On Tuesday, Vulture published a lengthy essay by pop critic Jody Rosen called, “In Defense of Schlock Music: Why Journey, Billy Joel, and Lionel Richie Are Better Than You Think.” In roughly 10,000 words (4,500 for the piece, plus another 5,500 for a listicle of the 150 Greatest Schlock Songs of All-Time), he stated a case for acts that have been had massive popular success, despite being critically reviled.
It’s also a giant piece of dreck. On Twitter, Popdose founder Jeff Giles derided the piece, saying that he was “[e]agerly awaiting the day when we collectively move past the High-Minded Defense of Low Culture essay.” But I’ve got more piss than pith, so I decided to take a lengthier approach. While I’m not giving it the full Lefschmutz treatment – it’s far too long-winded for me to dissect it line-by-line — I felt a need to go through some of its more egregious points.
When Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” first rumbled into earshot in the summer of 1981, few presumed it would have much staying power. The song was a hit, but not a huge one, reaching No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 on December 19 and hanging on at that position for two weeks before tumbling down the charts and off radio playlists. There was no sign of “Don’t Stop Believin’” in the tallies of the year’s top-100 hits in either the U.S. or U.K.
Rosen’s first paragraph makes it hard to tell if he’s being intellectually dishonest or merely stupid. His tone suggests that Journey had a fluke hit with “Don’t Stop Believin’,” even though pretty much everybody knows that they were one of the biggest acts of its day. Escape, the album the song in question came from, has sold 9 million copies and had three Top 10 singles.
But of course a song that reaches its greatest popularity in mid-December isn’t going to qualify for a year-ending chart! The simplest bit of research would have told Rosen that “Don’t Stop Believin’” was released as a single on October 6, 1981, not the summer. Escape came out in July, but “Believin’” was the second single, following “Who’s Cryin’ Now,” which clocked in at No. 56 on Billboard’s year-end chart.
And if the biographical information on Rosen’s Wikipedia page is correct, he and I were born at the same time (the summer of 1969) in New York City, which means that we grew up listening to the same radio stations. “Don’t Stop Believin’” did not “tumble off radio playlists” by early-1982. That was the year my friends and I all had our Bar Mitzvahs. The song was everywhere, trust me.
It was a curio, memorable mainly for its unorthodox structure, serving up three verses and two bridges before finally arriving at its money-shot chorus at the 3:23 mark.
“Memorable mainly for its structure?” Who realized at the time that the chorus doesn’t come in until the very end?
The rock-critic consensus on “Don’t Stop Believin’” was unsurprising: Disdain was the order of the day. Critical conventional wisdom cast Journey as doubly deplorable.
Rosen then goes on to quote a few negative reviews, but leaves out a brilliant jab by Greil Marcus from his Real Life Top Ten 1981: “I regret to announce the final appearance of the Journey Award for the worst album by a California band. Having released two LPs – Captured and Escape – Journey accomplished the astonishing feat of tying itself for the prize, which has therefore been retired for reasons of gross redundancy.”
Thanks, Dw., for having written this in another piece so that I didn’t have to go searching through my bookshelves for my copy of Marcus’ anthology, “Ranters and Crowd Pleasers.”
“Don’t Stop Believin’” hasn’t just stuck around: It has sunk its teeth into the collective unconscious. Today, the song sounds irrefutable; its dramatic slow-boiling arrangement — those tolling piano chords, arcing 16th-note guitar arpeggios, and mock-operatic vocals — is the essence of arena-rock grandeur…The song’s inspirational bromides, its images of desperadoes stalking noirish streets on a quest for hidden, um, emotion…these sentiments have proved alluring enough to pull in just about everyone:
I can’t stand Journey, but I will readily admit that it’s an extraordinarily well-crafted piece of music, as are many of their other hits. And I couldn’t help notice that Rosen’s employing a trick I’ve used plenty of times: when you really need to sell an argument, use big words.
cutesy indie-pop a cappella singers;
the Chicago White Sox, who embraced “Don’t Stop Believin’” as the theme song of their 2005 championship run;
I live in Chicago. Most White Sox fans haven’t bought a new album since 1985.
