Beyoncé, Thurston Moore (AP/Frank Micelotta/Reuters/Jessica Rinaldi/Salon)

10 songs that disprove the rockist vs. poptimist rivalry

From "Get Me Bodied" to "Everybody Must Get LoveStoned," a list of songs to put an end to this musical feud


Noah Berlatsky
May 3, 2014 7:00PM (UTC)

Since the dawn of music criticism, a primal conflict has raged between rockists and poptimists. The self-anointed rockists clutch tattered issues of Rolling Stone and Creem and bellow "Dylan! Authentic! Dylan!" Meanwhile the slightly younger but equally enraged poptimists trumpet their own battle cries: "Beyoncé! Subversive! Beyoncé!"

The fights are fun to watch. But it’s worth remembering amidst the thunder and the mud and the spite that rockism vs. poptimism is a pretty artificial distinction. Below is a list of 10 songs designed to soothe even the most savage rockist/poptimist contretemps.

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Bill Monroe, "The Prisoner's Song"

Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass, is generally thought of as an authentic creator of roots music, an old-school rockist icon if there ever was one. He was also in the business of selling records, though, and by the 1950s, bluegrass as a commercial force was in the doldrums. So he did what pop musicians do, and he tried gimmicks. Most famously, he did a revamped, sped-up version of his own song "Blue Moon of Kentucky," to mimic Elvis Presley's cover version, but he tried other things as well, including "The Prisoner's Song," which adds drums and honky-tonk piano in an effort to keep up with the country radio zeitgeist. It didn't exactly work; Monroe had to wait for the folk revival in the early ’60s to really make a career comeback. Which bring us to:

Muddy Waters, "Feel Like Going Home"

Muddy Waters' 1964 record "Muddy Waters Folk Singer" looks like a roots exploration — but it's also a deliberate commercial gambit. Folk music was popular, and Chess figured they could capitalize on the fad by having Waters record an acoustic album, just as they later had him record a psychedelic album to keep up with the kids. So is this a poptimist record disguised as rockist or a rockist record packaged as poptimism?

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Sonic Youth, "Superstar"

Arty rock gods Sonic Youth covered the Carpenters' AOR seventies pop schmaltz for the 1994 tribute album "If I Were a Carpenter." The Carpenters actually have a ton of alt-rock cred at this point; their vacuous sadness can easily be read as creepy menace.  I'm honestly not entirely sure if it's okay for rockists to like the Carpenters now in general (ah — Rolling Stone says it is.)

Blondie, "Heart of Glass"

The ur-rockist/poptimism battle was rock vs. disco — though Blondie, at least, refused to pick sides.

Faith Evans, "Mesmerized"

The previous selections are mostly examples of supposed rockists walking like poptimists, but the reverse happens with some frequency as well. This 2005 track by pop diva Faith Evans is 100% retro-Stax, except for the bits that are retro-James Brown.  In any case, Evans clearly loves rock-critic-approved soul every bit as much as Debby Harry loves disco.

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Lady, The Band, "Tell the Truth"

Nicole Wray started out as a Missy Elliott pop protégé in the late '90s, but, as will happen in pop, her career fizzled. So she rejiggered herself in a rockist vein, forming the band "Lady" and performing spot-on tough retro-soul. One of the downsides of the poptimist glorification of the latest radio pleasure is that it doesn't leave much space for last year's star. For Wray, at least, a rockist paradigm has given her a chance at a steadier, less meteoric career through keeping it real.

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Beyoncé,  "Get Me Bodied"

Beyoncé as roots musician, referencing the authentic urban folk tradition of double-dutch rhyming. A reminder that what's seen as conveying gravitas or seriousness can be pretty arbitrary. Why a black urban music like jazz and not a black urban music like disco (or jump rope rhymes)?

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Siriporn Umpaipong,  "Pa-Rin-Yah-Jai"

Siriporn Umpaipong is a performer of luk thung — sometimes described as Thai country music. Luk thung often includes elements of traditional Thai music, rock and pop. And, as with a lot of world music, it really doesn't fit very comfortably into the rockist/poptimism dynamic, not least because, from several thousand miles away, what's supposed to read as authentic and what's supposed to read as transient pop isn't always easy to parse.

Obituary, "Chopped in Half"

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It's not just music from other parts of the world that doesn't slot neatly into rockist or poptimist camps. Too faceless and unironic for old-school rock critics, too unpopular and filled with guitar solos for Celine Dion partisans, death metal mostly grinds on its own merciless way, despised by all and despising all equally — providing rockists and poptimists with a happy joint utopia of hate.

DJ McFly, "Everybody Must Get LoveStoned" (Bob Dylan vs. Justin Timberlake)

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Mash-ups like this are often seen as a poptimist form, irreverently repackaging authentic rock as sold-out dance music. It seems like you could just as easily think of this as a love letter from poptimism to the rockists, though — or just as a recognition that lots of people like Bob Dylan and Justin Timberlake both. Why wouldn't they?


Noah Berlatsky

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