My local classic hits station plays a ’70s Top 40 countdown show Sunday mornings. Any time my partner and I listen to an episode, we have the same reaction: Good grief, the melodrama, the schmaltz! It’s one sappy ballad after another — a phenomenon that spans genres. Pop & rock ballads, disco ballads, soul ballads, girded by the DJ’s personalized dedications to long-lost loves and ailing grandparents. No wonder punk had to happen, my partner said one day. All I did was nod in agreement.
Mitchell Morris’ The Persistence of Sentiment: Display and Feeling in Popular Music of the 1970s is helping to alleviate my bafflement and see 1970s pop in a new light — and that’s just the introduction. The section “Kitsch, or the Economically Abject” (22-29) introduces social change (& arguably social justice) as a dominant force that shaped the 1970s pop aesthetic, and discusses the role that privilege and power play in the critical dismissal (mea culpa) of these popular forms.
First, he unpacks kitsch to ensure his readers are on the same page:
We think of the kitsch artifact as “too pretty”; it has been described as “beauty with the ugly taken out.” The world it portrays has only positive moments, and the glib idealization of the content represented through the object allow those of us who appreciate the object to pretend that everything is, simply, “nice.” (23)
Morris then narrows in on the way kitsch is deployed (or carelessly lobbed) within rock-centric music criticism:
[A music writer critical of Barry Manilow for his safe, soothing, nostalgic music] is devoted to pop music ideals of high seriousness, so he cannot entertain the possibility that “safe” might be a worthwhile musical quality in some situations, for some audiences. (23)
So what’s the opposite of safe, in musical terms? What makes “safe” pejorative? For a bit of perspective on this, Morris widens his frame to discuss mass production and originality (though, strangely [to me], without referring to Walter Benjamin):
It is worth noting that the frameworks within which these notions of kitsch can function are profoundly structured by the specific problems of modernity, especially the troublesome centrality of mass production and conventionality. If we suppose that “high art” is that which is one-of-a-kind and embodies some kind of extraordinary labour (such as talent) that is to be apprehended in an aesthetically fastidious manner, then the proliferation of inexpensive copies of such high art is kitsch. (24)
The philosophy of rock holds that [prescribed types of] originality = challenging = not safe = rebellious = good. So, as far as these critics are concerned, safety & salve are anathema to good music. Safety is bad because originality is good, and originality is not safe. (Feeling dizzy yet?) It’s at this point in Morris’ intro that I began to reflect on how I may be complicit in — and indeed perpetuate — this narrow, circuitous critical lens; I carry a bit of this challenging originality = good ethos into my evaluation of all the musical genres I enjoy.
Rock and its various descendants are supposed to be the eternal, earnest cri de coeur of disenfranchised youth, but of course, by the 1970s, rock had become hugely expensive to produce and promote. Enter the socioeconomic angle, stage left:
Why would someone buy a copy, though? The blindingly obvious answer would be that they like the object but cannot afford the original. The modernist detestation of kitsch depends upon an enormous investment in the concepts of originality, difficulty, and truth, to be sure. But since not everyone can afford the same kinds or degrees of investment, questions of class cannot be disentangled from these values. (24)
By the 1970s, originality became a mighty costly aim in rock. This wasn’t the decade that spawned prog rock by accident:
With music, the problem of original versus copy is also articulated through technological developments of modernism. [A] significant aspect of the threat comes from the possibility of a relentlessly leveling superabundance. (24)
The music industry in the 1970s was expensive, but utterly huge all the same, in terms of pervasiveness: radio, records, concerts, you name it. With hugely profitable music conglomerates looking to deploy lush production and an endless stream of technically talented musicians in order to cash in on their version of the next big thing (whatever that happened to be)… whither the scrappy, the rebellious, the hardscrabble, the unencumbered original?
[Kitsch] rapidly became domesticated for widespread use by writers who were less interested in condemning popular culture wholesale than in making qualitative distinctions among its materials. (25)
This is where the circuitous original = rebellious = good critical lens of rock winds itself literally in knots, because by and large, it wasn’t really willing to look outward to other genres, or when it did, it did so without sufficiently reading for context. Other types of fans want & need other types of things (besides originality / rebellion & the resulting moral superiority) from their preferred music:
Perhaps this set of values works well enough when dealing with rock musicians and their audiences. But what of artists and audiences for whom music serves other purposes? Most of the artists I discuss came from or performed on behalf of audiences who occupied marginal social positions before the 1970s: African Americans; women; gay men and lesbians; poor; mostly rural (and especially southern) white people. The rock paradigm has rarely served such groups well because they historically have found authenticity too expensive to maintain and, in any case, lived lives in which there were perhaps greater need of consolation. But it is the peculiar property of the 1970s as a historical decade that such groups began to think of themselves as able to insist that their social positions be renegotiated. (25)
See, there’s the other thing about rock: it was born from poor black folks’ blues tradition and poor white folks’ country & folk, but it was very quickly claimed by middle-class white guys. And for the most part, in their quest for originality and rebellion, they’d do anything but actually venture off this (ironically very safe!) territory they’d claimed for themselves. It’s probably just as well, as that left other genres open to the desires, needs, and tastes of other demographics. And when did many marginalized groups’ struggles for agency and rights come to bear fruit simultaneously? Why, in the 1970s, of course:
What matters in the context of kitsch is that all these groups favoured music that was not a part of rock. They liked older styles. Softer styles. More sentimental styles. (26)
I have often said, “I want music to leave me feeling damaged.” How safe I must be, really, to have it as a personal goal to seek out music that is emotionally devastating & unsettling. This same music offers me catharsis and empathy in trying times, but those difficulties are still the difficulties of a middle-income white woman raised to hold up rock’s originality imperative as a kind of scripture.
I wasn’t surprised to see Morris pull in good ol’ Adorno, whose views on music I recall resenting in school:
Kitsch offers consolation, not so as to change anything but to make the anything of the here and now slightly more tolerable. (Adorno, qtd. in Morris 28)
My first reaction to that Adorno quotation was to defend Morris’ aforementioned marginalized demographics, the ones that began to command a bit more attention from the music industry in the 1970s. But then the clouds parted: this only looks to be the kin of rock’s originality ethos / criticism — it ain’t. Adorno probably would have spun the mirror around on rock critics who deigned to make discursive moves similar to his own. Who do you think you are, safe within your culturally sanctioned decades-old temple of guitars, drum kits, and power chords, to point to disco and cry “kitsch”? Bit the pot calling the kettle black, ain’t it?
Morris beat me to it, of course, with eloquence and empathy for the material & social realities of the marginalized demographics whose tastes come to the fore in 1970s Top 40:
Surely Adorno thought that it is necessary to insist upon such an ascetic goal, however, because musical pleasure seems, if not self-evident, at least more immediate. But if you occupy a social position in which the shape and the very nature of pleasure (in consequence, desire– and in consequence, agency) are precisely what is in question, then the particulars of your pleasure and your consolation are not trivial at all. (29)
No wonder punk had to happen, right? Not so fast. For all the marvelously sardonic, saucy gifts that punk and its descendants have bestowed on popular music since the late 1970s, we can’t pretend that its popularity was not, to some extent, the means by which white guys — a more politically powerful demographic than disco’s fanbase, certainly — could reclaim the narrative of popular music. Like rock before it, punk was born of a rebellious ethos and very quickly co-opted to re-entrench the status quo.
It is the rare introduction that leaves me feeling primed to take on a new and challenging scholarly text in a field I have never studied. Morris succeeds here in spades.