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Rock is Authentic, Pop is Shallow

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"LA told me, 'You'll be a pop star.
All you have to change is everything you are.'
Tired of being compared to damn Britney Spears
She's so pretty, that just ain't me."
P!nk, "Don't Let Me Get Me"

Music genre elitism is the tendency to place two or more music genres against each other in the narrative in some way or form. One genre is seen as True Art, and the other is seen as manufactured and soulless. The most common and classic way this is presented is Rock (in all cases, is usually Alternative Rock) versus Pop.

On the Rock side, you have the Ragtag Bunch of Misfits. They march to the beat of their own drum, they are the outcasts, they write their own music and play their own instruments. On the Pop side, you have the antagonists: singers that are clean cut, sparkly, have had years of vocal training, songs written by anonymous professional songwriters, played by anonymous session musicians, their image is tightly controlled by a team of record industry executives and marketing experts.

As the two genres contrast with each other, it's an easy way for writers to show contrast between two characters/groups and a way to drive conflict. Common storytelling around this usually includes a Battle of the Bands, with the Rock side being the scrappy underdogs and the Pop side being their Privileged Rival. Another common theme is inner conflict on whether or not be a Sell-Out and betray artistic vision in order to make money and produce easily accessible music. Rock is typically portrayed as the choosing artistic vision and Pop as choosing vapid commercial success, thus the title of this trope.

The mentality peaked in The '90s after Teen Pop made a comeback in the middle of the decade and after the authentic, gritty style of Grunge started to die off. In short, this is known as Rockism, the belief that rock music is more authentic/artistic than other popular music. It wasn't until the Turn of the Millennium (and rock music's fall from the spotlight throughout The New '10s before its modest return in The New '20s) that Rockism would receive its own backlash in the form of Poptimism, the idea of treating pop music and pop stars as serious and deserving of the same respect as other forms of music. Not to mention the decades-long accusations of whitewashing in rock music (and borrowing from black artists), which in later decades have been acknowledged, and where a new generation of black artists have started to appreciate rock music.

Rock Versus Pop is the most prominent way this trope is presented, but the core of the trope is pitting music seen as more organic and from-the-artistic-heart against manufactured by-the-numbers music made to entertain the biggest audience possible. This trope has been around since The '50s, when the conservative white populace shunned out early rock n' roll as edgy and degrading to society, and started to take off as rock and pop diverged in The '60s. The older variant of this trope would be the battle between Classical Music & traditional pop and Jazz, where classicists viewed their music as bombastic and passionate if one finds the right sheets and jazz as lowbrow entertainment at best and is so-called "devil's music" at worst, while jazz aficionados find jazz as an open season for improvisation and viewed traditional pop and classical music as stuffy. Even older than that is the contest within Classical Music in the 19th century between the fields of Romanticism Versus Enlightenment with Team Romantic favoring the more passionate styles while Team Enlightenment favored airy, sentimental sounds.

This can also apply to other music genres in the battle between authenticity and artifice. It can be a clash between Rock and Disco, much like in The '70s (with guitar-based Rock winning and electronic, synthesizer-filled Disco losing and being a pariah for a good part of a decade), Hip-Hop versus Rhythm and Blues, Punk Rock versus Glam Metal, Punk Rock versus Progressive Rock, Punk Rock versus New Wave Music, Punk Rock versus Pop Punk, Punk Rock versus Ska Punk, Punk Rock versus any other non-punk music genre, Post-Punk versus New Wave Music, Gangsta Rap versus Glam Rap, Thrash Metal versus Hair Metal (and more recently Extreme Metal versus Power Metal), Traditional Heavy Metal versus Nu Metal, Grunge versus Hair Metal (and Grunge versus Synth-Pop, Grunge versus Teen Pop, Grunge versus Post-Grunge, Grunge versus Britpop, Grunge versus any other music genre), Indie versus Pop music, or the clash between "real" instruments versus Electronic Music, or traditional jazz versus the jazz fusion which emerged in the 1970s, and used electric guitar and bass, synths, and elements of rock and pop.

A Boy Band, a Girl Group or Idol Singer is usually involved on the Pop side. Music Is Politics is heavily involved in this trope as well. The "rock" side will typically be Darker and Edgier, while pop music is often Lighter and Softer. Mainstream pop also tends to fall into the Girl-Show Ghetto, as it's typically marketed toward girls and young women.

