Poptimism and Popular Feminism
Almost 20 years ago, 2 Many DJs and Freelance Hellraiser each released too-clever mashups that laid R&B pop diva vocals over indie rock instrumentals, revealing that the paired songs had exactly the same compositional structure. The former’s “Smells Like Booty” put Destiny’s Child together with Nirvana, and the latter’s “A Stroke of Genius” combined Christina Aguilera with The Strokes. The mashups were clever because they flouted supposedly commonsense views that these these pairings shouldn’t work: how could something as superficial, formulaic, and, frankly, girly as Destiny’s Child and Aguilera have anything in common with something as serious and aggressive as Nirvana and The Strokes? Writing in 2009, Dorian Lynskey explained that “A Stroke of Genius came out when many indie fans still believed that manufactured pop stank of evil and death, and the idea of Christina Aguilera and the Strokes in perfect harmony was strange.” Note Lynskey’s use of the past tense: by 2009, the gatekeepers of elite musical taste generally agreed that commercial, chart-oriented music whose fans were at least thought to be mainly teen girls and/or gay men could be just as artistically valuable as rock and hip hop.
That consensus has a name: poptimism. Poptimism upends the hierarchy between rock (and sometimes hip hop) and pop, which is a contemporary variation on a very old hierarchy that privileged fine art over craft. Back in the 18th century, philosophers like Immanuel Kant invented the idea of “fine art” by distinguishing it from craft: craft is subordinate to utility (you don’t want your coffee mug to leak), but art exists for its own sake (think of how unwearable some high fashion is, or of Rosemarie Trockel’s art sweaters). As many feminist art historians have argued, this art/craft hierarchy conveniently maps onto patriarchal gender hierarchies: art, like men, is autonomous, whereas craft, like women, are subordinate to daily needs; art is productive, craft is reproductive. For example, art historians Roziska Parker and Griselda Pollock have shown that there is an “intersection in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries of the development of an ideology of femininity…with the emergence of a clearly defined separation of art and craft.” The conceptual and institutional structures that confined women to reproductive labor and craft into the service of life’s reproductive needs were manifestations of the same underlying gender system.
This same system informs the traditional rock-over-pop hierarchy. In her 2001 article “Feminist Musicology and the Abject Popular,” Susan Cook argues that “‘the popular’…has been so thoroughly feminized” and “carries with it a staggering cultural baggage, a trunk full of social codes that have been historically attached to womankind and underprivileged men.” In the latter half of the twentieth century, the distinction between rock and pop was largely grounded in the same gender system that organized the art/craft hierarchy: rock embodied all the values and characteristics of ideal masculinity, and that’s why it was superior, whereas pop embodied all the values and characteristics of ideal femininity, and that’s why it was inferior. In the early 2000s, poptimism revises this gender script, putting “thoroughly feminized” pop on an equal playing field with rock. However, instead of more-or-less uncritically cheerleading for pop and/or pop stars, we should be thinking about the institutions and conventions that dole out artistic status.
Kelefa Sanneh’s 2004 article “The Rap Against Rockism” brought the fact of rock-conceived-as-art to the general public’s attention. “Rockism” is the idea that rock music is the only kind of commercial recorded music that has artistic merit. According to Sanneh,
rockism isn’t unrelated to older, more familiar prejudices…The pop star, the disco diva, the lip-syncher, the “awesomely bad” hit maker: could it really be a coincidence that rockist complaints often pit straight white men against the rest of the world? Like the anti-disco backlash of 25 years ago, the current rockist consensus seems to reflect not just an idea of how music should be made but also an idea about who should be making it.
Grounded in the idea that rock is superior because it is both made by and for white dudes and expresses the stereotypical features of elite white masculinity, rockism upgrades the gendered (and raced) logics of the fine art/craft distinction into 20th century terms. Meanwhile, poptimism revalues the aspects of pop music that were traditionally de-valued because of their association with stereotypical (often white) femininity: pop is hugely collaborative and rarely written by lone authors; it prioritizes pleasure over deep meaning, beauty and spectacle over substance; its music and its ideas are supposedly simple rather than complex…you get the idea. (Ethnomusicologist Elizabeth Keenan-Penagos explains the gendered implications of poptimism in more depth in this piece about the role of misogyny in critiques of poptimism.)
