Rockism

Pete Wylie

Rockism is a term referring to perceived biases in popular music criticism, coined by UK singer songwriter Pete Wylie in the early 1980s. The fundamental tenet of rockism is that some forms of popular music, and some musical artists, are more authentic than others. While there are many vague interpretations of it, rockism is essentially believed to treat rock music as normative.

From a rockist view, rock is the standard state of popular music. Interestingly, it is not entirely rockist to love rock, or to write about it. One may also care about R&B or norteño or bubblegum pop, but discuss them in a rockist way. The idea is built into the way people talk informally about what kinds of popular music interest them. Rockism is often suspicious of the use of computer-based production systems.

Rockism places value on the idea of the composer and performer as an auteur; authentic music is composed as a sincere form of self-expression, and usually performed by those who composed it. This is as opposed to the notion of manufactured ‘pop’ music, created in assembly line fashion by teams of hired record producers and technicians and performed by pop stars who have little input into the creative process, designed to appeal to a mass market and make profits rather than express authentic sentiments. Design critic and indie pop musician Nick Currie compared Rockism to the international art movement ‘Stuckism,’ which holds that artists who do not paint or sculpt are not artists.

One of the most famous critiques of rockism was delivered by music critic Kelefa Sanneh in an editorial, ‘The Rap Against Rockism.’ He defined rockism as follows:

‘A rockist is someone who reduces rock ‘n’ roll to a caricature, then uses that caricature as a weapon. Rockism means idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star; lionizing punk while barely tolerating disco; loving the live show and hating the music video; extolling the growling performer while hating the lip-syncher.’ Sanneh further asks music listeners to ‘stop pretending that serious rock songs will last forever, as if anything could, and that shiny pop songs are inherently disposable, as if that were necessarily a bad thing. Van Morrison’s ‘Into the Music’ was released the same year as the Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’; which do you hear more often?’ Sanneh further accuses rockism of representing a sexist, racist and homophobic point of view. Sanneh writes: ‘In ‘The New York Times Book Review,’ Sarah Vowell approvingly recalled Nirvana’s rise: ‘a group with loud guitars and louder drums knocking the whimpering Mariah Carey off the top of the charts.’ Why did the changing of the guard sound so much like a sexual assault? And when did we all agree that Nirvana’s neo-punk was more respectable than Ms. Carey’s neo-disco?’

Contemporary writers use rockism as a polemical label to identify and critique a cluster of beliefs and assumptions in music criticism. Rockism is therefore not a connotatively neutral term; as music writer Ned Raggett writes, ‘You’re not going to find anyone arguing FOR [rockism] any time soon, or at least coming out and saying so—but that’s precisely because of the terms of the discourse.’

‘Slate’ contributor Jody Rosen noted the growing backlash against rock’s traditional critical acclaim and a new emerging ideology: ‘There is a name for this new critical paradigm, ‘popism’—or, more evocatively (and goofily), ‘poptimism’—and it sets the old assumptions on their ear: ‘Pop (and, especially, hip-hop) producers are as important as rock auteurs, Beyoncé is as worthy of serious consideration as Bruce Springsteen, and ascribing shame to pop pleasure is itself a shameful act.’ In the same article, he also alludes to possible excesses of the new movement, warning that a hierarchy of music biased toward pop is no better than one biased toward rock because both genres have respectable qualities that cannot be ignored.

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