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I first began looking for ways to write about the artists discussed in this book in the late 1990s, a far over a decade ago. The timing matters for a several reasons-a vaguely discernible 20-year cycle of rubbishing and rehabilitation in much post-War popular culture, for instance, discussed further below; the generational and technological shifts that enabled the appearance of a broader range of values and investments amongst critics, whether professional, amateur, or somewhere in between; or for that matter, a gradual shift in academic writing about popular music from a largely defensive, morally and aesthetically engagé style of scholarship to one more willing to give itself up to enjoyment.
I think that all of these shifts in critical taste were present in writings about music, but they also covered a lot more ground. The art critic Dave Hickey, for instance, began his brilliant little book The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty with a description of the ills of the academic art world and the potential balm to be found in pleasure and beauty:
For more than four centuries, the idea of "making it beautiful" has been the keystone of our cultural vernacular-the lover's machine-gun and the prisoner's joy-the last redoubt of the disenfranchised and the single direct route from the image to the individual without a detour through church or state. Now, it seems, that lost generosity, like Banquo's ghost, is doomed to haunt our discourse about contemporary art-no longer required to recommend images to our attention or to insinuate them into the vernacular-and no longer even welcome to try. The route from the image to the beholder now detours through an alternate institution ostensibly distinct from church and state...The priests of the new church are not so generous. Beauty, in their domain, is altogether elsewhere, and we are left counting the beads and muttering the texts of academic sincerity.i
For Hickey, writing near the beginning of the decade, only a full-blooded acknowledgement of the pleasure and sociality that intersect in disputatious experiences of beauty could rescue the academic art world from its arid purism. And it's worth noting that, whatever the reservations that greeted his admittedly extravagant claims, his insistence on the recovery of the beautiful gained increasing attention into the 2000s.
The situation has been arguably better and worse with respect to music. I have often noted a disparity between the songs and styles many people seem to love to listen to-those they play in the privacy of their own homes, the ones that send them into paroxysms of delighted recollection, those they remember in remarkably detailed fashion-and the songs and styles that tend to get written about in vigorous, critically engaged terms. It has often seemed that, even though popular music has acquired a significant measure of scholarly respectability, this measure is extremely selective. An extensive section of the pop music repertory still seems resistant to the praise of critics and intellectuals. At best, we may refer to it as "bad" (a kind of scare-quote cowardice), but at the risk of falling into condescension towards the music and its admirers: falling into a serious slough of very bad faith. Among demotic listeners-the folks who haunt the internet discussion groups, call up radio stations to hear favorites, and populate my university courses-much of this untalked-about music occasions violent reactions both for and against. I find many of the songs of this type to be among the most satisfying and intellectually stimulating I've ever spent time on, but I've often felt myself, when making such claims, to be in a very marginal position-with respect to the common grounds of discussion, not those of listenership. The music I have in mind is in a sense too popular to be impressive. But what happens if we are impressed, and we begin to say why?
The Persistence of Sentiment: Essays on Display and Feeling in Pop Songs of the '70s focuses on a group of songs in styles still significantly discounted by critics and scholars, by artists who have been as often execrated by would-be tastemakers as they have been exalted by adoring audiences. When I have mentioned writing about Barry Manilow or Cher, for instance, the most striking reactions I've received from many people have been bursts of laughter in which delight and embarrassment are equally mixed. These people then proceed to demonstrate an astounding (and tender) recollection for the songs I am interested in, but a determination to insist that their knowledge and enthusiasm be taken as funny. I think it's funny, too, but I want to know more about what all this laughter defends against. A good part of this protective frivolity comes from our uncertainty about these songs' historical and cultural embeddedness. We try to talk about them, but our only languages are those autobiography and personal response. And who among us wants to be seen so nakedly in public?
Although I think the critical usefulness of such nakedness is mostly worth the risks, I also think that we are wrong to leave these songs without no context other than our personal ones. By way of an introduction, I want to point out a few historical and critical issues that I think relevant for my considerations in later chapters. My approach is necessarily somewhat loose-jointed; before any coherent general account of this music can be constructed-before it can have a history-a great deal of conceptual brush-clearing must occur.
on the generations of objects
In 1998, Rhino Records released a compilation of '70s hits entitled Have a Nice Decade: The '70s Pop Culture Box. This box set was the culmination of a series of '70s recycling projects that the record label had begun early in the decade, with the release of successful retro collections such as Have a Nice Day: Super Hits of the '70s and Didn't It Blow Your Mind: Soul Hits of the '70s. Avoiding self-conscious canon making and fine critical distinctions, The '70s Pop Culture Box set sought to represent as wide a range of musical styles, social constituencies, and degrees of "seriousness" as possible as an exercise in nostalgic amusement. From country to disco, from teenage rebellion to second-wave feminism, from "timeless classics" to the most fleeting of novelties (anyone remember Ray Stevens's "The Streak"?), everything could be included on the seven CDs hidden behind the shag carpet surface emblazoned with happy faces. Although the majority of the songs had been successful singles, simple chart position was not the only criterion for inclusion. Rather, the box set was designed to evoke memories of the decade as they had been constructed through the mass media, especially television and radio. An additional fillip of realism came from occasional snatches of broadcast sound inserted between the tracks of the singles, detailing such resonant events as the Patty Hearst saga, Watergate, or the gasoline rationing that followed the OPEC oil embargo.
Now imagine yourself in that year, a person in your late thirties or perhaps your forties, purchasing the collection and taking it off to your CD player to listen. Music you might have heard anywhere between the ages of two and twenty-two, the years when our most stubborn aesthetic tastes are significantly formed, when music often seems to be most tenacious in the memory-it's all here, the lush glories of Gladys Knight and the Pips singing "Midnight Train to Georgia" followed only five tracks later by Terry Jacks' "Seasons in the Sun." The compilers have made no differentiations of taste, so the experience of the Have a Nice Decade box set approaches your recollections of the life you experienced as you began to become a person. You hear a stream of material that addresses you in a multitude of ways, summoning recollection and feeling to the stage as surely as that cookie of Proust's. Why are you so happy? Does this lack of discrimination, and your pleasure in it, compromise your aesthetic self-respect? You're safe from embarrassment, because the sheen of frivolity that coats the project allows you to present yourself as much more sophisticated than your low listening habits would indicate. You are looking back with irony (ironically-imagine a mise en abîme of unserious seriousness). You can have your cake (or your cookie) and eat it too.
I imagine a listener in his or her thirties because the return of the '70s entails the operations of generational consciousness in American culture. Perhaps the first signs of a '70s revival in pop culture came at the very beginning of the '90s. Take a mass-market book from 1990, The Seventies: From Hot Pants to Hot Tubs, which scattered a huge assortment of factoids, snapshots, and politico-sociological vignettes across more than 200 pages in an attempt at "revisionist history." Presenting their work as primarily a collection of fun trivia, the authors nevertheless found ample occasion, amid the stories of earth shoes, pet rocks, and rolfing, to make connections between seeming ephemera and the larger stakes of individuals and society.ii This return of the repressed was in full flower that year, and the news media soon found themselves bemused by the spectacle of "young people" (under thirty) traipsing around in the most baroque polyester wares to be found at thrift stores, playing old vinyl records and speaking warmly about the "excesses" of style long since left behind. By the middle of 1991, Newsweek (always a reliable indicator of mid-cult awareness) had begun to offer up little profiles of the '70s revival. Fashion and music were the most reliable indicators of this new taste, but what seemed to trouble journalists was an ambiguity of tone in the appreciation of ardent revivalists. Was it, as they asked, "ironic or perilously beyond ironic?"iii The question's structure pointed to part of the problem, since the "either/or" could only be answered by "both/and." Another question was left largely implicit: "why now?"
