Wednesday, May 28, 2014

"Schlock" Is Schlock, Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying About Bad Taste and Embrace Pop Music

"Schlock, at its finest, is where bad taste becomes great art.  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. 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.”

This is a very small part of an exhaustive piece in New York Magazine Online by Jody Rosen entitled "In Defense of Schlock Music: Why Journey, Billy Joel, and Lionel Richie Are Better Than You Think."

It's a terrific essay with dozens of button-pushing subjects and keen observations. In the wake of Steve Perry's return to the stage on Memorial Day after 20 years, it comes at a perfect time and I'd like to thank Kevin M. for the tip. I highly recommend taking some time and reading it through.

When I was a kid, I either liked a song or didn't. In many ways, I am still the same, though I have now the resources to express myself with more words and emotion than "This sucks." I don't often, but it's there when I need it. I don't ever recall listening to the radio and using the word "schlock" to describe anything in the Top 40. 

I had many friends who were fans of the band Styx. I was not. I wasn't then and I am not now. But if "Too Much Time On My Hands" or that treacly slab of love we know as "Babe" came on the radio I only thought "I'd much rather be listening to David Bowie or Led Zeppelin." The hip-factor, at least the way it's become so prevalent now, didn't take precedence over the simple formula of hook and melody, two things that arguably, Styx songs have in spades.

And why should a songwriter with the talent to write Tin Pan Alley standards, 60's pop pastiches and straight forward rock and roll get labelled as schlock? Billy Joel's name is part of the article title, for Pete's sake.

"The rock-critic consensus on “Don’t Stop Believin’” was unsurprising: Disdain was the order of the day. Critical conventional wisdom cast Journey as doubly deplorable. They were not merely (to use the period’s choice epithet) “corporate rockers”; they were cynical corporate rockers — erstwhile San Francisco hippies who had shelved their prog-fusion ambitions and hired a cornball singer, Steve Perry, to chase Foreigner and REO Speedwagon up the pop charts."

I had many friends who were fans of Journey. I wasn't then and I am not now. But if "Who's Sorry Now" or that monster power-ballad "Separate Ways" came on the radio, I only thought, "When are they going to play David Bowie or Led Zeppelin?" As a matter of fact, I owned both of those Journey songs on 45s, never once thinking their sinister rise to the top was more important than just how exciting the production and chorus of "Separate Ways" sounded whenever I heard it.

I am probably over-simplifying as usual, but it never fails to strike me as bullshit when critics become so blatantly contrary to pop music. I'm not talking about today's pop music, which is by and large, not really music, so much as it is faces and computers and files. There is a world of difference between Aloe Blacc and Lionel Richie and Kurtis Blow and Jay-Z, at least to my ears.

“Endless Love” is a tissue of clichés — which Lionel Richie folds into a gorgeous origami swan. If, as critics and canon-makers, we can’t find a way to hallow a song like “Endless Love” — if we can’t see fit to put Richie in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame alongside Springsteen and Michael Jackson and Madonna, the only ’80s hit-makers on his level — we may need to ask ourselves if our critical criteria are out of whack: if on some basic level we’re missing the point of the art form we purport to critique."

It could be that it has existed forever and I have been too much in love with pop music to notice, but somewhere...(I blame R.E.M.)...we started to take more notice of other things than the "record." Making a record is easy. Making a good record is not. And with the exception of "We Built This City," the records we recognize as "schlock" are good "records." There are thousands of better records, but living in a world where The MC5 and Foreigner can coexist shouldn't be a sin.


Anonymous said...

I will not budge on Saga.

Jon Springer said...

I think on some level the miracle of all-you-can-eat streaming is allowing for some of these bands who were lightly regarded but popular in their time to be reassessed free of the cultural influences of their heyday. That's what I've been doing anyway, and have come a long way on Journey and Billy Joel in particular. I'm pretty sure Styx still suyx.

William Repsher said...

