Boutique Poptimism: Lady Gaga, Ke$ha, & the Taylor Swift Backlash

The sequence of events that moved Taylor Swift from wildly successful, really interesting pop star, to the kind of pop star that the supposedly more discerning, with-it crowd gets to ponder and write thinkpieces about is pretty strange: She gained everybody’s sympathies because Kanye was a dick, only to lose those sympathies when she was given awards by the kind of people that would’ve given her awards whether Kanye grabbed the mic from her or not.

This response is perhaps best represented in this bizarre kinda insane piece, which Rob Harvilla already zinged properly, but there’s still a lot to unpack here. Apparently, Swift’s “average”-ness causes a lot of controversy.

Probably because in 2009/2010, being some kind of meta-commenting, bicurious, genre-bouncing, in-quotes superstar, is way more played-out than being a regular-ass person. And that, simply by doing what she does and doing it very well, Swift and the response she elicits, make clear an unfortunate trend that’s been floating around for a while now–what I call “Boutique Poptimism”.

Namely, that we’re past the point where the idea that “hey maybe unabashed pop music kinda rules” is controversial and what’s happening is a backwards bending, a regression, where a new bunch of new implicit rules are being laid-out for what constitutes “good” pop from “bad” pop. No surprise, they’re ideological. They have a lot to do with what the music “represents” and very little to do with how the music sounds.

Because everyone’s aware that dismissing Pop is closed-minded, the response is not to wholly embrace it, to step out of one’s comfort zone (one of the many values behind Poptimism), but to find the Pop that already suits ones values and co-sign that. This is particularly apparent in the “Indie” embrace of Lady Gaga and to a lesser extent, someone like Ke$ha. You will hear both of them on your town’s hit stations…and at liberals arts school dance parties…and in Urban Outfitters.

These pop musicians are acceptable because of their inauthenticity, because they comment on pop, they aren’t just making pop like Swift. Gaga, who clearly took some classes in Postmodern theory but only kinda paid attention, has made herself critic-proof: If you don’t like her, you don’t “get” her. And with that, a more rarified audience is hooked, beyond such negligible things as monster choruses (but little else, Gaga’s songs are like hair metal in that sense) but “big” ideas.

And Ke$ha–well it’s mind-blowing that anybody but newly-divorced Moms would like her but the cool kids like her too, because it sorta sounds like Peaches or Uffie or that last Yeah Yeah Yeahs record. She provides the illusion of being open to new sounds, with dashes of electro, an almost rapping style, and edgy topics like drinking too much. Again–these aren’t songs about “square” stuff like boys and getting married.

That she has a dollar-sign in her name to be “ironic” and that she swipes from the debauchery of Keith Richards for style points, while using the very similar debauchery of Diddy for a punchline, makes her deeply square and rockist is besides the point. If it’s couched in something, anything that appears trangressive, like irony or feminist or postmodern theory, no matter how bastardized, it’s acceptable.

This is really fascinating because it’s both a rejection of Rockism’s absurd demands for authenticity and an embrace of an equally complacent set of values. Ones that don’t open up the world of music (and through that, the world at-large) but open them up on one’s own terms, providing the illusion of porous borders and expansive taste, without any of the hard stuff involved, like stepping out of one’s comfort zone or putting one’s self out there.

It takes a Strong Poptimist to enjoy Taylor Swift. One that sees the inherent value of worker-bee skill and talent bouncing up against simple, but sincere expression, who can also see/hear some of the same stuff in Gaga or Ke$ha and appreciate the differences too–Poptimism is not supposed to be the one or the other game Boutique Poptimists like to play.

further reading/viewing:
-“Boutique multiculturalism, or why liberals are incapable of thinking about hate speech” by Stanley Fish
-“Why Taylor Swift Offends Little Monsters, Feminists, and Weirdos” by Riese for AutoStraddle
-“So Let’s Deal With This “Taylor Swift Is a Feminist’s Nightmare” Thing” by Rob Harvilla for Sound of the City
-Lady Gaga & Rob Fusari (thanks to MFastow for the link)
-Review of Music from the O.C: Mix 4 by Rob Mitchum for Pitchfork

* This article was originally published here

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