Poptimism | The Popjustice Forum


Discussion in 'Pop & Justice' started by man.tis.shrimp, May 30, 2020.

  1. Mods, please move this if this in an inappropriate section.

    I’d like to open up the discussion about so-called poptimism, and the (frankly) weaponized version we’re seeing in the past few years. For years, pop has been shirked as disposable and terrible in the eyes of rock listeners and critics. It seems the music industry at large has over-corrected in a huge way, giving more middling releases inflated scores in the name of poptimism.

    This is, in my humblest, not an ideal situation. Thoughts?
  2. (Primarily male) journalists don’t know how to review women and Pop is a genre dominated by them – hence so much of the criticism surrounding it for decades – without being misogynistic. I think the more personal pop music has gotten over the last few years, dealing openly with subjects like mental health, abuse, racism and other isms, journalists don’t know how to critique it, maybe in fear of backlash because they lack the proper language to do so, so they skirt around it and give an A for effort, which is kind of insulting.
    Last edited: May 30, 2020
  3. Ah, the “I’m scared of this” approach. That makes a lot of sense. I find it terribly unfortunate that lesser albums are being highlighted as exemplary instances of pop music these days; it really only fuels the fire of those who hate the genre in the first place. “Selena’s new album* is one of the best pop albums of the year? Really? Welp, gonna write off the whole genre as garbage then.” It’s a dangerous line to walk.

    *Just the first instance that came to mind. It’s a completely fine album, but no one in their right mind thinks Rare deserves the critical praise it has received, I’m sorry.
  4. RJF


    It's literally all Carly Rae Jepsen's fault.
    FridayNight, Artangel, Larsen and 3 others like this.
  5. Rare is awful, so no asterisk needed, in my opinion!
  6. You take that back.
  7. She is one of the beneficiaries of it though.
    toby3000 likes this.
  8. I can’t say I necessarily disagree. The windfall of poptimism undoubtedly impacted CRJ, even if I think she deserves it dddd. But when the pop waters are muddied with every other album release getting 8+ scores, it’s a strange timeline.
    Dreampopboy likes this.
  9. RJF


    Is it really that crazy to say that Emotion was one of the biggest influences in terms of smashing down that wall between pop and critics? It was one of the first albums of its kind to start creeping up on end of year Best Of lists. Carly presented an unimpeachable project of classic, bulletproof capital-p Pop with enough indie bait like Dev Hynes, Rostam, and Ariel Rechtshaid, and on top of all that, all the regular ways that critics normally used to discredit women were blocked. Is she just a puppet? Oop nope she's head writer on every song. Does she have an audacious persona that needs to be factored into how we perceive the music for some reason? Oop nope she's a wallflower. Is she dressed like a slut? Oop nope she's dressed like a pumpkin spiced latte. Does she have hits, is popular, and therefore rubbish? Oop nope she's kind of a one hit wonder. And of course, is the album bad? Oop nope FUCK WE GOT NOTHING BOYS. Can't we just say it's lesser than because of her vagina? We can't? UGH.

    It was definitely the beginning of a trickle that has become a deluge. And the funny thing about it is that if you look at the reviews, Emotion's Metacritic score is 77, but that was high for a pop album a few years ago. Who was really managing that before that?

    I would also add Lorde into the mix as all the above applies to her as well, along with the deification of Robyn in her eight year absence that she, against all odds, managed to justify on her return.
  10. It's important to remember the benefits of posting positive pop content by media outlets. These places desperately need clicks and engagement, and to be part of the conversation to stay relevant – pop stans are easily the most active online and on socials compared to any other genre and, as you mention, that can be weaponised. An article on Charli XCX is going to get more viewers than an article on, say The National, despite Chorli selling a fraction of the albums or tickets of the other.

    A glowing five star pop girl review or avant garde photoshoot that give the gays everything they want is going to get retweeted, shared, quoted because we obsess and hold up our faves in a way other genres simply don't. We're doing their work for these outlets, and it's healthy to be suspicious of that because it skews the coverage in ways that aren't necessarily beneficial to us as fans.

    On the flipside, I do think/hope it's meant more opportunities for queer writers and it's meant coverage of artists that would have never have got a look-in five years ago, at a time when B and C list pop artists need as much help as they can get.
  11. aux


    It's a bit of a double edged sword. On one hand, I'm glad particular pop albums are receiving praise and therefore giving way for new listeners to discover their music. On the other hand, it's definitely gone too far. I know we're all bringing the album up but, simply look at Selena's Rare bizarre critical reception, an album that's about as undercooked as the title suggests. Even though I like the album, Chromatica is another perfect example where the praise just doesn't match the album we got.

