bro country schlock

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).

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A long, slow bike ride through a better neighborhood than mine to be “introspective,” finding myself (physically) at a ferry pier that extends far enough into the East River to make one feel landless and with all Manhattan’s high-rise glory sprawled in front, demanding attention.

“Who am I?” I ask the choppy cobalt waters. “What am I doing with my life?”

The post-storm gusts are angry, forceful, “I don’t know,” snap the seas, “Maybe you should stop pretending you’re in a fucking movie with this panoramic soul-searching shit and figure that out.”

I sigh. The river is right. I am an idiot.

Sometimes, I do creative writing. And if you’re reading the other swill, you might as well see this stuff, too.

It was that steamy summer when people seemed very Patriotic. American flags were on a lot of things–tees, mostly, but also bags and shoes and those short tank tops that showed the belly buttons of skinny girls in round sunglasses. Seemed, because of the ubiquity. But I wouldn’t say any of us were particularly proud.

It was the hottest July on U.S. record. We didn’t have an A.C. because, well, we said it was too much money but really it was because we’d rather spend our earnings on cold beer and frowned-upon drugs, and because we’d survived half the heated season already and felt a bizarre, twisted sense of pride in being able to “do without.” “That’s not pride,” a friend says over the phone on the 4th day of August from her conditioned Manhattan apartment. “That’s sweat.” You nod and wipe the tiny, briny beads from your hairline, thinking about September and taking a cold shower before going out. Instead of making a meal, you nibble at a Twizzler and wonder if it’s OK to go another day without shaving your legs. Good razors are expensive.

A bike ride is briefly contemplated, but the night prior proved too much to handle. Bloody Marys at brunch are “lifesavers”, but really they just prolong the inevitable mid-day stupor to an early evening waste of time. Chewing on another twirled stick of cherry-flavored fructose, sitting on an uncomfortably cozy velvet couch, small streams running between the breasts. It’s just another way of passing the time until rejoining society with Beer and Friends, because they are interchangeable and sometimes the same thing.

Sitting on the fire escape–because it’s less stuffy outside, and it looks like rain so it’s cooler and almost like fall, and because your roommate is napping and you don’t want her to know that your coffee cup is full of cheap white wine–you see adult-ish looking people gathering in the backyard on the other side of the block. Dinner parties are for the put-together, you think, and try to pick off the right-knee scab that you got from falling on the sidewalk last weekend so that when you see old college friends tonight it looks like you’re not still a mess. The red licorice tastes a little salty. You are covered in dried bodily saline. It feels normal.

Supposedly, the world is as heated as the weather. Global politics and an impending election that you don’t follow. The economy is bad. Your Job is OK though–it pays the bills, and then some. Things could be worse. It could still be July.

Your world is a bubble–you are only 22.