> | | | | > Poptimism Will Eat Itself: Are We All Patrick Bateman Now?

Poptimism Will Eat Itself: Are We All Patrick Bateman Now?

Posted on Monday, 15 April 2013 | No Comments

"You like Justin Timberlake? His early work was a little too boy band for my tastes, but when Justified came out in '02, I think he really came into his own, commercially and artistically. The whole album has a clear, crisp sound, and a new sheen of consummate professionalism that really gives the songs a big boost. He's been compared to N.E.R.D., but I think Justin has a far more bitter, cynical sense of humour. In '13, Justin released The 20/20 Experience, his most accomplished album. I think his undisputed masterpiece is Suit & Tie, a song so catchy, most people probably don't listen to the lyrics..."

Poptimism was a school of music criticism and fandom that came of age in the early noughties: the same time that illegal downloading went from a niche pursuit to a dominant method of consuming music, when blogging became mainstream and when a lot of the certainties of the music industry started to look a whole lot more shakey. With many of the traditional pillars having been found to be made of salt, poptimism was a reaction against the continued death grip of rockism. In this new frontier, why should we be doomed to a life of old print publication that, for purely generational reasons, still insist on the primacy of white heterosexual middle-class men with guitars, and that Exile on Main Street is mankind's finest work.?

Certainly, the liberating aspects of this aesthetic aren't to be overlooked. The desire to celebrate the new and the exciting, to embrace new technology and ways of delivering music, to want to be part of something exclusively 'now' - well yeah, you do have to be an old dinosaur to refute that. And as luck would have it, while much of the pop charts were filled with the usual nonsense at this time (just like the rock charts, the dance charts, the hip-hop charts...), there was a period at the start of the noughties where pop and dance genres - R&B in particular - did seem to be going through an exciting phase. Each new Timberland production pushed forward an increasingly futuristic sound, while the likes of Britney Spears and Kylie Minogue acted as trojan horses to sneak out some truly astounding production work in Toxic and Can't Get You Out Of My Head respectively. While the indie world went into crisis and clinged to false prophets of the past like The Vines, the real innovation and excitement was going on right in front of Total Request Live.

Poptimism's already had its fair share of backlash and revial and slide into disuse several times over by this point (Rob Horning was damning it as "the death of pop criticism" back in 2006), yet its influence has remained, forming the backdrop of the Tumblr-ised post-ideology mess that we find ourselves in now. In the noughties, pop music has crawled up the criticism food chain from the truly revilved, then to the "guilty pleasure", and now it sits perched right at the top of this little fiefdom: for he who dares to criticise Queen Beyonce, the hangman and the noose await. Yet the truly curious thing here isn't so much that pop rules the roost: it's that alternative culture has subordinated itself so entirely, so completely to the world of the pop mainstream that it's annihilated itself entirely.

Not only is pop music now the highwater mark to hit critically - something that's very much disputable in many cases, but we'll save that for another day - it's also become the only game in town for the up-to-date hipster. The kids who were all buzzing about Merriweather Post Pavillion in 2009? Give them Rihanna or give them death. It's not like pop music has had one of its occasional bouts of shock therapy, where the underground lunatics gets to play around in the asylum for a year or two before being put back in the box, a la the synth-pop explosion of the early '80s however. If anything, pop music now might just be the dumbest it's ever been, with any trace of songwriting sophistication or knack for an earworm substituted by an endless succession of four-to-the-four Guetta-esque LOL pop concerning diverse subjects as a) being in a club, b) heading to the club and c) looking at the ladies in the club. (Or, if you're really unlucky, you get anti-feminist icon Lana del fucking Rey.) Any notion of a utopian Golden Age can be swiftly dismissed, so the question is: just what happened?

Imagine Guetta droping a beat on the human face forever.

