How ‘Poptimism’ Killed Intelligent Rock Music

The Smiths, a British band that was popular in the 1980s and by now has achieved iconic status, has just issued a deluxe edition of their 1986 masterpiece, The Queen is Dead. I saw the Smiths in Washington, D.C. when they were on tour for the album when it first came out, and listening to The Queen is Dead reissue I was reminded of all the literary references in the record. Singer and lyricist Morrissey mentioned Keats, Yeats, and Oscar Wilde, for example. The title of the album was not a punk taunt to the royal family but a reference to Last Exit to Brooklyn, the dark and gritty 1964 novel by Hubert Selby.

Rock and pop musicians used to frequently write songs based on literature, a practice that has declined as young people become more illiterate and the music world continues to embrace “poptimism.” Poptimism is, as Washington Post music critic Chris Richards described in 2015, Anti-elitist, holding that “all pop music deserves a thoughtful listen and a fair shake, that guilty pleasures are really just pleasures, that the music of an Ariana Grande can and should be taken as seriously as that of a U2.”

Many critics think poptimism took over music around 2014 and that Taylor Swift was the main cause. Poptimism argues that selling a lot of records or singing about love should not disqualify an artist from also achieving critical acclaim.

I’m usually all for poptimism—as a conservative, I think songs about cars, girls and beaches can be just as important and poetic as so-called important songs about racism or politics. But perhaps poptimism has gone too far, excusing unchallenging music and venerating artists just because they’re famous. That’s a shame, because while songs about eternal things like love and jealousy will always be around, artists writing songs about books that shaped their imaginations offer insight into what makes particular performers unique. It adds a subjective perspective, and without it, artists tend to become homogeneous. (Quick: Tell me if you know Justin Timberlake’s favorite book?)

It also means music fans don’t get to enjoy connecting to their favorite artists through a shared appreciation (or dislike) of certain books. In 1983, my senior year in high school, one of my teachers inspired me to read the novel, The Sheltering Sky, a story about three American expatriates in the Sahara desert, written by Paul Bowles. It’s a dour and depressing read, and I never got the chance to tell my teacher I didn’t like the book because the teacher who “assigned” The Sheltering Sky was Sting, a famous rock star whose band, the Police, had a number-one album out, Synchronicity. I had been inspired to read The Sheltering Sky when I heard “Tea in the Sahara,” a song that Sting wrote that was based on Bowles’ novel. Further, the album’s name itself—Synchronicity—references a concept explored by Arthur Koestler, whose anti-Communist masterpiece, Darkness at Noon, I had also read in high school.

There used to be a lot more such songs: “Such a Shame,” by Talk Talk, which was based on the disturbing novel, The Dice Man; Kate Bush’s “The Sensual World,” an homage to the end of James Joyce’s Ulysses; the space oddity explorations of David Bowie, which were often based on science fiction novels; and the work of Bruce Springsteen, heavily influenced by crime writers like Jim Thompson.

When I saw the cover art for Taylor Swift’s album, Reputation, I felt a tingle of excitement. The font for the album’s cover art is gothic, the same style used as the cover of one of my favorite books of poetry, Every Riven Thing, by Christian Wiman. Was it possible that Swift had read Wiman’s poems? The singles released so far from Reputation indicate she has not—or much else, for that matter. There’s nothing wrong with songs about cute guys, being famous, or going out dancing—after all, the Smiths wrote one of the best songs ever about the thrill of nightlife. But without the deeper literacy of The Queen is Dead, modern pop music is all starting to morph into one big poptimistic blob.

Image: Warner Bros.

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