Gender Trouble: “Poptimism” and the Male Critical Voice
April 9, 2014
As I read Saul Austerlitz’s extended hysterical diatribe against “poptimism,” I almost thought I was reading a parody. After all, who wants to bring back discourses of authenticity/quality/“good music” that privilege white dudes who make mediocre music above women and people of color, who dominate pop music’s landscape?
I could use this blog space to argue why Austerlitz is wrong musically. There are many things that pop music offers that traditional rock does not: crisp production styles; hybridization of genres; timbres that extend the concept of what music is; skilled session players; and songwriters who hail audiences that, yes, include the 13 year olds whom Austerlitz uses to dismiss current pop critics. I could point out that in the canon of poptimism, there are a hell of a lot of examples of good music, whether it’s Chic’s live-instrument take on disco, grounded in Nile Rodger’s guitars and Bernard Edwards’s bass lines; or 1980s synth-pop’s use of interlocking melodies, made all the more impressive when one takes into consideration the limits of the technology producing them; or, hell, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which indeed won the Pazz and Jop poll. Or I could point out that the Beyoncé album that Austerlitz uses as his entrée to the topic contains complicated, extended song forms, employs a variety of songwriters, and finally puts Beyoncé’s amazing vocal range to good use. Or I could point out that Beyoncé and Justin Timberlake both employ fantastic live bands and pump up the arrangements with skillful playing. Or I could just shout the name “JANELLE MONAE” five hundred times, because there’s a woman who writes pop songs and isn’t afraid of jazz harmonies, sounding like Michael Jackson, or mixing genres in a giant blender.
Or, in contrast, I could point out that all of the indie rock bands he mentions as “daring” are old-fashioned recyclers—even the bands he mentions that I personally enjoy, like Speedy Ortiz, are guilty of that. Or I could point out that a lot of other indie rock bands are moving back and forth into the pop space, too, by writing songs for Beyoncé, or sounding like Fleetwood Mac and Wilson Phillips, or writing songs that draw sonically from R&B and then are covered by indie-loving R&B artists. And I could point out that anything interesting in indie rock in the past ten years has pretty much come from this kind of cross-pollination.
But, you know, that’s a music critic’s argument—and I’m not a music critic. (Though I’d be happy to write about the sonic qualities of the music all damned day. Another time!) Rather, I’d like to look at this purely from the perspective of a feminist ethnomusicologist who focuses on the history of pop music from the postwar era to the present. In short, I’d rather focus on how music criticism is always a product of a critic’s habitus, i.e. their particular social position that incorporates a variety of aspects of identity as well as cultural capital. (That’s a very short gloss on Bourdieu, but this is a blog post and I’m not going to outline all of Distinction here, TYVM). In recent years, though, the old cultural capital standards “high,” “low,” and “middlebrow” culture have shifted into what sociologists Richard A. Peterson and Roger Kern have labeled “omnivorous consumption.” Omnivorous consumption may sound indiscriminate, but the term actually implies that a different set of disctinctions is involved, drawing on both high and low taste cultures. (And, really, Austerlitz is someone who should be very much aware of this. He wrote a book on sitcoms!)
Contrary to what Austerlitz argues, the shift toward omnivorous tastes hasn’t led to a indiscriminate, disproportionate focus on pop, but to a recognition that there are more forms worthy of attention—and, yes, criticism—than just white, middle-class, male-dominated indie rock. That includes, but is not limited to, pop music (and even indie rock—if you look at Pazz and Jop winners, you’ll see that they’re still well represented). It actually means that more forms of music are evaluated than before. “Poptimism” is just one aspect of omnivorous consumption; in terms of Pazz and Jop, it’s also meant that artists like Kanye West have landed in the number 1 spot (more than once).
Even people like Austerlitz, who clings to his indie rock like so much guns and religion, think that it’s fine when music critics cull from high and low in the “long view” of history—very few people would argue that women and people of color got a lot of respect in the early to mid-20th century. This has made a huge difference in the recognition of styles that had previously been shunted from the historical record, including country music and R&B. Jody Rosen, whom Austerlitz “admires” but feels free to criticize, is a wonderful example of someone who is aware of the need to include a wide variety of musics (and people who make them) in the historical record of popular music; Rosen’s recent “100 Years of Pop in New York” for New York magazine is a great example of balancing the race and gender in a list that could easily have been dominated by white dudes. But placing those issues in a historical framework—and only in a historical framework—implies that the conditions of the past do not affect the conditions of the present; additionally, it often allows some critics (definitely not Rosen, to be clear) to think less critically about the present.