Well, my theory is this. Poptimism first launched itself at a time when alternative music was (in terms of the stuff that got press coverage anyway) going through a pretty rough patch. The fight-back as it was only came with the most milquetoast sounds and looks imaginable, an endless parade of just-so-tussled hair, Converse sneakers and lazily pilfered Mick Jones riffs. Where before mass culture had had to wait for a look to emerge organically before it could be co-opted (see the grunge scene, itself going through a dumbed-down, smothered fashion look as 'soft grunge' - oh Lord, we know not what we do), this sound and look was a bastardised corporate chimera from the start. Indie became dominant again in the mid-noughties because it did as much as possible to look and sound like the pop music it was sold as being a credible, authentic alternative to. But when a sound and look is dominant, exactly what kind of an alternative is that?

So, with any notion of alternative culture having become increasingly dumbed down and passive with each newest incarnation, when this latest indie revival itself inevitably succumbed to its own emptiness, this pop-alternative culture just became...well, pop. The people who would have gone to V Festival to see Radiohead and Morrissey in 2006 now head there in 2013 for Kings of Leon - The Eagles in all but extended solos - and Beyonce. And to help make alternative culture make its final wrist-slit into total non-existence, the poptimist call for a recognition of pop's worth became key.

For anyone who still thought there was something to believe in the r'n'r dream, poptimism became the intellectual justification for the abandonment of any spirit of independence or inquisition by the people who were supposed to be challenging the mainstream. You think Nicki Minaj has lost her way since she sidelined her rap ability for chart dance? Oh, that's so indie and cute. Really, you didn't check out the new Cheryl Cole song? Oh babe, you're such a rockist. Beyond the now token criticism of Chris Brown for being the unfathomably cunty atrocity that he is, pop music has now entered a real where, if you want to keep pace with the cool kids, it's now totally beyond criticism. Not the cutesy fence-sitting "well, I really liked this production", or "yeah, Robyn's got some great songs if you listen" - a school of offend-nobody criticism that comes with its own problems - or statements of credible, informed insight.. No criticism end of. Praise only, or GTFO. It's all about being compliant, reblogging the right GIF sets and keeping any unwelcome thoughts quiet if you want to be suitably 'alternative' these days.

Two cases in point. One: after years and years trying to get his acting career off the ground to mixed results, Justin Timberlake gets round to doing his third solo album. His first two were already industry-standard patchy affairs, redeemed in each case by a handful of superior singles. But for The 20/20 Experience, we wouldn't be so lucky. After the heady combination of laziness and arrogance of lead single Suit & Tie, what emerged was an album of overlong ramblings, half-bazed efforts to ride on the success of Frank Ocean's channel:ORANGE and terrible sexual come-ons that sounded less like suave sophistication and more like - well, like the guy from the book pictured before really. (Not that I'm saying Justin invites prostitutes round, tortures them, pushes rats into their orifices, kills them and eats the remains. But if he did, would anyone really be that surprised?)

Most early reviews called up the album on its numerous flaws: a mega-ton flop was predicted. But a curious thing happened. The listenership, if not exactly enjoying the album, forced themselves into approval. Twitter feeds became full of "well, it's brave" and "if you cut the songs in half" and all these other excuses to avoid having to actually face the reality that, in the name of cool, they're willingly subjecting themselves to eight-minute long slow jams about vaginas from pampered multi-millionaires. In 2013. Monster egotism is one thing (and a man who used to have Axl Rose cornrows claiming he's bringing sexy back can only count as such), but at least when we're talking about a Kanye West or a Michael Jackson, there was some substance to prop up the pomp. This, however, is bullshit of the highest priority. But we've invested so much in it, been ordered to invest so much in it, that failure is not an option. And so, the pop-hipster has become the industry's crutch one again.

Justin Timberlake, or Axl Rose? Guess the arse...

