Growing Up and Renouncing Poptimism

Illustration of Renouncing Poptimism: Man Praying To Pop Artists
Credits: Cosmopolitan UK via Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License, dualipa/Instagram, lilnasx/Instagram, harrystyles/Instagram, taylorswift/Instagram)

“You are in for an extended period of time when the basic structure of your life is subject to some inevitable and far-reaching changes. […] These feelings will threaten your sense of self, and cause you to struggle against accepting the process of change. […] The changes that so challenge you now are in fact in your own best interest, and these outmoded portions of your self-concept are being torn away from you in order that you may grow.”

So goes one of my long-term horoscope readings on TimePassages, which further amplifies the premise of this write-up. 

I must have been in my teens when I discovered the term ‘poptimism’. It might have been via the classic, quintessential Kelefa Sanneh piece or something else, but all I knew was that it gave a name to what at that time I had come to recognize as my default state of mind. 

What other word would have been fitting for a queer kid who spent hours upon hours watching music videos on MTV, scouring all the music and entertainment websites, magazines, and tabloids, buying CDs and cassettes, listening to the radio, tracking down national, regional, and international music charts, and dissecting online album reviews?

There’s an amusing anecdote that I haven’t shared much: When I was around 10, in a laughable attempt at proving that I, too, was into “guy’s music,” I went ahead and purchased Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory on cassette. I didn’t hate the album (in fact, years later, I came to love it), but it sounded too loud and abrasive to my burgeoning taste at that time that I regretted ever buying it in the first place. 

So when a classmate — this otherwise typical jock — offered to trade the cassette with Kylie Minogue’s Fever (presumably passed down by his sister who had won the cassette from a magazine contest but wasn’t feeling it), I said yes right away. 

Granted, I wasn’t the biggest fan of “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” but I was sold by the sexy and sleek artwork, so I thought, why not? Plus, “In Your Eyes” — never released in the US but the album’s second single elsewhere — was a jam and a half. That album is still sitting somewhere in my vault. 

When I came across Slant Magazine’s Vital Pop list sometime later in the 2000s, I was ecstatic. “I need to listen to all of these albums,” I thought to myself. And so over the course of even more years, that’s exactly what I did, gaining new (yet old) faves, most notably Vanessa Daou’s Zipless which I still love to this day. I’ll always credit that list for truly sparking my interest and passion for pop music and instilling a deeper understanding of poptimism.

I’ve said it loud and clear before: I grew up yearning to be a pop artist. Although my career trajectory and overall life path would suggest otherwise, it was a lifelong dream so much so that I honestly can’t remember a time when it was not … until the pandemic hit. 

In what proved to be a futile attempt at keeping my poptimism alive, in the early days of the pandemic, I briefly converted my Instagram account into @dirtypopzzz (yes, after *NSYNC’s 2001 juggernaut with a tongue-in-cheek nod to 2000s parlance). It featured reviews of popular early 2000s tracks and an assortment of tribute posts to that era’s pop music artifacts. 

That incarnation only lasted a few months before I decided to fully devote my digital space to veganism and animal rights. In the meantime, my taste was also undergoing a makeover. Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia quickly became the defining pop release of the lockdown era, and while I tried to be diplomatic about it, I remember even back then thinking to myself, how could anyone even remotely afford to yearn for hedonism when the pandemic is the very result of that proclivity? 

But I guess just like me, everyone else was desperately trying to hold on to the false promise of the familiar, especially in the face of an abrupt and tectonic global shift.


Yikes. That sounds downright depressing

2021 proved to be the apex. As I became increasingly ensconced in a brand new strain of activism — losing old friendships and entanglements in the process — it became that much harder to breathlessly fawn over big pop releases (perhaps except for a select few) because the big pop sound simply didn’t appeal to me anymore; I found solace in lower key, far less known and heralded artists and releases. 

Heck, an album of bird calls wound up being my album of the year!

So imagine my squeal when I read Gabriella’s piece. It succinctly encapsulates everything I’ve had in mind within the past couple of years as I concurrently undergo my own mental upheavals; to see practically our entire modern civilization turned upside down yet it’s business as usual for the rich and famous (or so it appears) was a real rude awakening that I don’t think I will recover from.

When I had a conversation with Gabriella about my Lil Nas X piece, I remember her saying, to my surprise, that it came across to her as a proclamation of fandom; to me, it came from a place of detachment, as if to say to Lil Nas X, “I think what you’re doing is cool, but it’s not really for me or where I’m at in life.” I was just unloading decades’ worth of knowledge and observation and weaving it with the subject at hand, nothing more, nothing less.