And so, we get articles like Austerlitz’s. It’s important to remember that even while there’s a general trend toward omnivorous tastes, not everyone’s going to develop them, and not everyone’s going to understand the new distinctions. In large part, that’s what his critique of “poptimism” is about—resistance to new rules that determine musical worth in cultural terms. (And that’s fine—like what you like!)
But when Austerlitz implies that 1) the critics have the taste of 13 year olds and 2) there’s no criticism in poptimism, there’s something else going on that’s equally worthy of attention. These two implications have something to do with misunderstanding omnivorous tastes, but they also have a lot to do with gender–of the audience, of the critic, and of the artists.
First, the missing word after “13-year-olds” is “girls,” because, let’s face it, the pop music audience is always gendered female. The artists he mentions are women with audiences of teen girls, from Britney Spears to Lorde to Lady Gaga to Katy Perry to Beyoncé to Sky Ferreira to Icona Pop. There’s only one dude mentioned—Robin Thicke—and he has a primarily female audience. If Austerlitz had included artists that 13-year-old boys liked, then I might be willing to give him a pass. But, yes, this is about gender at its core.
The tastes of 13-year-old girls are usually the most easily maligned, whether in pop music or in books or in films. So that’s why Austerlitz uses it—it’s a gendered slam against the critics who earliest embraced poptimism without actually coming out as a sexist.
However, if we take the long view of history, we can see that 13-year-olds (especially girls) can have some pretty damned good taste (in terms of taste as a cultural construct, of course). Thirteen-year-old girls were the first fans of Elvis, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys. Thirteen-year-old girls were the target audience for Girl Groups of the early 1960s; while that era was long critically dismissed (aside from a passing acknowledgment of the “genius” of Phil Spector), no one in their right mind would do so today—and it’s not due to “poptimism,” but the long-term covering of Girl Group songs in other genres, from punk to indie rock. (Of course, sometimes teen girls are wrong: If you watch Don’t Look Back, you’ll see a conversation between a teenage girl and Bob Dylan. Like many folk critics of the time, she tells him he was better before he went electric.)
Second, when Austerlitz says there’s no criticism in pop music criticism—that it’s all a celebratory mush of pop excess and fashion and lifestyle, rather than a reflection of a broadened taste palette for music critics—he’s dismissing a lot of writers, especially women. Like, oh, say Ann Powers, who has a very long history of covering both pop and rock with a critical eye, or Maura Johnston, who broadened the taste of the Village Voice in her tenure there. So, it’s also about who’s doing the criticizing, too, and why he might get away with comparing them to 13 year olds.
Finally, the view that criticism about pop isn’t real criticism is also about the gender of the artist; again, note that the overwhelming majority of artists he dismisses are women. Austerlitz’s parallels to literature reveal that he’s not a very broad reader despite earning money from reviewing books, or else he’d know that this same debate has been raging there for a long time, too. He doesn’t seem to know that authors such as Jennifer Weiner have called out reviews sections in The New York Times and the New York Review of Books for disproportionately choosing to review books by male authors. He doesn’t know that what’s considered “literature”—like what’s traditionally been considered “good music”—has everything to do with the gender of the author, and not the content of the book (though I will give him Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer). He doesn’t know that YA author Maureen Johnson did a series of gender-swapped book covers that demonstrated the arbitrary notion of “boy books” and “girl books” for that teen audience he so flippantly dismisses.
So, there’s definitely something else about Austerlitz’s habitus at work here: it’s the insecurity of the white, male critical voice in a world that has opened up to women—as audience members, as artists, and as critics—as much as it has opened up to tastes that draw from both high and low culture. While I don’t really care what Austerlitz listens to in his free time, I do wish he’d be a little less certain that his kind of taste is the only “good” taste out there.
 Yes, I know some indie rock bands do this, too—but it’s not like Austerlitz was citing them. He’s talking about The National and The Strokes.