Can Schlock Mean Anything if Everything is Schlock?

“I don’t think an artist is directly able to alleviate the human condition. He’s very interested in revealing it.” – Walker Evans

“Everybody knows about the bird, the bird bird bird, bird is the word.” – The Trashmen

Jody Rosen packs a lot into his piece on schlock. I think I want to start debating with this paragraph of his:

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. Put another way: Schlock is Rodgers and Hammerstein, not Rodgers and Hart. It’s “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” not “Manhattan” and “My Funny Valentine.”

I’m not sure who Rosen is arguing with here. Perhaps he never read R. Meltzer’s Aesthetics of Rock. Sophistication, subtlety, wit, irony, originality, “experimentation” all have their place, but who ever defined these things as central to music criticism? Certainly in rock’n’roll, but also in other genres, pride of place has always been taken by the role of truth, by the requirement that the music reveals an aspect of the human condition. All these other concepts are merely tools of the trade handled by songwriters and musicians.

Of course, songwriting is also craft. At times, skilled crafters have been able to practically run pop songs off an assembly line. Goffin and King, Mann & Weill, Smokey Robinson, Holland/Dozier/Holland, Jules Shear, Max Martin, Pharell Williams – these are all part of a great tradition stretching back to Stephen Foster. Rosen would argue that schlock is as deeply ingrained in this tradition as anything else, and I suppose I can’t argue with that. But I can argue that the intersection of craft and art is the true source of pop music nirvana, and that trumpeting schlock itself as a virtue is a distraction rather than an aid to understanding.

Let’s start with Rodgers and Hammerstein. When I was a kid, I used to get all teary-eyed when Jerry Lewis would sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and start breaking up doing so every year on his telethons. That was a good way to get me to call up and pledge whatever comic book money I might have had lying around on Labor Day. But, dammit, that song is a piece of shit. It’s just lies packaged to a slowly escalating climb up the ladder of notes and chords, building to a climax that pretends to feel connection to whatever is ailing you. That’s why it can so easily be plugged into whatever heart-tugging moment one needs, whether a telethon plea to help fight muscular dystrophy, or what I assume was a post 9/11 response for this version by Barbra Streisand. It feels like it’s causing the emotion, but instead it’s simply soaking up whatever emotion is in the room, and letting the singer wring it out in little droplets of feel-good response. Walking with your head held high in a storm is a good way to get hurt, and larks don’t clean up the damage no matter how pretty their song.

I’ve got no problem with subjugating all other values to brute emotional impact, but that impact has to be earned. Little Richard roared through “Tutti Frutti” like a sexually liberated hurricane, breaking down every convention of good taste and sophistication in his path. He revealed the power of the id in ways it hadn’t been expressed before, and even now, nearly 60 years after it was recorded, that record sounds like a true path to emotional salvation. Let it out, let it all hang out. It’s the real thing, a connection to human feeling. And every time somebody has followed in the wake of what Little Richard released, the power of that connection has continued to be revealed. That’s why I think “Purple Rain” means something beyond the nonsense of its lyrics, and far beyond the schlock tag Jody Rosen gives it. Prince tapped repeatedly into the vein of expressive id Little Richard explored.

“Purple Rain” shares the ascending chord idea of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” and the mid-tempo, big soaring crescendo of “Don’t Stop Believin’.” But, it also comes from the gospel aesthetic of salvation and forgiveness being offered (presumably through the baptism of purple rain, although I won’t belabor that metaphor, as I’m fully aware the phrase is rather ridiculous), and it builds to a powerfully sexual guitar solo which takes the song to its true message – the pure pleasure and emotional connection of make-up sex. Prince never explicitly says in the song that he and his woman are reunited, but that guitar is every bit as directly sexually explicit as Little Richard’s “A-wop-bom-a-loo-mop-a-lomp-bom-bom” had been. Crude melodrama? Maybe in the context of the film, but not in the feeling of the song, which mixes sin, forgiveness, pleasure, and love in ways not quite as conventional as all that. Overwrought gestures? Well, maybe, but they turn into something sweet and touching. “Purple Rain” is both a gigantic, over-the-top display and an intimate, emotionally and physically revealing expression.

Still more to come in the ongoing discussion of schlock, as I haven’t yet hit the nail squarely on the head as to what bothers me about trying to defend the concept.




Don’t Stop Believing Until You’ve Started

Before diving into the meat of Jody Rosen’s argument for schlock in general, it occurs to me that I should actually engage with the song that he focuses on the most (even if it’s only the third best schlock song in pop history, according to his list). To that end, I dove straight into the belly of the beast to actually listen to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” You can, too, if you want to play along at home.

The first thing I noticed is how carefully crafted the record is, which is to be expected from seasoned pros like Journey and their veteran production team of Mike Stone (who had engineered much of Queen’s early catalogue) and Kevin Elson (who had worked with them on three previous albums). The song develops from an engaging and deceptively complex keyboard riff into a series of verses carried by a chugging rhythm backing which allows Steve Perry’s soul-influenced vocals to fly front and center in the mix. The band members are there to support Perry, and though each plays perfectly chosen parts, there is no individual personality in the musicianship, just a collective sense of solidity and good cheer. “Don’t Stop Believin'” is a shiny bauble of a record, a glittering prize in the Cracker Jack box of 1981 pop music, and a clear precursor of much more generic power balladry to come throughout the decade. It’s not a record to send anybody screaming from the room, but it’s equally not a record that conforms to pop expectations.

For one thing, the chorus, the part that everybody remembers, doesn’t come until the song is 3/4 of the way done. For another, while those three words are catchy enough, nobody can sing them spontaneously, and certainly nobody can remember what comes right before or after them. This was made clear to me just two days ago when two teen-age girls asked me where the Journey records are kept in the record store, and one of them started to sing the chorus of this very song but wound up trailing off in a musical bit of gibberish after the title.

