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 But largely superseded by…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,, 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.