It's a commonplace to note that in the post-WWII era pop culture revivals have usually occurred after a space of a decade-and-a-half or so. The early '70s saw the first blooming of a mainstream pop culture preoccupation with an imaginary '50s (the '60s career of a retro group like Sha-Na-Na was something of an anomaly at the time). The return of the '50s was not only a matter of recycled music on radio's "oldies programs" and nostalgia stories on television or in the movie house-a great deal of New Wave in the late '70s, for instance, depends on complexly mediated tropes from '50s pop culture. The imaginary '60s began to achieve full force in the '80s, sparking its own series of newly referential pop cultural styles. And in the '00s, an '80s revival was successfully launched: in 2002, Rhino followed its Have a Nice Decade box set with Like, Omigod! The '80s Pop Culture Box.iv (The accelerated recycling has continued since, though the vast transformations wrought by the internet seems to have made the process more sporadic and murky.)
But it was the '70s revival that has often seemed to the mainstream media to be the most culturally fraught. As the cultural recycling proceeded in the '90s, a relevant pop culture discussion about generational politics began to emerge. In Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, novelist Douglas Coupland imagined a label for the underemployed and perhaps oversophisticated people who were just turning 30.v The oft-hyped economic booms of the '80s had trickled down to very few people under that age, and in Coupland's world, their future was likely to see more of the same: inadequate jobs, the wastage that came from the misfortunate parts of the sexual revolution, permanent political impotence, and above all the oppressive self-righteousness of earlier generations. The idealistic self-portraits of the "baby boom" generation-peace rallies, the counterculture, and extravagant proclamations of freedom-seemed to evoke derision (often mixed with subrosa envy).vi And the link between this generational identity and the '70s revival seemed secure, as is apparent in such images as the character of Vickie Miner, the retro-obsessive character played by Janeane Garofalo in the exceedingly X-ish 1994 film Reality Bites.
The title of Coupland's novel provided one of the most common rubrics under which discussions of this "new" generational difference entered the mass media. Another important point of view came from a series of widely-read books by public policy writers William Strauss and Neil Howe that sought to analyze all of American history in terms of generational periods lasting approximately twenty years each.vii (Adjustments may be made for large-scale political events; the argument is based on a notion of a quadripartite life-cycle indirectly related to the life-cycle theories of Erik Erikson.) In the vision of Strauss and Howe, the "Boomers" of 1943-1960 were at last confronting the difficult positions of the "13th Generation" born between 1961 and 1981, and beginning to worry about the condition of the emerging "Millennial" generation born after 1982.viii The resentments and rebellions of the rising generation were the inevitable concomitants of their attempts to differentiate their culture from that of their elders.
Such arguments have been important, not because they are necessarily accurate, but because they have shown themselves to have a great deal of power to shape the terms of public perception. It is intuitively true that such a thing as a generational consciousness can be said to exist. Especially in a mass-media culture where large numbers of (young people) receive the impact of reportage on major historical events as well as ephemera, the common points of reference establish what psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas has called "generational objects." These shared things gradually emerge in childhood and especially in the violent self-fashionings of adolescence to become crucial tokens of temporal consciousness in young adulthood.ix Bollas suggests that
[a]lthough each generation passes through, interprets, and signifies the life span in its own way, its fundamental character is fashioned in the twenties. It will continue to experience and interpret new objects, but strictly speaking they are not generational ones, as they are not essential to the defining character of consciousness. Such objects are not so much mental representations as screen memories that express the nature of the generation's psychic life. Each generational object. . . gives rise to a complex character of experiences peculiar to that time. They sit inside us even when we aren't thinking of them, within our unconscious in an internal world where each object serves as a generating link to the people of our time.x
It is in one's thirties, observes Bollas, that generational objects begin to be mulled over in comparison to those of older and younger generations. Obviously, a given generation's objects have significance to others-it's just that they won't have the same significance. Let's take some specific examples.
The sexual revolution of the '70s was an important event for the Gen-Xers, the Thirteeners of Strauss and Howe, but its importance is shaped by the fact that its regrettable venereal consequences were abundantly in evidence by the time that generation was in a position to participate fully. Then, there was the Pill and there were antibiotics to cure any minor infection one might pick up. But since the '80s the idea of casual sex as a harmless diversion has become impossible thanks to HIV and HPV. Of course casual sex occurs now. But the stakes are quite different. As a result, the fantasy of sexual liberation probably has a more mythological cast to the minds of Xers than it would to their elders. What are the effects of this difference on the ways that disco, one of the most sexually fraught musics created in the '70s, can be said to enter the body of its would-be devotees?
Or take the case of marijuana, by the 1990s the most contested drug in America. Its use seemed almost an idiosyncrasy to many in the '70s. A Presidential commission recommended its decriminalization in 1972, and throughout the rest of the decade it seemed no more dangerous than booze or cigarettes-maybe even less. I recently screened the 1980 film 9 to 5, and was stunned to see a scene I'd forgotten, in which the three protagonists (played by Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton) smoke a joint in the midst of female bonding.xi Between that scene and contemporary reality falls any number of crucial material changes-the horrifyingly excessive sentences frequently handed out to offenders, the extraordinary developments in marijuana cultivation in the wake of the War on Drugs (even everyday modern strains are enormously more potent than anything that would have been available in the '60s and '70s), and the continuing controversy over medical marijuana laws, to name a few. A scene like the one in 9 to 5 requires explicit contextualization if it is to have the impact on teenagers now it was designed to have on audiences at the end of the '70s. The changing status of marijuana affects its position as a potential generational object. To put it rather crudely, the Boomer's pot is different from that of the 13er. They both differ from the cannabis that that is now experienced by the "Millennial" generation identified by Howe and Strauss.
Differences in generational location go a long way to explain the ambivalence with which popular music of the '70s was often regarded during its period of rehabilitation. One brief example from the trade book press can stand for many. In her well-intentioned but severely limited Hole In Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music, Martha Bayles demonstrated a hopeless incomprehension of music in the '70s. Speaking of disco, for instance, Bayles imagined it as having a unidimensional groove that became (aesthetically and morally) worse when the groove was produced through the rigid algorithms of a drum machine. Her beef with electronics encompassed synthesized orchestrations as well. For Bayles, irregularities (participatory discrepancies, to invoke Charles Keil) were the primary loci of musical values; the perfect regularity of electronic sound production automatically put these values in danger.xii She also claimed that disco disdained the vocal skills traditionally associated with soul and gospel, styles that carry high value for her. Throughout her account, words like "mechanical" and "cold" expressed her displeasure at the unholy triumph of the machine over the human being. At the same time, Bayles deplored the hedonistic environments in which disco flourished.xiii The defenders of the bath houses and the backroom bars might celebrate promiscuity as the means to a new form of community, but Bayles would have none of it-it was just cheap sex, dehumanized from the get-go. Her section heading, Disco: Invasion of the Sex Robots, married the values that ground her musical disapproval to those supporting her sense of sexual restraint.xiv This was perhaps the most overtly neo-conservative section of the book, but the entire project carried the resonances of an assortment of unresolved boomer bitternesses carried like gallstones in the cultural tract (yuck!).
The greatest problem with disco in Bayles's account it seems to me, arose because disco could not be anything like a generational object to her. The style's values were too different from those of the objects she treasured, and its consequent remoteness led her to refuse to look closely at the values it did carry. Early in her book she offered a mild defense against the likely accusation that she was "an aging flower child longing for the music of her youth" by claiming that it was a full tradition she defended rather than merely the music of her cohort.xv But much of the energy that drove her argument was derived exactly from the position of longing for the continuation of her generational objects as current rather than increasingly part of the past. Following Bollas, we might suggest that if a set of generational objects (let's say music) seems to be endangered, then the form of community it constitutes is also at risk. Bayles was genuinely concerned about the loss of "beauty and meaning," not least because its disappearance betokened her community's relocation from actuality into history.
It's popular music's astonishing power to mediate community that gives it such a central role among generational objects. Bollas points out that considered more abstractly, generational objects may be said to
collect within an actual object (or event) the new generation's interpretation of its identity. It is a curious mix of the fashioned and the imposed, as the musical choices and lingual inventions rub shoulders with events beyond control: a war, and economic crisis, and so on. Yet generational objects are pop art objects, fashions, precisely because they weave into historic time. It is adolescence that is curiously true to the dialectic in human life between the personal and the social, the responsible and the irrational, the premeditated and the accidental. The reality of our world and the complexity of its events are not fathomable; their simple chaos is always somewhat beyond our organization. It is the adolescent who somehow most intensely lives this tension to its fullest, and who-upon recovery in the twenties-can form ideas of culture and society that identify the group's experience of life.xvi
Generational objects are thus always powerfully copular when not actually transitive. Linking choice and compulsion, mental time and mental space, they offer intersubjective spaces that balance our individual status with our membership in a particular group. To think of a piece of music as a generational object leads us to seek the complex fabric of significances that surrounds it for a particular listenership.