I have a feeling Steve Perry and I both spent a lot of time doing the same thing, which was listening to Sam Cooke records and trying desperately to ape his phrasing and intonation. Unlike me, Perry actually sounds as though he could have accomplished this. Unlike Rod Stewart, who also drew heavily from the Sam Cooke approach to soul, Perry pushed past the limits of blues and r’n’b form of the 60s and early 70s. Journey was a prog band before they went pop, and the sheer number of chords combined with Perry’s desire to sing higher and bigger notes helped create the future. I’m not sure what the 80s would have sounded like if Journey hadn’t come first. Maybe the Bangles could have joined forces with Cyndi Lauper to create a new template of lower powered rock’n’pop.

At any rate, while I understand critics of the time dismissing this music as schlock and moving on to the what-the-hell-is-this qualities of Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” in 1981, it would probably have been helpful if they had engaged more with what was actually happening in the record. It’s easy to make fun of the lyrics, which crib from blues & soul tropes with midnight trains, rolling dice, wine and smoke, but which somehow went repeatedly to the only pair of words in the whole song which seemed created to be mocked, “streetlights, people.” It’s a strange message of hope being delivered here – a small town girl and a big city boy can, with the proper lighting, alcohol, and music, share a romping good night while the singer sits outside wondering when it will be his turn to take a chance on love until he realizes that people are all available under those lamps on the curbs. But more incoherent words have been sung to great effect before and after this song, so I’m willing to give them a pass and try to figure out what else is going on here.

I’m not sure if “Don’t Stop Believin'” would have become so iconic without the catchier hits Journey had already had making sure the album Escape could sell 12 million copies. Albums which sold 12 million copies become staples of dollar bins all over America, not to mention the kind of records which get handed down to little brothers and sisters, or if held on to past college, to children years later. It’s been ridiculously easy for people to hear this record, and being heard is half the battle of becoming a staple.

While power ballads which followed in the wake of Journey would become somewhat more formulaic, many of the most familiar features are thrown in to this record. Big, soaring crescendo, check. Chunky guitar sounds, check. Slow to mid tempo, check. The impression that the singer is feeling something overwhelming, and hopes to get what he wants someday, check (though the formula would also allow for the singer to think back on what he has lost). None of these ideas originated here, but they may have been combined more thoroughly than they had been before.

It’s not fair to dismiss a record as generic when it was really more of an influence on the genre to come, and when it actually shows a fair amount of deftly creative musical motion. But “Don’t Stop Believin'” leaves me cold, and there has to be some reason I can point to for its inability to affect. It’s an empty shell, with simulacra of emotion, and with victorious technical splashes not connected to meaning or purpose. It’s not a bad enough record to dismiss entirely, but it’s not good enough to demand repeated listens. Jody Rosen says it’s schlock, which, among many other slippery definitions, he says is bad taste creating great art. I say it’s neither cliched enough to be an example of the former, nor moving enough to be the latter. Perhaps I’ll find a way to make that more clear as we look closer at other aspects of his essay in a few days.

My dad used to listen to Muzak with the volume up. In the car, in the house, in the elevator and the doctor’s office. It didn’t matter, he wanted to hear the subtle interplay of all the instruments. His words taught me to find what he thought he was hearing. Because those who are under the age of 40, those who never had relatives with Mantovani albums, those who didn’t have a “Beautiful music” radio station playing stolid string-laden instrumental versions of songs barely recognizable from the pop hits of twenty or more years before, simply cannot recognize what exactly rock’n’roll felt like by contrast. And as a result, those without the sense of how pervasive this stuff was can’t figure out what we were rebelling against when we found anything like this in our beloved pop music.

Jody Rosen, pop music critic for New York magazine and by extension, has written a piece that suggests my cut-off age might be too low. At 44, he can’t remember, or wasn’t exposed to, the music which so carefully removed all signs of life, all connections with experience, all hope of meaning. As a result, he has written a piece extolling the virtues of schlock in pop music, and has triumphantly introduced a new canon of songs which are either richer than he claims them to be, or more often, are simply mechanical facsimiles of emotional connection. The piece deserves to be read in its entirety, but the purpose of this blog is, at least for now, to engage with Rosen’s arguments slowly and thoroughly.

I’ve been thinking about my relationship with songs since reading this piece. I remember the trembles I used to get singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” when I was in Concert Choir in high school. I remember how listening to “Could It Be Magic” by Barry Manilow would produce an emotional high akin to a first kiss. I know what he’s talking about, the ways these songs can get under your skin and fill a vacuum where you can’t find the words to express what you’ve felt, or more often, you’ve never felt this thing at all and this feels like what it should feel like.

I also know that I love certain songs which Rosen either labels “schlock” or which fit within the parameters he describes. “Purple Rain” by Prince makes Rosen’s list of 150 best Schlock Records; he calls it the ne plus ultra of power ballads, and in the piece talks about its essential lack of meaning. But that song means something to me, as does “Love Me in a Special Way” by DeBarge, as does “Hello” by Lionel Richie, as does “He Stopped Loving Her Today” by George Jones, which Rosen has at number 4 on his list. Meanwhile, “Don’t Stop Believin'” by Journey, sandwiched between Prince and Jones here, fails to my ears as a pop record.

Now, I don’t want this to be a declaration; one of the things I mean to do in this space is to listen to these records with a critical ear, and try to figure out what makes me think some are good and some are bad, and try to figure out just why I’ve had such a strong reaction to Rosen’s ecstatic reclamation of a critically reviled word. There is much to chew on in Rosen’s essay, and we’ll begin chewing together in the next day or two.