Oh, no, Bill, no

[To fully understand this post, you will need two things--access to an October 31, 2004 New York Times and access to the January 20th online version of The Nashville Scene. I'm not linking to either of them because you have to pay for access to back issues of the Times and they'll move the link to the Scene article soon and you won't be able to find it through any link I might give it.]

In the late edition of the Nashville Scene, Bill Friskics-Warren schools Liz Garrigan about the insidiousness of “rockism” and the inherent “rockist” bias in her desire to deride Ashlee Simpson for playing a show at the Ryman Auditorium. Garrigan thinks it’s outrageous that Simpson, who barely sings her own songs, would perform at the most holy shrine of country music, a place, supposedly, steeped in authenticity.

As you know, I’m not sold on notions of authenticity. I’m well aware of the market forces pushing at all forms of popular music and I think the tension between artistry and money making is usually, at least, interesting.

But I’m bothered by this “rockist” thing. There’s clearly a difference between putting one certain type of music up on a pedestal (in this case, guys with guitars) at the expense of other types of music–rap, pop, whatever–and recognizing Simpson for the failure she is.

Here’s what Kelefah Sanneh says about it in the New York Times:

“Rockism isn’t unrelated to older, more familiar prejudices — that’s part of why it’s so powerful, and so worth arguing about. The pop star, the disco diva, the lip-syncher, the ”awesomely bad” hit maker: could it really be a coincidence that rockist complaints often pit straight white men against the rest of the world? Like the anti-disco backlash of 25 years ago, the current rockist consensus seems to reflect not just an idea of how music should be made but also an idea about who should be making it.”

I’m going to get back to this in a second, but let’s just let that stand for now.

On to what Bill Friskics-Warren’s rebuke of Liz Garrigan’s impulse to ridicule Ashlee Simpson:

“I definitely think we should do something, Liz, but I don’t consider the Simpson thing an outrage at all, just as I don’t care if producers cut-and-paste records in the studio without the “artist” being present (or ever showing up). The belief that the “authenticity” of a musical performance depends upon it being “real”–that is, “actually” performed by the person in the spotlight–is, I think, a case of rockism. That is, a privileging of the old model of the solitary, “for the ages” artist (usually a guy) with a guitar pouring out the “authentic” (that word again) stirrings in his heart over the “disposable, fabricated” pop star lip-synching on MTV (as if Springsteen and Dylan aren’t social constructs in their own right).”

[Give me a second to take the cheap shot at Friskics-Warren, before I get on to my main point: Isn't is that interesting that it's a man educating a woman about the ways in which her desire to critique falls short?]

There are a couple of things going on here that I find stunning.

By setting up rock music against all other forms of music, both Friskics-Warren and Sanneh have to, by virtue of the dialectic they’ve set up, lump all other forms of music into the same category. What the fuck?

Am I supposed to understand that Ashlee Simpson has the same “artistic” value as Tweet as Mos Def as Britney Spears as Led Zeppelin? That one cannot use one’s faculties to make a judgment about the artistic merit of each of those… what? What do we even call them in Friskics-Warren’s framework… people with whom the production of certain kinds of music is inadvertently associated? It makes music making seem like a disease, like my kid might bring home a bad case of hip-hop from school, and the next thing you know, everyone in my house is a million-selling artist signed with Def Jam.

You can argue that judging all music by the standards of rock and roll is stupid and biased and, perhaps, even sexist and racist. I, folks, am even willing to buy that argument.

But Sanneh and Friskics-Warren ought to watch a little more Animal Planet and study how things are done at dog shows. Within the breed, all dogs are compared to each other, but for best in show, no one judges the German Shepard against the American Staffordshire. Each is judged against the breed standard.

So, let’s say that the “group” Ashlee Simpson is a part of is the “teen pop tart who combines sex and innocence with catchy tunes she lip-synchs along to” crowd. When judged against the standard of that group, can’t we say that she sucks? I mean, look at her compared to Britney Spears. Simpson isn’t fit to wash Spears’s sweaty thong. My god, isn’t that clear?