In each of these cases, the generational object in question entails elaborate, sometimes elusive issues of politics, aesthetics, and most importantly, morality, insofar as these things can be disentangled from one another. Put another way, a generational object helps define a space of values understood as characteristic of a temporal cohort. A particular object is susceptible by its very structure to carrying some values more easily than others, of course, but it is never a simple matter of deciding whether the object can have been prior to the values it is held to carry. What matters most, I think, is how we attempt to unpack the generational objects-our own as well as those of others-so that we can be clear not only about the values they hold but also about the location from which our interests proceed.xvii
This never exhausts the meaning of a piece of music, of course. Music's evasive relationship to words allows it to be reinflected in the minds of multiple social worlds and time periods, not to mention individual listeners. Bollas's account sees generational objects as consolidated in early adulthood, when their working through of historical raw material creates a more or less coherent sense of temporal affiliation between contemporaries. We all have these objects, and when we are young and wrapped in "generational narcissism" we are apt to think of them as permanent; but the approach of midlife finds our objects displaced by those of our successors. We become history along with the things we have chosen to love. We are lucky when we have the chance to get old in this way before we die; we can see the objects of our (former) choice metamorphosed so that they fit into other fields of passion, serving other interests. When we encounter them thus, they show us more about the objects themselves as well as the nature of desire in self and other.
It may seem as if thinking about generational objects has taken us rather far from Rhino Records and its canny rehabilitations of what might have been (and might still be) ephemera. But the Have a Nice Decade box set is interesting precisely to the degree that it appears so "undigested." Historical narrative and canon-making are among the activities that translate generational objects out of their temporally-bound constituencies and allow them to circulate in altered forms in our metagenerational culture. Those of us for whom the '70s were crucial with respect to generational identity want to find a set of commonly-agreed-upon songs along with a story into which they will fit. Rhino's collection does not serve this purpose. It is too random. It's true that the problem of licensing may have been partly at fault: anyone who teaches surveys of rock and soul, for instance, is aware of the difficulty of gaining permissions to include music by an assortment of groups in pop music surveys. But I think that the commercial inaccessibility of major groups is less widespread with respect to music of the '70s than is the case with the music of any other decade in pop music history. The problem is more one of historiography. Any survey of standard rock music texts will show that when the '70s are considered, the customary narratives fall apart. This is a musical narrative that is, a decade after Rhino's box set, still up for negotiation and construction.
As long as they are unnarratable, the popular songs of the '70s are trapped. They cannot pass beyond the state of generational objects until they begin to lose their power to identify for listeners a particular temporal location connected with individual memory, until they can be fitted into more general stories. This does not mean that the songs float free of their surroundings; if anything, the cultural contexts of the songs become more important for discussion, because so much that was tacitly assumed as interpretive background is no longer shared by other audiences. The songs must begin to die to generational use so that they can live as other kinds of objects.xviii The Rhino box set may signal the need for this, but at most it provides raw material. The stories into which the songs may fit remain to be told. What goes for the music also goes for other aspects of the culture of the time. The Have a Nice Decade collection points up a persistent difficulty with making sense of the period as a historical narrative.
the "problem" of the 70s
The decade of the 1970s invariably seems historically opaque and confusing. Our techniques of representing the recent past as well as the media we choose to do so encourage us to assume that the '70s have a distinctive identity; we can allow the eight-year success of the popular television sitcom That Seventies Show (1998-2006) to stand in for the assortment of books, articles, and other kinds of commentary that combined with personal reminiscences from the end of the '90s into the present to create our shorthand image of the decade. Excesses of material style, dopey New Age ideas and practices, "weak" politicians, and the omnipresence of drugs and sex (both approached with little fear)-the '70s seem innocent or witless, depending on our point of view.
But when we look at all closely, the appearance of unity in the decade shatters. This is not news-it's close to a commonplace for some time to note the difficulties of maintaining a decade-based scheme of periodization for a time bounded by the social shifts that marked "the long 1960s" and the 1980s. On one end there are any number of mythologized events-potential generational objects-filling out the year 1970 that we might treat as "the end of the '60s." The Beatles broke up, the trial of the Chicago Seven ended in a guilty verdict, students were shot by the National Guard at Kent State, Midnight Cowboy won a Best Picture Oscar despite its X rating, the Manson family murdered Sharon Tate and her guests, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin died . . . and so on, and so on. Just past the end of the decade, the events of 1980 include John Lennon's murder, the collapse of disco as a mainstream interest, the U. S. boycott of the Olympic Games in Moscow because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the resolution of the Iranian hostage crisis, and above all the landslide electoral victory of Ronald Reagan, which brought in its wake a number of Trad-Vals attempts just to say "no" to the social changes of the previous years. Although it may seem that most of these symbolically resonant events mattered primarily with respect to social and aesthetic values, many of them had significant political and economic consequences as well. But there are just as many objects and occasions that we could cite to prove that the '60s lingered far into the 1970s, to such an extent that we could argue that the two decades form a microhistorical whole; and at the same time, we could show that fundamental aspects of the '80s began to appear as nascent critiques of the doubled decade it would eventually try to replace.xix The '70s can be regarded as the period in which crucial cultural ideals formulated in the '60s were amplified and extended throughout American society. At the same time, however, the decade contained a strenuous impulse towards cultural retrospectivism (bolstering the significant appearance of the conservative cultural movements that marked the '80s), inasmuch as the materials of earlier moments in popular culture either persisted at the margins or were deliberately revived.
In television, for instance, Norman Lear's epochal sitcom All In The Family premiered opposite the classic '60s domestic fantasy Bewitched in January 1972. Instead of a Camp parody of witches in the suburbs (a mainstreamed and thinly disguised allegory about the place of women and queer folk in Cold War America), Lear offered a lower middle-class family fighting uninhibitedly about vexing current social issues. It's worth remembering, in fact, that before the first episode of All In The Family, CBS attached a warning notice for potential family audiences: this new show was for mature audiences only. The 1971-72 season proved to be the final one for Bewitched. It was the last of the great surreal sitcoms that had dotted the television screen during the '60s, only to be replaced by shows that wanted to manufacture a style of realism. In place of djinnis in bottles, pigs who painted, hapless castaways who never could get off that tropical island, the successful sitcoms of the '70s presented vociferous arguments about pressing political issues such as the Vietnam war, abortion, changes in gender roles or the position of sexual minorities.
The history of the '70s sitcom points up the value of "realism" on television. Politics and history were especially prized during primetime hours, often at the expense of frank entertainment. Another major occurrence in primetime programming might be describes as "The Great Variety Show Die-Off." In 1971 a given week of primetime programming would have offered no less than ten variety shows, most of them lasting an hour. Four years later, the number available was only five.xx By 1980, there were only two, and those were short-lived. (In 1982 there were no primetime variety shows at all on the three major networks.) Of the variety shows on the primetime schedule near the end of the decade, only one of them, The Carol Burnett Show, had lasted longer than five years. And the longevity of Burnett's program arguably had much more to do with the comedic brilliance of Burnett and her co-stars Harvey Korman, Tim Conway, and Vickie Lawrence, than it did with the appeal of the format. The sensibility of the '70s was clearly detrimental to the artifice inherent in the variety show; when Burnett broadcast her farewell, she frankly stated that she thought it classier to leave the air before she was asked to do so.
But although forms of realism were the rule in '70s TV programming, the shows they helped to make obsolete did not disappear entirely. Thanks to syndication, television programs from the '60s began to appear as reruns alongside those from the '50s. In 1970 the FCC had established the Financial Interest Syndication Rules, which took effect in 1971 and reduced network control over local stations by loosening restrictions on the rebroadcast of former primetime material and narrowing primetime to three hours per night. As a result, we could suggest that although the social values of a seeming liberal consensus dominated the sets during prime time, syndication made available several pictures of rival social values. In a given day, a family might be able to watch Father Knows Best, followed by Bewitched, both in reruns; and after the evening news with Walter Cronkite, it might be time to watch Maude. Three competing visions of the suburbs, in incommensurate styles, preaching irreconcilable values-and yet they all made themselves available in the space framed by the buttons of the set, behind the glowing glass.
