Friday, June 06, 2014

More on musical schlock

In a stroke of timeliness, here is an entire essay in ambivalent defense of musical schlock, accompanied by a list of the 150 Greatest Schlock Songs, an eclectic list of goodness. It's a little crazy, calling for us to develop theories of schlock, because it's "too important a tradition not to take seriously and taking it seriously means making astute judgments about that tradition." Well, even if that were a bad idea, someone on the internet is gonna do it anyway, so whatever. I'm pretty much in agreement with the main point though, which is that I continue to like music, and not just music from my misguided yoof, that I'm rationally ashamed of liking and yet viscerally desire to (and do) play on repeat in my home. And that's schlock. But it's ok, because music is mainly about good feels, and schlock makes good feels:
Schlock, at its finest, is where bad taste becomes great art. Schlock is music that subjugates all other values to brute emotional impact; it aims to overwhelm, to body-slam the senses, to deliver catharsis like a linebacker delivers a clothesline tackle. The qualities traditionally prized by music critics and other listeners of discerning taste — sophistication, subtlety, wit, irony, originality, “experimentation” — have no place in schlock. Schlock is extravagant, grandiose, sentimental, with an unshakable faith in the crudest melodrama, the biggest statements, the most timeworn tropes and most overwrought gestures...

The truth is, big corny windswept sentimentality might just be the thing that pop does best. Music is the most immediate, the most visceral and ineffable of human inventions, and its essential power, the trump card it holds over the other arts, is its bald appeal to the emotions, the way a rapturous tune, a stirring beat, a charismatic voice, can override everything, transporting us to a realm beyond concerns about tastefulness or “cool” or even coherence...

Schlock isn’t what we want, at least not what we want to believe that we want. We want to be connoisseurs and, lord help us, we want to be cool. Schlock delivers something more profound: what we need...Which is why, despite our high-minded instincts, we’re stuck with schlock. There are times in life when only thing that will do is a great big tear-jerking clich√©, gusting along atop an even bigger melody. As the poet said: We’re livin’ just to find emotion.
I don't quite know from this how schlock is different from kitsch, schmaltz, treacle, and all other foreign and food-based co-optations by English to indicate the phenomenon of tasty things that are regrettably bad for you. Kundera taught me that kitsch is the low road to totalitarianism, and I was sad about that for a while, and then I decided that the effort necessary to weed kitsch from my life would be so great that I'd be too busy looking up song lyrics, scrutinizing children's toys, and analyzing movie plots for traces of manipulative nostalgia to notice if an actual totalitarian regime took power. So I stopped worrying and whispered the words of wisdom, let it be. (Sorry peeps, self-restraint is really hard.)


Ben A said...

A fabulous list.


1. If Journey paves the road to totalitarianism, then totalitarianism is both inevitable and awesome.
2. Is not identifying schlock as a negative category the product of a kind of damaging moral perfectionism. If we were *angels* it'd be the B minor mass gloria on infinite loop. But as humans, it's hard to sustain that focus, that transcendence for a hour, much less a week or a lifetime. Low art can be excellent of its kind. And while it may be better to be a sad socrates than a happy pig, a good pop song is more use than an awful novel that aspires to high art.
3. Odd that one doesn't (usually) see the same hierarchy applied to food. Is a peanut M&M schlock?
4. Pop/rock music is an interesting field for schlock-studies, as it's the art form afflicted with the most objectively awful critical establishment

Miss Self-Important said...

Selected responses:

2. I think the baseline is the good novel that is high art every time, and the relative quality of a bad novel that tries to a good song that doesn't try depends on the value you place on effort and intention. (Which need not be high - one might say, I'd rather go to a homeopathic remedist and eat a harmless leaf and die than an inept MD who performs numerous painful procedures on me that end with me dying in greater pain.) Kundera and his kitsch-theorizing predecessors inserted the political question into the mix, which threw off the scales. Then it was no longer just, what do I enjoy more - bad ponderous book or good cheesy song? - but which consumption will more likely AVERT THE END OF THE WEST?

3. The difficulty with calling sugary things treacle, or fatty things schmaltz is that they literally are so. Our vocabulary of disdain for low culture seems to be derived 75% from words for bad food. It's hard then to subject food to a judgment of its own descriptive standards - is sugar sugary? But of course, there is food snobbishness too, according to which peanut M&M's are low, kale is higher, but kale M&M's - now that would be tops, the Hegelian synthesis of food snobbery.

4. Well if you skim the comments to Rosen's article, you will immediately see the vast discrepancy possible in something as simple as taste in schlock. The book she links on Celine Dion does look promising though.

Ben A said...

I think I saw kale candies in my local Whole Foods. Cambridge!

My vote for delaying* the decline of the west via exquisitely written and morally generous adventure novels along the lines of the best of John Buchan. Would that be treacle. Perhaps. But crystals of spun sugar.

*Averting is over. We're doomed. I just spent some time in a coffee shop watching a grown man (admittedly, tattooed, but still recognizable as and adult male) spend 5 minutes making $3 pour-over coffee. The Visigoths are going to go through us like a hot knife through schmaltz.
**Your response is really a gem, by the way. Please write a novel.