    I wouldn't just argue that Carly Rae Jepsen is one of the beneficiaries, I'd argue she - without intending to do so - started the trend of pushing poptimism to the point it is today. Robyn definitely played a part in this too, not just with Honey as @RJF just pointed out, but Body Talk is probably the first example I can think of poptimism taking shape.

    At the end of the day, as @bestinase just said, this is an industry that thrives off clicks. I'm not saying it wasn't deserved, but the Pitchfork reviews for Taylor Swift's albums are a perfect example of this.
  12. Pop music in general is still treated like the naughty stepchild, it's never truly respected it's just tolerated.

    As a forum we've known this for a long time, that's why this place exists!
    spaceship likes this.
  13. RhythmNative

    RhythmNative Staff Member

    It’s essentially the reverse of rockism and at first glance pop fans may think “great, the snobbery is breaking down” but actually what it means is that everything that was now All Bad is now All Good.

    That doesn’t serve pop fans that are looking for nuanced reviews that tell them whether a pop album is a particularly GOOD example of the genre in terms of songwriting and production, as opposed to an article simply stating the obvious; “this album is pop music and isn’t pop music great!” It’s the critical equivalent of the Oprah “let’s celebrate that” gif.

    Chromatica in some way represents a perfect storm of poptimism and how it skews metrics. It’s likely to become her best reviewed album and I’m sure even it’s biggest defenders find that a little inconceivable. So many of the reviews roll around the same “return to dance/form” cliches and spend the vast majority of the word count simply stating that it’s a return to dance-pop and so is therefore imbued with unquestionable inherent goodness. As a pop fan, I find that deeply patronising.

    But from a narrative point of view; that her last album was perceived to lean into rockism provides a PERFECT opportunity to set the two up as direct opposites. The Fall and The Return. Dance beats GOOD vs Guitars BAD. It’s so mind-rottingly tedious.

    And I think we forget how much narratives about where a pop act is in there personal career “journey” greatly influence the direction reviews take. So, the Guardian reviewer of Chromatica seems to see no inconsistency in slating ARTPOP and loving Chromatica even though they share the most DNA of any two Gaga albums. But at the time of ARTPOP’s release, Gaga was yet to have a setback. She was the ultimate tall poppy that needed a prune. The timing felt about right for her to get a critical kicking.

    Similarly, narratives influence the reaction to Chromatica. “Return to her roots” is irresistible copy for the lazy journo because post Cheek to Cheek and Joanne and A Star Is Born the timing DOES “feel about right” for Gaga to make a dance-pop record. But if I considered my paid job to be to review music, I might not hand out 4 out of 5 stars to an album based on a hunch about satisfying timing rather than, you know, the actual songs.
    Last edited: May 30, 2020
  14. RhythmNative

    RhythmNative Staff Member

    I think there’s also a risk of over-correcting in reaction to poptimism in the same way that it is itself an over-correction to rockism.

    There can still be pop albums that are genuinely good and get good reviews because of that and fight back against tempting narratives. No one wanted Lover to be Taylor’s worst album more than the music press, but then it wasn’t and a lot of its reviews reflect that bewilderment *I* felt when I heard False God or Cornelia Street of “I....had decided how I was going to feel about this album but now I’m not sure”

    So just because Carly was both a catalyst and beneficiary of poptimism, it’s unfair to throw her under the bus. The difference with Carly is that she releases around 25 songs per album cycle in the period many pop girls would release 12-15. So I think a lot of the time her reviews take into account that if there are 5 great songs on her Side B releases, to add to the 6 great songs on Side A; that’s combines to one REALLY great album.

    Also (and this might be better off in the Carly thread but I’m here now), our perception of how female pop acts should ALWAYS change sounds with each album is so instructed by Madonna that we consider it compulsory or the norm when for some artists that just isn’t them AND THAT’S OK.

    Carly strikes me as being quite content with being more of a Carly Simon, Tori Amos, Florence Welch type (and those kinda girls have *always* got good reviews from the press) where they just get on with writing the songs they know how to write and minding their own business. Not everyone should or can be Madonna and a little bit more Occum’s Razor could be applied to the criticism that all her songs have the same soundscape. Yeah, that’s because she wrote them. It’s like criticising all Martin Scorsese films for all being a bit gangstery. If that’s what you’re in the mood for at the time, that’s who you’ll go to.
  15. A bit of historical context:

    I do remember a distinct and personally formative period in the early to mid 2000s where a specific strain of "poptimism" was somewhat countercultural and had its own unique, stringent approach to criticism: sites like the LiveJournal poptimism community, Tom Ewing's FreakyTrigger, even the Popjustice of that period. I think of the point of view promoted by these websites as as challenging particular dogmas related to creation and curation, when "taste" was controlled by a small number of publications, record companies, and retail outlets for music and when digital file-sharing still relied on someone's having access to the physical media. In practice, there was a certain egalitarian, equalizing effect of this approach. In high school and in college, my tastes and enthusiasm for pop music were legitimized (to a degree) because it was a hobby that required that I spend time and effort, and most importantly, money, on it.

