Pop and the New Millenium Music Critic
In his P2K essay, Tom Ewing argues that, in the last decade, pop finally became something that serious people (music critics, academics) took seriously. This is not so much attributable to some change or set of changes in “pop” itself, but mainly to the fact that “serious” people started looking for things in pop that they already considered “serious” (things that had always been there, and that some “serious” people had been writing about for decades). What Ewing’s analysis demonstrates (without overtly naming it) is that people started looking for “masculinity” in pop.
People stopped assuming that “the pleasure of pop is surrender” (Ewing, 2) – feminine passivitiy, the experience of feminization. Instead, new millennium pop critics took the position that “what made the tracks important wasn’t how they made you feel, but the innovative tricks creators used to get those effects” (Ewing, 2). Pop was no longer considered a feminized domain, a genre that spoke only of and to stereotypically feminized phenomena like “feelings”. For these new millennium critics, what made pop interesting was its whiz-bang techno-geek factor. Critics took up tracks as collections of neat studio tricks and clever samples. In the same way that “feelings” are feminized, techie-geekdom is (hetero)masculinized: emotions are for girls, but knob (or mouse) twiddling is for boys. Music critics have always tended to look for (and praise) masculinity. This is why they had previously trivialized pop – the found only femininity and feminization in it. However, now that pop had the techie-geek factor, they saw masculinity in it. Once pop becomes properly masculine, it gets positive attention from critics.
It hardly needs to be noted that most of the people behind mixing boards, running ProTools or Ableton, and otherwise producing records, are men. So, shifting the object of pop criticism from content (“feelings”) to production also shifts critical focus from the performer to the producer. Ewing acknowledges as much: “There wasn’t always much room for the performer in all this praise– instead more and more attention went to the production teams…even if they’d never made records of their own, these men would be critical heroes of the 00s” (Ewing, 2). He uses the gendered term “men” to describe a list of producers he had just listed: the Neptunes, Timbaland, Max Martin, etc. Ewing does not seem to recognize the gender politics of his claim here. All these producers are, indeed, men. The performers they were producing, however, either women (Spears, Aguilera) or boy bands whose music targeted a female audience. In focusing their attention on producers, new millennium pop critics are framing pop as a discourse made by men, and pop criticism as a discourse of men writing about men.
In the new millennium, pop suddenly became a masculine enterprise, an appropriate topic of attention and praise for the decidedly “boy’s” club of popular music criticism. It’s not so much that pop changed – pop always changes – but that critics changed the way they viewed and understood pop. Pop was no longer a void of femininity and feminization; there was something “serious” (masculinity) there for “serious” people (men). Focusing on (male) producers and stereotypically masculine techie-geek aesthetics, new millennium pop critics could now take pop seriously because they finally found something “interesting” and “important” in it.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that the new millennium (2001, to be precise) also included the publication of Susan Cook’s “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what you mean to me: Feminist Musicology and the Abject Popular” in Women and Music.
Here’s a link to the Ewing article: http://pitchfork.com/features/articles/7703-the-decade-in-pop/2/