Sanneh’s article kicked off this millennial round of poptimism, but poptimism’s basic ideas and values go all the way back to the 19th century (which is much later than Michael Kramer argues here). Friedrich Nietzsche’s critique of German composer Richard Wagner uses the same basic framework we now call poptimism: Wagner, he argued, was too concerned with deep philosophical meaning and not enough with the beauty and pleasure of the sounds. Saying things like “music is a woman” and that Italian opera is superior to German opera because it’s prettier and more fun (see The Gay Science sections 77-80), Nietzsche also recognized the gender and race dynamics of poptimism: by 19th century standards Italians weren’t fully white, so his prioritization of Italian over German opera subordinates white highbrow culture to not-really-white middle-to-lowbrow culture. In Nietzsche Contra Wagner, he makes his preference for light, unserious art over high culture quite clear. There, he contrasts the “hubbub…with which the ‘cultured’ man and the man about town allow themselves to be forced through art, literature, music, and with the help of intoxicating liquor, to ‘intellectual enjoyments’” with the “nimble, volatile, divinely undisturbed, divinely artificial art, which blazes up like pure flame into a cloudless sky” (emphasis mine). This contrast flips fine art/craft hierarchies and argues that things traditionally devalued as feminine, such as superficiality or sensory pleasure, are artistically superior to all the values commonly attributed to fine art, such as intellectual depth. Though he called it “the joyful wisdom” (die frӧliche Wissenschaft, often translated as The Gay Science) instead of “poptimism,” the later Nietzsche’s music aesthetics articulates the same basic theoretical commitments that inform 21st century poptimism.
The basic idea of poptimism has been around since the late 1880s, but it took more than a century to really take off. In the decade after Sanneh’s article, there was a poptimism bubble: it rose to huge popularity, especially with the publication of Carl Wilson’s 2007 book on fans of cheesy pop music. That bubble started to burst about 9 or 10 years after that book appeared as critics began to sour on poptimism. Though it was initially understood as a radical upheaval of the powers that be, by 2017 poptimism had been co-opted by those powers. Instead of challenging patriarchal gender systems, poptimism reinforced them. Writing in The Quietus, Michael Hann argues that “Poptimism, in practice, has not meant championing those who do not get the acclaim they are due, so much as celebrating the position of artists who don’t need their genius proclaimed” such as Beyonce or Taylor Swift. The oft-noted death of the negative album review suggests that [p]optimism is now the orthodox practice among music critics. (This also coincides with recent trends in academic literary theory, which prize “reparative” readings over critical ones.) Such concerns have led Rob Harvilla to pose the rhetorical question “Have we reached the end of poptimism?” because what began as a feminist revolt now feels like an expectation or obligation to stan for the already powerful, such as corporations and megastars. Hann and Harvilla observe a change in poptimism, at least as it is practiced in the music media and industry: poptimism feels less like rooting for undervalued and underrepresented women and more like cheerleading for The Man. Harvilla speculates about poptimism’s end because this corporate poptimism betrays the movement’s original ideals and values.
Why did the poptimism bubble happen when it did? There were many contributing factors, such as the rise of what sociologists Richard Peterson and Roger Kern call “omnivorous taste,” which is the idea that elites prefer both traditional highbrow culture and a range of lowbrow forms, a.k.a. “I like everything but [usually country or hip hop].” Evolutions in feminist media and activism are another central cause of the poptimist bubble. Because pop is an inherently gendered category defined by its feminization, poptimism’s evolution is closely tied to feminism’s. The poptimism bubble roughly coincides with the period when feminism broke the mainstream and mutated into popular feminism.
This is more than just a correlation or coincidence. “Pop” is a gendered category, so its evolution is inextricably tied to evolving gender norms and politics. Poptimism emerged at the dawn of a broader “woke” turn in popular media and pop culture. The first decades of the 21st century saw the rise of a proliferation of explicitly feminist web publications (Autostraddle, Broadly, Jezebel, etc.) and the circulation of feminist theory outside the academy on social media sites like tumblr. 2014, the year Beyonce brought the big pink “FEMINIST” sign to the VMAs, was the year that feminism broke the mainstream. As media studies scholar Sarah Banet-Wesier argues, around 2014 a variety of white liberal feminism focused primarily on individual economic (and sexual) empowerment; it “became a sort of product” that circulated both as a corporate and individual brand. “Feminism” sold us Tshirts, Spotify playlists, and a couple of Beyonce albums. Banet-Weiser’s term for this feminism as brand or business strategy is “popular feminism.” In 2018, poptimism works more or less like popular feminism: it turns the revaluation of things traditionally devalued because of their femininity into a way to make money.