Two: the seemingly endless campaign of teasers and trailers for what may or may not be a new Beyonce album. She's already reformed her old girl band just to act as her backing singers for the Super Bowl (singing one of her solo songs as well - that's some Mike Love levels of cold right there), promoted a forthcoming tour called The Mrs. Carter Show, a production whose title and poster position her somewhere between Marie Antoinette arrogance, Elena Ceausescu complicity and Cleopatra egotism, and actually had the gall to put out a teaser for a fucking Pepsi advert (seriously!). Just to put the turd-scented cherry on top of the shit cake, the advert for the advert was promoted with the Twitter hashtag #BeyHereNow - an unwelcome, and presumably entirely un-aware reference to one of rock music's most unfortunate moments of dim-witted hegemony.

As if she hadn't already strained the whole 'imperial' pop metaphor to breaking point already, the track Bow Down told her already slave-like fanbase to "bow down bitches" - presumably before they regain any spectre of self-respect, or forget to keep posting a million GIFs of her while explaining how a multi-millionaire, married to another multi-millionaire, is somehow 'fierce' or 'sassy' or in any way distinguished from any other chairperson of a large multinational brand. Christ, Beyonce's not even a singer these days - she's Donald Trump. A logo, a slogan, a trojan horse proferring feminist independence whilst within lurks a dark core of patriarchal conformity: seriously, this is our fucking icon of twenty-first century feminism? Who needs enemies indeed.

Let them eat hashtags?

The nature of the pop and rock industry has always been this way. Michael Jackson earned his sobriquet of 'King of Pop' through constant press releases describing him as such, and the denial of access to him to media sources that did not refer to him as such - rather unsurprisingly, as the PR department got more bossy and the music videos became more expensive, the music took a shocking and irreversable nosedive. Guns 'n' Roses, that heavy metal caricature of fighting against nothing whatsoever, released two double albums on the same day, trailed by million dollar music video productions in a shock and awe effort to render any resistance futile. But that's the point: it was expected that there would be an alternative to these commerical goliaths. Don't want to listen to 80s pop? Fine, here's the American collage rock circuit or the British indie scene that birthed The Jesus & Mary Chain and The Smiths. Not a fan of laboured cock rock? Well, just as well that grunge and acid house are doing something different for the kids.

Yet at our current historical moment, it is expected that due deference is to be paid to the rulers of the fiefdom. It's as if the internet, that great revolution in communication whose 'long tail' was meant to provide some space for all kinds of outsider communities and alternative expressions, has rendered us speechless with its complexity and so left us without discernment or credulity. Or, given the long history of youth movements and counter-cultures being co-opted and bastardised for a cheap dollar, we've been conditioned not to bother and just to plump for the big shiny blockbuster spectacle in the first instance. (That this is a tragedy for this author, and a grave demonstration of our generation's gullibility and compliance may just be self-evident.)

And propping this up as the useful idiot's ideological tool is the ghost of poptimism, no longer a vital and funny reaction to rock pomposity but a symptom of the music industry's desperate, last days of Rome orgy of wilful stupidity and undisguised contempt for the consumer, every bit as arrogant and loathsome as what it once opposed. It's become a paper thin, piss weak justification for a musical-industrial complex that has dumbed itself down to unprecendented lows, that shits out narcissistic garbage and wraps it up in a pretty bow. There's always been naff pop that's appealed to the middle of the road: that's not new. That it's also infiltrated a culture that's alternative in name only is a new development however, and one that can't be healthy for anyone who cares about a culture of innovation and expression.

So now, we are all Patrick Bateman, hipster sociopaths latching onto whatever marketing campaign has been sold to us this week in order to keep up appearances, belabouring to anyone in earshot of how deep and important this vacuous nonsense is. Desperate to prove that what we've chosen is of value, desperate not to fall out with the dominant clique. This state of bread and circuses will not last forever - but what happens when the barbarians break though and we've spent all this time convincing ourselves that any of this was important while ignoring the real issues.

Well, sitting through a Taylor Swift album just so you can tweet about it will do that to you.

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