Over at the Washington Post, music critic Chris Richards asks why there is such a bland critical consensus surrounding the biggest names. It’s a phenomenon that’s known as “poptimism”: the unabashed and unquestioning championing of celebrity, fame, and commercial success.
Now, when a pop star reaches a certain strata of fame — and we’re talking Beyoncé, Drake, Taylor Swift, Arcade Fire levels here — something magical happens. They no longer seem to get bad reviews. Stars become superstars, critics become cheerleaders and the discussion froths into a consensus of uncritical excitement.
It’s something that’s been going on for around a decade now, this creation of a hive mind that banishes negative opinion. No doubt the Internet is partially to blame. Where is that “unlike” button with the thumb pointing down? You can’t have one! You either “like” something or you keep your silence. The Internet thus becomes a giant echo chamber of praise: “Click culture creates a closed system in which popular acts get more coverage, thus becoming more popular, thus getting more coverage.”
That last line comes from a piece published a year ago in the New York Times by Saul Austerlitz. Austerlitz also asked what would happen if this same trend infected the reviewing of books and movies.
I spend most of my time, professionally speaking, writing about movies and books, and during quiet moments, I like to entertain myself by imagining what might happen if the equivalent of poptimism were to transform those other disciplines. A significant subset of book reviewers would turn up their noses at every mention of Jhumpa Lahiri and James Salter as representatives of snobbish, boring novels for the elite and argue that to be a worthy critic, engaged with mass culture, you would have to direct the bulk of your critical attention to the likes of Dan Brown and Stephenie Meyer. Movie critics would be enjoined from devoting too much of their time to “12 Years a Slave” (box-office take: $56 million) or “The Great Beauty” ($2.7 million), lest they fail to adequately analyze the majesty that is “Thor: The Dark World” ($206.2 million). What if New York food critics insisted on banging on about the virtues of Wendy’s Spicy Chipotle Jr. Cheeseburger? No matter the field, a critic’s job is to argue and plead for the underappreciated, not just to cheer on the winners.
Despite drawing this nightmare scenario, Austerlitz concludes that music criticism “is more or less alone in this affectation.” Can we be so sure? How often do today’s book reviews challenge popular acclaim? Who aside from Harold Bloom (promptly derided as an out-of-touch grouch) has ever complained about the quality of J. K. Rowling’s writing? Isn’t the backlash against “snobby” or “elitist” critics who decry the current trend of adults enjoying YA fiction and colouring books just another form of poptimism? What about Canada’s culture of polite, non-threatening book reviews, which commands us to say something nice or not say anything at all?
Andy Warhold thought pop art was all about liking things. Aren’t we all poptimists now?