Both popular feminism and corporate poptimism are the result of the same flawed thinking that believes inequality can be fixed just by empowering individuals and not by restructuring the institutions and conventions that structure our relations with one another. This thinking seeks to put formerly low-status things in high status places without reconfiguring the underlying fact that there is a status differential in the first place.
Banet-Weiser warns that popular feminism is only half of a two-sided coin: “popular misogyny…mimics the operation of popular feminism but flips and distorts the politics.” The incel movement is an example of popular misogyny: arguing that women oppress men by refusing to have sex with them, it takes the language of oppression developed by feminism and uses it to justify the idea of patriarchal sex-right. Similarly, the classical music blog “Slipped Disc” has been described as the “Breitbart of classical music” because its championing of the orthodox Western art music canon is “openly sexist, racist, and LGBT-phobic.” The 2018 Grammy Awards show presented both sides of this coin in stark clarity: as Maura Johnston noted, though the ceremony prominently featured a #MeToo performance from Kesha and other women artists, almost all the awards went exclusively to men.
Viewed in Banet-Weiser’s terms, the RIAA seems to be leveraging both sides of this coin to maximize its profits, practicing popular feminism in the streets but popular misogyny on the ballot. Like popular feminism, the RIAA’s poptimism values superficial markers of feminist progress because they obscure patriarchy’s retrenchment. For example, the two most definitive or canonical poptimist texts (the Sanneh article and Wilson book) are authored by cis men, so it may appear that poptimism hasn’t changed those institutions and conventions so much as conformed to them.
I agree with Banet-Weiser that though Feminism™ is certainly limited and insufficient, it can be a helpful gateway for beginners. Poptimism™ is similarly limited and insufficient, but we should think about how we can lead fans brimming with that kind of poptimism to a deeper engagement with the institutions and conventions that continue to value the same kinds of people and the music they make and like above others.
Featured image: “Pop” by Flickr user Andreas Andrews, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Robin James is Associate Professor of Philosophy at UNC Charlotte. She is author of two books: Resilience & Melancholy: pop music, feminism, and neoliberalism, published by Zer0 books last year, and The Conjectural Body: gender, race and the philosophy of music was published by Lexington Books in 2010. Her work on feminism, race, contemporary continental philosophy, pop music, and sound studies has appeared in The New Inquiry, Hypatia, differences, Contemporary Aesthetics, and the Journal of Popular Music Studies. She is also a digital sound artist and musician. She blogs at its-her-factory.com and is a regular contributor to Cyborgology.
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In Search of Politics Itself, or What We Mean When We Say Music (and Music Writing) is “Too Political”–Elizabeth Newton
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Pushing Play: What Makes the Portable Cassette Recorder Interesting?–Gus Stadler
Bob Seger, Champion of Misfits
Bob Seger and the sort of classic rock he performs, embodies and represents, for me (and apparently many others), the relentlessly uncool. Youth, drugs and nonconformity have long been my standards of “rock,” and within this triad, Bob Seger’s formal, cinematic songs, have always come across as a little tired. Osvaldo Oyola wrote specifically last week about these foibles: the stilted piano and canned Chuck Berry riffs sound more like parody than gospel, while the parade of effects on Seger’s voice, also quite derivative, could have also fit on a Bruce Springsteen album (although you could replace the influence of Chuck Berry with that of the quintessentially less cool Phil Spector). Problematically, even though I loathe Seger’s catalog, I love Springsteen’s, this of course has made for some very popular conversations at the bar. In fact, it was last July at a local New Brunswick haunt that I had this conversation last. My friend, who will remain nameless, completely disagreed: Seger was cool, I just couldn’t hear it, in fact I had to see it to believe it.
