Rockism and music discourse

Posted: July 25, 2013 in Music

Ah, discourse. That stuff gets everywhere. And it’s not something that comes out in the wash.

Even music is infested with it, particularly notions of what is “good” and what isn’t. It’s worth bearing in mind that what music one likes is subjective. We all like different things. And yet anyone who has listened to more than a tiny amount of music will try and tell you what is “good” music and what is “bad” music.

I suppose it’s our natural tendency to judge things, but all of this comes down to our own individual music discourses. Some will determine what good music is depending on lyrical content. Some will base it on musical sound or ability. Some will decided based on what they determine to be the “quality” of the singing. Some will dismiss certain genres for whatever reason. But all ultimately come down to a judgement of “what sounds right”, which is all informed by what we enjoy, something likely determined (to a certain extent) by our upbringing and how we have “trained” our brains to react to music.

Of course, these individual discourses are often part of (and are influenced by) wider ideas about what music should sound like. This is where the idea of rockism comes into play.

Rockism as a term was reportedly coined in 1981 by Pete Wylie, leader of the post-punk band Wah! The basic idea is that the dominant discourse of music criticism is biased towards rock music – that rock music is seen as the default setting for all popular music. Obviously this is a negative discourse, as it’s inherently dismissive of various other forms of music. This of course was coined at a time when disco was rapidly going out of fashion, when even white middle class rock bands like Queen were getting in on the act (badly), while punk had peaked and was being replaced by a more sophisticated post-punk sound, with alternative rock soon to emerge from below in the years ahead.

Wylie probably wasn’t the first to point this out but he was right. Reading between the lines, there’s a “white music is best” vibe to the rockist discourse, and this is still something that is very relevant today – the bands in fashion change but the basic principles remain the same. You only have to look at the main surviving music magazines today (I’m thinking of the NME, Rolling Stone, Q, Kerrang etc – I say surviving but…) to see that it’s still dominated by white writers writing about white music. Occasionally Rolling Stone throw a token black guy or Aretha Franklin into their lists of the Top 625 Songs Written Since 1964, but we all know who they consider to be the pinnacle – The Beatles, followed by Dylan, Elvis, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Springsteen and so forth.

Basically, that’s stating that the black guys and girls were “influential” but the white guys took their influence and made it into something better. In a way, it kind of fits that old racist stereotype of black people being raw and emotional and white people being cleverer and more controlled – it’s not stated explicitly in those terms but that’s the implication of it. That’s the founding myth of rock music, after all – that it’s a combination of country music and rhythm ‘n’ blues.

Now don’t think for one moment that I’m criticising white music here. My taste in music is whiter than the population of Kent. I like all those white artists I’ve listed above. I went to see Bruce this week – he was incredible, as he always is. I do prefer rock to other forms. I rarely listen to rap. I often trust the judgement of white middle-class music critics. Essentially, I am a rockist.

However, I am aware of the discourse, and I think that’s the important thing. I’m aware that my music taste is pretty specific and the resulting pitfalls of that. You will never find me claiming that rock is better than rap – I don’t listen to rap very often but that’s not to say I’m going to dismiss it as “talking over music” or however people criticise it these days.

This is the problem with music criticism as a whole, though – people (including/especially many of the professional critics) lack the self-awareness to make reasonable criticism. As far as I’m concerned, there’s a difference between liking a song and a song being good. People often get that mixed up – you see them saying the equivalent of “I don’t like this so it must be bad”, as if the judgement of one individual matters more than everyone else in the world. Rockism is basically this on a larger scale – it’s a bunch of white middle-class people getting together and deciding that the Beatles were great, greater than any other band ever. Why? Because they like them and they did some cool things. That’s not to say the Beatles were rubbish – people who dislike the Beatles tend to either have not listened much of their music or are deliberately being contrarian. But putting them on a pedestal is, rightly or wrongly, based on a subjective opinion which forms part of a discourse.

There’s nothing wrong with criticising music. You just have to get your facts in order before you do so. It’s fine not to like something – but just say that, without trying to justify it with some absurd argument based on half-truths, stereotypes and straw men.

I’ve had many an argument with people who say that Queen, one of my favourite bands when I was younger, weren’t talented and their songs all sound the same – I’ve got no problem with people not liking Queen, and there are plenty of reasons for doing so (being unashamedly white, middle class and a bit right wing, for one), but they have one of the most diverse back catalogues out there, covering everything from music hall to skiffle and prog rock to disco. That doesn’t make it good, obviously, but neither can you say they were just churning out the same song 10 times per album to try and sell as many copies as possible – they never did that, even when they were at their most commercial in the mid-1980s.

I’m not entirely a relativist when it comes to music, though. It would be wrong to pretend that there’s no difference between Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks and One Direction’s Up All Night. There are different intentions behind those two, and that’s what I tend to use when deciding what I believe to be good and bad music – however, that’s my opinion; other ways of determining this are available.

I tend to think of it as a sliding scale – on one end, you’ve got music purely as art, with minimal interest in selling records and making money; on the other, you’ve got music purely to make money, with minimal interest in artistic merit. Essentially, it’s a sliding scale from John Coltrane to Justin Bieber. It’s simplistic and reductionist but it transcends genres so I find it quite effective.

