April 25, 2016
Please tell us your opinion on Taylor Swift. Please.
by Ryan Harrington
The passing of the Purple One has occasioned a busy day for music journalists. But what are they up to when our heroes aren’t dying?
In an excellent Los Angeles Review of Books essay on, among other things, the state and history music criticism, assistant professor of music history at the State University of New York at Fredonia, Michael Markham, explains that our critics are very often naval-gazing and squabbling among themselves.
The dominant mode of music journalism of the last decade has been Poptimist: rooted in the belief that popular music should be the object of thoughtful listening and criticism. You may be familiar with one of the genre’s masterworks in the form of Leon Neyfakh’s The Next Next Level.
But that genre is under siege, largely from those critics—anti-Poptimists—who believe that Poptimism has created a generation of yay-sayers, uniformly praising the latest Beyoncé or Justin Bieber release and falsely equating the relevant with the valuable.
But the Poptimist / anti-Poptimist dilemma may be a false binary. Markham argues that it’s at least not a very new one. Even the mighty Beethoven has been at the center of similar theoretical spats among classical musicologists, as critics have struggled to reconcile the composer’s public image of the “non-commercial” artist with the fact that that very image gave the composer such commercial appeal.
But just because it’s an old argument, doesn’t mean it’s not worth getting riled up about. And in what is ultimately an admirable defense of the very practice of criticism—high and low; paid and otherwise—Markham concludes:
Is Taylor Swift empowering a generation of young women to feel and express themselves in a way that will some day translate to forceful critical thinking? Or is she turning them into a Twitter army of Soylent blonde Matrix pods tailor-made to gorge her corporate sponsors forever? Are Celine Dion’s adoring throngs genuine? Or genuinely deluded? And even if they are genuine, are they the people that matter or not? Is it impressive for a musician like Drake to be as clever as anyone could be while shackled by billion-dollar formulas? Or is it instead a collusion, a failure to break free or demand better? I never said that classical musicology had solved the problem. If anything it reminds us that it is not one of those problems meant to be solved. It is a tide that turns and churns, as old as the warming pacific, or at least as old as Beethoven. Does that mean it’s not worth getting worked up over? Hardly. It is, if nothing else, a welcome sign that one’s taste in music still matters more than one’s taste in pastries.
Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.