And the sitcom was only one television genre among many. Local stations were just as happy to recycle cartoons, westerns, a few dramas, and hundreds of movies from Hollywood's studio era. Syndication also offered an important venue for the fading variety show, allowing programs such as Hee-Haw to continue their vaudevillainy uninterrupted. The American population was already close to saturated with TV sets, so the images, plots, and music of all these performances were close to inescapable, and offered a newly enriched repertory of possible worlds in which viewers could locate themselves imaginatively, with wildly various results extending into everyday life. I think this is one important source of what many critics have described as the "irony" infecting the generational consciousness of the 13ers. Television's recycling processes resulted in an endless set of lessons about the uses of convention. Perhaps children and teenagers, if they tried hard, could imagine Archie Bunker or Mary Richards as figures that incarnated important aspects of contemporary reality; but their juxtaposition with Gilligan, Arnold Ziffle (the pig), Wally and the Beav, made the artifice of all shows equally clear.
In music as well, the question of convention became pressing in popular music. It's probable that the notion of a common youth culture grounded in rock'n'roll always lay at a substantial distance from everyday reality. Nevertheless, the reminiscences of an awful lot of people in the '50s and '60s suggest that such a fiction did enjoy a certain compelling glamour. This vision of unity could not be sustained in the '70s, for two reasons. First, massive changes in the recording industry at the beginning of the decade allowed the fragmentation of the seemingly cohesive audience of the '60s into niche markets, and grounded an explosion of genres and sub-genres. There was no simple "rock" by the beginning of the decade, there were a multitude of rock and pop styles. These places were hard to stand in for long. Either the style changed or you did. Second, the youth culture that seemed stable as long as it belonged to a single generational cohort began to fracture as a newer cohort with different values began to coalesce as an audience. This expansion shattered the illusion of a common taste.
Some critics were resentful. P. J. O'Rourke, in a parodic critical account of whale song recordings for the Boomer magazine Crawdaddy, began his observations with a glance at the decade's complex ecology of music genres:
One of the most important trends in popular music of the 1970s has been the disappearance of any single dominant sound. In place of one current pop fashion we have, now, dozens of individual styles, each appreciated on its own terms. Some AM and FM radio stations mix these genres so freely that in an hour of air time you can hear country-western singers, heavy metal rock groups, folk artists, reggae bands, whales, dolphins, and porpoises.xxi
Although it would be tempting to read this as at least neutral, if not approving, the rest of O'Rourke's column makes clear his distaste for this state of affairs. When he compares genres that he despises to whale songs, it's clear he means no kindness to any of them. Disco, new wave, and punk all sit within O'Rourke's baleful sights, and his deadpan wrath extends to encompass the music industry that has made their flourishing possible, along with the cetaceans whose sounds offer him his pretext for the display of contempt.xxii The rest of his review makes clear that his fundamental objections arise not only from his ideas about musical artistry (especially technical ability), but from his vision of the public taste for "good" popular music being corrupted by the forces of the market. (His musical/moral values tally closely with those that Martha Bayles would express two decades later.) I think that at its root, O'Rourke's distress here comes less with particular musical genres than the profit motive that allows them to circulate freely, to be picked up by whoever wants to claim them. That is, his trouble comes from the threat posed by a particular mercantile process to the hierarchy of musico-social values he esteems.
This anxiety about the disruptive effect of rival musical genres and the values they embody continues to the present. The concern over explicit representations of violence and sexual behavior have usually drawn the most attention, of course, since long before the invention of rock'n'roll. An equally vexed but less politicized debate has centered around the question suggested by O'Rourke's animadversions: "authenticity" and "commercialism." Dozens of historical accounts that appear in books and television documentaries trace a line of musical descent from the country and RB fusions of the middle '50s to a hazily-delimited collection of '60s musics called "rock," which then fragments in the '70s, leaving various successor styles and genres that claim to be the true heirs of this earlier tradition. This narrative is not one of musical style alone, since it entails arguments about the shape of the music industry through which the music appeared and about the audiences who made the music matter. Among the most crucial features of this tradition was its perceived commitment to authentic expression, seen especially in the ways that the music's refusal of normative expressive decorum caused disquiet among "the establishment." It's important to recognize this as a claim to "realism." To be authentic was to resist fictions always, in favor of truth. By doing so, rock could be taken as a mode of rebellious utopianism, underwriting the attempts of its partisans to resist and critique the oppressive conventions of their society.
This is a strong myth. It promulgates any number of luminous goods whose power to attract us has not faded, nor should they. But rock's requirement for authenticity/realism required that many popular styles that depended on fantasy and convention be rejected, and that even within rock, the music's inherent propensity to fictions-its love of conventions-be watched carefully..xxiii The burst of conflicting styles and genres that began the '70s made it impossible for listeners to imagine a unified generational audience hearing a naturalized music that spoke truth to power. Popular music subsided into its bad old ways, hustling its multiple audiences for a buck. Where was its antinomian potential gone?
Rock was always a jealous god. There had been any number of pop styles left out of its narrative accounting, and they had proceeded in their own ways despite the true believers. In the shattering of the social fabric in the '70s, it seemed that any number of marginalized communities could make a play to renegotiate the representational contracts that had held them captive in American popular culture. This was one of the points of shows like All In The Family, after all, to demonstrate the processes of social negotiation in all their vulgar and ambiguous splendor. The confusion of the airwaves meant that the same process could happen musically, too. As it happens, the styles that seemed most alluring to many of these minority communities were those that had been unsuitable for inclusion in the rock myth. It wasn't that this other music had ever gone away, it was that with the fantasy of consensus shattered, it was suddenly more free to make its presence felt. The bemusing shifts of the top-40 charts mirrors the intricate social negotiations whose uncertainty made up the "problem of the '70s." By beginning to unpack some of the musical and social issues at stake, we may find better ways into the larger history of that decade.
writing as a musicologist
While I've worked on this book I've been acutely aware that my approach differs considerably from those found in most other scholarly books on popular music. My idea of what is analytically and interpretively meaningful, my strategies for placing music into resonant configurations with historical and sociological data, my taste for philosophical questions (treated in a relatively casual way, I admit), my choice of citations, even my prose style, all diverge from the usual generic complex expected in pop music criticism or scholarly writing. In an important sense, this is not a book in popular music studies. I can best explain this by noting that I write from the viewpoint of a musicologist, but one strongly influenced by some currents in other fields of the humanities. (My citations in the book will reveal my loyalties.) My training has been grounded in the specific traditions of an academic field that grew up in the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries to comment on the works of the Western tradition of written music. Although I grew up surrounded by popular music, I first learned how to discuss music formally by paying attention to Dufay and Mozart, to Machaut and Debussy. Before I had ever attempted to write about disco or progressive rock, I had written about operas or piano sonatas.
I was always somewhat resistant to some disciplinary strictures of my field, however. Although I spent a good deal of time in rehearsals and concerts, I never could muster the obsessive devotion to practice (of the canon) through which many performers incorporate the normative musical responses that most musicologists would expect. In music theory classes I was uncooperative about internalizing "common-practice tonality" as the normative language of music, because I liked the "ends" of music history-the Middle Ages and the 20th century-better. When it came to critical or interpretive discussion I always found it as interesting to discuss Joni Mitchell's "The Last Time I Saw Richard" as it was to discuss Schubert's "Erlkönig." I suspect that my tendency to forget to distinguish between the musicological canon and American popular music is somewhat generational. Born in 1961, I came after most hierarchies of prestige and value in music had begun to crumble. Although the collapse of such musical orders may have seemed terrifying to many scholars, I honestly didn't know any better than to talk about what I liked.
