“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.