Rock musician Pete Wylie is credited with coining "rockism" in 1981.[1]

Rockism and poptimism are ideological arguments about popular music prevalent in mainstream music journalism. Rockism is the belief that rock music depends on values such as authenticity and artfulness, which elevate it over other forms of popular music.[2] So-called "rockists" may promote the artifices stereotyped in rock music[3][2] or may regard the genre as the normative state of popular music.[4] Poptimism (or popism)[1] is the belief that pop music is as worthy of professional critique and interest as rock music.[5] Detractors of poptimism describe it as a counterpart of rockism that unfairly privileges the most famous or best-selling pop, hip hop and R&B acts.[6][7]

The term "rockism" was coined in 1981 by English rock musician Pete Wylie.[8] It soon became a pejorative used humorously by self-described "anti-rockist" music journalists.[2] The term was not generally used beyond the music press until the mid 2000s, and its emergence then was partly attributable to bloggers using it more seriously in analytical debate.[2] In the 2000s, a critical reassessment of pop music was underway, and by the next decade, poptimism supplanted rockism as the prevailing ideology in popular music criticism.[5]

While poptimism was envisioned and encouraged[9] as a corrective to rockist attitudes,[6] opponents of its discourse argue that it has resulted in certain pop stars being shielded from negative reviews as part of an effort to maintain a consensus of uncritical excitement.[10] Others argue that the two ideologies have similar flaws.[7]


Early rock criticism

Further information: Music journalism, Album era, and Art rock

Robert Christgau, pictured in 2005, became one of the first professional rock and pop critics. He later criticised Rolling Stone for promoting the "boring rock-as-idealism myth".[11]

Until the late 1960s, "pop" was synonymous with "rock" or "rock and roll".[12] From the 1960s to the 1970s, music magazines such as Rolling Stone and Creem laid the foundation for popular music criticism[13] in an attempt to make popular music worthy of study.[6] Following the release of the Beatles' 1967 album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, such magazines began drawing a contrast between "pop" and "rock" (with "rock and roll" now referring to the 1950s style),[14] creating a division that gave generic significance to both terms.[12]

"Pop" became associated with music that was more commercial, ephemeral, and accessible.[15] "Rock" became associated with a style that was usually heavier and centered on the electric guitar.[16] Besides general differences in style, the two words became associated with differing values.[17] Many early rock reporters believed that rock embodied a particular set of values, such as rebelliousness, innovation, seriousness and sociopolitical intent.[18]

Not all critics supported the integration of high culture values into rock music, or the importance of personal expression. Some believed that such values were merely impositions of the cultural establishment.[19] Nonetheless, a widespread belief among music critics in the 1960s and 1970s was that truly artistic music was made by singer-songwriters using traditional rock instruments on long-playing albums, and that pop was on a lower aesthetic plane, a "guilty pleasure".[4]

In an essay published in Ulrich Beck's Global America?: The Cultural Consequences of Globalization (2004), the sociologist Motti Regev says the canonising of rock music among professional critics had created a status structure and orthodoxy that carried over into other developments in popular music through the next century. As examples of this "continuous canonization, Regev cites Robert Christgau's decade-end "Consumer Guide" collections (for the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s) and Colin Larkin's All Time Top 1000 Albums book.[20][nb 1]

New pop

See also: New pop

Following the emergence of punk rock in the late 1970s, the new wave and later post-punk genres emerged, informed by a desire for experimentation, creativity and forward movement. Paul Morley, whose writing in the British music magazine NME championed the post-punk movement in late 1970s, is credited as an influential voice in the development of new pop following the dissipation of post-punk, advocating "overground brightness" over underground sensibilities.[21] Around this time, the term "rockist" gained popularity to disparagingly describe music that privileged traditionalist rock styles.[21] According to Pitchfork's Jess Harvel: "If new pop had an architect, it was Paul Morley."[21]

Definitions and etymology


"Rockism" was coined in 1981 when the English rock musician Pete Wylie announced his Race Against Rockism campaign, an inversion of Rock Against Racism.[22] The term was immediately repurposed as a polemical label to identify and critique a cluster of beliefs and assumptions in music criticism.[23] Morley recalled:

