Being a long-time "rockist", I suppose, I certainly have spent far more time over the years contemplating this seeming dichotomy than I should have. There is indeed something off-putting about the goofballs who insist that rock music peaked with Blonde On Blonde or whatever. But the thing is that most forms of rock music, whether or not you enjoy them, require a certain level of craft and skill just to get in the ring. This is actually of greater importance to "rockists" than the incipient "cockism" Chonin declaims.
Rockers look down their noses at people like Beyonce and Britney because of the nature of their approach to craft; it's difficult not to get the distinct impression that not only do they not write their songs or play an instrument, but that they don't even really sing their stuff, that they get it "close enough" in the studio so that the producer can take care of the pitch correction and vocal sweetening by tweaking Pro Tools for a couple weeks.
Whether or not you like their music, you know that Yes did their own writing and playing; you know that the guys in Rush each redefined the approach to their respective instruments for literally tens of thousands of musicians, and that's a truly rare thing. Probably only Cream and The Who can make a similar claim, that every single member of those bands forced contemporary and future practitioners of their respective instrument to include their contribution in the overall approach to at least some extent. By contrast, Britney, Beyonce, Backstreet Boys, Spice Girls -- they're all interchangeable, and their level of involvement with the creation of their marketed Art Product is roughly the same as that of Ronald McDonald actually getting in there and whipping up a Big Mac. It's a disposable commodity with a marketing icon used to sell it to the target demo.
That very disposability is what rankles the rockists, whose respect (some might say obsession) with craft and skill requires a need for permanence. And just as the posturing "what-evuh" immature attitude is what undermines the self-satisfied arbiters of kewl, the totemistic collecting, archiving, and cross-referencing of What Has Gone Before is the rockists' achilles heel. Because, as is evidenced by the endless waves of $250/ticket nostalgia tours, what it does is it turns the performers and the fans into little more than curators in a traveling museum. Possibly the only long-running band that overcomes this with regularity is Motorhead, but even they are expected to play Ace of Spades at every fucking show, or fans will decide they've been cheated, no matter how great the show really was.
Which brings me to the true difference between rockists and popists: rockists don't dance. Seriously. I think the respective consumption rituals is what truly defines and differentiates the two. When I think "pop", I think The Beatles, Squeeze, Elvis Costello, The Cars, XTC, that sort of thing, even though I know what the critics mean. But I think songwriting craft that endures and renews itself upon repeated listening in a variety of circumstances. I can't imagine listening to Hit Me Baby One More Time with headphones. That's not a slam, it's just the way it is. And the thing is, there actually are some decent chord changes in that song, as Travis' acoustic version demonstrated. But it does not lend itself well to my particular consumption ritual, which most assuredly does not involve dancing, or consuming ecstasy and Red Bull and vodka in a crowded club. Those days are long gone, and even when I was there, that sort of music was just wallpaper. I had always thought that was a common understanding, but perhaps not. People tend to get a bit precious about their tastes, or perceived lack of same.
There is no solution, no right or wrong, in such a highly subjective discussion, obviously. But my take on it, to oversimplify it, is that rockists get put off by what they see as popists' mindless acceptance of outright crap like the boy bands and such. Rockists are agog that, whatever the inherent humor value, it's an abomination that a weird homunculus like William Hung can get a record contract while thousands of kids out there spend thousands of hours practicing so that they can be good at something, and not just be another disposable jerk-of-the-week in some absurd media circus that seems to actively devalue actual talent.
And popists rightly see that rockists tend to take the whole thing way too seriously, that they can be smug and obsessive over people and songs that, on further reflection, sometimes turn out to be rather mediocre. It is the eternal battle of art versus commerce. As Robert Fripp once put it, in the world of commerce, the musician plays the music, and in the world of art, the music plays the musician. This is an easier way to draw the line, as it does not require quantifying or insulting one taste over another, but merely being honest with ourselves over where we want our consumption rituals to intersect with our particular tastes.
Put succinctly (if that's possible by this point), American Idol is pop; Sopranos is rock. One is forgotten almost as soon as it's over, and will likely never be revisited outside of pathetically lame reunion wankfests, while the other practically requires multiple visits to absorb the multiple levels of nuance, context, narrative, and craft of dialogue.
[more to come]