No end in sight : a critique of poptimism's counter-hegemonic aesthetics

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Broyles, Susan Elizabeth

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Poptimism is a school of contemporary popular music criticism characterized by its rejection of the notion of the “guilty pleasure” and traditions within rock journalism called “rockism.” Through an examination of poptimist writing, particularly Carl Wilson’s “Céline project” (which resulted in a book, Céline Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste) and material on musician Stephin Merritt’s comments at the Experience Music Project Pop Conference in 2006, trends emerge: efforts at combating elitism and promoting populism are belied by practices associated with high levels of cultural capital.

These tendencies are examined from three angles. First, following Johan Fornäs, poptimist attitudes toward authenticity and reflexivity are considered. In their treatment of musical texts, poptimists reject rockist notions of authenticity while failing to account for consumers’ need for genuineness. Their grasp of reflexivity is greater when it comes to reception; Wilson’s project, an exercise in self-scrutiny for elitist bias via an attempt to appreciate the music of Céline Dion, shows the significance of reflexivity for poptimism. 

Second, poptimists’ approach to identity and difference is considered. Commentary on Merritt, who was accused of racism due to his admitted dislike of certain African-American artists and genres, is typical: oversimplified models of hegemony undermine deep concern about identity politics. Poptimists’ advocacy of omnivorous consumption as an anti-elitist strategy is flawed: using intellectual approaches and spurning the middlebrow are practices associated with high cultural capital. This strategy seems to lead to co-optation rather than real change. 

Third, poptimism’s relationship to value and emotion is analyzed. Poptimists have doubts about value judgments given traditional aesthetics’ hierarchical baggage, yet value judgments are critics’ raison d’être. Poptimism’s rejection of guilty pleasure and Wilson’s “guilty displeasure” concept link aesthetics to affect. Poptimists approach emotion inconsistently, embracing it when convenient but subjecting it to doubt and intellectualization when it seems to support elitism. Like many poptimist strategies, populist ideas motivate this approach, but it emulates hegemonic traditions.



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