My boyfriend and I had a very heated debate today about a philosophy known as "poptimism" — the belief that the most popular artists in the world like Taylor Swift, Beyonce, and Bruno Mars deserve to be taken just as seriously and reviewed just as thoroughly as indie artists that have traditionally relied upon critical coverage for exposure. He laments that there was a time when Pitchfork Media, the ultimate hipster-cool authority on music, never would have deigned to cover a major pop star — let alone give them an adoring review. What's the point? Those artists already get coverage 24/7. An underground act needs a site like Pitchfork to shine a spotlight on them because there is nowhere else they can get it.
At least, that's his argument. According to a bevy of thinkpieces available online, this makes him a "rockist."
As someone who had, at one point, in an underground indie band, I suppose I am perhaps a poptimist with Stockholm Syndrome. I remember all too well how it felt to compete with artists like Lorde and Lana Del Rey for real estate on a music blog or TV channel (although, let's be real: that competition probably existed only in my head). I was jealous. Resentful. And yet, I listened to their music anyway. Because it was good.
And I think that's what I keep coming back to, although I empathize with indie bands and their struggle for exposure. Pop music is good. It may not always be cool, or hip, or innovative — in fact, it's usually not — but it's catchy and pleasing to listen to. People like my boyfriend miss the days when it wasn't unusual for an artist to write their own songs, but the tradeoff is that today, our top songs are basically engineered in labs to be hits. Squads of songwriters know exactly which levers to pull to get your attention, and they know exactly what kind of drug will make you come back for more.
Too often, indie acts never get out of first gear because once you strip away all their coolness and sonic innovation, you find that there's nothing underneath. The aesthetic might make you feel cool, but that's different from making you feel. And that's what pop music does so well, and on a universal level.
It's interesting that the decline of indie can be traced back to around the start of the decade - 2009/2010 - right after the recession hit. And it has not been a great decade for taste-making, ticket-buying millennials. Between economic turmoil, global warming, humanitarian crises around the world, and social unrest at home, it's no wonder that the music we need right now isn't music that makes us feel cool - it's music that makes us feel safe. And there's nothing more comfortable than the a pop song coating your skull with its sweet, anesthetic syrup; the slow crawl of the earworm burrowing into your lizard brain, nestling next to memories of first kisses and long drives.
Maybe, after decades of eating its vegetables, Pitchfork decided it needed a shot of sugar in its arm. Honestly, I think I get it.