I still don't understand why R.E.M. became as big as they did -- they shouldn't have. They were the perfect college/indie band of the 80s: vaguely appealing, melodic, jangly, sort of anti-rock star in that their egos seemed to be subservient to the band and music. Then Michael Stipe, shaves his head, starts wearing make-up and getting political ... phew. It felt so wrong to me at the time and still have issues with it.

Critics hope to make themselves appear as influential as the bands they critique. That's impossible -- I learned that myself. If you're writing about something, you're not being something. Criticism, in and of itself, is wonderful when you have a good writer with a broad sense of taste and enough worldly knowledge to place the music in a larger context. Unfortunately, along with finely-crafted pop music, that's fallen by the wayside over the years, too. Everyone' s a critic now, and most people are terrible it, mainly in their limited senses of taste.

I wouldn't bash critics too much. For everything they get wrong -- like their inability to recognize why bands like Journey and Styx have massive audiences (and not using the tired "because the masses love shit" rhetoric) -- they tend to get a lot more things right. The problem being ... no one cares. They barely cared back in the glory days, and they don't care at all now. I think this breakdown of critical influence has had a massive effect on popular music, most of it bad. The stuff that's big is going to be big, no matter what they do. But those influential bands that tend to be recognized as such long after the fact just fade further into the background without that kind of support and acknowledgement.

Sal Nunziato said...

"I wouldn't bash critics too much."


Is that just a general statement, or did you feel that I was? I didn't think I was bashing all critics, as much as the tired practice of those whose prey on the easy targets.

William Repsher said...

You seem to be endorsing music purely from a fan's perspective, that sense of innocence you experienced as a kid when you heard music for the first time, and it had immediate, stunning impact on you. That's sort of the opposite of how critics approach music. As we all know, those revelatory moments we all had as teenagers and younger fans become much harder to find when you've had the experience hundreds of times and have heard thousands of hours more of music.

Just calling this stuff "schlock" -- which you aren't doing, you're responding to an article -- is a critical acknowledgement of some shared higher perspective to look down on this music. Who says its schlock? Only one type of person in the world: a critic.

The older I get, the more I get like I was when I first became a music fan, which is to say loving what I love unapologetically or without any trace of irony. I suspect you're the same way, too. But we both know, you listen to thousands of hours of music, you develop a sense of taste that's hard to deny. It shapes what I listen to moving forward and more importantly, what I DON'T listen to!

Good critics are hard to find, especially now. As I've noted a few times, and you've noticed, too, most make themselves embrace stuff we know is derivative and nowhere near as good as the names they drop in the same reviews of indie darlings.

Would you say Dave Marsh is a bad critic? He's written some great/legendary pieces over the years ... and he surely despises bands like Journey and Styx, even now. Both those bands were surely "easy targets" in their prime for critics. And I'd say if you're of a certain age and have deep knowledge of indie music, Alabama Shakes are easy targets now!

buzzbabyjesus said...

I used to be a music snob and just dismiss schlock as crap. As I get older I see that there is a difference.

Sal Nunziato said...

Dave Marsh is a terrific writer, as are many critics. And while I still laugh out loud at the Village Voice's review of "Ishtar"--"Ishtar is ratshit"---I have never been a fan of that type of criticism for anything. It's too easy.

As for Alabama Shakes being easy targets, I don't see them that way. I read more than a dozen critics and their approval of the band and after solid passes through their record, decided there was nothing there, but not because of anything except the nothing in the grooves. Wasn't schlock or crap. It was just nothing.

Anonymous said...

The article was MUCH more coherent than the accompanying list of 150 schlock songs. By her list's (non)definition, every song that dealt with emotions -- y'know, like 'boy meets, then loses, girl' or 'I'm sorry' -- is schlock. so the list has 'Boys of Summer', 'Love Train', 'Reach Out, I'll Be There', Johnny Cash's 'Hurt'....head-scratchers, all. She'd have better luck listing the 150 non-schlock songs of history, since that may be the total number of songs ever composed that don't deal with emotions.
C in California

Gene Oberto said...