I think that this is important, because in the discourse of popular music that has developed somewhere between the university world and demotic conversations, musicology qua musicology has been relatively absent. Even most musicologists and ethnomusicologists who have acted as pioneers have necessarily spoken to scholars in other disciplines rather than their own closest associates. Part of the reason for the distance is our forbiddingly specialized lingo for discussing the particulars of musical sound; this language grew up over centuries of practical experience in music-making as well as thinking about the results of our activities as musicians, and it's an astonishingly subtle resource. Another part of the reason comes from the ascetic commitment, in musicology at least, to a canon whose transhistorical value has rarely been questioned until fairly recently. For all our historical fastidiousness, musicologists have often wished to let "the music itself" occupy a rather ideal realm. And this music, thereby liberated from the distresses of everyday existence, thereby acquired a power to comfort that should not be underestimated. Musicology's passion for its canon and its canons has frequently acted as a "hedge around the Torah," keeping the transcendental effects of music from too much contact with the contingencies of reality at the cost of keeping the laity at arm's length.
This is disadvantageous for everyone who works on popular music, regardless of field. Many scholars who have come to this music from sociology or cultural studies have been reticent to discuss the structural and affective details of individual songs. But a song is always more than its means of creating, transmission, and reception. Its particulars-as I have already suggested, and as I will continue to suggest-have the capacity to exceed their immediate bounds in complex ways. Thanks to their training, musicologists are especially well-placed to pay attention to these aspects of popular song. And we can find it possible to do so by refusing to restrict our sense of canon.xxiv I hope that my discussions in this book, to the extent that they are musicologically-centered, will encourage the further development of a genuinely multi-disciplinary conversation.
everyday listening and modest songs
The songs I care about here are all songs that were performed and recorded with the knowledge (the hope!) that they'd be listened to over and over, or rehearsed to ourselves in the mind, or to others in one kind of singalong or another, in innumerable ordinary situations: on the radio or record player, on the TV, in the mind while taking a bath, driving a car, sweeping the floor, washing the dishes. . . the list is infinitely extensible. At the same time, these songs would be performed in the distinctly unordinary spaces of concerts as well. If there's anything that defines popular songs, surely it's their capacity to circulate in all these ways. They must have something intrinsic to themselves that allows them to sustain reiteration without surrendering the listener's desirous attention, but they must also refrain from claiming too much of that attention. They must have the capacity to become background or foreground, depending on our willingness at given moments to bring ourselves to them in greater or lesser degree.
I raise this issue because finding an approach to modest songs presents musicologists, at least, with something of a problem. The methods that music scholars usually learn for parsing musical structures and unpacking their effects were all designed for music in the grand style. We can scrutinize the smallest details of a musical score or a recording and make astonishingly precise formal arguments, upon which we can base many compelling interpretations. But our most powerful insights have quite naturally come at the price of necessary blindnesses. We have rarely known how to account for music that loves the quotidian, because our methods have based themselves on aesthetic and moral preferences for the extraordinary, the original, the convention-breaking inspiration. Our commitments as music scholars have been strongest, historically, to music that was never meant to be heard every day. (Listeners with strong constitutions may test this for themselves by trying to listen to something like the St. Matthew Passion or Götterdämmerung every morning, but I predict their endurance will fade rather quickly.) The heroic gestures that fill out most of the "great works" in virtually any kind of canon are the ones that modest songs usually refuse-they must forgo too much "greatness" if they are to accomplish their principal goal of living with us instead of living against us in moral-aesthetic agon.xxv
But that's not to say that a modest song cannot have its challenging aspects. I think that where this music gets interesting is precisely the point that our own subjective worlds reach out to merge with the sounds that we hear. This is a slippery, ambiguous place, a liminal world where the greatest danger comes in our permanent vulnerability to a simple question: When you make claims about a modest song, are you making statements about the song or about yourself? A Wildean answer would be that it doesn't make a difference; but as Wilde would also have acknowledged, that's no answer at all. Criticism, as the record of one's soul, is truly an inexhaustible delight for some, but it can strike just as many others as an especially dishonest form of banal self-regard.
We face additional difficulties because the proliferation of recording. The sheer number of musical presences we have on hand in our own everydays tends to overwhelm us, and keeps us from noticing, or helps us to keep forgetting, just how historically remarkable a phenomenon it is. Before the rise of recording, almost no people were in a position to hear "extraordinary" music whenever they wished. No grand marshalling of forces or superhuman feats of performance technique in the everyday for most people. They only had access to modest songs in ordinary time, most often performed by and for ordinary people.
We could argue that the marriage of music with new technologies of production and reproduction created greater democratization through commerce, since music increasingly became available to anyone who had an interest in it, depending on their budget. Even for those who had no budget to speak of, there rapidly came to be occasions where music could spill over into a kind of gratuitous common space. The story of the music industry, with its sometimes near-inconceivable predatory attempts to manage music as if it were tangible property, speaks both to the commercial liveliness of music as well as its tendency to escape profitable management.
But naturally there are also downsides to music's bargain with recording. I will leave aside for now the ubiquitous gripes about "commercialism" ruining genuine musical expressiveness or authenticity; often enough this kind of complaint arises from an ill-considered, left-over form of Romanticism whose incoherencies are only slightly more amusing than its hypocrisies. More interesting is the accusation that by allowing music to play constantly "as background," by in effect hearing it too often, we damage our ability to notice it. The underlying analogies seem to be with addictive drugs, or exciting erotic twists, or even elaborately spicy dinners. If we do it too often, maybe we'll begin to enjoy it less. Maybe we'll be spoiled for simpler or more ethereal pleasures. Maybe we'll need increasingly bigger and more dangerous jolts to give us the old thrill again. The fear that music will be spoiled by overindulgence, and spoil us in turn, has a long and distinguished tradition. Philosophers in the ancient world exercised themselves over the need to manage music's power, but by the 19th century, it was not clear whether the danger laid within our selves or within the music itself. This was the century in which music could be re-interpreted as a species of religion, and it was a cult with sacred scriptures (symphonies, string quartets), prophetic figures (especially German ones), rites (the concert), and an eccentric clergy (the performers, and even the critics). The religion of music assumed that pieces were potentially lethal, precisely because they were so very holy.
Another form of protest took off from Kant's categorical imperative, of course. I'll indulge in vulgar simplification to get on with things: in the Kantian-influenced moral world we are never to treat a person as a means to an end, but rather as an end in him/herself. That's a really good rule in Kant's frames of reference. And many musicians and scholars of all levels, from the most arid of academics to the autodidacts whose songs lists and data compilations flood many internet web sites, would all agree to expand this imperative to include music. It's a longstanding implicit assumption of many devoted listeners that music (or at least "good" music, "great" music) ought to be given the same consideration as people. If you treated the products of the human mind so cavalierly, after all, mightn't you do the same to actual humans? Such a train of thought easily leads us right back to claims about the holiness of music, perhaps with a secularly humanist inflection.
You can see that from either point of view, the proliferation of music into everyday space creates serious dangers. We are harmed because we grow coarsened or ungrateful. We come to think of music as something trivial and commonplace. As a result, we disrespect the music and we disrespect our powers as listeners. Now we sin not only by flaunting our own narcissism, but also by brutalizing music (and the memories of its creators) for our shallow pleasures. But such excessive scrupulosity ends up by damaging the very music that it sought to protect. I think of those legends about ladies who cover their furniture with vinyl so the fabric won't be ruined or keep their good china locked away forever; men whose baseball cards are locked up in plastic sheaths instead of being handed around and traded to remind us of the pleasures brought to us by the players of the game. Museums do serve a purpose, but that doesn't mean that we should want to live in them.
By contrast, let's think of an everyday object to which we may be greatly attached, say an old sweater or a favorite pair of shoes. We probably don't treat it very well. It's lost shape, gotten stained or burned. It's been patched. It's shapes have been distorted by intimate contact with our bodies and customs. In being knocked around, it's absorbed qualities of ourselves into it's materials. Maybe we have absorbed some of it's qualities as well. Is a thing like this even an object in the usual sense anymore? I don't want to throw out those favorite shoes, even though I never wear them, and not because I plan to put them on again in the near future. Instead, I just want to keep them because they have to do with how I keep myself.
