TEN CLASSICS OF SUBLIME KITSCH
by OSCAR DEL POZO
We all know what kitsch is, but it isn’t easy to define. Let’s say the thin line dividing where it begins and ends is somewhat blurry: it all depends on each person’s good taste standards. Musically, it’s supposed to be what refined and learned ears consider utterly tacky. “Who decides whether a work of art is good or not?” writer Nick Hornby asks himself on the foreword to Carl Wilson’s book Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste, a fascinating essay trying to discover why people adore Céline Dion. “What are fans and critics based on to take such decisions? Can we trust them?” Well, not always, that’s clear. For example, up to the nineties disco music was a genre generally looked at with contempt, whereas today nobody denies its capital importance. What is incontestable today is that in any age there’s an elite (critics, intellectuals) that decides what’s good and what’s bad. Today, when it comes to pop, rock and electronic music, media such as Pitchfork establish the canon. Thus, a current way of defining kitsch music is listing which songs would never be praised by Pitchfork.
The term ‘kitsch’ started being used on the second half of the 19th century, when American tourists that visited Monaco and wanted to buy cheap paintings asked for a sketch. From it derived the German term that designed the sub-products destined to buyers looking for easy aesthetic experiences. So from its origin, the word designates the idea that kitsch is like a cheap imitation of great art, a kind of lie before the truth of art. But in the same way that those fake diamonds that little by little fill the screen on the wonderful title credits of Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life, kitsch can seduce us precisely because it’s a lie, an imitation.
If we got out on the street and started asking around, most people would agree on qualifying as kitsch a great part of the repertoire of Rafaella Carrá and Village People, ABBA’s Mamma Mia, Olivia Newton John’s Xanadu, Sonia y Selena’s Yo quiero bailar or Kylie Minogue’s Your Disco Needs You. They are all great songs, classic for several generations, and I’m sure many of us would include them in our parties’ playlists. However, to be examples of sublime kitsch they lack artistic ambition. They’re conformist, not strident enough. What I want to defend here is another variation of the genre, much more pretentious and characterised in general by excess.
In her unmissable Notes on Camp, Susan Sontag defined camp sensibility (similar to kitsch sensibility) as “a love for non natural things, artifice and exaggeration.” And artifice and exaggeration are, precisely, with ambition and a total absence of a sense of the ridicule (except in one case, as we will see) the common characteristics to the following songs and their interpreters. Ten fake diamonds that should be granted the same value as real ones. At the end of the day, the pleasures of culture shouldn’t be reduced to elevated and serious art. Whoever denied him/herself the possibility of enjoying kitsch, whoever despises it or consumes it with prejudice, placing it on the “guilty pleasure” category, is renouncing to another type of aesthetic experience. That’s why I’d like to declare, right from the beginning, my unconditional love for all these super hits that have given me so much pleasure in different moments of my life. In strict alphabetical order:
illustration by JOSEP PRAT
(Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballé, 1988)
Mega-quality and camp aren’t that far away
For Freddie Mercury, pop and rock weren’t enough. In his career with Queen he was already obsessed with creating Great Art through bombastic and opera-like compositions, starting with the brilliant/horrible (you choose) Bohemian Rhapsody. But he never made it so far as with this song for Barcelona’s Olympic games (which in themselves are an absolutely kitsch event). Umberto Eco said that Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea was kitsch because it was a mediocre novel that made the average reader believe he/she was consuming art without making him/her read something more demanding. Well, Barcelona made half of the world believe they were consuming opera without needing to face Der Ring Des Nibelungen.
The truth is that Freddie didn’t abstain from anything. Since the budget was quite high, he used an orchestra at full volume, all sorts of bells on the chorus and a Montserrat Caballé in the peak of her faculties screaming like a cow in labour. Everything is so huge and so ridiculous that it can only provoke admiration or instant rejection. As for me, Barcelona gives me goose pimples, it doesn’t matter how many times I listen to it. Freddie’s voice is really expressive and I’m moved by his total and unconditional surrender. By the way, Caballé sings in Spanish, although it’s almost impossible to understand her, sentences such as: “A dream surrounded me / when I saw that you were here” and “For you I’ll be a seagull in the beautiful sea.”
(Tino Casal, 1988)
Kitsch means style is more important than message. Or rather, style, surface, is the message. That’s how it was, without a doubt, in the case of Tino Casal, an aesthete with a tendency towards the Baroque who shared a flat with Fabio McNamara in his early days and who was already a star before climbing on a stage. In his case, songs served the character, and not the other way round. His great success was this version of Barry Ryan that Tino updated by copying the production of Always on My Mind and Heart, two Pet Shop Boys hits from the year before. He sang it on TVE, of course, in strict playback, sitting on a throne and sporting a coat full of sequins; animal print details and gems galore, shoulder pads and a stick. His look was always extreme and very crazy, and his great legacy is his wardrobe, in which he used all his talent and fantasy.