This post requested by the editor...why Journey will always be above schlock for me:

I didn’t want to put this in the comments section because it really wasn’t relevant to a “do they or do they not suck" debate.

When Journey was big time, I was working for the label and, as such, it was pretty easy to get backstage to meet and greet, sometimes work related with radio and retail or just because I liked the band and, sometimes, just because I could.

One of the things I liked to do was to go to afternoon sound checks with my guys, Devin and Matt. When Journey rolled into Seattle on the “Frontiers” tour, they were the biggest band in the world. They had followed up “Escape” with “Frontiers” (a #1 and #2 LPs). At that time, Devin was six and Matt was five, nineteen months between them. Because of their Dad’s work, they were pretty hip to MTV and could discern one band from another, at least the ones they liked. Matt was real partial to Judas Priest that, I guess, set him on the course to ska, the DK Murphys, Streetdogs and Bouncing Souls. That na-na chorus from Journey is easy on the ears of kindergartners.

We head to the Seattle Arena and, as pre-arranged, entered the soundcheck. We were met by the Road Manager, Steve Clark. You know how crusty RMs can be, but though you knew by looking at him you didn’t want to be short on the receipts, he was a really good guy and he took an immediate shine to my kids. Steve took them both under his big arms for a private tour of the setting up. First stop was to the car license camera and they were set up with laminated all access passes for the tour. Every crew member greeted them as they were part of the crew, some going so far as to let them pull on a rope, help with a drum set up by having them hit a drum or cymbal. They saw the guitars and keyboards, stood so the spots could hit them, even had some sandwiches and soda at the crew’s buffet room.

I had a real problem getting two star-eyed kids to sleep that night and, as a Dad, was happy to have help make their day with the Journey crew. They were magnanimous far beyond what some bands were with half their talent and dram of their fame. My guys wore those badges every day for the longest time and when they put them down, I scooped them up and kept them safe. I still have them buried in a box somewhere. Those faces are frozen in 1983 with ear to ear smiles and wide, bright eyes. You don’t need a time machine to go back to that day. Your DNA has one and it always leaves a smile on my face.

Thought you might enjoy to know that schlock is how you see it. Is Journey schlock? Not to a couple of guys named Devin and Matt, who, at 38 and 36, STILL talk about that afternoon in Seattle.

Ken D said...

haven't had time to get to the article today but just fyi to C in California, Jody Rosen is male.

Ken J Xenozar said...

Gene, that is a much better story than any discussion about "schlock".

Sal Nunziato said...

Gee thanks, Ken J


steve simels said...

I get the basic point, and even agree.

That said -- if you're trying to make excuses for Styx on any level, we've got problems.

A walk in the woods said...

I love discussions like this. I’ll never be cool in terms of music, even though some of my faves are probably perennial cool figures – Dylan, Velvet Underground, Miles Davis, Tim Buckley, etc.

But I’ll never be cool musically because I grew up on the RADIO, top 40 radio at that. I worshipped Mr. Casey Kasum’s rankings. Why not? It was the soundtrack to my youth, and the songs sounded good.

My first glimmer into the world of holier-than-thou was actually Rolling Stone Magazine’s 20th Anniversary issue in 1987, when they picked the top 100 albums of the previous 20 years. That had lots of populism in it (Springsteen, Beatles, Aretha), but it had some hipster stuff I’d actually never heard of yet (Iggy Pop, Captain Beefheart, Modern Lovers) and it opened my eyes to the world of musical hierarchies and rankings.

But I just used it as a roadmap to discover new stuff, and to focus on within existing records – not as a way to exclude.

I got no time for exclusion, really. If it doesn’t sound good to me, I don’t buy it, but I don’t mind it existing. (Love your reference to “We Built This City” because that is one of the few songs that probably doesn’t deserve to live.)