... one or two music journalists writing in the one or two music magazines that existed then were very pleased. I was one of them, and was using the term "rockist" the minute after I read Wylie say it. ... If the idea of rockism confused you, and you lazily thought Pink Floyd were automatically better than Gang of Four, and that good music had stopped with punk, you were a rockist and you were wrong. ... Anti-rockism was always violently pro-pop, largely because we original campaigning anti-rockists had been given such a tough time at school for liking [David] Bowie and [Marc] Bolan and not ELP and Led Zep.[2]

There is no consensus for the definition of "rockism".[23][2] During the 1990s, rockism was defined as demanding a perception of authenticity in pop music despite whatever artifice is needed.[13] In 2004, the critic Kelefa Sanneh offered a definition of rockists: "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."[3] He accused rockists of sexism, racism and homophobia.[3]

Seattle Weekly's Douglas Wolk acknowledged the loose definition of rockism and proposed: "Rockism, let's say, is treating rock as normative. In the rockist view, rock is the standard state of popular music: the kind to which everything else is compared, explicitly or implicitly."[13] PopMatters' Robert Loss wrote that "traditionalism" describes the policing of the present with the past, making it a better word for "rockism".[6] The 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 true artists.[24]


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.

Jody Rosen, May 2006[4]

Poptimism (also called popism),[2] a portmanteau of pop and optimism,[25] is a mode of discourse which holds that pop music deserves the same respect as rock music and is as authentic and as worthy of professional critique and interest.[5] It positions itself as an antidote to rockism[6] and developed following Carl Wilson's book about Celine Dion's album Let's Talk About Love and Sanneh's 2004 essay against rockism in The New York Times.[10] In the article, Sanneh 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?"[3] Loss cited Sanneh's article as "a sort of ur-text on poptimism", elaborating:

By its impoverished terms, the rockist represents traditional values of authenticity while the poptimist is progressive, inclusive, and sees through the myths of authenticity. The rockist is nostalgic—the old fart who says they don't make any good music anymore—while the poptimist looks forward and values the new. The rockist makes Art out of popular music, insists on serious meaning, and demands artists who sing their own songs and play instruments, preferably guitars; the poptimist lets pop be fun and, if not meaningless, slight. The rockist is a purist, the poptimist a pluralist; the rockist is old, the popist is young; the rockist is anti-commercialist, the poptimist could care less. [sic][6]

After Sanneh published his 2004 article, an argument about rockism developed in various web circles.[2] In 2006, music journalist Jody Rosen noted the growing backlash against rock's traditional critical acclaim and the new poptimism ideology.[4] By 2015, Washington Post writer Chris Richards wrote that, after a decade of "righteously vanquishing [rockism's] nagging falsehood", poptimism had become "the prevailing ideology for today's most influential music critics. Few would drop this word in conversation at a house party or a nightclub, but in music-journo circles, the idea of poptimism itself is holy writ."[5]

Criticism of poptimism

Overlap with rockism

Paul Morley (left), a longtime critic of rockism, argued that many of poptimism's traits were indistinguishable from rockism.

In 2006, Morley derided the seriousness of contemporary music writers: "Many of the self-proclaimed American anti-rockists—or popists, or poptimists, or pop pricks—actually write with a kind of fussy, self-important rockist sheen. And for all their studious over-analysis, any definition of rockism is the same today as it's always been."[2] That same year, Rosen spoke positively of the new movement but forewarned of possible excesses; 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.[4]

A week later, PopMatters' Rob Horning responded to Rosen's writing with a more negative view of poptimism, writing that it is "sad to think the sharpest critics drowning in self-importance while believing they are shedding themselves of it. Basically by rejecting all that was once deemed important by a previous generation and embracing the opposite, you can make the case for your own importance. This is not optimism, it's reaction."[26]

Writing for The Quietus in 2017, Michael Hann, the music editor for The Guardian, argued that "the poptimists are just as proscriptive as the rockists". He listed the following as a few poptimist "sacred cows, which are beyond challenge":