Related to Disco Sucks and Rap Is Crap. Also see Three Chords and the Truth, True Art Is Angsty, It's Popular, Now It Sucks!, Slobs Versus Snobs and Technician Versus Performer. Contrast Rotten Rock & Roll.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Carole & Tuesday: The show presents a variation. One of the central themes is the conflict between music that is composed by artificial intelligence (all but omnipresent in the show's setting) and homegrown, authentic, self-composed music (that has almost been wiped out). Musicians are also torn between signing with high-powered labels (a faster route to fame and success, but at the loss of their creative freedom), and making it on their own or with lesser-known teams. Although the musicians in the show all run the gamut of genres, but the main characters Carole and Tuesday have a stripped-down, raw, pop/R&B sound, while their "rival" Angela is a pop star who has one of the top AI composers and full industry backing behind her.

    Fan Works 
  • Exaggerated in My Immortal. The entire conflict boils down to a feud between heavy-metal-loving "goffs" and pop-music-loving "prepz", with the heroes firmly on the goffik side. It runs the moral binary in this universe, with every evil character being a prep, and therefore, a fan of pop music.

    Films — Animation 
  • Sing: Buster tries to make punk rocker Ash into a pop princess, giving her the peppy "Call Me Maybe" to sing. Ash resents this, so for the final performance, she sings her own song instead, the personal, hard-rocking "Set It All Free", and brings down the house.
  • Played with in Trolls: World Tour. The premise is an inversion: the villains of the Rock Troll tribe are trying to take over all the other tribes and convert people into rock-loving zombies, while the heroes from the Pop tribe try to stop them by convincing everyone that every genre is good (and eventually do so by making "authentic" music with their bodies and voices at the Concert Climax). However, the backstory also reveals that the Pop tribe tried to pull this previously by trying to convert all the other genres to pop.
    • Also, for her part, Barb fully believes in this trope, frequently lambasting pop as shallow and empty in contrast to rock.

    Films — Live Action 
  • A Star Is Born (2018) has country rock star Jackson Maine and his new protege/girlfriend Ally. The duo makes waves in the industry with their classic guitar strumming and raw vocals, embodied in Award-Bait Song "Shallow". When Ally goes solo, her music is more trashy-fun manufactured pop, which is embodied in her song "Why Did You Do That" (about cute boys' butts). Following Jackson's death, Ally makes a return to "authenticity" when she performs at his funeral. However, while Jackson Maine certainly seems to believe that rock is authentic and pop is shallow, Ally seems satisfied with her pop career, and the movie doesn't make a definitive statement about which one is better.
  • Disney Channel TV Movie Camp Rock 2: The Final Jam pits the titular Camp Rock, a summer music camp specializing with rock music versus Camp Star, a camp that churns out pop stars that sing and dance. Camp Star ends up winning.
  • High School Musical: Experienced theater kids Sharpay and Ryan perform "What I've Been Looking For" in their style, an upbeat pop performance. When Darbus and Kelsi hear the same song performed as a raw, acoustic duet by Troy and Gabriella, they are awed. Troy and Gabriella eventually get roles in the school musical over "industry vets" Sharpay and Ryan.
  • The entire Josie and the Pussycats film was a Take That! towards the music industry and manufactured pop music (and in some cases, itself); the struggling Pussycats band gets the record deal of the lifetime but they have their music laden with subliminal messages and commercials. Ironic considering that the Josie and the Pussycats version everyone is familiar with is bubblegum pop through and through.
  • Played with in La La Land where jazz is authentic, pop is shallow; Sebastian is a traditional jazz musician with dreams of starting a jazz bar, but as money becomes tight, his friend Keith invites him to be in his jazz/pop/R&B fusion band. It's obvious that Sebastian hates the type of music and he's giving up on his dreams, and it's exemplified in a musical sequence where Keith's band plays a sold-out show complete with dancers. But Keith isn't portrayed antagonistically, in fact he actually makes a great point about Sebastian self-sabotaging himself and how traditional jazz cannot be popular again until it evolves to be more like what people are listening to today.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Played with on Big Time Rush. When Lucy calls their band's pop music "cute", the boys take offense and try to prove to her that they can rock as hard as she can. It takes stopping traffic with an impromptu concert for her to admit they do rock.
  • The Black Mirror episode "Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too" depicts a teen pop star being appallingly exploited by her family/management, and when she breaks away from them she starts singing indie rock.
  • Dream High 2: Yoo-jin wants to be a rock star, and thinks that K-pop stars are manufactured and talentless industry hacks who are in it for the fame.
  • Johnny Atkins from The Goldbergs is a big fan of Rush and considers them superior to the mass-produced pop music the others listen to.
  • Instant Star:
    • The earnest punk rocker Jude ends up winning the Instant Star competition (an American Idol-type show) against Eden, a typical pop princess complete with big hair and an affinity for the color pink. Eden then becomes a rival to Jude in the first season.
    • Later on after Eden gets Put on a Bus, Jude gets a proper rival in the form of Karma, another pop singer who leans into the Contractual Purity aspect of Teen Idol-dom.
  • Nashville — rivals Rayna and Juliette are both country musicians, but Juliette (who is trying to unseat Rayna as the 'queen of country') is younger and more country-pop, and she's looked down on for relying on auto-tune.