Actually I’d suggest that a lot of people use this, even if only subconsciously – we just have different centre-points, a standard to judge by what is “too commercial” and “too arty”. For instance, my parents think Arcade Fire are a bit too arty, but I don’t see them as that radical. For me, Neutral Milk Hotel would probably be edging towards “too arty” as far as rock-based music is concerned. But I appreciate music that’s heavily artistic – I just don’t necessarily listen to it that much. And I like Michael Jackson even though his music was a lot more commercial than, say, early REM. Music that appeals to many people across a wide demographic is obviously doing something right – it’s no coincidence that the artists towards the top of the best-sellers list are also mostly among the most critically-acclaimed.

On that point, there is an anti-populism strand to music criticism and amongst people in general. I’m sure we all know someone who fits the music hipster stereotype – essentially glorified contrarians who love telling you they listen to bands you’ve never heard of. But even then, a love of hating a popular band goes beyond just a few indie fans – everyone does it.

For example, maybe it’s my own shift of who I talk to but Muse are one band that have gone from being a slightly more underground (or at least that great space between mainstream and underground, whatever you want to call that) group who were quite well-regarded to the butt of every cool kid music joke. Of course, they’ve always been one of those bands that appeals to white middle class geeks – this is prog rock, after all. But it’s amazing that they are now characterised as some kind of Queen rip-off, something that developed because they put a couple of harmonies in The Resistance. It’s a strange one as originally they were cast as a Radiohead rip-off, like a slightly more sophisticated Coldplay.

Again, it’s this issue of informed criticism – anyone who has listened to an early Queen album and an early Muse album would know that they are very different bands, joined only by the principle that rock music is inherently derivative (because of it’s musical structure – jazz is where the real action is). Queen were an influence on Muse but only in the same way that Radiohead and Rush were. Criticise them for being over-the-top, pretentious and for having a front man who’s a mad libertarian conspiracy theorist, by all means, but don’t criticise them for sounding like a band they don’t really sound like – that’s not a valid criticism. Otherwise you create a free-for-all, like accusing U2 of sounding like The Osmonds or Arcade Fire of sounding like B*Witched.

Springsteen may be the next one to face this. He already faced a bit of it in the 1980s, when Paddy McAloon of Prefab Sprout tried to cast his music as just being about “cars and girls” (which, as anyone who has listened to a Springsteen album would know, couldn’t be further from the truth). But Bruce managed to shake that off in the 1990s with a combination of a commercial downturn and writing even more songs about social issues (as if he hadn’t already done an album in the 80s of exactly that), before his successful reunion of the E Street Band and the tours since. Right now, he’s probably as popular as he has ever been.

But that’s the problem, and I’ve already seen signs of this coming with Bruce (having seen his music recently described as “music for cloth-eared berks”) – the moment an artist or band is popular with a lot of people, including those from outside the “cool” gang who also like Mumford & Sons or Scouting for Girls, some contrarian is going to turn up with a bunch of poorly-thought out excuses for not liking him/her/them, and some other contrarians who have never listened to his/her/their music will jump on that bandwagon and soon they will be the butt of every music joke going. Again, it’s discourse – there’s no reason for it; people just dislike some artists or bands for the sake of it, characterised incorrectly in order to become part of a wider point. McAloon did have a point in “Cars and Girls”, but to fit Springsteen into that, alongside the hedonist, commercial AOR/hair metal bands of the 80s that it was aimed at, was objectively wrong – there’s a world of difference between Def Leppard’s testosterone-filled sex sing-alongs and Bruce’s socially-conscious heartland rock.

The Wrecking Ball Tour is coming to an end in the coming weeks and Bruce would be wise to take a break, or at least do one of his folky albums to remind everyone that he can do the soft stuff as well as the anthems. An artist can also become too popular – you start to attract the wrong crowd and the wrong sort of reactions. He found this out in the 1980s when “Born in the USA” started to get appropriated by right-wing American nationalists despite being about the ill-treatment of Vietnam War veterans, followed by the Tunnel of Love becoming an album associated with yuppies rather than working class Americans. It’s inevitable that people will make ill-informed criticism of music.

But I’m aware that liking Bruce is itself a discourse, and indeed is a part of rockism. Critics see Springsteen as part of that linear narrative of progression of “great popular music” from Little Richard to Elvis to The Beatles and Dylan to Bruce and Led Zeppelin and then onwards to punk, alternative and indie rock. And narratives should always bring up a red flag – there is always more to the story. There should be no linear narrative with rock music – the influences come from all over the place and the results fan out in many directions. The same goes for pop music too – popism is as relevant a discourse as rockism, and I’m sure there’s a “jazzism” and a “hip-hopism” too. Discourse is everywhere. The categories are irrelevant – fans of all genres have superiority complexes about and within their favoured genre.

So listen to what the hell you like. Just be aware of the discourses you are entering into. This isn’t necessarily relevant to what you like – if you like a song, you like a song; that’s not a problem. The problems arise when you criticise – I’m aware this is going to sound preachy, but be aware of the facts and the discourses when you criticise an artist for being too commercial, derivative or repetitive, don’t try and speak for everyone, and try and understand why the music you are criticising might be popular. That doesn’t just apply to music – it applies to all art. If you just don’t like a piece of artwork, be it a book, film, album, painting or sculpture, then just say that. If you’re going to criticise it, criticise it properly – making a straw man of Springsteen or Bellamy doesn’t score any points in an argument.

Some extra reading material:

The Rap Against Rockism by Kelefa Sanneh in the New York Times

The Perils of Poptimism by Jody Rosen in Slate – this in particular is very good and balanced

All images used in the spirit of fair use


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