extremely arty/statementy packaging, and doing lots of interesting/experimental things with sonics and production.

  9. 9
    sterl on 24 Apr 2015 #

    (also: pop as place of collective play/schoolyard/site of discursive contention. this sort of fits into trolling i suppose, and also return of the repressed, and also gossip. the point is not just viewing pop as a participatory construction from outside, but actually participating in some sense. if i’m talking about boulez, i am in some sense, necessarily talking about boulez. if i’m talking about adam and the ants, i’m talking about anything i want. pop as an open site, a place of collective invention, as a place that generates surprise. taking what pop tries to say about the world seriously, and taking seriously why people would connect with that or oppose that. blurring the line between fan and critical discourse but in a very specific way — recognizing that fan discourse is about outrage and provocation as much as about effusiveness. pop, counter-intuitively, as a level playing field — for listeners if not producers.)

  10. 10
    Tom on 24 Apr 2015 #

    #9 Yes, not directly writing about the ostensible subject is a strategy and one I enjoy a great deal. Though I am fairly far down the What Does It All Mean rabbit-hole Katherine mentions above!

  11. 11
    sterl on 24 Apr 2015 #

    pushing that even further — fanfiction as pop crit. (arguably it may already be more mainstream as rock journo!)

  12. 12
    Alfred on 25 Apr 2015 #

    An essential component of criticism, in my view, is the avoidance of orthodoxy. It’s hard to scan this list and say, “I do A and B and some of F” because the album and (especially!) the single will dictate how I review it. It’s especially important with singles to avoid dogmatism, especially if like me you’re reviewing as many as 15 a week.

  13. 13
    wichitalineman on 25 Apr 2015 #

    Re 6: I wouldn’t worry about seeming hobbyist for now – Nik Cohn was most definitely out of fashion when I came across Awopbopaloobop in the mid 80s, but Mystery Train (which I found mostly dull) got endless credit. Essays on B*witched and Westlife will, I’m pretty sure, be inspiring writers, if not right now then quite soon.

    So it’s cyclical, and directly related to pop in the outside world, of course. DJing tonight, the Human League’s Rock & Roll was a complete damp squib (since when??). Biggest reactions (whoops on the intros) were for Annie’s Chewing Gum and Katy B/Jessie Ware’s Aaliyah – make what you can of that.

    (Also realised, gleefully, that SOPHIE’s Lemonade follows Ignition very nicely).

  14. 14
    Pink chpale on 27 Apr 2015 #

    Mention if Griel Marcus highlights another catetegory – fictional accounts of what the writer wishes the records he was writing about sounded like. I love Mystery Train and a lot of GM’s writing, but dear god he makes some heroic leaps

  15. 15
    magicmenagerie on 14 May 2015 #

    I’m currently writing my autobiography through pop, so I’m squarely on #20. It’s on this site – feel free to dip into My Pop Life… https://magicmenagerie.wordpress.com/2015/05/14/my-pop-life-65/

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