Let's recall that the commonplace word "habit" has been used to refer to clothes, outward appearance, and repeated actions that signal an inner state of being. (The range of the word was already fairly well developed in Latin before it came into Old French and on into English.) Is a habit internal or external? Is it an object, an action, or a state of mind? Is it something that we put on, or something we can't get rid of? Something to break or something to acquire? Maybe modest songs are like habits. They are things that surround us in the most unremarkable of manners. And yet, if we stop and examine them, we can find them to be enormously interesting.
In teasing out the possibilities that lie within modest songs, we constantly find ourselves coming to terms with varieties of repetition. The fundamental stakes with respect to various kinds of repetition might come from how musical qualities are imagined to embody various forms of simplicity and complexity. We care about both of these abstractions in a multitude of ways, of course, and are apt to praise and blame music for both conditions, depending on our sense of what's valuable in a given context. For instance, if I laud Satie's Gymnopedie No. 1 for its "simplicity," then I must intend to point out such features as its spare texture, mostly melody plus light chordal support, its relatively "white note" palette, the ease with which even an incompetent pianist like myself can get through it without too much humiliation. On the other hand, I could just as easily say that I prize the piece for its nuanced emotional ambience-I think it's some species of melancholy, but I couldn't be more specific without explaining at length-which suggests "complexities" of situation (I mean the peculiar interactions between poetic stance and listener address)that seem to ironize the directness of the musical surface. The reverse situation, between a "complex" surface and a "simple" situation, might be argued in the case of a piece such as Stockhausen's Kreuzspiel.
With respect to modest songs, our only purchase on these questions comes from a consideration of how they are situated; and those locations, as I've already suggested, are endlessly mutable. We are implicated in those modest songs in such a way that we can afford ourselves little cover. To be sure, such vulnerability must be the rule in any interpretive moment. The critic George Steiner has movingly asserted that "all understanding, and the demonstrative statement of understanding which is translation, starts with an act of trust."xxvi But trust is a difficult critical place from which to begin in the modern university world (the mainstream rock critical world, for that matter), where the hermeneutics of suspicion is the rule. Determined not to get fooled again, we try to take refuge in tough-mindedness. Although we may acknowledge the pleasures of our culture's pretty lies, we try to be realists, moving quickly past the fun to get at those abstract values that sit under the brightly sensuous surfaces. Such austerity is death to modest songs, where the pleasure is the major point. If we are to have any hope of understanding their power to matter, we must trust ourselves to risk the banal. We must trust that our accounts, always incomplete and so rendering the world piecemeal, can nevertheless congeal into some form of significance to the interlocutors we desire.
kitsch, or the economically abject
I will be talking about songs that many listeners, whether devotees of rock or "classical" music, would immediately label "kitsch." The inexhaustible power of that epithet deserves a little unpacking. The painters and art dealers of Munich during the 1869s and '70s seem to have been the first to use the term (original meaning: "trash") in a way that directed it towards its modern meaning: for them, "kitsch" referred to inexpensive souvenir art, possibly mere sketches of dubious aesthetic and therefore financial value, sold especially to Anglo-American tourists (we'll return to this point below).xxvii Its entry into English took place in the twentieth century. One of the earliest uses of kitsch comes from the 1930s in The Partisan Review, which gives us some idea of the high seriousness that made the word so attractive to a certain mind-set.
Strictness about questions of art and value is what gives the term its charge. The accusation of kitschiness is one of those places where morals merge with aesthetics, since the badness of kitsch almost always has to do with the problem of truth and lies. 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 idealizations of the content represented through the object allow those of us who appreciate the object to pretend that everything is, simply, "nice." If such an object evokes the spectre of "high art," as kitsch often does, nevertheless its formal and expressive solecisms inevitably remove the ascetic challenge that "high art" is supposed to produce. It's this excess of flattery, in which the narcissism of the kitsch-lover expands unimpeded, that so offends critics of kitsch. Thus, any accusation of kitschiness carries with it a whole set of disturbances about categories such as "imitation, forgery, counterfeit, and what we may call the aesthetics of deception and self-deception."xxviii
An example from pop music of the sort of relationship that might fall under the label of kitsch comes from a performance by Barry Manilow. Here is a passage from a concert review in 1980:
Basically, Manilow offered his audience music with absolutely safe feelings. When he sang about heartbreak, there was no pain, only a sadness that one could safely wallow in. When he sang about excitement, there was no danger that things would get out of hand. When he sang about the past, there was no sense of aging or loss, only safe nostalgia.xxix
The reviewer 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. Manilow's audience is filled with lazy listeners, it seems, who want only stunted art that isolates them from emotional truth. Though the reviewer doesn't use the term, the implication is obvious: Manilow's listeners want kitsch. It is to Manilow's discredit, we are to believe, that he offers kitsch to them. We'll take up the question of who these listeners are, and what Manilow knows about their desires, in chapter 4; for now I want only to note that although "safety" and "challenge" might have reasonable claims to out attention as significant musical values, they are likely to be irreconcilable.
Returning to the problem of kitsch-attribution: if we encounter a kitsch-vulnerable object with an austere morality of art firmly in place, we will be likely to judge that it fails; the structural and expressive faults that we find will be continuous with our ethical disgust. Furthermore, as suggested above, the kitsch object brings its audience and performers alike into disrepute. Either the badness of the object reveals the aesthetic and moral inadequacies of its creators/ appreciators, or it actively infects them with its own inferior qualities. It's 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 labor (let's call it talent) that is to be apprehended in an aesthetically fastidious manner, then the proliferation of inexpensive copies of such high art is kitsch. Michelangelo's David is not kitsch (we hope)-but all of its copies are, because they negate the work required to produce the object and make its experience commonplace and potentially undiscriminating.
Why would someone buy a copy, though? The blindingly obvious answer would be that they like the object but can't 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. Those tourists in Munich were probably upper-middle class visitors, loathed by aristocrats and bohemians alike; with the advent of mass-production, however, kitsch is affordable by the lower strata of the middle class, and even by the upward-aspiring proletariat. Critiques of kitsch aimed at a presumably hegemonic social group thus take on a different trajectory in later historical moments. (We might think of Adolf Loos's fascinating 1910 essay "Ornament and Crime"-its complicated critique of mass production, however productive with respect to fin-de-siècle Vienna, later seems to be compromised by its reliance on racist concepts of primitivism and hereditary criminality, not to mention its potential for misogyny and class hostility.xxx)
With music, the problem of original versus copy is also articulated through technological developments of modernism. Obviously there are important differences between the effect of mechanical reproduction on statues and the effect on songs. But in both cases, a significant aspect of the threat comes from the possibility of a relentlessly levelling superabundance. Not only does such proliferation unsettle the relationship between a thing and its imitations, it also obliterates the distinction between ones-of-a-kind that have been reproduced and things meant for reproduction from their point of origin. Leonardo's Last Supper can saturate the visual field in innumerable guises: prints, lithographs, paint-by-numbers renditions, silk screens, and so on. The same may be said of those paintings of poker-playing dogs.xxxi We may find ourselves surrounded by innumerable versions of Beethoven's Fifth, not just the whole symphony as rendered by whoever, but in excerpts, arrangements, and take-offs from Muzak to disco. The same may be said of Bob Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone." The same may be said of Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again (Naturally)."
This threat has meant that in everyday criticism and the discussions between ordinary listeners, oppositions such as live versus recorded, complex versus simple (a notable unstable opposition), and especially "authentic" versus "commercial," have had tremendous disputatory power. Though the term kitsch entered English through intellectual circles, it 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. In these demotic contexts, the term's connotations of emotional sloth and self-deception remained more important than its parasitic relationship to "high culture," which can easily be replaced by an adherence either to "the folk" or to a romanticist notion of individual artistic autonomy-the "vision thing."
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 '70s: African-Americans; women; gay men and lesbians; poor, mostly rural (and especially Southern) white people. The rock paradigm has rarely served such groups well, since they historically have found authenticity too expensive to maintain, and in any case lived lives in which there was greater need of consolation.xxxii But it is the peculiar property of the '70s as a historical decade that during this time, just such groups began to think of themselves as able to insist that their social positions be renegotiated. The readjustments of the '70s were legal, economic, political, and those more vaguely defined as "cultural." Musical style mattered to these audiences not least because its power to represent them allegorized (and more than allegorized) their self-constitution as well as their relocation partially out of the margins.
