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.”
Jody Rosen, “In Defense of Schlock Music,” Vulture, May 27, 2014
Rosen’s piece on schlock seems one of those rare articles in which the accompanying list is more useful than the essay. The list is, like all lists at their best, a reimagining of history that highlights forgotten or ignored works and offers new understandings of existing ones.
But the thesis underpinning it — that “schlock” is an underappreciated and critically under-engaged quality requiring renewed appreciation — seems lacking. At base, the argument is Kelefa Sanneh’s “Rap Against Rockism" plus Carl Wilson’s schmaltz-musings in Let’s Talk About Love (which Rosen mentions in his article), and I’m not sure Rosen offers more than a synthesis of those two (very fine) pieces. Which is OK as an entree, but being well acquainted with those arguments already, I kinda thought, is that all?
Or in another way: welcome, guy, thanks for catching up. For a start, whatever other critics have been doing, I don’t think I’ve been ignoring schlock as a positive quality — here, for instance, I praised a Blake Shelton single, saying the singer “pours on the sugar for a big, goopy love song that brims with the same unabashed enthusiasm as Martina McBride’s ‘I Love You’ or Liz Phair’s ‘Why Can’t I.’” Or here, where I welcomed Taking Back Sunday’s “convergence of theatricality and emotional honesty, pop hooks and abrasive hardcore, bad teenage poetry and brilliant hyper-emotionalism.” Or here, where I wrote, “The Used, quite obviously, is a consummately ridiculous band, and no band should wield a weapon as powerful as ridiculousness without taking full advantage of its potential.” (Rosen’s essay has a distinct lack of emo; perhaps for many critics the genre is still a schlock too far?)
But, no, I’m not chiding Rosen for failing to scrutinize my archival work, just saying that I don’t feel his ideas are particularly new ones. And, after all, his examples of great schlock don’t lack for traditionally praised tunes: are all those stuffy rock critics who nonetheless appreciate the majesty of Prince’s “Purple Rain” really revelling in anything but the schlock? As such, his attempt to redeem the better parts of Lionel Richie seem a mere matter of taste — we both like “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and “The Boys of Summer” but depart ways on “Three Times a Lady” — than a revelation of hidden depths the Commodores singer might possess.
Could critics look more kindly on plain, even gauche, emotionalism? Sure. Critics at large are still too apt to lionise authenticity and traditionally white and male approaches to creativity. Could even critics interested in the varying schools of “poptimism” expand their definitions of pop, and remember how wide is the world outside rock? Absolutely. But as much as I enjoyed Rosen’s 150 songs that form the blueprint of a schlocky canonical alternative, I don’t think he’s identified a quality as rigorously defined nor as consistently marginalized as he presents it to be.