  • "Internet Killed the Video Star" by The Limousines has the band lamenting on kids being tired of rock music and are dancing to soulless Electronic Dance Music.
  • Mandy Moore famously trashed her first two Teen Pop albums and even offered to refund people who bought them, and since then went on to Alternative music. She seems to have softened on this, as she celebrated the 20th anniversary of "Candy" in 2019 warmly.
  • P!nk has mostly disavowed her first album, Can't Take Me Home, released during the Teen Pop boom in the year 2000. The album had a Pop/R&B sound, but Pink claimed that it was a "compromise" between her and the label. The second album Missundaztood is completely different, leaning more in a Pop/Rock direction with a few jabs at her old sound and persona, especially on the song "Don't Let Me Get Me". It's telling that on tours, she only performs the three singles from the album and nothing else. Ironically, Pink would Genre Shift back to pop in The New '10s in the form of ballads after the success of "Just Give Me a Reason", a duet with Nate Ruess of fun.
  • Pet Shop Boys' "Can You Forgive Her?":
    She made you some kind of laughing stock
    Because you dance to disco and you don't like rock
  • "Pop Culture" by the rock band Icon for Hire critiques American pop music and pop culture as a whole.
  • This attitude is constantly used by Waterparks for songs like "Watch What Happens Next" and "Little Violence". Awsten Knight is a huge pop music fan and has been open about appreciating it on a technical level. He hasn't been nearly as kind to modern rock's tendency to avoid experimentation in the way that pop and hip-hop do in favor of "authenticity". This goes far back to where ''Pop Is Not A Dirty Word'' was the working title in 2012 for what would eventually become the Black Light EP.
  • The music video to "Everybody's Fool" by Evanescence emphasizes that the song is about a Stepford Smiler pop star.
  • Talking Heads were cast in this rivalry against disco by fans and the music press due to the line "This ain't no disco" in their song "Life During Wartime" being taken as an anti-disco song at the height of the backlash against the genre. The band members were actually fans of disco and R&B music, which would become obvious on albums like Remain in Light and Speaking in Tongues.
  • Willow Smith released the poppy Be Yourself anthem "Whip My Hair" when she was 9 years old and as she grew up, she tried to change her image and sound, trying to get away from the shadow of the hit and make more "authentic" music. She embraced the single even as she switched to an alternative rock sound in 2021, as she realized that the core theme of "being yourself" of her music hasn't changed at all and even performed a punk rock cover of the song.
  • The Rolling Stones and The Beatles were also cast in such a rivalry, with the Fab Four taking the "pop" side due to their melodic traditional pop and folk influences, and The Stones on the "rock" side with their rougher, blues-based sound. This lessened over time as the Beatles began to radically experiment with their sound.
  • When Britney Spears's career started to falter in the early 2000s, several artists (namely Michelle Branch, Vanessa Carlton, and Avril Lavigne) rose and gained popularity and were dubbed the "Anti-Britneys", due to their music styles being stripped down singer-songwriter style rock/alternative (in case of Avril, bombastic punk-style pop). They wrote their own songs, played their own instruments (at least Michelle and Vanessa did, Avril did not initially), and did not dance or lip-sync. Only Avril embraced the "anti-Britney" label; Vanessa thought it was sexist to compare herself to another female artist while Michelle was a Britney fan. This label too would get backlash, such as in this 2003 article which pointed out that these artists were just as manufactured as Britney was. Nowadays, with the rise of Poptimism, this label gets even more derision. Branch and Carlton still are active musicians but are no longer on the pop culture radar and Lavigne embraced pop music over punk ironically and has had a prolific pop music career.
  • Eminem:
    • Intense hatred of Teen Pop was a major part of Eminem's persona starting from The Marshall Mathers LP, which led to increasing embarrassment as his music crossed over more into a pop sound starting from 2010. As early as 2002, he was apologetic about insulting pop stars, admitting he only lashed out because his child-friendly soundnote  and boyish, heartthrobby appearance let to people calling him a "pop-rapper" when he still felt like an underground MC. In an interview in 2017, when asked why he was collaborating with Ed Sheeran on Revival when he was the kind of soft pop star he would have dissed in 2000, he said it was because he respected Sheeran as a real artist who writes his own songs and who was nothing like the manufactured pop stars he'd insulted back in the days of TRL.
    • Eminem has expressed sentiments like this about his own music, due to his Marshall/Eminem/Slim Shady split-personality gimmick allowing him to release earnest stadium Rap Rock songs like "Lose Yourself", intimate confessional ballads like "Mockingbird", and silly bubblegum pop songs using offensive Black Comedy, like "The Real Slim Shady" - the last of which he found least valuable in middle age, expressing Creator Backlash to it. In 2010 he justified his switch to an earnest Rap Rock sound by saying he wanted to make meaningful songs that could make his fans' lives better. In his 2014 single "Guts Over Fear" he claimed the "playful songs I make for fun" are meaningless, and that he'd rather make a sequel to his uplifting gospel-rap "Not Afraid" than to his impish celebrity-insult-fest retro-pop hit "We Made You". This is all despite many of Eminem's comedy pop songs, particularly the ones on The Marshall Mathers LP, being celebrated by critics for their intellectual depth, beautiful language use and social satire, while his earnest work tends to get received as Glurgey and boring. However, one of the songs Em cited in 2010 as having a meaning was the funny-accent-driven and hyperoffensive Y2K-era pop-rap "Criminal", and he's continued to write funny lyrics and songs, insisting that if you aren't laughing even at his 'serious' songs then you don't get him as an artist. By 2020, he'd relaxed on this point, with Music To Be Murdered By: Side B, an album he put out to cheer up his fans during the lockdown, containing a silly-voices skit, lots of groaner puns and the fan-fav nonsense-rap "Discombobulated".
  • Miley Cyrus has expressed this attitude at times, stating that she "hates Pop music" and that she doesn't like her own Pop music. This may have been Creator Backlash against her early music when she was starring on Hannah Montana and releasing kid-friendly pop music at the time. Despite this, much of the music Cyrus makes is firmly in the Pop category, though she has played with different genres such as Country, Rock, and Experimental.
  • Stock Aitken Waterman were thought of by their detractors as being Shallow Pop embodied, This songwriting, production and management team relied on manufactured and slickly marketed acts, with SAW exerting rigorous control at all steps of the process. People who thought music should be more spontaneous than that, with an unpredictable and uncontrollable element, more RAW than SAW, were turned right off.