The transformation of these groups succeeded to different extents, of course. African-Americans ultimately fared least well-the gains in prosperity and increased social dignity were most notable at the beginning of the decade, and immediately reacted against. (This reaction, often Federally-sponsored as if it were a cruel parody of the civil rights movement, continues to the present day.) For gay men and lesbians as well as women, the changes of the '70s, while at times costly, were genuinely revolutionary. The retrenchments of the '80s and '90s have never completely turned back the clock. Poor Southern white folks perhaps saw the greatest cultural benefits, but at the cost of a significant number of their original communitarian virtues. (All of these historical vicissitudes make a mark in this book, since they affected the shape of the '70s revival.) What matters in the context of kitsch is that all these groups favored music that was not a part of rock. They liked older styles. Softer styles. More sentimental styles. And in the '70s, their tastes were suddenly much more visible in the landscape of popular music.
Because of this historical position, the modest songs I discuss in this book find themselves implicated in social position of the arriviste. xxxiii That is, they are unquestionably demotic products, but they palpably yearn to be more. The social worlds they represent most fully are those of the working classes (proletarians or peasants) or at best the lower middle-class as seeking to move on up to a place of wealth, luxury, and by extension, imaginative freedom. The songs and their listeners are thus caught between the authenticity of "the folk" or its stand-ins and the technical/aesthetic prowess of the high cultivated traditions. Before the invention of recording and radio, these songs might have circulated primarily by means of sheet music. Even after the airwaves have become saturated, many of them still appear in sheet music format. As sheet music these songs typically offer themselves as occasions for rumination, if performed in solitude; or they might support atmospheres of domestic conviviality ("play a song for grandma, dear"); or again they could serve as the object realized in one of the more transient forms of public display-incidental music at a wedding, part of the program for a kids' recital, perhaps a winning entry in a local talent show. Modest occasions for modest songs: we can have our feelings while we watch our budget.
Such works might be defended, in the case of sheet music, by observers who wanted to point out the crafty abilities required to make the songs succeed. A song in sheet music form still requires a modicum of skill on the piano or the guitar, and a singer who can carry off the tune in a way that will please listeners. No matter how exigent our standards, such a performance is nothing to sneer at. But what of listening to the radio or a recording? If there's a skill to listening to a modest song, we might have trouble discerning it. There are no proofs of performance that can be pointed out and discussed so that we all have a fair chance of agreeing, or even a fair chance of disputing it in interesting ways. It's not that listening is altogether private. Listeners often try to share their emotional reactions and their thoughts with one another, and we can learn fascinating things about them even when they don't speak at all, if we simply observe the play of facial expression and body language that responds to the music as it addresses a listener's body. But the ambiguities of listening are so great, and our interior states so elusive, that we might have no way of making ourselves adequately understood. The inaccessibility of our listening skills brings into play any number of questions about competency. It also causes us to wonder about sentimentality, that troublesome rubric under which notions of excess in the service of deception (of self, of others) has clustered in the wake of modernism's taste for scrupules about affect. Without the justification of difficulty, anything too moving will tumble us back into the realm of kitsch.
So far, the problems of defining kitsch may seem to make the term useless for discussions of popular music. It condemns while pretending to describe. Maybe we'd be better off doing without it. But some of the points raised by Theodor Adorno in a series of nuanced accounts of kitsch can bring up significant points for consideration. In a brief essay from around 1932, Adorno, departing from the observation that one possible etymology of the term traces it from the English word "sketch," emphasizes the incompleteness inherent in the idea as central to its paradoxical strength:
In music, at any rate, all real kitsch has the character of a model. . . . Kitsch is the precipitate of devalued forms and empty ornaments from a formal world that has become remote from its immediate context. . . . Kitsch is a kind of receptacle of mythic basic materials of music, as they appear only in it, transformed, as the most advanced results of music's dialectic, but are otherwise lost. Hence kitsch is to be preferred to all music of the juste milieu. xxxiv
For Adorno, the emptying-out of musical structures that had carried genuine meaning is perhaps a melancholy inevitability of historical failure. In conserving those structures musical kitsch might be thought to act as a kind of sonic-affective museum, and has genuine conservational value. The pastness of such artifacts is left only as background, however: kitsch wishes to depend upon them for the sake of their lusciousness and prestige, but can only do so by pretending that they are not in fact lost at all. As Richard Leppert has emphasized, Adorno thus sees kitsch as a betrayal of historical situation. It
invokes a past that is nostalgically misremembered; as such kitsch is a means to forget-but less to forget the past than the present. Kitsch offers consolation, not so as to change anything but to make the anything of the here and now slightly more tolerable.xxxv
Kitsch is thus a superlative vehicle of false consciousness.xxxvi Given Adorno's determination to hold out for musical truth, kitsch can never be fully acceptable. Kitsch is good to the extent that it lies openly. But Adorno also admitted that the problem of feigning was endemic to all art. In his late work, Aesthetic Theory, Adorno noted:
Kitsch is not, as those believers in erudite culture would like to imagine, the mere refuse of art, originating in disloyal accommodation to the enemy; rather, it lurks in art, awaiting ever recurring opportunities to spring forth. Although kitsch escapes, implike, from even a historical definition, one of its most tenacious characteristics is the prevarication of feelings, fictional feelings in which no one is actually participating, and thus the neutralization of these feelings. Kitsch parodies catharsis. Ambitious art, however, produces the same fiction of feelings; indeed, this was essential to it: The documentation of actually existing feelings, the recapitulation of psychical raw material, is foreign to it. It is vain to try to draw the boundaries abstractly between aesthetic fiction and kitsch's emotional plunder.xxxvii
Clearly the great problem with kitsch continues to be that of false consciousness: but Adorno knows better than anyone that this concept is irremediably slippery. And not only because the line between kitsch and art is so blurry. After all, the one thing we can always say about false consciousness is that its diagnosis is always external, the result of a conceptual reality check. (This is true even in solo cases, since a realization of false consciousness depends upon an internalized objectification of the "self.") But false consciousness entails more than a few isolated incidents about which intersubjective agreement can be reached. As a result, it cannot be convincingly diagnosed without an adequate understanding of the internal point of view from which the situation is regarded as true, in addition to the careful marshalling of exterior arguments that would seem to contradict this point of view. And its diagnosis should always be taken dialogically as a beginning rather than a conclusion.
In keeping with this dialogic imperative we should note that Adorno's observation about kitsch's use of "devalued forms and empty ornaments" is extremely interesting because it raises the question of whence the value and fullness come in the first place. Let's depart from him and assume that the investments of listeners might be most fruitful precisely where composers/performers have left the most space. Yes, this is a fetishistic maneuver. Is such an aesthetic perversion always a bad thing? Isn't it more often a compromise solution (and one that can work for a lot of people)? Only from an insistently normativizing point of view can we flatly declare such listener investments to be altogether wrong. Yes, such actions can also be taken as lacking respect for the creators of the music as well as the work itself; but if a modest song is meant to be a thing rather than a quasi-person, this might be taken as a gesture of respect for its actual purpose. Maybe modest songs aren't music (nor were ever meant to be) in Adorno's strict sense.
In the same way, the question of "misremembering" encourages us to ask who's deciding what's the correct memory, as well as why consolation is altogether a bad thing. From Adorno's point of view, our awareness of human suffering must be kept in focus. Surely Adorno thought that it was necessary to insist upon such an ascetic goal, however, because musical pleasure seemed, 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's in question, then the particulars of your pleasure and your consolation are not trivial at all.
