Bob Dylan is the single most overrated performer in the modern history of popular music. His lyrics, held up as transcendent poetry, are sub-Beat stream of consciousness doggerel. His music hardly compares in either virtuosity or invention with the roots sources whose authenticity he shamelessly hijacks. His singing is mannered and clumsy. He has charisma and has made out of his limitations some wonderful music — but his status as the preeminent singer-songwriter of all time is baffling and irritating. I like Dylan; he’s fine. But he’s not great, much less the greatest.
No doubt some of you are already rushing to your keyboards to declare to friends and foe alike how utterly wrong and benighted I am. That’s to be expected. When you buck the critical consensus, people will strongly disagree with you.
But this truth of pop culture writing seems to have caught Chris Richards flat-footed. Writing at the Washington Post, Richards noticed that people object when Beyoncé is denigrated. But he blames this not on her overwhelming popularity but on that newfangled pop cultural movement, poptimism.
Poptimism is generally defined in opposition to rock, or rockism. Where rock critics usually praise folks like Dylan or Jagger for authenticity, poptimism argues that authenticity is at best irrelevant and at worst a drag. To the poptimist, Beyoncé is as cool and as meaningful as Bob Dylan or whatever authentic rock star you choose to admire. Poptimists champion the shallow post-disco pleasures on the radio; they embrace autotune and pooh-pooh electric guitars. “No pleasure is a guilty pleasure!” poptimists declare as they bop to Miley or Taylor Swift. It’s all good.
Richards feels that the “it’s all good” philosophy has led to stifling conformity in taste. “Deployed reflexively,” he says, poptimism “becomes worshipful of fame. It treats megastars, despite their untold corporate resources, like underdogs. It grants immunity to a lot of dim music. Worst of all, it asks everyone to agree on the winners and then cheer louder.”
But is this really poptimism’s fault? Richards’ essay is predicated on the belief that somewhere back there, before poptimism, there was a time when music critics were razor-tongued defilers of conventional wisdom – hard-headed brutalizers of the latest radio hit. Ahem.
“Well, there are those moments when Elvis Presley breaks through the public world he has made for himself, and only a fool or a liar would deny their power. Something entirely his, driven by two decades of history and myth, all live-in-person, is transformed into an energy that is ecstatic – that is, to use the word in its old sense, illuminating. The overstated grandeur is suddenly authentic and Elvis brings a thrill different from and far beyond anything else in our culture…”
That’s Greil Marcus, gushing on and on about how that dancer and sex symbol Elvis is ecstatic and thrilling and better than anything ever, man.
Greil Marcus is now a cultural consensus Great Critic himself — and he didn’t get to be a Great Critic by bucking conventional wisdom. He got to be a great critic by doing just what he does here; spewing ridiculously hyperbolic paeans to the same folks that everyone else spews paeans at: Elvis, Dylan, the Band, the Beatles, the Sex Pistols. People want to hear that the things they like are great. And the things most people like are, by definition, the popular things. Poptimism didn’t change that.
It’s not that hard to publish negative pieces about Beyoncé, or, for that matter, Bob Dylan. I’ve done both — and in both cases, there was a lot of pushback. But that’s to be expected. If you say that The Avengers was mindless and indifferently written, or that Breaking Bad is morally incoherent television genre boilerplate or even that 50 Shades of Grey is lousy, people will disagree with you vociferously. People love to hear that things they love are good, but they enjoy shouting down apostates as well. They’ll click over to do either.
The real limit on music criticism isn’t consensus. The real limit is attention. Critics can cheer on super-popular things, or they can be contrarian and say, you know, D'Angelo and Björk’s latest albums are massively overhyped. But whether you’re cheering on D'Angelo or Björk you have to talk about D'Angelo or Björk if you expect anyone to listen to you. Want to talk about how last year Abjo put out one of the most mind-warping electronica EPs since Aphex Twin was a little bleep? Want to praise the snotty death metal spew of Cretin? Good luck with that. Maybe you can convince a mainstream site to cover it once as a special – oh this is an interesting curiosity article. But then everyone goes back to the Rihanna and Beyoncé and Dylan and Beatles think-pieces for the obvious reason that Rihanna and Beyoncé and Dylan and the Beatles bring the clicks, while Abjo and Cretin do not (seriously, did any of you even click on those links?)
Even if I prefer Abjo and Cretin to Kendrick Lamar, that doesn’t mean that obscurities are always better than the latest radio hit. Sometimes they are; sometimes they aren’t. Nor does it mean your mainstream site should cover Cretin 24/7 rather than Rihanna, ad revenue be damned. Like them or not, popular artists are relevant; a lot of people care about them, and that means they have cultural resonance that less popular artists don’t.
But if we’re talking about critical constraints, I think it’s worth underlining that the issue isn’t that people can’t criticize Beyoncé. The issue is that people can’t talk about anything but Beyoncé – and/or Bob Dylan, or Kendrick Lamar or whatever other mega-popular icon you prefer. The rock consensus has perhaps given way to some degree to the poptimism consensus, but the nature of that consensus hasn’t changed. In fact, you could argue that poptimism is simply an excuse for music critics to do what they’ve always done — that is, to write about the really popular music that most people want to read about. Once that music was Bob Dylan; now it’s Beyoncé. You can love or hate those artists, as you will. But you have to pay attention to them. The real limits on music criticism aren’t on what you can say, but on whom you can say it about.
Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture site the Hooded Utilitarian and is a contributing writer for The Atlantic.