When The Ramones released their first trio of highly influential records in the late ‘70s—their self-titled debut in 1976 and Leave Home and Rocket to Russia in 1977—the consensus was that it was sort of dumb music, and that dumb was good. “Stoopidity [sic], both celebrated and satirized,” wrote The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau—a.k.a. the “dean of American rock critics.” In a retrospective conducted by The Guardian in 2016, Richard Manitoba from The Dictators referred to them as “the smartest dumb band you ever heard.” Rolling Stone put it even more pithily back in 1979: “The Ramones are dumb.”
This is not the way gleefully-lowbrow art is received by critics today. Massive media corporations have thoroughly co-opted the language of social justice; they would like you to believe that all media has a political and social conscience now, whether or not it was conceived in a boardroom and produced on an assembly line. This phenomenon has given us cringe-inducing headlines like “Captain Marvel smashes the box office and the patriarchy,” or articles in exalted publications such as Vanity Fair with straight-faced titles such as “Star Wars: The Last Jedi Offers the Harsh Condemnation of Mansplaining We Need in 2017.” This is not to say blockbusters can’t telegraph progressive principles—but the idea that a Star Wars film is a trojan horse for the revolution is a fantasy.
This has had some terrible consequences for culture writing at large. Things have cooled down a little bit within the last few years, but when the narrative surrounding a piece of commercial media is that it is “world-changing” or espouses some miscellaneous radical idea—even when it is fundamentally dumb or geared toward children—it becomes incredibly hard to criticize in liberal spheres. A good example of this was Pitchfork’s controversial review of Lizzo’s Cuz I Love You from 2019—a publication that continues to more or less play by its own rules—in which author Rawiya Kameir referred to the music as “empowerment-core.” Kameir’s review was misconstrued by some as an attack on Lizzo’s politics, but the point was actually just that the music was a little corny.
The positivity culture that is so pervasive in arts criticism has a few notable points of origin. The first is poptimism, the attitude that pop or “commercial” music deserves the same level of critical recognition as other, more “important” forms of music such as jazz, blues or rock—and it’s easy to see this same philosophy applied to other mediums such as film or television. The second is what Tom Scocca refers to as “smarm” in his groundbreaking Gawker essay from 2013, “On Smarm”—an unctuous, “no losers” philosophy that views itself as a response to years of snark and gatekeeping in arts criticism. And lastly, we have essayists such as Chuck Klosterman, who pioneered the art of the “it’s important, actually” lowbrow retrospective. Say what you will about Klosterman—his influence remains palpable in the world of arts journalism.
The problem with this positivity culture is that it has resulted in a grand flattening of artistic standards. In other words, if all art is important now, then none is. The latest case study is Olivia Rodrigo, a prefab Disney star-turned-teen sensation who has been slapped with the burdensome “voice of her generation” tag by critics who are probably a little too old to be making that call. Don’t get me wrong: Rodrigo’s debut album Sour is good—great, even—but, with the hyperbole surrounding her album rollout, the accolades are enough to make you wish you were illiterate. “[A] stunning portrait of adolescence,” wrote British newspaper i; “multidimensional,” said the NME.
Poptimism is a valuable philosophy—it resulted in the mass reevaluation of tabloid pop and musical forms such as disco, which had been unfairly maligned in elitist, rock-oriented critical circles for at least a generation. It has also helped expose the racist, classist and sexist prejudices that often help fuel anti-pop sentiment.
But, as the response to Olivia Rodrigo’s album makes clear, the pendulum has possibly swung too far in the opposite direction, where critics who know better now trip over themselves in an attempt to legitimize and intellectualize corny mainstream tastes. You can like pop music and Marvel movies and Star Wars without needing to convince yourself and everyone around you that these things are “smart”—sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes a pop record geared toward children is just a pop record geared toward children.