Finally, there is the question of the emplacement of kitsch within historical narrative. The bad morality of kitsch objects also makes them unsuited for plots that privilege the heroic, largely because the concept of kitsch blurs so quickly into the concept of the everyday or trivial. Many of the most influential accounts of art of literature have taken a Hegelian slant, with great figures or advances in technique gain hegemony over a historical moment, to be surpassed dialectically in succeeding generations.xxxviii However suspicious we might be about the assumptions required to tell such stories, we must recognize them as compelling. If our taste is for titans, however, then an art of everydayness of is likely to seem at least insipid if not actually dangerous. The ordinary becomes kitschified, since the "OK" is the enemy of the "great." I've already mentioned the exceptional liking for stories of greatness in music history: the same taste holds true in the realm of pop music as well, as any quick scan of popular histories of rock will show. Lots of popular music, it seems, can have no history. I hope that the discussions that follow will begin to remedy this.
domains of identity
Patti Labelle's 1978 disco song "Music Is My Way of Life" presents a first person who has nothing in the way of resistance. In this hopelessly abject position, there is one refuge, the dance floor. "When I dance they look at me/That's one thing you can't take from me." This insistence on selfhood is characteristic of the '70s, the decade that saw the promulgation of what came to be known as "identity politics." Nowadays the notion of identity politics has come into a significant degree of disrepute. The "culture wars" of '80s America tended to reduce to rather blunt choices between passionately held versions of relativism ("identity politics") and universalism (no "special treatment"): only each position was so filled with internal contradictions and obvious spots of willful blindness that the justifiable points they each might have made were lost in acrimony. At the same time, within relativist camps there was a constant process of fissure. (I think of this as the result of a buried radical Protestant imperative still lurking in secular academic culture-there is no end to the making of smaller and more specific denominations.) The demonization of "political correctness" as the enemy of free thought completed the rubbishing of identity politics.xxxix What the denigration of identity politics during the '80s and '90s surrendered is the sense of possibility that it created during the '70s. There was no reason to suppose that the rise of one or another form of "power" always meant the decline of others. It was hoped during much of the '70s that social negotiation was not a matter of "either/or" but rather a matter of "both/and." As a result, I see the musical representations of the songs in this book as fundamentally optimistic. Even at their most melancholy, they hope for something better. I take one of my most important tasks to be articulating the nature of those hopes.
Chapter 2 marks my first attempt to explore the connections between economic improvement and the authoring of subjectivity. In "Black Masculinity and the Sound of Wealth: Barry White in the Early 70s," I link the opulent sound world of White's proto-disco with important shifts in the public representation of black male power. The social gains of the '60s, particularly connected with the Great Society programs of the Johnson administration, briefly enabled a significant degree of embourgeoisement among some segments of the African-American population during the early '70s. In popular culture (especially media such as film, television, and music, where money is most crucial) an imaginative space opened up in which it was possible to explore alternative ways of constructing a specifically black masculine presence. White's music projected a "sonic vision" of male authority predicated on female pleasure; his skill at evoking such erotic satisfaction furthermore depended on a lushness of material circumstance that is metaphorically present in numerous details of the arrangements of his recordings. The purpose of my discussion is to show how the specifics of White's music can be heard as inflecting a complicated dialogue about black masculinity that was developing during the 60's and '70s.
I expand on questions of money and black subjectivities in Chapter 3, "Transport and Interiority in Soft Soul." Unlike the other chapters in this book this discussion does not center on a single artist, but rather a sonic ethos: music of a lifestyle rather than that of an exemplary life. And the shift away from the irresistible glamor of stardom is connected to important aspects of the way this music was created. There were crucial changes in the ethos of production and the sound ideal at Motown and Stax in the late '60s; these were directly connected to the changes in money flow that came with the restructuring of the record industry. The aural mix of the early '70s "public soundtrack" was further complicated by the addition of the "Philadelphia Sound" of Philadelphia International Records, enormously important in the early '70s both with respect to listenership and influence. This kind of music was often called "soft soul" because though its descent from the spare and vigorous music of early Motown and Stax was apparent, the music had acquired expensive tastes and luxurious habits: complex habits of harmony, classicizing orchestrations, and a characteristic focus on fervid eroticism. Chapter 3 presents studies of several hit songs from the genre of soft soul in order to develop my notions of situation as they apply to modest songs. In each case, there are tricky problems of audience relationship that, when taken into account, complicate our sense of the songs' meanings in fascinating ways; I see these ambiguities as central to the songs' construction of the subjectivities of African-American embourgeoisement in the '70s.
With Chapter 4, "The Audience and Barry Manilow," I again look at masculinity, but from a different point of view. This is "white" music. That is, in the '70s it appears detached from any foregrounded racial specificity. But its connections to class and gender are anything but subdued. Manilow's musical connections to commerce and "Showbiz," the lessons learned from his early experience with urban gay audiences, and his unending appeal to women are all decisive features in a "problem" that his music has had with masculinity. The African-American artists discussed in Chapters 2 and 3 had an easier time among rock critics and other gender-panicked listeners because their racial difference allowed their interest in commerce and the pleasure of the audience to be disattended. With Manilow, no such strategy was available, and the questions of kitsch and effeminacy come to the fore. But analyzing the discomfort that led to critical disrepute and outright hatred is less interesting than the question of audience. What is it about Barry Manilow that won the devotion of so many fans, most of them "women of a certain age"? I think that part of the answer has to do with the kinds of disadvantagement felt most strongly by women whose economic positions were strong enough that they had time to become aware of their psychic impoverishment. Accordingly, explicate the characteristic moves of Manilow's music and his performance style as they seem to offer an answer to the concerns of women.
The question of feminism is equally important to Chapter 5, "The Voice of Karen Carpenter," but I address it by examining the emblematic figure of the singer, whose death from complications of anorexia in 1983 set off a process of popular canonization. In Carpenter's mythologization, the melancholy she so ably projected as a vocalist has been bound up with the difficulties of control and nurture that probably lay at the root of her anorexia. Not surprisingly, girls, who make up the majority of teenagers who suffer from eating disorders, have found Karen Carpenter especially attractive; but young gay men, as well, have been persuaded by her formulation of an identity that seeks out the pleasures of abjection. The formulation of abject identities was of course of major importance in teen culture of the '80s, culminating in the success of alternative rock at the beginning of the '90s; but rather than focusing on the historical situation of Carpenter's music, I will spend the majority of the chapter articulating what I take to be the central features of the musical identity she developed so persuasively.
The last two chapters of the book take up the questions of gender examined in the essays on Manilow and Carpenter and juxtapose them with additional considerations of race and class. Chapter 6, "Cher's 'Dark Ladies,'-Showbiz Liberation," follows the career of Cher during the 1970s and beyond to the near perfect abstraction of her complicated "farewell tours" and other moments of quasi-retirement. Cher's solo career in the '70s was marked by uncertainty about her racial and class location. This uncertainty did not result in her assumption of a specific identity, but rather in a revival of the older Vegas-cum-Hollywood styles of ethnic drag as pure spectacle. Race and class tended to be folded together as a kind of biographical ornament to her struggle as a woman-the real point for Cher's audiences was her triumph over stigmatized origins. As such, she represents an unusually powerful incarnation of the diva figure (known from opera and then Hollywood cinema) in '70s pop music, and her plot of liberation allegorizes the increasing social freedoms experienced by many of her fans. In the book's final chapter, "Crossing Over With Dolly Parton," I take up the issue of country music and abjection-the susceptibility to humiliation visited upon impoverished rural Southerners-together with gender as the point of origin for a career that shows some resemblance to that of Cher. The particularities of country music and its focal audience, however, have demanded a different set of musical and performative strategies that have led Parton to a move ambiguous and still-evolving moment in her career.
In each of these essays I want to show something of the imaginative power of this music, not only in terms of its ways of negotiating pressing cultural concerns in 1970s America, but also in terms of the skillfulness and sheer beauty with which presentations of subjectivity are managed. As music for commerce, the songs I will discuss are carefully crafted, immensely appealing in their musical details. But they are indeed of limited relevance at best to listeners who seek unambiguous effects of authenticity-they are demonstrably vague and elusive with respect to authorship in the larger senses of that word. This very slipperiness is the ground of their broader circulation during the 1970s and into the present.i Dave Hickey, "Enter the Dragon: On the Vernacular of Beauty," The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty (Los Angeles: Art Issues Press, 1993): 20-21. iiAndrew J. Edelstein and Kevin McDonough, The Seventies: From Hot Pants to Hot Tubs (New York: Dutton, 1990).