The lyrics to Eloise have some sentences that are very typical of him, like “en tiempo de relax empolva su nariz” [when she’s relaxing, she powders her nose] for anyone to take conclusions about the protagonist of the song. At the time, Tino still had to pretend he was talking about a girlfriend, although it was clear that he was describing the kind of woman that us gays love to bits, used to exercise her power over males, with a great confidence in herself, a bit mad and a bit of a femme fatale. Tino died soon after publishing Eloise, but playing it at any party or bar at 3AM still guarantees collective ecstasy twenty-eight years later.
Since camp is the love of exaggeration, mannerist divas and excess sexuality are also camp. And if Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich and Jayne Mansfield were already camp in their time, how could Madonna not be camp, when in the eighties and nineties had the characteristics of the three embodied in just one person? Erotica corresponds to the most épater les bourgeois moment of Ciccone’s career, when she seemed ready to embrace any sexual perversion that came to her mind (I imagine her writing down a list so as not to miss any of them). She assured that it was a political gesture, and the truth is that it seemed very brave, although the lyrics of the song (“erotic, romance, I’d like to put you in a trance, put your hands all over my body”) aren’t any better than what Norma Duval must have sung at the Folies Bergère.
There are two things I absolutely love about Erotica: one is its hip hop base, dirty and hypnotic, adorned with a sampler of Kool and The Gang’s Jungle Boogie and finished with three piano notes. The other is the seriousness with which Madonna gives herself away to the cause, with all sorts of whisperings and panting (with an echo), saying things like “if I take you from behind, push myself into your mind,” like a dominatrix, no irony. Susan Sontag already said that in camp, be it naïf or pure, the essential element is seriousness, a failed one. It wants to be taken seriously but it can’t be, because it is too much. Erotica is too much.
(Mónica Naranjo, 2008)
And if Erotica is too much, what to say about Europa? Seven minutes and fourteen seconds. On the first part, really symphonic, the first person description of the ascension of a diva who finds success and love; on one of the verses we can hear the word “delirious.” From minute three on, the orchestra stays, but electronic music Prodigy-style and metal guitars make their entrance. Europe surrenders to Hitler at the same time the protagonist loses her love, becomes an alcoholic and goes mad. One of the verses says: “la decadencia, la solución final” [the decadence, the final solution]. The climax includes a verse in German, although it could be any language given the frenzy of the song at this point.
When Mónica Naranjo triumphed in 1997 with Desátame she was only twenty-three, but she looked ten years older, minimum. She was an old soul. Her physique already transmitted the ambition of becoming a great diva of song, like Mina. If her delusions of grandeur had accelerated her physical development, why should we be surprised when she ended doing something so crazy, so elevated to the maximum power as Europa? It was obviously conceived to be interpreted in a big theatre, with a conductor dressed in a tuxedo and a gala audience. The thing, thus, contains the necessary doses of passion, seriousness and exaggeration to be an example of pure kitsch.
This lover of kitsch and connoisseur of camp loves vulgarity. He enjoys Legally Blonde as much as the first John Waters films. That’s why Fabio McNamara couldn’t be excluded from this list. Voluntarily coarse and tacky, in a constant war against good taste (those paintings!), Fabio is the more genuine representative of Spanish trash. His time with Almodóvar is very well known, but then he went on, hem!, singing and developing a, let’s say, lifestyle between dada, extravagant and absolutely nuts.
Fabio was a multiple drug-addict (in his memoir he explains that one night he crushed acid with a spoon, mixed it with whisky and shot it up his arm) and his wasted brain has never been able to remember any lyrics to his songs. That’s why he has taken improvisation as his modus operandi. His tunes show some genius, but usually they make no sense at all. So it’s quite surprising that he ever came up with such as round hit as this one, a glam rock description of a love at first sight. Gritando amor has an amazing chorus, and the contents of some of its verses are deeper than it would seem. For example, Fabio sings “de lunes a viernes pensando en ti las veinticuatro” [Monday to Friday thinking of you twenty-four hours] but he doesn’t explain what he does on Saturday and Sunday…
GROOVE IS IN THE HEART
Susan Sontag distinguishes between naïf camp and deliberate camp. Pure camp is always naïf, and absolutely serious. That’s why what is born wanting to be camp is usually less satisfactory (example: Fangoria and Sara Montiel’s duet singing Absolutamente), although if it shows enough talent, it can be cool. The perfect example is this song that for five minutes turned kitsch into the new cool. Deee-Lite were a trio from New York (a modern girl squeezed into lycra garments, an Ukrainian with a bun, and a Japanese with thick spectacles) that mixed psychedelia with cartoons and samplers with platform shoes. They looked like a joke, but on that year they managed to get a consensus from trend magazines, the (let’s say) serious music press, gays and the general audience. That is quite a feat!
