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30 April 2018

ABBA is back – and so are the snobs of rock

Why should we feel guilty about knowing the words to Dancing Queen?

By Stuart Maconie

At the end of last week, in giddy excitement, I googled “ABBA reunion”, thrilled that one of the greatest pop groups of all time had reconvened to make new music and were taking to the road again, albeit as “digital avatars” rather than imperious ice maidens and their hirsute thanes.

The very first news site I came across began: “Admit it, we’re all guilty of knowing the words to Dancing Queen.” I turned on the radio and heard a discussion on BBC local radio in which the presenter was asserting that the reunion would be Bjorn and Benny’s concern largely because “the girls didn’t play anything, did they?” Just like ABBA, rock snobbery, the dreariest legacy of the 60s counter culture, is still with us. “Rockism” lives but has new moved to a new online address.

As “isms go”, Rockism may not be as newsy and hot-button as ageism, racism, sexism or ableism. But rockism is still a tremendously useful analytical tool to have in one’s conceptual Swiss army knife. Originally coined by Pete Wylie of the Mighty Wah, it is that attitude that says that certain kinds of popular music, usually rock-based and male, are more worthy or authentic than others, often female or chart friendly. It elevates the album over the single and prizes what it sees as “credibility” over “commerciality”, often, ironically, by championing enormously rich white male rock groups.

Rockism is the minsdet that prefers the fairly rancid self-absorption of John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band album over the graceful, carefree charm of Macca’s Ram, that thinks Hank Williams is better than Tammy Wynette because he couldn’t keep his shit together and drank himself to death and she always renewed her beautician’s license even when she was a millionaire (“You never know when I might need to go back to it”) and that thinks Bob Dylan is being cool rather than an objectionable jerk when he sneers at Donovan in Don’t Look Back. (Yes I like Donovan’s music as much as I like Bob Dylan’s and, no, I’m not joking.) Rockism’s favourite Christmas single is “Fairytale Of New York” because it says “arse”, sounds a bit like a pub and because Shane MacGowan liked a drink and didn’t keep his dental appointments.

Rockism and rock snobbery give credentialed status and authority to white men, their guitars, their love lives, their drinking habits and half-baked political philosophies. It prizes surly adolescent introspection over the simple joys of being alive, in love, smart, positive, well dressed and out and about in fresh air. It is mistrustful of charm, elegance, levity, intelligence and wit and wrongly thinks exceptional talent is synonymous with being a bit of a shit (see Frank Zappa, Lou Reed, John Lennon etc). It confuses rudeness with strength of character and turgid prolixity with depth (nearly every Bob Dylan and Oasis song could lose two and a half minutes with no ill effects). It mistakes man-baby footstamping pique for genuine rage and passion. It routinely elevates second-rate intellects to the status of genius and still thinks The Dice Man is a really cool book.

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Rockism allows a few critically sanctioned women – Kate Bush, Patti Smith, Sandy Denny, punk women like Viv Albertine – into its roped-off area of patronage but not Cher, Donna Summer, Cilla Black, Janet Jackson, Shirley Bassey or Kylie (except ironically). It is similarly circumspect about which kinds of black music it engages with. It will bypass the Marvellettes (and even Smokey Robinson) for a more easily recognized alpha male like James Brown, Jimi Hendrix or Bob Marley (the latter a reggae act whose style was deliberately “rockified” in order to win the approval of Rolling Stones fans). After many years, it now grudgingly accepts Nile Rodgers of Chic into its fold of “legends” but will wait for a few more critical re-assessments in the broadsheets and monthlies before it decides on Earth, Wind and Fire and the Four Tops and will never be OK with KC And The Sunshine Band. Stormzy and grime are viewed in much the same way as the Happy Mondays once were: a signifier of dangerous urban grittiness, keeping it “real” and conferring some street credibility on the kind of pop critic from Bath who used to get his dinner money stolen on a regular basis.

In the Noughties, a new critical school queasily styling itself “Poptimism” emerged in opposition to the beards and leather jackets of old school Rockism. But the supposed and avowed polar opposite turned out to be its evil twin. Poptimism ended up in its own straitjacketed modus operandi, desperately in thrall, for fear of being “middle-aged”, to anything that sold gazillions and looked shiny and youthful however vapid, dim or offensive.

Still, next time a rock bore is bending your ear about “manufactured pop”, it’s worth remembering that all pop music, all music, all art is artifice. All pop groups are manufactured and all music is manufactured. None of it is found growing beneath the soil like a potato. The Beatles cut their hair, wore suits and sacked their drummer because their manager told them they’d be more popular if they did. They were all the better for it.

That said, “Fernando” and “Chiquitita” are rubbish.

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