“Don’t Stop Believin’” got nowhere near that list, of course, yet today Journey’s anthem haunts our culture like no other song from 1981.
Look back at that list of Billboard’s Top 100 songs. 1981 sucked.
“Don’t Stop Believin’” has endured because it belongs to a tradition that has given us our most indestructible songs, a tradition as time-honored, as sturdy, as it is maligned: schlock.
And here we go…
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.
Just like this sentence, which says the same thing four times.
Rosen goes on to spend a little more than 1,000 words further defining schlock – music that is unapologetically melodramatic, earnest, and heavy on melody. He even gives its etymology and how it intersects with another pejorative word derived from Yiddish: schmaltz. Towards the end of that section, which cites a 38-year old Village Voice piece that looks at schlock as part of a broader narrative about class. It’s impressive, but who cares? Then he continues.
Rock criticism has done an about-face since Rolling Stone sneered at “Don’t Stop Believin’,” and today’s critical orthodoxy tilts toward omnivorous “poptimist” appreciation, with an open attitude to the commercial mainstream.
I’ll get to my issues with poptimism at the end, but I wouldn’t say that critics in the early-‘80s were reflexively disdainful of anything mainstream. Plenty of critics’ darlings of the day were very successful. I also disagree that poptimism become the dominant strain of music criticism, but rather that there is no more critical orthodoxy due to the expansion of media in the Internet age.
Today we have a new regard for once-maligned genres, including bad ol’ corporate rock;
Or maybe it’s because people’s musical tastes are informed by what they grew up with. Nine million people bought Escape. Certainly some of them wound up becoming critics.
We’re learning, slowly but surely, to move past the defensiveness of “guilty pleasures.” Yet schlock remains a musical pleasure for which we can’t quite relinquish our shame.
Rosen writes that we don’t have to be defensive about our guilty pleasures in the middle of two-article, 10,000-word screed where he defends his guilty pleasure.
But he is right in that the concept of the guilty pleasure is mostly a thing of the past. There’s nothing wrong with liking music that has mostly been derided as schlock. If Rosen would just say, “Hey, this music never got critical respect, but I like it and here’s why,” I would have no issue. But he errs – possibly to the detriment of his credibility – by trying to own the word “schlock,” and thus deflate its negative connotation. It’s as if Meredith “Bitch” Brooks was a rock critic.
Rosen devotes 900 words to a history of schlock, saying it exists not only in power ballads and showtunes, but in vitrually all forms of popular music throughout the ages, forever changing with the times. Seriously, who gives a crap?
He then moves on to his list of the 150 Schlockiest Songs, which he mercifully restricts to English language pop. Another 550 words on his criteria, which serves no purpose because you can simply click the link and read the list for yourself.
The truth is, we’re capricious in our judgments about schlock.
“So I’m going to write the definitive text on it!”
Dave Marsh derides the “triviality” and “banality” of Journey’s schlock-rock, but there is no more flaming schlock purveyor than Marsh’s beloved Bruce Springsteen,
Now, it’s personal.
and an honest listener will admit that the only thing separating the beautiful-loser melodrama of “Don’t Stop Believin’” from that of, say, “Jungleland,” is the relative tameness and tautness of the former, whose poesy is practically Noel Coward compared with the Boss’s Beat-poetic ejaculations (“Beneath the city, two hearts beat /Soul engines running through a night so tender”) — to say nothing of the Clarence Clemons sax solo that clocks in at nearly half the length of Journey’s song.
On the surface, they’re both about two people finding each other set in a lonely, decaying urban environment. But again, he overlooks that “Jungleland” ends with one of those two people being killed by the other. One song ends in triumph, the other in tragedy. That’s a major thing to overlook.
