Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Jahnke's Record Collection: In Defense Of Schlock

If you were to look through my CD collection, you’d quickly realize things are broken down into three general sections. Like a lot of movie buffs, I have quite a few soundtrack albums. Far less than hardcore soundtrack collectors but more than the average person, who typically only has a few of the pop-rock compilation variety. There’s a section devoted to classical music, smaller than I’d like but enough to provide a pleasant soundtrack on Sunday mornings while reading The New York Times in an overstuffed leather chair should I ever decide to completely devote my life to pretentious snobbery.

Before you get to either of these two sections, there’s Everything Else. I don’t segregate my albums according to rock, jazz, country or whatever, mainly because this is my home, not a record store. It’s arranged alphabetically, so the Beach Boys and the Beastie Boys hang out side by side, Johnny Cash rubs shoulders with Nick Cave, and Miles Davis rests comfortably next to Dead Can Dance.

Obviously I have more albums by some artists than others, so if you’re just giving the rack a cursory glance, some names are going to jump out at you. But if you give it a closer look, you’ll run across a few albums, primarily greatest hits collections, that could seriously jeopardize your opinion of me as a hipster douchebag. Here’s where we enter the world of schlock pop, songs of debatable musical value that makes a huge impact on the greater world of pop culture. I am not embarrassed to admit that I own (and play) greatest hits albums by ABBA, Duran Duran, Eurythmics, Tom Jones and yes, even Madonna.

I never owned a Madonna album during her 80s heyday. I didn’t need to. The woman was inescapable. Switch on MTV at any time of the day and if they weren’t already playing one of her videos, wait ten minutes and one would turn up. I didn’t like all of her music. “Borderline” was the only song from her first album that I could tolerate. But I more or less enjoyed quite a few from the years between Like A Virgin and Like A Prayer. When The Immaculate Collection was released, I didn’t hesitate to make it the first Madonna album I owned. (Come to think of it, that’s not 100% true. I attended a midnight screening of Dick Tracy where a local radio station gave away free copies of I’m Breathless. I didn’t buy the record but I didn’t exactly toss it in the garbage, either.)

These days, if Madonna is discussed at all, it’s usually in terms of her style, her image, her personality and her influence. The music has almost become a footnote. Admitting that you like Madonna opens you up to all kinds of ridicule, especially if you’re a heterosexual male. This strikes me as odd. Let’s turn back to my media library for a minute. If you were to scan my DVD shelves, you’d see plenty of movies like Showgirls, Troll 2, Xanadu, and others that can in no way be considered good films. Yet very few people would blink an eye at their presence.

It boils down to a fundamental but often unexpressed difference between music and any other art form. Enjoyment of a particular song or album is pure, unfiltered by any stopgaps or prior awareness of it. Either a song connects with you or it doesn’t. You either like it or you don’t. You can’t enjoy music ironically, the way many of us dig crappy movies like The Room. You can hear a song and on an intellectual level think it’s the stupidest thing you’ve ever heard in your life. But music doesn’t work on an intellectual level, at least not entirely. Music is a drug that taps directly into a primeval part of your brain and makes you happy or sad or romantic or nostalgic or even some magical cocktail combination of emotions that can’t be expressed any other way but through a song.

We cannot predict how we’ll respond to a song and this is one of the things that makes music so thrilling. I can’t stand it when I hear people say they enjoy all music except rap or country or whatever. As far as I’m concerned, these people simply need to dig deeper. If you keep your ears and mind open, you can make some remarkable discoveries. I’ve never heard so much as a second of a Justin Bieber song and, while I may not think it’s very likely that I’ll enjoy his music, if I did, I’d be only to happy to fess up to it.

We live in very strange times. Thanks to Facebook, blogging and whatnot, we’re theoretically sharing more about ourselves than ever before. But like attracts like and it’s all too easy to stay cooped up in our virtual bubbles, discovering more and more about things we already know we like but nothing at all about anything else. Radio and television both now cater to specific individual tastes. I enjoy Pandora quite a bit and I’ve discovered some new bands that way but it hasn’t introduced me to completely new forms of music I’d have never heard otherwise. We’re sharing more but discovering less and this is true across the board, for music, movies, TV, books, you name it. If Madonna was starting out today, I’d probably be dimly aware of her music at best. Why? Because she’d only be played on the radio alongside Lady Gaga and Katy Perry on a station I don’t listen to because I’ve predetermined that I don’t like most of what they play. The only reason I’ve heard anything by Katy Perry is because they play that station over the loudspeaker at my local carwash and I forgot to bring my iPod that day.

The only real shot a recording artist has at expanding beyond their core audience today is nabbing a spot on a talk show like Letterman or Conan O’Brien. I’d have never given a thought to Janelle Monae if I hadn’t seen her bring the house down on Letterman. If I’d missed that performance, I never would have discovered her album The Archandroid, which quickly became one of my favorite records of 2010. I’m glad I found her but how many other acts slipped beneath my radar? How do you convince someone who listens mainly to indie rock to give something massively popular a shot? Even more troubling, where does a hip-hop fan go to learn about jazz? For that matter, how do they even learn they might want to learn about jazz in the first place?

I don’t have any answers to these questions. I wish I did. When my friends post music on Facebook, I listen to it, whether or not I’m familiar with it or my tastes perfectly align with their own. Sometimes that leads me to reconsider bands I’d previously dismissed. Other times, it just reaffirms what I thought in the first place. But no matter what, if there is pleasure to be derived from those few minutes, I embrace it without asking questions and go looking for more. Now if you’ll excuse me, “Material Girl” just started playing and I love that song.