In Defense of Schlock

In a 166-word blurb in the 1983 edition of the Rolling Stone Record Guide, Dave Marsh, the Bruce Springsteen biographer and guardian of rock-critical orthodoxy, gave one-star reviews to all of Journey’s albums while emptying his rucksack of insults: “Stepford Wives rock,” “calculated,” “nitwit,” “plodding,” “banality,” “utter triviality,” “exploitative cynicism,” and worst of all, surely, by Marsh’s lights, “Paul Anka and Pat Boone.” Rolling Stone’s regular magazine review of Escape, the album that opened with “Don’t Stop Believin’,” was no kinder. Critic Deborah Frost’s contempt boiled over into mixed metaphors (“a veritable march of the well-versed schmaltz stirrers”), with special scorn aimed at the lyrics of “Don’t Stop Believin’”: “Lord knows how many weary pilgrims have managed to tramp down the memory lane of adolescent lust without the side trip that Journey make to the dank hole of dreck-ola … addressing their audience as ‘streetlight people.’” Frost wrapped up her piece with a vision of Journey’s obsolescence: “Maybe there really are a lot of ‘streetlight people’ out there. If so, my guess is that they’ll soon glow out of it.”

In Defense of Schlock Music: Why Journey, Billy Joel, and Lionel Richie Are Better Than You Think, by Jody Rosen in Vulture

Journey, rated by Dave Marsh, in The New Rolling Stone Record Guide, 1983
Journey, rated by Dave Marsh, in The New Rolling Stone Record Guide, 1983

13 thoughts on “In Defense of Schlock

  1. I was going to offer a knee-jerk anti-schlock comment, but 1) the essay was excellent, and 2) I really love a lot of songs in the top 150, and 3) my favorite is Bruce Springsteen.

  2. I dunno, “schlock” doesn’t seem to be the actual subject of this essay. I’m not sure what the subject is, in fact — but any definition of “schlock” with no room for “My Funny Valentine” is defining something too weird and/or diffuse to be of much use. (“My Funny Valentine” is one of my favorite songs, too.) Carl Wilson, IIRC, had a good chapter on the origins of “schlock” in the Celine book, but his categorization of Celine as “schlock” felt wrong, too. (Which Celine, for one thing?)

    “Schlock, at its finest, is where bad taste becomes great art. Schlock is music that subjugates all other values to brute emotional impact; it aims to overwhelm, to body-slam the senses, to deliver catharsis like a linebacker delivers a clothesline tackle.” I don’t know what any of this is actually supposed to mean — or, rather, what it’s supposed to actually *stick to*. What other values are being subjugated to “brute emotional impact,” and since when is brute emotional impact mutually exclusive to other values, and since when does music only display one “primary value” (or whatever), and since when do things that body-slam the senses and powerdrive catharsis all fall under “schlock,” and and and…

  3. I guess my general problem with pieces like these is that the question “why did critics treat X like that” is usually “because they were being close-minded,” and the prescription is then, “open your mind!” But this is a facile diagnosis and prescription. What was it about Meatloaf (say) that made “I Would Do Anything for Love” derided, or (usually more accurately) what was it about critics of the time that made them think that, en masse, if that is in fact what they thought (en masse)? Is the answer “critics generally share these particular values, which blinds them to this other thing” or “published music critics that believe this are for the most part unthinking dumbos” or etc. etc. — that is, are we actually gaining anything by giving the *stuff* a name when the problem’s in the people?

  4. Some random thoughts:

    1.) A year or two ago, on the (now late and lamented) Rock’s BackPages Writers’ Blog, there was a discussion as to how Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” had long since become a populist anthem of sorts, even if the critics didn’t like it. As a nominal member of the latter group, I may have contributed an anti-Journey comment or two, but no sooner had I done so, when, while driving in Northern Kentucky, I saw an old car with “Don’t Stop Believin'” lettered across its back window, and I knew at once that The People HAD spoken!

    2.) Dave Marsh’s litany of epithets directed at Journey is actually an example of his Good Cop mode. He can be much nastier than that, as the situation demands, so you might have some wiggle room to go on playing your Journey albums in the meantime.

    3.) I agree with Steven that Jody Rosen’s essay is very good. It’s given me a lot to think about. My only disagreement is that I’ve always regarded Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose” as somehow weirdly AVANT-GARDE.

  5. >>>”the question ‘why did critics treat X like that” is usually “because they were being close-minded,” and the prescription is then, “open your mind!” But this is a facile diagnosis and prescription.<<<

    Yeah, this is a sticking point for me, too. Though I don't have anything particular to add to it right now (except to say that labelling Marsh the "guardian" of rock critic orthodoxy is meaningless, insofar as you could just as easily write an article about Lionel Richie and refer positively to Dave Marsh as "antagonist of rock critic orthodoxy," given that Marsh was one of the only music critics on the planet who took Ritchie seriously at all) (but anyway, all the good early rock critics were guardians and antagonists, it's a blanket statement either way).

    And here's where I confess that I haven't had time yet to read the article (I definitely will, though). I have, however, read Carl Wilson's Celine Dion book, enjoyed it quite a lot, but one aspect of it has always stuck in my craw just a bit (and this seems like an okay place to bring it up, as it seems related).

    Writing for Radio On in the '90s, Celine must have come up in at least two or three issues — she was having hits then, so we were writing about her. To read the writing about Dion in those issues, you pretty much get the gamut: more people hated her than liked her, but a few did like some songs (and a bit of cross-issue sniping did ensue, I seem to recall), and most contriibutors just sort of grappled with her, song to song. I don't recall ANYone, however, making an issue of any of this — no one asked, "Why are we reviewing Celine Dion, for Christ's sake?". She was part of the environment, she was treated as seriously, and as irreverently as anyone else: Prince, Michael Jackson, KLF, Bryan Adams, Shania, Beck, Fugees, you name it. Wilson's book is all about grappling with the question of Celine (and taste), but much of his story is about convincing himself that she's a subject worthy of consideration. He still gets to interesting stuff via this methodology, but I just don't see the bridge that needed to be crossed there. (And I might feel the same way about the "shlock" thing; there's a bit of parading-about inherent in the idea itself.)

  6. I like the piece a lot but…. One problem here is simply a matter of usage. For most schlock is a pejorative for the big, cliche-ridden, soggy-w/-sentiment pop song they hate, NEVER their own favorite power ballad. So making a positive genre out of it is always going to be a big uphill battle. And I think I’d agree that Rosen is making something of a straw-man argument. I mean, Marsh may have had no patience for “Don’t Stop Believing” but he gushes ab “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” in his 1001 singles book, and if the Righteous Brothers aren’t schlock then I don’t know what is. Still, schlock detractors abound, as do big, dumb pop songs, so a few words for truly great big, dumb pop songs seems only fair.

  7. Self-conscious narrow-minded people who display their hate towards themselves by hating other artists. Journey has always bren an exceptional band. It’s time people should start regarding music critics as shallow people with an opinion. They are nothing more than that.

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