    Video Games 
  • Brόtal Legend: The world is based on Heavy Metal visual art and has various factions of different aspects of Rock and Metal. The only appearance of Pop is a disappointing Bait-and-Switch boy band in the prologue that quickly dies.
  • Splatoon: The first European Splatfest for Splatoon was "Rock vs Pop". Callie's "Team Rock" won. When the sequel reused the same Splatfest for Japan, "Team Rock" (this time run by Pearl) won again.
    • In practice, however, this is downplayed, as the groups hosting the Splatfests (the Squid Sisters, Off the Hook, and Deep Cut) all have strong Pop influences. The Squid Sisters are straight-up Bubblegum Pop Idol Singers; Off the Hook mixes in a more experimental EDM sound, but were brought together by the Squid Sisters' music and regard their predecessors quite highly; and while Deep Cut mixes a heavy dose of samba, enka, and traditional Indian music, some of their songs are still lean much more towards outright Pop. All three groups' careers have been portrayed as positive and successful, with the Squid Sisters only losing some relevance by the time of 2 simply because more bands have risen up the charts in the interim, and even then they've remained widely popular among the inhabitants of both Inkadia and the Splatlands. In particular, the Squid Sisters' Signature Song is the main reason why the Octolings were able to break free of their indoctrination and reintegrate into surface society.
    • Not that this line of thought hasn't shown up in-universe. According to bonus material Haikara Walker (an Octo Expansion art book/in-universe magazine), former Squid Squad member Ikkan wasn't fond of the pop dominance in the Inkopolis Plaza scene.
  • No Straight Roads plays with this trope quite a bit, and ultimately subverts it in the end. Protagonists Mayday and Zuke are an indie rock duo fighting to free their city from the reign of the tyrannical, EDM-loving record label NSR. However, NSR's CEO rightfully points out during her boss battle that the band's plan could put thousands of the company's employees out of work, and their revolution mainly consisted of crashing the performances of some legitimately good artists and beating them up when all they wanted to do was play for their fans. This leads to Mayday realizing she was ultimately no better than the company she was fighting against — especially when the disgruntled rock fan who'd been assisting the band decides to drop a satellite on the city just to spite NSR. In the end, the Aesop is a rejection of the trope, saying that there is no superior way to go about one's craft, and attempting to subjugate one form of art in favor of another does more harm than good.