According to Loss, rockism and poptimism are ultimately the same thing, and both rockists and poptimists treat music as a social commodity while mystifying the conditions in which music occurs.[6] He adds that, as is common in "a culture wherein history isn't valued much", poptimism neglects its historical precedents. As it presents itself as a radical break in the discourse of popular culture, older rock critics and journalists are usually depicted as "a bunch of bricklayers for the foundations of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame", a notion that Loss disputes: "Like film studies, rock criticism of the late '60s and the '70s was an attempt to make popular music worthy of study; it was poptimism before its day. It's somehow become generally accepted that rock criticism before the new millennium was overwhelmingly rockist."[6]

Commercial bias

After the 2000s, the effects of poptimism attracted a belief that once a pop star reaches a certain level of stardom, many critics will safeguard them from negative reviews.[10] Richards argued that poptimism cheerleads the already successful while privileging consensus and smothering dissent.[5] New York Times Magazine's Saul Austerlitz called poptimism a product of click-driven internet journalism that aspired to the lowest common denominator while being hostile to fans of genres and bands associated with rockism. He criticised it for allowing pop music fans to avoid expanding their taste and contrasted the types of music lauded by poptimists with the literature and film praised by book and film critics. "Should gainfully employed adults whose job is to listen to music thoughtfully really agree so regularly with the taste of 13-year-olds?"[27]

Loss agreed with Austerlitz's text: "When [he] wrote that 'music criticism's former priority—telling consumers what to purchase—has been rendered null and void for most fans. In its stead, I believe, many critics have become cheerleaders for pop stars,' I imagined an editor and a record label exec swooping down on him saying, 'Don't tell them that!' We like to believe criticism is devoid of crass commercialism, but Austerlitz gives away that it never was in the first place."[6] He also noted a minuscule number of low-rated albums in publications such as Rolling Stone, Pitchfork and PopMatters, and that "telling consumers what to purchase is still the point of a lot of music 'criticism'".[6]

Hann says that when writers deal with "upmarket" readership, they "need to be able to justify your coverage, and that [means] thinkpieces hailing the cultural significance of the new pop stars. ... And once you've decided these subjects matter, it's hard to turn round and say: 'Actually, you know what? This isn't much cop.'" He describes his experience as music editor for The Guardian, where he has "been commissioning those pieces, knowing they will be read ... if no one wanted to read about Taylor Swift, you would never see another thinkpiece about her. Instead, we enter an arms race of hyperbole, as we credit her with forcing Apple to change its streaming terms, dismantling the musical patriarchy, creating new paradigms in music and society."[7]

Other fields

Flavorwire's Elisabeth Donnely said that literary criticism "needs a poptimist revolution" to understand literary phenomena such as Fifty Shades of Grey and better connect with the reading audience.[28] In 2015, Salon published an article subtitled "Book criticism needs a poptimist revolution to take down the genre snobs", in which Rachel Kramer Bussell argued that critics ignore often good work and alienate readers by focusing only on genres considered "literary".[29]

Writing for Salon in 2016, Scott Timberg commented on critics giving increasing amounts of respect to the celebrity chef Guy Fieri: "Love or hate what is called poptimism, the impulse seems to be coming to food and restaurant criticism." Timberg likened food critics defending Fieri to rock critics who "began writing apologias for Billy Joel and composed learned deconstructions of Britney Spears".[30]

See also


  1. ^ Regev elaborates on this in "'Rockization': Diversity within Similarity in World Popular Music" (2004): "The artistic and cultural status of rock pushed other actors in contemporary popular music to adopt the stylistic and sonic innovations explored by rock musicians and turn them into the conventional way of making music. In other words, the canonization of rock triggered the emergence of (in Bourdieu's terminology) an artistic field of popular music structured around a hierarchy of prestige. In this field, the dominant positions are occupied by the already canonized 'avant-garde' of earlier periods and by the upcoming styles and musicians hailed as the new 'avant-garde' by power-holding critics and reviewers in the field."[20]


