I've got a whole city to hold down

November 04, 2004

He said, he said

"[R]ockism is a word meant to start fights. The rockism debate began in earnest in the early 1980's, but over the past few years it has heated up, and today, in certain impassioned circles, there is simply nothing worse than a rockist.

"A rockist isn't just someone who loves rock 'n' roll, who goes on and on about Bruce Springsteen, who champions ragged-voiced singer-songwriters no one has ever heard of. A rockist is 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. ...

"Countless critics assail pop stars for not being rock 'n' roll enough, without stopping to wonder why that should be everybody's goal. Or they reward them disproportionately for making rock 'n' roll gestures. Writing in The Chicago Sun-Times this summer, Jim DeRogatis grudgingly praised Ms. Lavigne as 'a teen-pop phenom that discerning adult rock fans can actually admire without feeling (too) guilty,' partly because Ms. Lavigne 'plays a passable rhythm guitar' and 'has a hand in writing' her songs." -- Kelefa Sanneh, "The rap against rockism," New York Times, 10/31/04


From: Jim DeRogatis
Sent: Sunday, October 31, 2004 11:45 AM
Subject: Hi Kelefa

I am not sure, but I think you fingered me today as a poster boy for rockism, and I found your example odd: I critiqued dear Avril as a rock artist because she IS one -- and a good one, too! -- and I have said the same in print of Ashlee Simpson as well as Hillary Duff. But then I have a very, very broad definition of "rock" based on the fact that, sociological intrigues aside, I am generally more interested as a critic in charting the commonalities between many of the best artists through the last four or five decades than in narrowly slicing, dicing, and confining them to ever-narrowing sub-sub-subgenres. This is to say that on my list, the Velvet Underground, Public Enemy, Kanye West, the White Stripes, the Aphex Twin, the Ramones, the Flaming Lips, Common, Eno, and myriad others are all great "rock 'n' rollers", which has more to do with the spirit that their music shares than it does the relative trivialities of who plays rhythm guitar and who works a sampler, or who raps, who sings, and who lip-syncs. This attitude is inspired by Lester Bangs, by the way, almost universally cited as the big daddy of all rockists whenever the subject is raised, though it wasn't true at all -- you know, he loved John Coltrane and Bob [Ed. note: He meant John] Denver as much as Lou Reed, for not dissimilar reasons, and without getting hung up much on the distinctions, either.

Anyway, I admire much of your work, and would loved to have met you when you were in town for the opening of Best of Both Worlds (R.I.P.). But I had to find a back door into that show, since I was not exactly welcome; I imagine you had a much better seat!

By the way, the killer kicker of your piece -- "We should stop taking it for granted that music isn't as good as it used to be, and it means we should stop being shocked that the rock rules of the 1970's are no longer the law of the land. No doubt our current obsessions and comparisons will come to seem hopelessly blinkered as popular music mutates some more - listeners and critics alike can't do much more than struggle to keep up. But let's stop trying to hammer young stars into old categories. We have lots of new music to choose from - we deserve some new prejudices, too." -- is something that I have written again and again and again, almost verbatim, countless times throughout my years in this rock-crit (damn, even the name is rockist! Though my byline actually says "pop music critic") racket, ever since I first started scribbling for fanzines in the '80s. In fact, it has pretty much been the thrust of my entire career -- and I have the scars from the endless tussles with nostalgia-obsessed Baby Boomers to prove it -- so you and I may have much more in common than you think.

All the best --



From: Kelefa Sanneh
To: Jim DeRogatis
Subject: Re: Hi Kelefa

Hi, Jim --

Thanks for the note. As you can imagine, I've been reading you for years, and I've learned a lot from you.

The hard thing about writing a piece like that is that you have to cite some examples, even if it means readers end up thinking (wrongly) that you're hell-bent in turning someone into a "poster boy." In any case, I feel like it's probably a good thing for us pop-crits to disagree publicly -- and loudly -- once in a while, if only to remind readers that this stuff is worth fighting about.

I'm sure we agree on a lot about the frustrating persistence of old-guard pop-crit, although my approach to so-called "rockism" probably differs from yours. I think that a big-tent conception of "rocknroll" might be part of the problem; praising Kanye West and other favorites as great rocknrollers only reinforces the notion that rocknroll is the ultimate or only path to greatness. So there's this implicit suggestion that any pop musician who isn't somehow "rocknroll" -- in genre, or in spirit -- can't possibly be great. Once "rocknroll" becomes a catch-all compliment, then "un-rocknroll" can't help but seem like an insult. The result is that all these pop-music discussions end up taking place on rocknroll's turf, according to rocknroll's rules, in front of rocknroll's fans; rappers and electronica producers might sometimes "win," but for them, it will always be an away game. (Sorry about that tortured analogy: it's Sunday, and time for me to watch some football.)

All the best,

K. Sanneh


There's more - much more - on this at I Love Music and on the Sound Opinions message board (thread one, thread two).


Update: From last Sunday's NYT.

To the Editor:

Kelefa Sanneh did me a disservice when he quoted my published review of Avril Lavigne and implied that I am a member of this dreaded club of rockists - a group he contends is sorely out of touch with popular music. In my work for the Chicago Sun-Times and in numerous magazines and books, I have railed against nostalgia and baby boomer myopia and have issued calls identical to the one ending Mr.Sanneh's essay: "Let's stop trying to hammer young stars into old categories." Because I was never offered the opportunity to refute or respond to the assertion that I am a rockist, I would like to request a correction: "Än article on Oct.31 suggested that Jim DeRogatis is a rockist; he denies this and contends that, like many critics of popular music, he is simply loud-mouthed, opinionated, and occasionally wrong (in our own critic's view)."

Jim DeRogatis