    Web Video 
  • Mark Grondin, the host of the music review show Spectrum Pulse, is an unabashed poptimist who's not a fan of this attitude. In his video on Fall Out Boy's 2013 comeback album Save Rock and Roll, he said that making a great pop song can be just as difficult as making a great rock song if not moreso, in large part because of the constraints placed on musicians that force them to get creative in subverting or working around them, and that it's a talent that's too often dismissed. He feels that rock, by contrast, is frequently placed on a pedestal of musical complexity and depth that it often doesn't deserve, especially not by the 2010s when the genre was entering one of its lowest ebbs of both mainstream success and critical respect. He castigated the 2000s music press (especially Pitchfork) for having fully bought into this trope with regards to their dismissal of Pop Punk and Emo Music, and believes that Save Rock and Roll was fueled in large part by Fall Out Boy's desire to prove themselves as "real" musicians after having been treated for so long as a glorified Boy Band.

    Western Animation 
  • In the The Loud House episode "Really Loud Music", rocker Luna wants to send her music to a contest but is afraid nobody would like her type of music and tries to think of a type of music everyone would love. She then decides to create a generic pop music that does make her win the contest but isn't truly her.
  • Miraculous Ladybug: The episodes "Guitar Villain" and "Silencer" have pitted rock acts (the eccentric, flamboyant rock star Jagged Stone in the former and the Garage Band Kitty Section in the latter) against the obnoxious, manufactured pop/EDM musician XY. However, the show doesn't portray pop music as bad — the main issues with XY are his manufactured (and stolen) sound, jerkass attitude, and the fact that he only got so far because of nepotism. When unrelated sweet pop star Clara Nightingale rolled into Paris in season 2, she was portrayed positively.
  • Subverted in Pelswick, in which Pelswick trashes N'Talented, a boy band his crush Julie is into. Julie rightfully calls Pelswick out on him judging the music without listening to it and challenges him to actually hear their album. In a twist - he likes it. It is later revealed that the boy band is musically backed by an old metal band Megadirt that Pelswick likes.
  • Jem toys around with this. The pop stars are the heroes and the New Wave "rock" stars are the villainous rivals. However, Jem and the Holograms use a carefully constructed image based upon holograms, with their lead singer using an alias and holographic imagery to camouflage her true self. In contrast, The Misfits are predominantly self-made (with some help from Pizzazz's millionaire father) and down-to-earth.
  • Perky Goth Sam from Danny Phantom is not fond of the punkish Ember McClain and her pop music. Sam considers it to be shallow and commercial.
  • In the Sonic Boom episode "Battle of the Boy Bands", Amy and Sticks are taken in by an Expy of Justin Bieber named "Justin Beaver". However, Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles remain unaffected, and eventually learn that it's because Justin Beaver is unintentionally brainwashing all of the island's female residents, thanks to a scheme from a Corrupt Corporate Executive behind Justin's music. In order to break the brainwashing, Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles get onstage at Justin Beaver's concert, singing a song that insults pop music with lyrics like "You should expect the expected, and nothing more, 'cause you've all heard this song and dance before". The trio of boys then takes out instruments and changes it to a rock tune, which breaks the spell.


Video Example(s):


Groups These Days

Soft rocker Peter McGeeghan and one of his bandmates stop at a pub to ask for directions to Bransky’s, the venue they’re playing later that evening. While there, they’re subjected to some of the patrons’ views on contemporary pop music and challenged to prove themselves as musicians.

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Main / RockIsAuthenticPopIsShallow

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