In order to understand Bob Seger, I needed to watch Mask, a 1985 retelling of The Elephant Man starring Eric Stoltz as the deformed Rocky Dennis and Cher as his mother Rusty Dennis. Mask was released two years after Risky Business, and featured a number of Bob Seger songs predominantly in the soundtrack. These songs uniformly mixed to the foreground, often serving as Rocky’s theme, juxtaposed against an ambient soundtrack of songs by black musicians like Little Richard and Gary US Bonds. These black oldies, “Tutti Frutti” and “Quarter to Three,” are used thematically when Rusty’s friends, a bunch of guys in a motorcycle gang, are partying. Not only is Rocky othered from the kids at school because he is ugly, he is poor, raised by a single mother with a drug addiction. Although whiteness takes center stage in this film, it holds a complex relationship to blackness. Rocky and Rusty are atypically white, finding community only with each other and a super-masculine network of bikers; they are misfits, doing their best to pass in a mainstream and affluent white society.
Bob Seger’s “Katmandu,” is the song which introduces Rocky in the opening credits. It is guilty of the trademark Bob Seger whiteness: more refurbished Chuck Berry and piano so droll it could have been played by a metronome. In the context of Rocky and his struggle to identify with white society however, it paints Seger in a different light. Bob Seger’s uncoolness can be read as a failed attempt to pay homage to black musicians like the aforementioned Little Richard and Gary US Bonds. Instead of suggesting a totalizing narrative of white appropriation, I argue that Bob Seger can be understood as a musician who would never be completely accepted by his heroes or critics. Reflected in the posters on Rocky’s wall and Universal’s contract negotiations with Columbia Records (Bruce Springsteen had been first choice for the soundtrack), Seger was not even cool to the director of the film, Peter Bogdanovich, who refered to his music as “inappropriate.”
Toward the end of the movie, Rocky holds his blind girlfriend for the last time. Her parents, disgusted by his face (but probably also by his shabby clothing), keep the two separate. Contradicting the escape narrative of Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” Rocky evinces the power of fantasy toward coping with discrimination: “We can’t run away Diana. But we can sort of run away in our minds. We can remember camp, the mountains and the Ocean…especially New Year’s Eve” (Mask Part 11 4:40). Like Rocky, Seger can’t run away from his whiteness, even though he may not relate to it, or fully embrace it, it is ever present in his recordings. Songs like “Old Time Rock and Roll,” “Katmandu,” and even “Night Moves” are celebrations of music as a forum of imagination – one where identity, be it black or white, can be reimagined as something else. Though “Old Time Rock and Roll,” will sound forever white, it relates the experience of otherness. Try as he might, Seger has no idea how to sound authentically black, and this is evident through both its celebratory lyrics and contrived arrangement.
Growing up in a bi-racial household, where, depending on the holiday, my Jewishness could be as visible as my blackness, I feel a strong kinship to figures like Rocky, not completely belonging to any ethnic community. Perhaps this led to a juvenile obsession with Springsteen, who, according to my father, everyone could relate to, regardless of color (he worked at an all-night Jersey Shore diner, the Inkwell, in the early 1970s). Bruce though, was never really misfit, mulatto or poor; whether discussing his working class freehold roots, or his first guitar, his music epitomizes white privilege. Even his stage shows feature Clarence Clemons, The Big (Black) Man, notably subordinate to Bruce, or “The Boss.” Although now, my Bruce phase seems laughable, I wonder if it was also a fantasy of fitting in, of recovering a fantastic and invisible whiteness deep within myself. When he wrote “Old Time Rock and Roll,” was Bob Seger trying to do the same and recover a font of blackness deep within himself? I now see a complex web of identity politics informed by an economic and social history of Rock and Roll, but this holds an uneasy and complex relationship with the part of me that still believes in rock and roll. I was, am, and forever will be the misfit who found an identity in the church of rock and roll. Though the sermons have changed, in high school, Springsteen was the pastor, and I suspect that for my friend at the bar, Seger also conducted service. Even though I could never completely fit in to the rich white world of these artists, I wonder if this speaks to a fundamental affinity. Did Springsteen and Seger ever feel like outcasts, later to find solace in the black cool of Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Fats Domino? In the context of these figures and their music, how could whiteness seem anything but contrived, misfit and ugly – or in truth, is this dialectic really the beat which pushes rock and roll forward?