So I like Katrina & The Waves - and I like Can. I air-drum to some Phil Collins songs - and I have Thelonious Monk bootlegs.

Why not?

Sal Nunziato said...

I did not then and will not now make excuses for Styx, nor have I ever, even in my most vulnerable states, actively reached for a Styx record. But I will reiterate, there are enough hooks in "Come Sail Away" and "Too Much Time On My Hands" to snag a Blue Fin Tuna.

Noam Sane said...

...and that ride cymbal in the chorus of "Blue Collar Man" - kills me.

Speaking of schlock, I see Marc Cohn as the hipster Dan Hill.

Beyond that, I have nothing to add.

Anonymous said...


Is a song born as "schlock", or does it grow into "schlockiness" over time?

Anonymous said...

Ken D -- thanks for the proper sexing of the writer. In my morning haze, I'd misremembered the writer being named Judy instead of Jody.
C in California

Les said...

Nothing to add to the discussion. Just wanted to let you know I dropped by :)

Jeff in Denton TX said...

My name is Jeff and I like a lot of schlock. Not just the classic rock staples like Journey, Styx, REO Speedwagon, and Toto, either. Oh no, I also own and enjoy music by Air Supply, Barry Manilow, post-Bang Records Neil Diamond, Loverboy, Saga, and I even like the first Christopher Cross album. While I might be able to make an aesthetic argument for, say, Foreigner or Kansas, most of this stuff I enjoy for what it is--pop music with strong melodies or neat riffs. Is it cheesy? Absolutely! Do I listen to it ironically? Hell, no! I listen to it because I like it. That doesn't mean anyone else has to. I always wanted to write an essay or even a book entitled "In Defense of Schlock," but Mr. Rosen beat me to it and did a fine job (in the article--not so much with the song list).

big bad wolf said...

all right, i guess i am willing to be the dick in the discussion. i don't have time to do a full analysis of all of rosen's weak assertions, assertions he has been living on for years, but i have to say that intellectually his piece is exceedingly lame, a stream of non-sequiturs posing as a populist egalitarianism. look, i am fine with a lot of his songs and i love some of them, but pretending that lionel richie's "cornball" is somehow the same as irving berlin and bing crosby's ability to make something significant of what should be merely sentimental is not just a matter of taste---it's a matter of overlooking the importance of skill and talent in both songwriting and singing. talent allows our emotions to be manipulated in a lasting way. hell, jimmy durante was a damn sight better at that than lionel. rosen's problem is not that we critical people don't like the people's music, it's that some performances display more facets and range than others. that doesn't make them "better," in an absolute sense---there is no absolute sense---but it may make them better in the sense that craft is an identifiable and mostly measurable thing that can be articulated and substantiated by pointing to specific criteria. rosen's essay lacks coherence, intelligible criteria, and an ability to contextualize. it is, in the end, an argument so general as to be worthless. yes, there were always bathetic blues, mourning country songs, and pointless pieties, but most don't persist and to confuse our commercial culture's ability to milk the mundane with the ability of talent to transcend it seems to me to be rosen's mistake.

i'd argue that, with the exception of the journey song (which i am willing to wager a part of my less than massive estate (and would wager if it were massive), does not outlast me) and the lionel richie.diana ross song (which just plays to rosen's tendentious arguments) all of the top ten present some combination of great songwriting talent and great singing talent. really rosen wants to pretend that harold arlen and judy garland are like steve perry (who i am sure is a wonderful guy)? and doesn't the george jones song give the game away? of course, he stopped loving her today is one of the worst songs ever written and orhestrated. it is absurd on more levels than we could ever name. and damn it, george jones is so fucking good that the song works even though every intelligent cell in one's being screams that this is ridiculous. no one else on earth could have made that song work. that is not some tribute to schlock; it's a tribute to george jones. the song is schlock; the orchestration is schlock; the vocal is a damn miracle. don't stop believing is just popular hackwork. and that's okay (well, i hate it), but popular hackwork is something other than schlock---or greatness such as george jones is something other than schlock (same for thunder road, which shouldn't be on the list and shows rosen's, to be charitable, confused criteria)

big bad wolf said...


