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Bratty by nature

Pop music critics have always been contrarians, even when they embrace the mainstream. Guilty pleasures? Acceptable -- as long as they're theirs.

July 27, 2008|Ann Powers | Times Pop Music Critic

SHAMELESSNESS IS not a problem for pop critics. Quite the opposite: It's a daily practice. Invented by rebel newspaper staffers (most notably, Ralph J. Gleason at the San Francisco Chronicle) who stayed out late and never came into the office, codified by freaks and attitudinal New Journalists, the pursuit of passionate thought about pop music rose up as a challenge to taste hierarchies, and has remained a pugilistic, exhibitionist business throughout pop's own evolution.

Here's my friend Robert Christgau, one of the genre's founding troublemakers, on the subject, from a paper he gave at the 2006 Experience Music Project Pop Conference in Seattle (an annual music writers gathering organized by my husband, Eric Weisbard). The theme that year was, in fact, guilty pleasures. "Rock criticism was conceived as a reproach to the idea of guilty pleasure," Christgau wrote. "In fact, 'reproach' and 'conceive' are putting it too politely. 'Reproach' makes it sound as if we had the upper hand, so make it 'attack.' It was a kick in the pants, a fart in the face, a full fungu."

I'm not entirely certain what a "full fungu" is (well, sound it out), but I'm sure I've been on the other end of many, not only from my music scribe colleagues, but from readers, musicians, industry types and anyone else who takes a whack at the determinedly amateur pastime.

Insults, rejections of others' authority, bratty assertions of superior knowledge and even threats of physical violence are the stuff of which pop criticism is made. (One of the great rock-critical works is "James Taylor Marked for Death," by Lester Bangs.) The best also offers loving appreciation and profound insights about how music creates and collides with our everyday realities. Yet like the music it celebrates, made for dancing and kissing and, yes, getting out your aggressions, pop criticism needs that edge of self-aggrandizement to really sing.

It gained its footing, as Christgau noted in his talk, as a slap at the establishment, at publications such as the hippie homestead Rolling Stone and the rawker outpost Creem. Contrarians such as the great Ellen Willis used it to sneak the counterculture into staid rags like the New Yorker. But as classic rock and soul transformed into the language of the baby-boomer establishment, pop criticism had to get bratty again -- and again.

Punks came around and spat at their Woodstock-worshiping elders; they evolved into indie rockers, a new establishment. Hip-hop produced a separate critical stream complete with its own brand of purists. This 1980s generation has lately been taken down by younger "poptimists," who argue that lovers of underground rock are elitists for not embracing the more multicultural mainstream. If you want a summation of this kerfuffle, check out Jody Rosen's 2006 Slate magazine piece "The Perils of Poptimism," then read Carl Wilson's wonderful small book on Celine Dion, "Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste."

New sub-groups emerge

AS ANYONE who's read my voluminous writings on "American Idol" knows, I'm happy the tide has turned toward poptimism. Not only does it widen the field for us music-obsessed chin-scratchers, it has allowed for important new discussions about race, class and gender, those old staple subjects of music writing.

But poptimism has also taken the habitual tussling among music writers to a whole new level. Old canons are ripped down and new ones slapped up on a daily basis. In this process, amassing guilty pleasures is the new standard of hipness. Fascinating new subgroups have emerged, such as disco snobs and hair-metal purists. At the 2006 Pop Conference, for example, subjects lovingly considered included the Monkees, Leonard Nimoy and cartoon band Jem & the Holograms -- and that was all on one panel!

This atmosphere of openness is mostly fantastic, but characteristically, pop critics have found a way to turn it confrontational. Prefer Ray LaMontagne to Toby Keith? You're an NPR-listening square! Irritated by T-Pain? You're a Luddite! Sick of Fergie? You're sexist! And just as many critics take the opposite stance, with equal righteous vigor.

In the past, our debates were sort of like sumo-style tummy bashes -- a young Turk would stand up to the old guard and good-naturedly push his opponent out of the ring. Now, it's more like the scrum in rugby. Everybody pushes against everybody else, and we move forward in a huge blob of vehement opinion and mutual judgment.

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