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music friday: schlock

Jody Rosen has a piece on Vulture that is getting a lot of attention, titled “In Defense of Schlock Music: Why Journey, Billy Joel, and Lionel Richie Are Better Than You Think.” I had an instant knee-jerk reaction, especially when Rosen spent the first four paragraphs talking about my bête noire, Journey. (Side note: I’m listening to a Spotify radio station of 1980s music while I write this, and “Don’t Stop Believin’” just came on. Do I give it a thumbs down?) But … it’s a great article, and as much as I’d like to, I can’t really argue with Rosen’s opinion that “there is no more flaming schlock purveyor than … Bruce Springsteen”.

Rosen adds a list of the 150 greatest schlock songs ever. Which leads to this week’s Music Friday: some of my favorites from Rosen’s list.

2. Prince and the Revolution, “Purple Rain”. Rosen reminds us of the importance of hot-shit geetar in power ballads.

11. Elvis Presley, “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”. There are so many to choose from out of the King’s massive catalog.

18. Gloria Gaynor, “I Will Survive”. I never really thought of many of these songs as being “schlock”, but it’s possible I’m defining “schlock” as “I don’t like it”.

23. The Four Tops, “Reach Out I’ll Be There”. For me, this really helps make Rosen’s case. It’s one of my all-time favorite songs, but Levi Stubbs’ singing and the track’s production are schlock. I get that, now. Just look over your shoulder.

27. Bruce Springsteen, “Thunder Road”. “Jungleland” would be the more obvious choice. “Thunder Road” is the first song we saw Bruce perform in concert, back in 1975.

50. The Shangri-Las, “Leader of the Pack”. Again, I might have gone for a different choice (“I Can Never Go Home Anymore”), but Rosen’s chosen a good one.

51. Tammy Wynette, “Stand By Your Man”. “There’s no mistaking a singer as forceful as Wynette for a doormat.”

65. Johnny Cash, “Hurt”. Not sure how this fits here, even with Rosen’s comments.

74. Katy Perry, “Roar”. I know why this is here.

78. Foreigner, “I Want to Know What Love Is”. Started with a power ballad, ended with a power ballad.

And, ah, what the heck … when I finally gave in:



I don't like the piece, mostly because I think it's a bad choice of word for what she wants to say. She's really parsing between 1) path-breaking art (ie, doesn't sound like other music) and a whole bunch of things like 2) great songs that are not unique and so follow some well established pop conventions for their time; so-called guilty pleasures; corny but catchy; and more. But even beyond that, the list she chooses is shit. The Four Tops song is the key to me. Hear that song as a simple teenage love song and it's one thing. Hear it as a coded message of black solidarity in the times of civil rights and it's a way bigger deal. The arrangement is intentional there, with percussionist invoking marching and unity. But her white ass misses the point!

Steven Rubio

She is a he :-).

My take is that Rosen is approaching the question from a fairly narrow angle: what do we do with popular songs that critics don't like? Journey is a great example, probably THE great example. Everyone loves them except for rock critics. I think within the parameters Rosen establishes, "Reach Out" is a fine choice, because Levi Stubbs is the kind of singer who fits snugly next to the Steve Perrys of the world, with their excessive vocals. And the production is overpowering in ways similar to other examples Rosen offers. So I understand why the song makes the list.

Having said that, I'm with you, "Reach Out" far transcends schlock. It is one of the finest pop songs of all time, partly because the sentiments being expressed are a lot deeper than those in any Journey song. As Greil Marcus once wrote, "Stubbs sang as if he were calling to a buddy in a firefight". Stubbs' emotionalism is exactly appropriate to the idea of reaching out to each other in bad times. That he turned out to be a bit of a one-trick pony never diminished the perfect blend of his voice, the lyrics, the times, the sound, the everything.

What I think Rosen would say is, why do rock critics elevate "Reach Out" and turn their backs on Journey and Billy Joel and Lionel Richie. I could cite taste preferences, and just close the discussion by saying "Reach Out" is a classic, and nothing Journey ever did came close. (I'd say the same for Billy Joel, but I like "The Longest Time", and at least Richie was in the Commodores.) But it's a legitimate point: why, exactly, do I hate Journey so much?

There are some interesting comments here: http://rockcritics.com/2014/05/27/in-defense-of-schlock/#comments

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