Let’s be real: The old ways have long sailed and gone. Going through old-time American talk shows, for instance, I noticed how genuine conversations used to be had instead of absent-minded PR-approved bites and gimmicks intended for quick claps and cheap laughs. Even making music is now more or less about making assets for social media above anything else.

When I gave Charli XCX’s newly released Crash a front-to-back listen recently, it made me wonder how pop music had become so hollow and perfunctory, even in the hands of a notable, prominent purveyor of forward-thinking pop. As per her own account, writing more commercially-friendly songs was her way of “playing the game” and ensuring her new songs fare well on streaming platforms and social media apps, therefore allowing her label “to pour more money into the project.”

Yikes. That sounds downright depressing, except that it really is the most effective way to gain some degree of clout in the TikTok age.

The streaming era, for all the ways that it has democratized the music sharing and listening experience (and yes, I don’t intend to buy anything in the physical format ever again), has consequently fragmented not only the audience’s attention span but also the artist’s stranglehold over the pop landscape — unless, of course, you’re part of the 1 percent. But even the 1 percent is painfully boring now.

Back when poptimism was in its infancy stage as a concept, when major pop releases would be slagged off by critics while selling by the tens of millions, there was a real sense of subversiveness to pop music and culture. Take for example Christina Aguilera’s Stripped. It might have scored a paltry 55 on Metacritic, but it was without a doubt more of a cultural reset than, say, Taylor Swift’s 91-scoring Red (Taylor’s Version). Stripped was a work — an era, really — that actually pushed boundaries and moved the needle forward when it came to sexuality, feminism, and even LGBTIQ visibility in pop culture — it got all artsy-fartsy with aplomb and ease too.

Now that poptimism is the norm in music/culture journalism and the overarching zeitgeist, it’s amusing that rock music once again rears its subversive head. At the time of writing this piece, it was four years to the day that I posted a Spotify playlist called Millennial Girls Rock to my Facebook alongside this blurb:

While rock music is no longer the popular means of expression among the youth in this day and age, I’m so happy that in the 2010s, the definition of rock music has expanded so much – it has become so much more inclusive. It’s no longer the hetero white girl’s playground: now you have yellow girls, black girls, brown girls, and everyone in between swimming in the pool of rock, with so many strides made in queer visibility too. 

I wish I had grown up with someone like Mitski, someone whose physicality I recognize in me and my surroundings, unabashedly bashing on her guitar with acne scars on her face. These little things matter so much to someone like me, who always felt like an outcast growing up and is still now ridden with impostor syndrome. But I feel such a strong sense of kinship through these girls and their songs, I feel understood and I feel less alone in my journey.

Reading it made me realize how much I’ve changed not only as a person but as a listener, even in the space between my 2017/2018 indie rock-obsessed self and my present-day self. 

Do I think “visibility” and “representation” matter in pop culture? Yeah, sure. Are they still any of my concerns? Not necessarily. My focus and priority have shifted so drastically that I ran out of the need to live vicariously through my “faves” or the works of art I consume altogether, no matter how good they are.

There’s a section in Gabriella’s piece that really tickled my fancy:

Returning energy to our immediate communities creates pathways for connection and opportunity that ultimately bring us closer to our own idealized lives … At the core, celebrity-dom has convinced us the lives influencers lead should only be reserved for a select few when in fact their power falters the second we turn our attention elsewhere.

Gabriella Etoniru, “Let’s Cancel the Celebrity

And therein lies the solution. For so long, I’ve been looking outward, attaching my identity to my taste, that it’s only stuff from “the West” that’s worthy of my attention and adulation, that it’s only those featured in cool, big (and yes, Western) press or receive the biggest megaphone that are worth waxing poetic about, that I can’t just go to my proverbial backyard and reap some tasty fruits.

Need proof? Indonesian singer-songwriter Danilla’s latest tour-de-force of a release Pop Seblay contains the song ”Bukan Otomata” (“Not an Automata”), a gentle, swaying, affecting, and irreverent ode to the animal kingdom. “Why do I love animals so much? I don’t exactly know. Maybe because they have no agenda whatsoever. […] I feel like what matters to them is simply food and survival. They have no need to be deceitful,” she quips.

As we’re knee-deep in the Aries season, astrology’s true-blue new year, there goes my resolution: stop relying so heavily on imports, start buying local more. I rest my case.


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