  1. ^ a b Gormely, Ian (December 3, 2014). "Taylor Swift leads poptimism's rebirth". The Guardian.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Morley, Paul (May 25, 2006). "Rockism - it's the new rockism". The Guardian.
  3. ^ a b c d Sanneh, Kelefa (October 31, 2004). "The Rap Against Rockism". The New York Times. Archived from the original on November 5, 2015.
  4. ^ a b c d e Rosen, Jody (May 9, 2006). "The Perils of Poptimism - Does hating rock make you a music critic?". Slate.
  5. ^ a b c d e Richards, Chris (April 16, 2015). "Do you want poptimism? Or do you want the truth?". The Washington Post. Retrieved November 19, 2015.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Loss, Robert (August 10, 2015). "No Apologies: A Critique of the Rockist v. Poptimist Paradigm". PopMatters.
  7. ^ a b c d Hann, Michael (May 11, 2017). "Is Poptimism Now As Blinkered As The Rockism It Replaced?". The Quietus.
  8. ^ Stanley, Bob (2014). Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Story of Pop Music from Bill Haley to Beyoncé. W. W. Norton. p. 286. ISBN 978-0-393-24270-6.
  9. ^ Harvilla, Rob (November 16, 2017). "Have We Reached the End of Poptimism?". The Ringer.
  10. ^ a b c Lobenfield, Clair (January 12, 2016). "Poptimism Isn't the Problem". Village Voice.
  11. ^ Christgau, Robert (November 1989). "Rolling Stone Presents Twenty Years of Rock & Roll". Video Review. Retrieved April 2, 2017.
  12. ^ a b Gloag, Kenneth (2001). The Oxford Companion to Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 983. ISBN 0-19-866212-2.
  13. ^ a b c Wolk, Douglas (May 4, 2005). "Thinking About Rockism". Seattle Weekly. Archived from the original on June 4, 2005.
  14. ^ Zoppo, Donato (2014). Prog: Una suite lunga mezzo secolo (in Italian). Arcana. ISBN 978-88-6231-639-2.
  15. ^ T. Warner, Pop Music: Technology and Creativity: Trevor Horn and the Digital Revolution (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003), ISBN 0-7546-3132-X, pp. 3–4.
  16. ^ J. M. Curtis, Rock Eras: Interpretations of Music and Society, 1954–1984 (Madison, WI: Popular Press, 1987), ISBN 0-87972-369-6, pp. 68–73.
  17. ^ Frith, S. (2001). The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock. Cambridge University Press. p. 95-105. ISBN 0-521-55660-0. Retrieved 16 June 2019. Rock heavier.
  18. ^ Lambert, Philip, ed. (2016). Good Vibrations: Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys in Critical Perspective. University of Michigan Press. pp. 7–8. ISBN 978-0-472-11995-0.
  19. ^ Downes, Stephen (2014). Aesthetics of Music: Musicological Perspectives. Routledge. pp. 33, 36. ISBN 978-1-136-48691-3.
  20. ^ a b Regev, Motti (2004). "'Rockization': Diversity within Similarity in World Popular Music". In Beck, Ulrich; Sznaider, Natan; Winter, Rainer (eds.). Global America?: The Cultural Consequences of Globalization. Oxford University Press. p. 225. ISBN 1781386668.
  21. ^ a b c Harvel, Jess. "Now That's What I Call New Pop!". Pitchfork Media. 12 September 2005.
  22. ^ Gorman, Paul (2001). In Their Own Write: Adventures in the Music Press. Sanctuary. p. 281. ISBN 978-1-86074-341-2.
  23. ^ a b Raggett, Ned (June 1, 2005). "Rockism". Stylus Magazine.
  24. ^ Currie, Nick (November 5, 2004). "Design Rockism". Aiga Design Archives. Archived from the original on April 5, 2007.
  25. ^ "2010s: Lips In The Streetlights". Tiny Mix Tapes. Retrieved 2022-03-09.
  26. ^ Horning, Rob (May 11, 2006). "'Poptimism' The Death of Pop Criticism". PopMatters.
  27. ^ Austerlitz, Saul (April 6, 2014). "The Pernicious Rise of Poptimism". The New York Times Magazine. Archived from the original on October 31, 2015.
  28. ^ Donnelly, Elisabeth (August 28, 2014). "Why Book Criticism and Literary Culture Needs a Poptimist Revolution". Flavorwire.
  29. ^ Kramer Bussell, Rachel (May 19, 2015). "Simon Pegg has a Franzen moment: Book criticism needs a poptimist revolution to take down genre snobs". Salon.
  30. ^ Scott Timberg (September 21, 2016). "The Fieri-ssance is here". Salon.

Further reading