    It's hard to say that the need for this particular approach to music consumption and criticism still exists when a lot of the established thinking it challenged simply doesn't exist anymore, of course. But I do think the philosophy had its place and its uses for a lot of people.
  16. As a pitchfork consumer from my mid-teens, I acknowledge how important it was to find somewhere that celebrated the music I loved and was responsible for getting me into so many new artists that genuinely changed my life. Pop being left out of that conversation - bar the odd exception (Sugababes and Girls Aloud’s GH being reviewed - albeit together - felt like a rare light in the dark), was a shame. But they are a struggling website much like any other at the moment and it behooves them to give random poptimist reviews to increase engagement and as others have said... we as fans do their (promo) work for them. But it can end up undermining what WAS good about them in the past. Even while somewhat haphazardly trying to correct their past mistakes.

    Anyway they’re trash for sinking High as Hope and Madame X.
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  17. RhythmNative

    RhythmNative Staff Member

    Popjustice was definitely a pioneer in poptimism with regards to British pop music and press, but in fairness it did feel like they were just trying to level the playing field a bit and didn't take a blanket approach to praising pop for the sake of being pop. I don't remember them being out there giving Blue or Atomic Kitten 5 star reviews. Popjustice made a name a major for itself by being one of the earliest defenders of Girls Aloud and generally their material still holds up.

    Since then, as an approach it's snowballed and internationalised to the degree we're talking about today with Selena Gomez albums getting blanket critical praise. But it would have been impossible for early pushers of a more even handed approach to pop criticism to anticipate that.
  18. I don't think this is necessarily unfair, however, as I've pointed out on occasion over the years, this line of thinking is reserved for specific artists. When Pink peddles the same shtick - from "I hate my husband but actually I love him" pop/rock to her flying trapeze act - she gets shit on for it. She's always the same, never changes too much, and so you know what to expect and she gets an eye roll from us (I'm guilty of this too, full disclosure). Or there's Katy Perry and how every now and then someone runs into her thread to say it's time she makes her Anti and matures or she's just not good enough. And the reason that happens is because Pink and Katy are mega stars. They are (at least in someway or another) still competitive pop stars. They're still filling arenas. A new single is still picked up by all major outlets. With Carly Rae Jepsen there are no expectations. She is - for all intents and purposes - looked at as a one hit wonder. She's an underdog. When there are no expectations on you and you aren't anyones competition then its easier to sit back and say "well she knows what she's good at and she sticks to her wheelhouse and thats ok". And it is ok, I suppose. But then it should be ok for everyone. Thats what sort of annoys me about the reaction to Carly - here and by music journalists - she makes top 40 pop music but because its not mass consumed she isn't held to a standard that bigger stars are held to and gets treated better because of it.
  19. RhythmNative

    RhythmNative Staff Member

    I don’t think it’s fair to level that criticism at Katy. The notion that she hasn’t evolved just isn’t objectively true.

    It does get levelled at Pink. But then Pink assumes a lot of the pop bombast and arena filling bravado of the Madonna-model pop star so there’s a dichotomy between that and her lack of desire to push her sound or image into new places. My view is live and let live with regards to Pink but because she has the raw charisma and stage presence to have been the all encompassing pop behemoth, when people criticise her I think they are mourning what *could* have been if she’d approached her career differently.

    As much as I love Carly, she doesn’t have those skills. Being that kind of pop star simply isn’t an option for her. When someone was dolling out talent, her song writing chops box got ticked three times and her stage commanding presence box once. She can no more trapeze backwards across a stadium than Joni Mitchell could (or would want to). But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have her place.
  20. There was a time when we would casually read stuff like ‘Lady Gaga has a penis’ and ‘Kesha took a shower 5 years ago and here is a link to her sextape’ in actual music reviews. When they occasionally did something reviewers liked, it was always ‘thanks to the pop wizardy of RedOne and Dr. Luke’ and they would rarely give the girls the credit.

    I think what’s happening right now is a natural over-correction because I feel like most reviewers just warmed up to the idea that these women have actually something to say and are being extra nice to the new flock of pop stars.
    Someboy, Andy French and RhythmNative like this.
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