But aside from personal preference–you might like rap better than heavy metal–you can’t fairly compare someone from one genre to another.

And, if that’s what the critics of “rockism” are trying to say, in their own clumsy way, fair enough. But criticizing other critics for holding everyone to some set of standards is amazing to me. If you can’t hold people, the people you do or don’t consider artists, to your standards of what good music is, you can’t be a rock critic. What would you do if you couldn’t talk about why something, to you, was good? How does music criticism, in general, to move beyond rock criticism, survive an attack that negates aesthetic judgment?

But there’s something else insidious going on here that really bothers me, and that’s the way all white men get lumped together–both rich artist, privileged “rockist” critic, and poor consumer–so that the inherent class criticism is camouflaged. Follow me? No?

Watch how Sanneh does it:

“Maybe because rockist critics love it when hip-hop acts impersonate rock ‘n’ roll bands.”
Read: The problem is the critics who hold hip-hop to rock & roll standards.

“From punk-rock rags to handsomely illustrated journals, rockism permeates the way we think about music.”
Read: Look at the way this attitude is codified in the literature.

“Rock ‘n’ roll is the unmarked section in the record store, a vague pop-music category that swallows all the others.”
Note the use of “record store.”

So, right now, his argument is that this “rockist” attitude is linked to privilege (specifically, white privilege). Critics, themselves, have a kind of privileged position because what they write has influence. You have to have access to these rags and “handsomely illustrated journals” and the ability to spend a lot of time in the record stores. You have to have some money to really fully participate in this “rockist” culture, apparently.

But what is the zenith of this “rockism”? Sanneh says it’s “the ugly anti-disco backlash of the late 1970′s, which culminated in a full-blown anti-disco rally and the burning of thousands of disco records at Comiskey Park in Chicago in 1979.”

And, look how Friskics-Warren shifts the blame away from Simpson’s failure as an artist: “Loads of country stars that come out of the hit mill here are no different, right down to the nepotism/family motif.”

Ah, see now where the secret trouble lies: it’s those poor people–the working class Chicagoans and the rural Southerners. Those folks who want their artists to be “authentic,” who don’t read the New York Times or the online version of the Nashville Scene in order to wrestle with the big ideas of music criticism, who aren’t even trying to be open to “the music critic’s” enlightened and expanded notions of what is good music or even what constitutes a music artist.

Listen, it’s any music consumer’s right to like rock better than country or country better than rap. And it’s the truth that, for some people, liking rock better than rap is a choice either steeped in racism or just out and out racist. It’s also true that preferring Led Zeppelin to Madonna might be a choice steeped in misogyny. Hell, I might hate Ashlee Simpson because, as a member of the he-man woman-hater’s club, I’m sworn to.

And music critics have a right, and I think, a responsibility to weed out the ways in which they, themselves, and other music critics have ingrained and perpetuated racist and sexist (lumping homophobia and misogyny in the same category) ideas within their criticism.

But, if you are angry at rock critics, be angry at rock critics. It wasn’t rock critics who swarmed the field in Chicago and so, if you’re angry at the ways in which racism, sexism, and homophobia seem to pervade poor rock fans’ sensibilities, come out and say it. But, to paraphrase my favorite socialist, one might want to remove the log from his own eye before worrying about the sliver in someone else’s. Rap, hip-hop, country, pop–all these forms are just as rife with those things as rock music is because our culture is rife with them.

And the position Sanneh and Friskics-Warren take, that there’s something brave or new about finding value in all kinds of “music” no matter how bad it is and not questioning the absurdity of putting a girl who can’t sing on a stage that requires almost no amplification (egad, especially Friskics-Warren’s avant garde take on the whole “death of the author” debate), feels to me very, very elitist, as if only racist, homophobic misogynist, “rockist” low class no-accounts would stoop so low as to prefer Pink Floyd to Pink.

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