The Intersection of Patriotism and Bad Power-Pop
In the most recent New York magazine, music critic Jody Rosen penned a lengthy, insightful essay on “schlock” music—the hyper-earnest, overwhelmingly emotional, often clichéd songs (and the artists who pen/sing them) cringed at by critics and “serious” musicians and often ridiculed while simultaneously ascending charts and working their way into the cultural zeitgeist. He explains:
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. The qualities traditionally prized by music critics and other listeners of discerning taste — sophistication, subtlety, wit, irony, originality, “experimentation” — have no place in schlock. Schlock is extravagant, grandiose, sentimental, with an unshakable faith in the crudest melodrama, the biggest statements, the most timeworn tropes and most overwrought gestures.
He opens with the example of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing,” which was almost universally panned upon its 1981 debut but has since become one of America’s most enduring anthems. Others include Billy Joel’s “Piano Man,” Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer,” Guns and Roses “November Rain,” Katy Perry’s “Roar,” and even “Thunder Road” (decry, but it’s true).
All are unapologetically appealing to base human emotions—the ones that unconsciously soar with a cresting melody, tear up on a maudlin bridge, rise to meet the eye of the tiger. They are not good songs, but by targeting simple, universal circumstances with beautifully arranged and clichéd lyrics, they can lasso pretty much anyone’s feelings. Enough to bring a large crowd to musical unison—think any college karaoke bar night ever, or the “Tiny Dancer” sing-along scene from Almost Famous.
Rosen sticks to primarily anglo-American pop and rock, because, as she notes, the world of schlock is too large for a single magazine essay. Many other cultures have their own versions. What she neglected, though, was a whole rising tide of American music that is perhaps the schlock-iest of all: Bro-country.
Think about the young, radio-tune-loving people you know. Do any of them profess a “guilty pleasure” of Zac Brown Band? Would they respond well to the idea of slinging a cooler of Bud Light into a pickup and having a bonfire in the middle of a field wearing flannels and boots? Are they possibly in a Levi’s commercial? Do they frequent an ironic honky-tonk bar recently opened in your hometown/neighborhood? If the answer to any of these is ‘yes,’ blame bro-country.
Bro-country is a rising tide of deeply romanticized Americana, and not in a cool, James Dean/ Jack Kerouac way, but in a vaguely backwater way that involves guns and moonshine. It was touched upon in another recent article by Carl Wilson, Slate music critic and author of the canonical book on schmaltz (schlock’s cheesier offspring), Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste. While reviewing Miranda Lambert’s latest album, Platinum, Wilson notes the heavy whiff of testosterone permeating Nashville the past few years. Where the country world of the ‘90s and early 2000s was all girl-power (Martina, Dixie Chicks, Faith Hill, etc), of late it’s gotten decidedly more… well, bro-ish. Wilson begins:
“Nashville has been awash for several years with men such as Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, and Blake Shelton drawling about “girls in tank-tops and flip-flops dancing on bars and in the flatbeds of pickups at a never-ending dirt-road tailgate party.”
To many, many Americans, this sounds deliciously appealing: A myriad of friends crowded around a keg and a cooler, maybe a guitar player, getting rowdy in a field with hats on. Perhaps there’s an inflatable swimming pool, or a watering hole. There is definitely a truck blasting the radio. Everyone is barefoot. Who doesn’t love to cruise down a backroad in an SUV with a twanging guitar solo belting one-listen memorable lyrics and picturing this? It’s the same schlock, with a drawl. Just slightly more patriotic than “Purple Rain.”
It isn’t surprising when considering the “local,” “artisanal” cultural shift of the past decade. The “local” version of America is a small town (girl, living in a lonely world) where the drinks are cheap and the friends are lifelong. Patriotism has become an Urban Outfitters t-shirt. Nashville is a TV show. Country ain’t so marginalized. And so those power-pop hits shift, from hair metal to honky-tonk.
Where fraternity parties were once soundtracked by Bruce, they’re now blaring Bryan. The cheap beer remains, the sing-alongs change, the schlock stay the same.
America, the beautiful—we’re saps, the lot of us.