A Thought About Kitsch

August 23, 2007


There are two musicians who created some of the worst kitsch ever recorded, and yet I actually hear elements in their work I like. 


One is indeed Kenny G.  The stuff is almost pure Muzak and I usually feel like an idiot even listening to it, but as someone with a strong wind playing background (I was a trumpet player and my wife is a very famous trombonist) I have to admire his technique, and above all the way he creates certain kinds of nuance on the instrument.  I just go past the lack of musical taste (whatever that may be) and listen to the way he uses his breath when making music.  He has some remarkable abilities and I think that might be why he affects millions of people.  “Songbird” is the one of the few instrumentals to reach the top 40 in the last fifty years or so.   There must be something that affects all those people.


We might also note that he has not only inspired tens of thousands of Mall Rats to join school bands, he is actually an activist for strengthening school music programs. Should we not give him a certain credit -- even if we have to hold our noses?


The other is Karen Carpenter.  She and her brother probably created the very worst musical kitsch in existence, but her languid contralto voice was so rare in pop music, and sometimes so beautifully nuanced that I strongly appreciate some aspects of her work.


I guess you could say that in my desperation to hear certain kinds of linear nuance in music that I pick the peas out of the puke.  Fortunately, there is one area where I find that kind of nuance where no one has any issues: Japanese shakuhachi music.  No kitsch there other than the ubiquitous sampled phrases in the movies every time a Kung Fu artist appears.



I  have no problem with people who dislike G.s music (in fact I agree,) but I also have no grand problem with people who do like it.  The pernicious commoditization of art in America is a serious problem, but it will not be solved through intolerance.  My take is that solutions will be found through better music education and an improved system of public funding for the arts.  Give people knowledge and access, then let them decide for themselves what they like.

And to relate this to the larger theme of Frank’s blog, I think many composers have preferred to remain outside of our profession’s various “like/hate” aesthetic encampments, and that many have faced some fairly serious career challenges as a result.  During the 60s and 70s, composers who didn’t carry some sort of Up- or Downtown party card were often marginalized.  Fortunately, the Postmodern ideals that began evolving in the 80s helped many composers understand that aesthetic orthodoxies are often very limiting.  Our ears were opened to new worlds.

So Chris, I think there is indeed a correlation between intolerance and mediocrity.  Intolerance almost always represents a form of superficial, limiting thought. 

Strong notions about what is hip and what isn’t also risk intolerance.  Conceptions of hippness are too subjective, and revolve around too many plays for power, for them to be reliable.  We should remember the lessons of history which illustrate how often composers suffer from ideologically induced deafness.

William Osborne