Thursday, May 29, 2014

Praising Pop

I'm not sure what I planned on doing this morning, but I ran across a long piece about pop music, specifically that kind of pop music that is called "schlock", that is so interesting that I want to talk about it a bit. The essay is by Jody Rosen and here is the link.

Despite Frank Zappa's famous quote about rock journalism:
Rock journalism is people who can't write, interviewing people who can't talk, in order to provide articles for people who can't read.
there is occasionally good writing about popular music--very occasionally! But this article is an excellent one. Taking as his model the Journey song "Don't Stop Believing", which has become a kind of icon in the 33 years since its release, Rosen defines schlock like this:
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.
Here's the song by Journey:

Rosen goes into considerable fascinating detail about schlock in pop music, tracing its origins, outlining its methods and finally appending a long list of the best examples. Here he is talking about the old-fashioned nature of schlock:
Accordingly, schlock often has an old-fashioned ring. Schlock’s signature musical instrument is the piano, that dowdy crown jewel of the Victorian parlor. (If a song opens with ponderous piano chords — a stately “Let It Be”–style intro — you know it’s a schlock anthem.) There are other telltale schlock sounds: syrupy string orchestrations; saxophone solos; black gospel choirs, annexed by white singers to give choruses a soulful boostBarry Manilow modulations — the florid key changes that appear on the far side of the middle-eight, like a herd of unicorns bursting into view on a mountain ridge. Schlock is theatrical, and its flair for the dramatic harks back to earlier, hammier eras: to the vaudeville of Al Jolson, the Broadway of Ethel Merman, the Vegas of Elvis’s later years.
 There is an awful lot of schlock in popular cinema as well. I think the first time I noticed a director shamelessly pushing the emotional buttons of the audience was in Spielberg's E.T. the Extraterrestrial. But that was just the first time I noticed it, it is really age-old and goes back to Plautus at least.

Rosen does a great job describing and taking us on a tour of schlock. But I think that we can make some aesthetic observations. Schlock is a sub-category of what we might call simple, direct music with great emotional appeal. Now I know that I have talked in the past several times about how what we hear in music is not the same thing as garden-variety emotions, but that is not the angle I want to take here, so just assume that when I talk about "emotion" I am referring to the specific kinds of moods that music expresses.

Classical music also has pieces with enormous direct emotional appeal like the "Moonlight" Sonata:

Or the slow movement from this Mozart piano concerto:

Fast, dynamic movements can also have a direct appeal:

I think that what all this music shares with the schlock pop music Rosen is talking about is that it is emotionally calming or supportive. It does not threaten us, emotionally. As he says:
It’s the soundtrack we turn to for a good long cry in a dark little room, when we’re dumped by someone we love. We recoil from schlock even as we lust for it, because it hits us where it counts, revealing us at our most wretchedly vulnerable and human.
You can get that from Beethoven or a lot of other classical music as well. One way of understanding the aesthetic of it is to see it as what Donald Francis Tovey referred to as "normality". Some of the greatest music of Beethoven is when he pares down the musical language to the most basic bedrock, the most fundamental musical atoms, like the one he builds the Symphony No. 5 from:

The "Moonlight" Sonata as well, has a kind of archetypal essence to it. I think that the great examples of pop schlock share a bit of this as well:
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.
Another great example from Beethoven is the big tune from the finale of the Symphony No. ):

To finally isolate this kind of aesthetic gesture we might consider its opposite pole: music that presents a complex fabric of emotion, that is not simple, that is ironic or even threatening. Shostakovich is one who did this kind of thing well:

As did Stravinsky:

Modernism was largely opposed to the big emotional gesture. But it has an essential place in music and we find it in lots of 20th century music. Here is one example by Górecki:

Hmm, now how did I do that? Start off with a song by Journey and end up with a symphony by Górecki? That's the magic of music, I guess.


Rickard Dahl said...

Hmm, I was waiting for a more clear conclusion. Either way I think schlock is bad when it is oversimplied in the way that pop music does it, by making everything simple (and boring I might add) and also overusing cliches (for instance that kind of boring piano playing as exemplified by Journey's Don't Stop Believin'). What classical music does is add at least one layer of beauty, complexity etc. that goes beyond schlock.

I was listening the other day to the Medal of Honor: Frontline soundtrack and I realized that it's great. I've played the game a while ago and recently started replaying it so I'm more of less conciously familiar with the soundtrack, just didn't listen to it outside of the game before. Either way I think there's a clear classical music influence, maybe especially Shostakovich. Here it is (my favorite is "Manor House Rally" at 26:22, also at 30:36 I wonder if that's not actually quoted from Shostakovich, I might be wrong ofc, it has the right kind of sound at least). I also realized that the soundtrack is composed by Michael Giacchino. He also composed the soundtrack for the TV-series Lost (which I enjoy, both the TV-series and the soundtrack (certain parts of it at least) (here's a sample:

Bryan Townsend said...

I found the original article quite interesting as a glimpse into the kind of music I usually avoid so I didn't make much of a critical response to it. I am certainly not a fan of crude schlock and wouldn't listen to much on his list with any pleasure. But I found it interesting nonetheless. There are some examples of true classical schlock I could have mentioned: Wellington's Victory by Beethoven and the 1812 Overture by Tchaikovsky would both qualify as would a host of examples from crossover like Vanessa Mae's version of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor.

When I get a chance I will have a listen to your examples.