Ann Powers And A Gang Of Bloggers Ask: Whose “Idol” Is It?

Michaelangelo Matos | July 30, 2008 5:00 am

Usually, we use The Last Word to round up the all-important, all-summarizing last sentences of the biggest new-music reviews, but this week we’d like to focus attention on responses to Ann Powers’ recent L.A. Times think piece on “poptimism,” a.k.a. critics paying serious attention to mainstream pop music, a.k.a. critics doing (one of) their jobs. In particular, Powers’ discussion of covering American Idol as a music-news story has become something of a bloggers’ chew toy. Below the jump, a bit from Powers’ original piece and some choice blog responses.

First, Powers’ “Pop music critics embrace the mainstream,” which ran on Sunday alongside Scott Timberg’s feature on the American arts’ continuing high-low collapse. Powers, as ever, has the overview:

This atmosphere of openness is mostly fantastic, but characteristically, pop critics have found a way to turn it confrontational. Prefer Ray LaMontagne to Toby Keith? You’re an NPR-listening square! Irritated by T-Pain? You’re a Luddite! Sick of Fergie? You’re sexist! And just as many critics take the opposite stance, with equal righteous vigor.

In the past, our debates were sort of like sumo-style tummy bashes — a young Turk would stand up to the old guard and good-naturedly push his opponent out of the ring. Now, it’s more like the scrum in rugby. Everybody pushes against everybody else, and we move forward in a huge blob of vehement opinion and mutual judgment.

Powers’ talk about covering American Idol prompted Wade Tatangelo of Tampa’s Creative Loafing to point out the monetary aspects of such coverage:

Ann Powers wrote a fine essay . . . But she failed to mention that a potential reason daily music critics like the St. Petersburg Times’ Sean Daly are covering cheap reality TV like American Idol (Powers does, too, but more likely by choice, see below) is because they are no longer in a position to tell populist/desperate editors “no.” Arts critics are being laid off at even a faster clip than reporters. In fact, there’s not a single music critic job opening at a daily newspaper in the entire nation. I know critics rank right alongside lawyers in the receiving of sympathy department, but it’s grim folks.

Carl Wilson of the Toronto Globe and Mail and the blog Zoilus weighed in on both Powers’ piece and Tatangelo’s reply:

There’s something to [Tatangelo’s point] – I remarked in my book that unlike, say, an academic specialist, a working critic has to address a broad audience, and one who wrote only about the ultra-weird and never about the popular eventually would be out of a job. In the book I add “(rightly)”, but it’s debatable.

Certainly I know people who’ve been required professionally to review shows they wouldn’t have volunteered to watch. Tatangelo says that a couple of years ago he quit a job rather than cover Idol–and that he’s not sure he would feel emboldened to make a similar move today.

But wait, imagine a film critic who proudly resigns his job rather than write about a popular movie or genre of movies–say, movies based on comic books. Would we think that guy was a hero, or kind of an asshole? Wouldn’t we point to great film critics who have written favorably or unfavorably about blockbuster popcorn flicks and found insightful aesthetic and social analyses there? If you’re being told what to say by your editors, that is cause to make a stand; if you’re being asked to cover a major phenomenon in your field, that’s the job, bucko. Granted, in the more flush past of newspapering, you’d probably have been able to slough off lower-status assignments to the junior critic, and today there usually is no junior critic. And nothing against Tatangelo making life choices that make him happier. But there’s a boon to critics being pushed out of their aesthetic habits to observe what’s happening out in what remains of the mainstream – it gives us the function of conducting that cross-conversation about common cultural objects that those lamenters of the semi-mythical, semi-extinct monoculture say they miss.

Still, the most salient point of all may be from Marc Hogan’s Tumblr, in which the freelancer (best known for his contributions to Pitchfork) spells it out even more plainly:

As anyone who knows anyone who has blogged about “American Idol” knows, you get more clicks blogging about “American Idol” than blogging about Steinski, Harvey Milk, or Fleet Foxes. So it’s not as if the turning tide toward “poptimism” among critics who want to be paid for our work is entirely un-self-interested.

Pop music critics embrace the mainstream [LAT] Debating Ann Powers, poptimism and American Idol [Creative Loafing Tampa] Forced to Write About American Idol? Call Our Help Line Now [Zoilus] “As anyone who’s read . . . “ [Offnotesnotes]