Poptimism wants to be in touch with the taste of average music fans, to speak to the rush that comes from hearing a great single on the radio, or YouTube, and to value it no differently from a song with more “serious” artistic intent. It’s a laudable goal, emerging in part from the identity politics of the 1990s and in part from a desire to undo the original sin of rock ’n’ roll: white male performers’ co-opting of established styles and undeservedly receiving credit as musical innovators. Jody Rosen, a music critic I admire greatly, admitted as much in Slate in 2006, writing that “many of my colleagues, like me, have embraced the anti-rockist critique with particular fervor as a kind of penance, atoning for past rockist misdeeds — for the party line we’d swallowed whole in our formative years and maybe even parroted under our bylines.”
Rosen is describing poptimism as a reaction to what I think of as “Rolling Stone disease,” whereby Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen were treated as geniuses and the likes of Marvin Gaye and Madonna as mere pop singers. Obviously there should be no test of race or gender in musical immortality. But now the reaction has swamped the initial problem and created a wildly distorted version of the music world in 2014, as reflected in the way it’s covered."