On Kitsch: Two Examples, One From Heavy Metal, Another From Hip-Hop (Warning: Offensive Language)
In the end, indignation over kitsch is anger at its shameless revelling in the joy of imitation, now placed under taboo, while the power of works of art still continues to be secretly nourished by imitation. . . [Kitsch] incurs hostility because it blurts out the secret of art and the affinity of culture to savagery. – Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia, pp. 225-226, quoted by Leppert, “Commentary: Music and Mass Culture”, p. 364
So I was reading through Richard Leppert’s introductory Commentary essay to the third section of his collection of Adorno’s writings on music. The section, “Music and Mass Culture”, covers topics that should be self-explanatory, and will be discussed in detail at Reflections On. Yet the above quote got me thinking about the subject of kitsch in popular music. It is no less ubiquitous there than in more serious music; indeed, it is often more clearly visible as kitsch even as it is marketed as potentially “serious” popular music.
Both examples come from the late 1980’s, as the music industry was trying to cope with the rise of two different musical styles that nevertheless presented problems both for the traditional music industry as well as society in general. On the one hand, there was Heavy Metal, a genre full of danger, anger, sexuality, and more than hints at violence. Since its beginnings in the early 197o’s, it had been the ugly step-child of radio friendly hard rock; by the early- to mid-1980’s however, it was stepping out on its own, full of swagger and pomp, power chords and blast beats. By the time the 1980’s waned, however, radio was oversaturated with pop-metal bands that combined various elements from rock and metal’s past, from stage presence to the alleged simplicity of the music, and part of the heavy metal scene was dying a deserved death. In this mix came a band called Steelheart with what I can only describe as the perfect embodiment of anti-metal disguised as metal I have ever seen and heard: “Never Let You Go”.
From the crescendo from an acoustic/electric guitar duet, absent bass and drums, through the lead singer’s sudden leap from a high tenor to a falsetto that verges on soprano, the songs tension/release formula has none because it’s so overdone and predictable.. Guitar chords and solo fills are so familiar they could have been sampled. In the video, the drummer has an enormous kit in front and surrounding him. Yet, he only plays about four pieces. The lyrics are a mish-mash of senseless love song cliches that don’t so much convey emotion as offer an opportunity for the listener to realize how vapid the genre of “power ballad” really is. The lead singer’s physical performance is a mixture of Robert Plant’s cockey strut, David Lee Roth’s gymnastics (at 3:24 in the video, he pulls a move straight out of Roth’s stage gimmicks, as seen below):
The singer’s vocal style is reminiscent of the soaring vocals of Judas Priest’s Rob Halford and Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson. The sexuality the band projects is an almost too-carefully crafted ambiguous androgyny, something noted about Heavy Metal from the beginning.
As a genre, Heavy Metal represented – and still represents – danger. It is angry, threatening, hinting at sexual abandon, a rejection of social values not only for their superficiality, but for the hypocrisy involved in forcing them upon society while observed-in-absence by those in power. Finally, the ugliness of the sound of metal, its volume, the use of discord and odd modes to more than hint at evil and threat is replaced by carefully coiffed and dressed performers who don’t seem to sweat, even when they’re miming under the sun in the desert. If all the other bands I mentioned exemplified the danger of heavy metal, Steelheart is metal kitsch, tout court, and precisely fits Adorno’s description.
In 1988, an album was released from a hip-hop group from Los Angeles. Called Straight Out Of Compton, NWA (Niggas With Attitude) blasted through the emerging consensus about “rap” – that it was a novelty music, limited to portions of the boroughs of New York City where it first emerged in the late 1970’s; that it offered certain radio-friendly alternatives to the slowly dying rhythm and blues, soul, and funk musics that were just about played out, or were becoming “Adult Contemporary” music (think Anita Baker here). NWA’s record wasn’t nice. It wasn’t pretty. Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy E, and the rest of the band raged against the racism of the Los Angeles Department in a song entitled “Fuck Da Police”:
Their explicit shout against a racist system was frightening to anyone who had been amused by the RUN-DMC/Aerosmith duet or The Beastie Boys. There was nothing pretty, and certainly nothing radio-friendly, on this statement of the realities of life on LA’s south side during the 1980’s.
A year later, bursting out of nowhere, receiving nearly ubiquitous radio and MTV play, San Francisco’s MC Hammer told the world, “You Can’t Touch This”
If anything was anti-hip-hop’s future, it was this comforting, family-friendly declaration of Hammer’s rhyming skills, done over repeated sampling of Rick James’s “Superfreak”. The album from which this song came also had the song, “Pray”, in which Hammer assured listeners he prayed every day. Even as NWA had taken the political message of Public Enemy, landed it in south-central LA, and made it more visceral, offering others an artistic avenue to vent their rage – among those who emerged from this scene were Snoop Dogg, as well as former members Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Eazy E, whose solo record appeared about the same time Straight Outta Compton was released – within a rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic milieu that placed a premium not only on verbal agility but authenticity, what they called “keeping it real”. With his boyish smile, his rags-to-riches All-American story, MC Hammer was as unlike the unruly NWA as could be imagined. Hammer was hip-hop kitsch, served up to try and calm the nerves of a mostly white nation, mostly white record company executives, and mostly white radio programmers who didn’t notice that NWA’s vision of what hip-hop could be, precisely because it resonated with African-American experience, was the future, rather than Hammer’s carefully cultivated parachute pants and insistence that it was “Hammer Time”.
I’ll have more to say on Adorno’s view of musical kitsch when that essay comes around. For now, it’s enough to note that there is art music out there amid the popular noise drowning it out. While these examples are certainly dated – as am I, I would add – they nevertheless demonstrate Adorno’s understanding both of art – presenting the present world clearly, without either adornment or apology – and kitsch – an imitation that drains the threat and danger of real art even as it seeks to imitate art, and thereby expose the reality that lies behind all of art: We aren’t that far removed from savagery, and can sink in to it at any moment. The best art is a warning against this reality. Kitsch is a celebration of anti-artistic savagery, usually produced toward one end – to make money.