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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"

Rock Is Authentic, Pop is Shallow is the tendency to place the two music genres against each other in the narrative in some way or form.

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 and their image is tightly controlled. To add variety to the story, a third party would be added to the mix in the case of Hip-Hop, which could either go with the raw gangsta approach, or with the shallow glam approach.


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 commercial success, thus the title of this trope.

This trope has been around since The '50s, when the conservative white populace shunned out rock as edgy and degrading to society, and started to take off as rock and pop diverged in The '60s. In the early years of The British Invasion, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles were cast in such a rivalry, before the Fab Four began to radically experiment with their music. 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. This lingered on until the advent of Rock & Roll, when most of the population had just fully accepted jazz.


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.

The mentality peaked in The '90s after Teen Pop made a comeback in the middle of the decade and after Grunge's appeal 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 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. However, this eventually resulted in poptimism succumbing to similar flaws as rockism, with critics of poptimism describing it as placing unnecessary emphasis on commercial success over artistic value and—like rockism—being unfairly generalizing and ignorant of genres other than pop. Critics of poptimism also note that pop has far more rigid qualifications than rock (namely the inclusion of a "verse-chorus" structure), which results in cases where artists like Miles Davis could technically count as rock, to the point of being inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, but can never conceivably be regarded as pop.


As rock music went out of mainstream in The New '10s, Hip-Hop and other genres such as indie, electronic music, and even foreign music such as Latin and K-pop, tried to fill in the gap on the side of authenticity against pop music with varying results. Some even thought that hip-hop replaced rock music as a competitor to pop, and a similar form of "hip-hoptimism" started to emerge in public discourse as well, again eventually falling victim to the same flaws as its rock and pop counterparts (not helped by the ways in which Web 2.0 have affected the nature of online discussion).

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 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 Rock winning and 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 any other non-punk music genre, Post-Punk versus New Wave Music, Gangsta Rap versus Glam Rap, Thrash Metal versus Hair Metal, Alternative Rock versus Hair Metal, Indie versus Pop music, or the clash between "real" instruments versus Electronic Music.

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.

Also see True Art Is Angsty, It's Popular, Now It Sucks!, Slobs vs. Snobs and Technician vs. Performer. Contrast Rotten Rock & Roll.


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    Anime and 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.

    Film — 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.
  • Zig-Zagged by Trolls: World Tour; Poppy and Branch find out there's six different Troll tribes, each specializing in a music genre, with their tribe being Pop. The Rock tribe is the villainous tribe out to take over the other tribes and make their rock reign supreme by converting everyone into rock zombies who mindlessly enjoy rock music. However, the backstory also reveals that the Pop tribe tried to pull this previously by trying to convert all the other genres to pop.

     Film — 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 it 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 Television 
  • 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 teenpop 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.
  • 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 in their song, "Life During Wartime", "This ain't no disco," 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.

     Video Games 
  • Brütal 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; both duos hosting the Splatfests, the Squid Sisters and Off the Hook, have Pop/EDM influence. The Squid Sisters are Bubblegum Pop Idol Singers, and while Off the Hook is more experimental in their EDM sound, they were brought together by the Squid Sisters' music and regard the girls highly. Both groups' careers have been portrayed as positive and successful, with the Squid Sisters only losing relevance by the time of 2 simply because more bands have risen up the charts in the interim.
    • Not that this line of thought hasn't shown up in-universe. According to bonus material Haikara Walker, 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.

     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 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.

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