Nobody likes a good squabble better than a critic. Maybe that's why the same disputes keep surfacing, time and again, among those who analyze, enthuse about or obsess about particular corners of culture. In music writing, one such debate revolves around the question of whether pop — commercially dominant music, as distinguished from styles that have smaller audiences, like indie rock or underground hip-hop or jazz — deserves to be taken seriously. Just today that debate has been revived in an essay by the writer Saul Austerlitz declaring that music criticism has been damaged by the recent rise of "poptimism," an approach that, Austerlitz asserted, has glorified pop's banalities, causing critics to become less adventurous, ignoring better music that's not in the mainstream.
Austerlitz's argument immediately ignited defensive responses from writers who do like pop — including me. But after a few breaths, I realized that the biggest problem with this familiar critics' battle is that, for the millionth time, it overlooks how artists themselves treat music. Today, as throughout most of popular music's history, musicians have no time for the divisive thinking that even makes such theoretical sparring matches possible. There are no clean borders separating "indie" from "pop." Musicians tend to be open and interested in each other's work no matter what labels cling to them. Maybe we should all just chill out by grooving to this cover of R&B chart-topper Ciara's "Ride" by Sadie Dupuis of Speedy Ortiz — the very band Austerlitz holds up as an example of what stands apart from pop.
Let's put this silly argument aside and instead enjoy a few examples of how artists from every corner of music — picked by members of the NPR Music team, and there are hundreds more we could have listed — have transcended the categorizing tendencies that pull critics down. Poptimists or not, they can help us all remember that connection is what matters the most.