A few years ago I read an article by Bob Stanley in The Times about a music blog called Popular. The blog can be found on FreakyTrigger.co.uk and is written by Tom Ewing. Tom decided to write about every UK #1 since the very first one. [If you’re wondering, it’s Al Martino’s “Here In My Heart” from 1952]. Tom has written for The Guardian and Pitchfork.com, among others and began FreakyTrigger in the 90’s. His NYPLM blog is archived on the site, and his thoughts can be read on a variety of subjects.
I thought, like many would, that there would be some fantastic writing about some amazing music from my youth. However, there is a lot of records that made it to the top for no obvious apparent reason. This is where it becomes interesting, because if you stop and think for a moment, the most memorable music from your youth didn’t always achieve the universal consensus to elevate it to the top of the charts. So there are going to be novelties and anomalies, that make you wonder “who bought THIS?” Undoubtedly there IS some fantastic writing, not only by Tom himself, but the contributors who add their own critiques, reminiscences and thoughts in general of the state of popular music under each of Tom’s entries. I can’t stress enough how amazing this blog is. A little jewel of intelligence in a sea of online vacuousness.
So, the point I was making in my title was this: before I began contributing my own thoughts about the music Tom was writing about, I had some preconceived ideas regarding popular music which critics would describe as “rockist”. Now there’s been plenty written about rockism. It’s not simply ascribed to those who only listen to Rock at the expense of other genres, but is also seen as an attitude towards elevating one or more genres of music above others because it is perceived to be more “authenic” or “honest”. Where critical canons exist that seek to maintain that The Beatles or The Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan are far more important and worthy of our respect than say, Lady Gaga or Katy Perry or Justin Bieber, can be described as “rockism”. Look at the comments under any YouTube video and you’ll find the casual rockism found in fan discussion. Whether it’s dismissive or affirmative, it’s there. The argument against rockism is simply this:
Take for instance, Ed Sheeran. He’s a solo singer-songwriter whose songs are a kind of narrative. Sounds a bit like Bob Dylan, right? Now if a critic said Ed Sheeran was the “new Bob Dylan”, it’s both helpful and unhelpful. Being the “new Dylan” has a whole load of baggage attached to it. Of course, the uninterested outlier, will dismiss Sheeran out of hand if that outlier didn’t care for Dylan. Also the Dylan fan would say “who is this upstart? Why is this critic comparing this lad to Dylan?” Upon hearing Sheeran, he would inevitably be disappointed because the critic had been lazy in attaching Sheeran to Dylan in the first place. So far, so unhelpful. Where it helps is when someone who likes Sheeran goes off and discovers Bob Dylan for the first time. This is a broadening rather than narrowing of scope, but is ONLY dependant on someone who cottoned on to Sheeran early and had NEVER heard any Dylan. That’s about as narrowfocus as you could get; like trying to sell bacon sandwiches in Jerusalem. Only the visiting tourists are ever likely to be buying, and the locals are throwng stones at you, which of course will deter the tourists. End. Of. Business.
So the consensus among the critics is that rockism is “wrong thinking”, because the good critic will seek to expand the listeners’ scope rather than narrow it. I like Rock, don’t get me wrong, but weighing and measuring everything else against it gets in the way of the enjoyment of music on it’s own terms. It’s OK to like Metallica AND Rihanna. It’s OK to like The Clash AND Genesis. It’s OK to like Erykah Badu AND Queens Of The Stone Age. You don’t have to be dictated by tastemakers or peer-pressure. If you’re reading this and wearing a Slayer t-shirt, why not check out some ABBA or Billy Joel or Bombay Bicycle Club or anything? Spreading your wings musically is a liberating experience. You’ll soon find out what you like and what you don’t like.
So to round this piece off, I’m returning to Popular and an awakening of sorts…
Whilst reading Tom’s essay on Starship’s “We Built This City”, talk in the comments boxes beneath got on to the canon, and how a handful of writers had created a list of albums that would exist as THE CANON, and how daunting that was for the outsider. I picked “Trout Mask Replica” as an album that was “overrated”. Of course, one of the commenters disagreed, but in a helpful way he offered a new perspective, by comparing Captain Beefheart’s LP to the music of Carl Stalling from those anarchic Warner Brothers Looney Tunes cartoons. From a young child’s perspective, he said, there were many similarities; “You’d be surprised by the stylistic overlap” he said. And like that, a new window was opened to a hitherto unseen world (thanks Marcello Carlin). “Trout Mask Replica” isn’t easy to appreciate, but if you alter your attitude towards it, then it can become immensely enjoyable. Then it helps to re-evaluate what else you might have found “difficult” to listen to. You get to see then, how rockism never really opens doors but locks them shut. Tom’s up to 1993 now, and there’s still plenty of interesting things to discuss in the coming years. If you like pop, you’ll love Popular.