Jody Rosen published a fantastic piece today on Vulture about the topic of schlock in popular music and why we do love it ever so. It was most certainly the most interesting consideration of pop music that I have read in a while, and it provides a comprehensive treatment of those songs that we love even though maybe we know we shouldn't but how can you resist the awesome that is 'Total Eclipse of the Heart'? Rosen admits that the idea of schlock is a term that defies simple definition, but that's true in any discussion of aesthetics, and at its core, that is what this essay is seeking to do.
Historians and musicologists may hear the echoes of earlier music aesthetics in some of the concepts that Rosen introduces--Rosen does draw parallels between schlock and the Victorian parlor song, but these parallels are far more profound than this genre alone. For example, Rosen's claim that '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,' is essentially the exact same idea that drove musical Romanticism. Crucial to this idea is the notion that music's 'trump card' is 'its bald appeal to the emotions,' a belief that nineteenth-century composers held dear whether they were setting texts (and setting them precisely to heighten their emotional content with music) or creating instrumental works that sought to push the listener to 'the realm of the infinite,' to quote nineteenth-century music critic E.T.A. Hoffmann writing about Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Rosen also defines schlock as unapologetically over-the-top, equally valid for Romantic music: 'Schlock is extravagant, grandiose, sentimental, with an unshakable faith in the crudest melodrama, the biggest statements, the most timeworn tropes and most overwrought gestures.' After all, what is Wagner's Parsifal other than a five-hour rendition of 'Don't Stop Believing' with a slightly varied cast? The 'boy' is from the country instead of the city, the girl is unquestionably 'living in a lonely world,' and with 'strangers waiting' and 'shadows searching,' he manages to overcome by maintaining his faith.
If schlock is the modern Romanticism, then perhaps it is not surprising to find that both movements have embraced similar themes in their works. Rosen also provides a list of the 150 Best Schlock Songs Ever, although this appellation is not exactly true. Surely many of the Romantic Lieder deserve a place here too. What could be schlockier, in the sense meant here by Rosen, than Schubert's Erlkönig as a family drama writ large (and dramatically)? All of Carmen? Most of Aida ('O patria mia' in particular, with its plaintive oboe)? Heck, most opera? Everything Mahler ever wrote? Perhaps even the category of music identified by Alexander Rehding as monumental deserves inclusion. There is a tendency, I think, to assume that schlock is a category relegated to pop music, but there is no question in my mind that a great deal of what we have 'sanctified' as classical music is precisely what Rosen means here.
While Rosen is arguing for schlock existing within the work itself, I would argue that a work can be more/less schlocky based on its performance--whether that be its interpretation or, particularly with later pieces, its video, which can be viewed as an integral means of distribution from the 1970s onward. For instance, one of the songs that Rosen lists is 'I Will Always Love You,' which I wholly endorse as an inclusion. Yet at the same time, I'm not so convinced that Dolly Parton's rendition is as schlocky as the more famous Whitney Houston version. Dolly's is more understated and closer to her country roots in her performance. It also stays in tempo, which suggests to me that it is not venturing into the territory of the 'extravagant, grandiose, sentimental, with an unshakable faith in the crudest melodrama.' In fact, in Dolly's version, the melodrama seems to be at a minimum as she carries on through her emotional turmoil, with only the slightest vocal turn after 'you':
There can be no disagreement, however, over Dolly's hair. That is nothing short of monumental.
I probably don't need to tell you that Whitney Houston's rendition does exactly the opposite in many ways, and that the melodrama is heavily emphasized when consider this song's role in the 1992 film The Bodyguard. Note, though, that there is no steady tempo near the beginning. This is a device as old as C.P.E. Bach, a proto-Romantic composer, who did the same in his fantasias (1753) that are considered to be in the 'sensitive' (i.e., emotional) style. No steady tempo means that the music is being driven by the interpreter's personal understanding of the piece, and we have a tendency to understand this as a direct portrayal of emotion. All of those added vocal turns are also understood as emotional, a trick that C.P.E. Bach drew on as well:
I want to finish with a consideration of one of the songs mentioned in Rosen's list of 150, Toto's 'Africa.' Recently, I watched the video for this song, then I watched it again eight or nine times to try and process what I had just seen. It's pretty spectacular, and now I would venture to say that it is also pretty schlocky/Romantic all at the same time. I would recommend that you pay particular attention to the way that it dabbles with the exotic, a favorite locus also for Romantics:
Let me start by saying that the drummer here, with his absolute devotion to his playing, is about as Romantic as they get.
What strikes me as most exotic here is that the distant, unfamiliar land is being used (it would seem) as a place to find new knowledge and perhaps even pushing our protagonist to somewhere near what E.T.A. Hoffmann might call 'the realm of the infinite.' This is not the same exotic as we might expect from, say, the Enlightenment, where it would be a means for critiquing Western society. Here, it is a place of mystery and even danger--the world's most exotic library, with zebra skins and taxidermied lions on the wall, can burn down in the video, thanks to some tribal guy wielding a spear (and yes, that did really happen). Our protagonist is seeking something that he could not find in the West, in the song's lyrics, stopping an old man in the hopes of 'find[ing] some old forgotten words or ancient melodies.' In the video, this unattainable knowledge is represented by the book (cleverly titled 'Africa'), which then burns in the fire. As a subtle homage to this moment, at the end of the video, our lead singer is sitting on a giant copy of this book. While our protagonist, here, has sought to decode 'the realm of the infinite,' he is ultimately unsuccessful and must continue on blindly, as though without glasses (cleverly conveyed by the glasses sitting on the ground).
Is Toto's 'Africa' schlock? I would say yes. Is this Romantic? I would also say yes. I am not sure that these two impulses are one and the same, but I think that they are rooted in similar notions and goals. If artists/composers/interpreters/audiences believe music is the best means of delivering emotion, then both schlock and Romanticism will remain essential in many styles and genres. Now, let's take the time to do the things we never had, which doesn't make any sense either.