this too i think, which is openness transcending schlock

so maybe "schlock" is just jody rosen's way of carving a living in a tough market. if one throws in lionel richie with judy garland and bing and elvis, and the backstreet boys with prince and joni mitchell and dolly parton one gets published and has an modern attitude, but maybe, while i may disagree with christgau as often as rosen, i find christgau more, if not believeable at least engaging, and his arguments more substantiated and nuanced. in the end, when i am reading about and talking about music, i need those things. when i am listening, i am willing to be carried away, but what rosen is unable to do in his essay is articulate why he believes richie has this ability, or journey does. he begs his own question.

and yeah, i guess i sound like sal when he's going on about all those damn trust fund kids in brooklyn, but maybe, just maybe we might have a point.

and goddamn i love billy joel, but i would argue that he overcomes his schlock with talent, to the point it makes everyone give and in a way steve perry or the badcksreet boys never do

all of this brigns me to mmmmbop, which i adore, and which maybe highlights rosen's problem. it's okay to like a song; it may be that a pop culture writer needs to overstate to make a living. mmmmbop ain't nothing but fun. i am willing to beleive for some people don't stop bieleiving may be fun, but it ain't got no more significance. white christmas does. surely jody knows that when he is not cranking out crafted non-critic like product.

back to my cave

dogbreath said...

I'm a tad late catching up on this informative debate but what's with all the Styx-bashing? I well remember rushing home from a record fair with a couple of Styx 45s clutched in my sticky little fingers & being knocked out by the wall of sound that emanated from my speakers. They got me into the whole US pomp rock thing (which is still a guilty pleasure) and other bands such as Kansas, Axe & Starcastle. Anyway, gonna put "Babe" on the jukebox & hold aloft my cigarette lighter!

Christine said...

Thank you for always being open-minded, honest and fair. This was a great discussion, and as you know, I stand by the schlock. Thank you for recognizing that I'm still allowed to have the same love affair with Bowie, Zeppelin, and all the more critically respected bands.

misospecial said...

I love this post, Sal, and the breadth of your perspective. Lively discussion, too. But for me the specific merits or demerits of particular songs and bands is much less the point than freeing oneself from the need to be justified—critically justified. Not meaning to be holier than thou; I was in the thrall of justification for my opinions for most of my life, and being right seemed terribly important (as did proclaiming it and pointing out how wrong those who disagreed with me were).

Probably it's just being older, one of the compensations for all the drawbacks, to relax into a more generous stance. I'm no more willing to suffer through music I don't enjoy than I ever was, but I'm a lot less interested in telling others why they're wrong to like something. Live and let listen, I guess you could say.

Criticism, good criticism, matters. It's important to think deeply about our passions, pro and con. But the whole concept of the guilty pleasure seems stale to me now. All of us, truth be told, like some stuff that's not really very good. It's enormously liberating to not need to be cool, to not need to see myself as impeccable.

Anonymous said...

Shlcok Rock/ Anthem Rock....
I call it Anathema Rock....

Rick Pasoltto, Hendersonville NC said...

It's really hard to perceive pop music as merely music since we attach so many ideas to it. The author considers Bowie to be good music. I'm not too sure about that. He is perceived as a cool, modern guy. But at the end of the day I think he's more ambition than music - heavy-handed, wordy and musically clumsy. Though he has some good records here and there, thanks to some great production, he still is more of a well-rehearsed type of musician, as recently evidenced by his singing and guitar strumming on Oprah, than one that is truly expressive and makes sounds that move a person. The hype and intellectual baggage makes it hard to assess his music as simply music.