And then there’s a less-serious difference with the lyrics. Rosen criticizes Springsteen’s tendency — particularly early in his career — to overwrite. But as much as that may have some justification, the lyrics in “Jungleland” are packed with vivid detail. “Barefoot girl sittin’ on the hood of a Dodge / Drinkin’ warm beer in the soft summer rain,” “Lonely hearted lovers / Struggle in dark corners / Desperate as the night moves on”.
But in “Don’t Stop Believin’,” the main image is a “midnight train goin’ anywhere.” Does such a thing even exist? I mean, it’s a romantic concept, but who in their right mind would get on a train in the middle of the night and not know where it’s going?
And then there’s the male protagonist, from “South Detroit.” No such place exists. South Detroit is really Windsor, Ontario, Canada.
That’s why “Don’t Stop Believin’” – and pretty much all of the rest of Journey’s catalog – is schlock. For as well-crafted it is musically and sonically, it gets simple details wrong, so it comes across as empty sloganeering. It makes perfect sense that they were so popular during the Reagan era.
One thing we all may be able to agree on: In 2014, schlock reappraisal is in the air.
Well, since in the last section, Rosen said that pretty much everything has properties found in schlock, we might as well all agree with him.
We may never fully shake off the shame of loving such songs. No matter how far poptimist reclamation extends, there is nothing that will make a song like “Endless Love,” the Lionel Richie–Diana Ross duet that roosted at the top of the charts for nine weeks in 1981, less embarrassingly sappy.
Like I said, 1981 sucked for Top 40.
But the problem, it seems fair to say, lies with us — with our aesthetic prejudices, the limits of our critical imaginations, our insecurities — and not with “Endless Love.”
No, the problem is definitely with “Endless Love.”
We’ve learned to be wary of sentimentality, to favor abrasion and dissonance over lavish melodicism, or at least to prefer beauty and sentimentality in tidy little packages, preferably pegged to “literate” lyrics full of wry observations and piquant little ironies.
There is nothing wrong with sentimentality, provided it’s genuine. But empty, cliched lyrics dolled up in a pretty melody is where the line gets crossed.
If, as critics and canon-makers, we can’t find a way to hallow a song like “Endless Love” — if we can’t see fit to put Richie in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame alongside Springsteen and Michael Jackson and Madonna, the only ’80s hit-makers on his level — we may need to ask ourselves if our critical criteria are out of whack: if on some basic level we’re missing the point of the art form we purport to critique.
“I admit this guy wrote a shit-ton of crap, so let’s enshrine him!”
The truth is, big corny windswept sentimentality might just be the thing that pop does best. 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. What the fuck is “purple rain”? It’s doggerel, that’s what; nobody has the foggiest idea what purple rain is. And yet, when Prince commands, “If you know what I’m singing about up here — c’mon, raise your hand!” our hands shoot up, because even though we don’t know what he’s singing about, we feel it.
That’s all fair.
Schlock… [is]…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. Which is why, despite our high-minded instincts, we’re stuck with schlock. There are times in life when only thing that will do is a great big tear-jerking cliche, gusting along atop an even bigger melody. As the poet said: We’re livin’ just to find emotion.
Again, there’s veracity to that. Schlock has always sold because it works, and I don’t think anybody, not even the most high-minded critic, is immune to it at times. But this is my ultimate problem with Rosen’s poptimism. In theory, I think it’s great. There’s nothing wrong with refusing to judge pop music on its own terms, freed from the constraints of the past, particularly as new genres and sub-genres evolve. I’m not capable of doing it, because I cringe nearly every time I hear an Autotuned vocal, but I’ll readily admit we need critics like Rosen who can dissect and understand it.
However, to embrace schlock is to ultimately celebrate the shallow. And yes, shallowness is responsible for some of the greatest pop music, from “You’re the Top” to “I Want To Hold Your Hand” to “Dancing Queen.” But Rosen’s poptimism doesn’t merely justify the shallow, it attempts to ascribe to it a depth it doesn’t possess. And that’s why, as a critical movement, it falls flat.