Groove is in the Heart has a bass line that would be able to resurrect Hanna and Barbera, creators of The Jetsons, the sixties animated series that more clearly inspired the aesthetics of the trio. Since they inhabited their own cartoon world, Deee-Lite allowed themselves to be as colourful, excessive and fairy as they wanted. They seduced Pierre et Gilles, who took pictures of them, and triumphed on the radio. But their inspiration soon run dry: in a few years they were history. Today, Groove is in the Heart accumulates more than eighteen million Spotify hearings, much more than many current hits.
I’M TOO SEXY
(Saint Etienne, 1992)
Here’s the definite proof that in order to be a camp artist you can’t show any trace of shame. Saint Etienne is a wonderful trio made up by three aesthetes of encyclopaedic pop (Bob Stanley has just published his history of the genre, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!) that make songs as if they were precious decorative objects. However, they’re too shy, too prudish. So us their fans were very surprised to hear they had covered I’m Too Sexy, a one hit wonder by Right Said Fred the chorus of which constantly repeats: “I’m too sexy for my shirt.” On the original video, of course, the singer appeared with his bare chest.
The original song is so cheeky and sexually obvious that it could be featured on this list, alongside Erotica. But Saint Etienne’s rendition is even better; since it narrates a mental short-circuit. Before the predicament of having to defend a song that has nothing to do with them and would almost make them change personalities, the trio goes mad, destroys melody and chorus and recycles some original vocal parts so that Sarah Cracknell appears almost on the background, as if she didn’t belong there. The result is surprising, though, the most similar thing to a dismantled and abstract kitsch song.
(Marc Almond, 1991)
Half of Soft Cell is a h-u-g-e artist who has spent his life fighting against Britain’s national illness: discretion, inhibition, emotional repression. That’s why his main referents are glam, flamenco and melodramatic and excessive divos such as Scott Walker, Charles Aznavour or Jacques Brel, to whom he devoted a whole cover album (Jacques) and to whom he also paid homage in his masterpiece, Tenement Symphony. La Chanson de Jacky, according to Walker’s translation, becomes in this album a delirious excess of electronic pop, with an orchestra, epic choirs and even castanets! In one word: tremendous!
The main reason Marc hasn’t been recognised like he deserves in Great Britain is that they see him as a weirdo. Some of his best songs look for catharsis, a violent exaltation of emotions as a path to liberation. But that’s quite a risky approach in a country in which liberating your emotions is almost taboo. On top of that, he uses anything that comes to mind, however irresponsible: flamenco guitars, cabaret, covers of chansonniers, traditional Russian and Turkish music… Nothing is too big for him. Marc was born in the wrong place: if he was French he would be like Édith Piaf, and if he was Spanish, like Lola Flores or Rocío Jurado, two Spanish divas he adores.
(Adam and the Ants, 1981)
Charismatic Adam Ant (Stuart Goddard is his birth-given name) was one of the forerunners of Gothic rock at the beginning of the eighties. His ambition to become successful made him turn to teenager pop, what was perceived by his initial fans as treason. He didn’t mind: he dressed as a new romantic Dick Turpin and in Stand and Deliver devoted verses “I’m the dandy highwayman / so sick of easy fashion” to his original fans. He became number one. From then on, histrionics and disguises were constant in his public image.
Camp and kitsch are a means to express, in art, the metaphor of life as a theatre in which each person plays a part. And this idea is implied on he music video for Prince Charming, in which Adam interprets different roles: a male Cinderella, Clint Eastwood in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Vito Corleone in The Godfather, Lawrence of Arabia and even Alice Cooper. And all of this while he repeats: “Prince charming / ridicule is nothing to be scared of.” If there was any conclusion to be drawn from this article, that would be it. Sense and shame take you nowhere. In kitsch, as in life, the more kamikaze, the better!
SEVILLANAS DE LOS BLOQUES
In the mid-eighties, Martirio was a revolutionary character: a dissatisfied housewife (María Isabel Quiñones had married at nineteen and had a son) whom, one day, decided she’d had enough, started sporting mantillas, sunglasses and impossible combs and jumped on stage to shout her frustrations to the world. Her rebellion had a punk root, but her natural audience were other housewives, who could identify themselves with the lyrics to Separada sin paga, Madurito interesante, Las mil calorías and, above all, Sevillanas de los bloques.
Sevillanas are the most criticised palo of flamenco. In fact, for many purists it isn’t even real flamenco, because it’s too easy and popular. But what could the housewife from the suburbs she describes on the song be, a fan of Camarón or of María del Monte? Obviously, of the future godmother to Chavelita. So pop verses such as “con mi chándal y mis tacones, arreglá pero informal” [with tracksuit and high heels, all done up but not too much] or “con los niños por delante, nos vamos al híper” [with the kids in front of us / we’re going to the mall] sound very convincing with the typical guitar, claps and castanets background. The end of the song, with the protagonist suffering a nervous breakdown (“estoy atacá, mira que me voy a la calle a pegar chillíos” [I’m away with it, I’m going to go to the streets and start screaming]), is such an impure form of art, that it’s almost pure, like anything else on this selection.