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When Poptimism goes too far

  • Opinion

By Ella Dorn, BA Chinese and Linguistics

‘Here come the girls!’ proclaimed a Guardian article this summer. ‘All-female K-pop groups conquer Britain.’ The author chided ‘British music snobbery’ for its snub of the Korean scene, taking a girl-power view to praise the genre’s female stars in their newfound prominence. Attentive readers may have wondered what led the Guardian, with its facade of concern for worker’s rights, to publish something so uncritical about an industry rife with misogyny and abuse. 

K-pop stars generally operate on ‘slave contracts’; often working for years without pay in order to reimburse their management for periods of gruelling idol training. Many make their debut on the demanding scene as minors, sparking debate about child labour and sexual exploitation. Female idols are notorious for being put on starvation diets, and most are banned from entering into relationships with the opposite sex. Only in exceptional cases are idols given a say in their own music. Something within culture journalism has gone very wrong.

Poptimism has spread over the past thirty or so years to establish itself firmly within the legacy press. The old stereotype of a pretentious male rock critic no longer holds water. Critics at Pitchfork are just as likely to praise the newest Taylor Swift release as they are to write about underground and indie albums, and they assume by default that the former is written and produced with just as much poetry and intention as the latter. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It is, of course, unfair to write off a cultural product because of its association with the wrong race, sex or class. In their heyday, the Beatles attracted swarms of screaming teenage girls – had critics given up on them on this account, we would have lost out on masses of interesting music writing. 

Poptimist re-evaluations bring new insight into our cultural canon, allowing us to reshuffle our knowledge of music history. Britney Spears’ Blackout album, released shortly before her public breakdown in 2007, was once slated due to its association with tabloid gossip. It is now known for its dark and innovative production, influencing several contemporary artists. This new scope simultaneously widens the pool of people who are allowed to become critics – as an early-career culture writer, I recently made my own legacy debut with an article for i-D about the genius of Madonna. 

Music no longer needs to be anti-establishment to garner critical praise. But have some journalists and outlets slid too far into the establishment, falling into the clutches of exploitative entertainment industries? Where do you draw the line between poptimist criticism and simply parroting the narrative emailed to you in an album’s press release? 

This dilemma may well be a side-effect of journalism’s brave new online world, where revenue comes click-by-click, and where critics bump shoulders with readers – and music fans – on social media. Perhaps the main danger of this overlap with internet fandom is that it compromises a writer’s integrity. Would you heap  undue praise on something if the resultant byline gained you a new audience, or added to your present-day cultural capital?
Fandom is interesting to study from afar and to write about in an anthropological sense. However, critics should keep their distance. Contemporary pop writing can be just as world-expanding as the rock criticism of decades past – but it should remain critical and mediated, as all the best coverage is, by a writer’s eclectic personal tastes and ethical quandaries. What the Guardian misses in its coverage of K-pop is that there is a whole world of power and exploitation beyond its cheerful curtain. Poptimism fails when it refuses to uncover it.  

Photo caption: K-pop girl group Blackpink perform in Seoul [Credit: Wikimedia Commons]

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