The Woman Who Would Be Schlock
She’s supposed to be the Girl Next Door. In fact, when she altered her image a couple of years ago and used the phrase “you bet your ass” at a concert it made the Canadian edition of Time magazine. But if she is just next door, she is a very interesting neighbor.
Her Ivory-Soap-ad natural good looks are so good they’re almost breathtaking, and so don’t seem natural at all. Her smile is confident but secretive, seductive but aloof. And her unaffected singing voice is low, suggestive, and intimate while remaining reserved, becoming downright husky, even soulful at key moments. In short, she’s a public figure whose rich private life glows right below the surface of her uncomplicated public image, and therefore disturbs the simplicity of that image. If this is the Girl Next Door, something good is going on next door. But what?
We’ll never know, since Anne Murray isn’t interested in laying out the details of the private life that smolders behind her public surface. Although the details seem fairly conventional, they remain unavailable for the kind of personal confessionals that have become a part of most singer’s public images.
Which doesn’t mean she isn’t capable of music that draws on the richness of this private life, whatever it may be. Two years ago she released two of my all time favorite albums, Love Song and Highly Prized Possession, albums that perfectly expressed her reserved yet intimate public stance. Roughly in the neo-folkie groove, they consisted of old rock standards and new songs, largely by unknown Canadian songwriters, tastefully produced. The songs selected were either so well known or so unknown they had few connotations, suiting Murray’s own non-controversial mainstream posture. But their low-keyed expressiveness also nicely suited the natural warmth and intimacy of her voice.
Unfortunately, these were the last two albums she made with her long-time producer Brian Ahern, who has since gone on to concentrate on producing Emmylou Harris. Who left who is an unsettled question, but Anne Murray either moved on or was shunted over to Tom Catalano, the guy who produced Helen Reddy at her schlockiest.
A Tale of Two Provincials
Like Helen Reddy (Australia), Anne Murray (Canada) is from some place that is almost, but not quite, the U.S.A. So both can seem familiar to audiences in the U.S.A. without being easy to place or pigeonhole. Associations come to mind if you say a singer is from L.A., Chicago, Manhattan, or Nashville, but what do you think of when you hear a singer is from Sydney or Toronto? Nothing in particular — allowing the something-for-everyone approach.
Reddy used this to move from a cult pop singer to a feminist singer to the most popular woman singer in the world. But she did this by leaving Australia to maneuver in the center of the L.A. rat race. Murray has moved no more nearer the rat race than Toronto, where she reigns as the most popular woman singer — of English-speaking Canada.
When Helen Reddy strides onto the Johnny Carson show with the best posture since Julie Andrews, she’s just one of the guys, now that the guys don’t mind someone who’s a feminist. When Anne Murray’s in the same situation she also seems to fit right in — she’s got good posture too, used to be a high school gym teacher in fact –but she has that secretive, self-satisfied smile and those luminous good looks. As if she knows something good she’s not telling. And so projects a reserve and distance, after all.
Likewise, for better or for worse, Helen Reddy has a thin, clear voice that floats successfully on the fluff of mainstream pop. While Murray’s voice is too deep and expressive to pull off the same trick. So that, since hooking up with Tom Catalano, she has released two (so far) dull, commercially unsuccessful, schlocky albums.
Which is not to say that schlocky is bad. It’s just not what Anne Murray is suited for.
Schlock, to me, is materialism in a dionysian mode. At its best it represents the entrance into the mystery of America –the vulgar ecstasy of consumption — and is more exciting than sex. People who’ve always had money don’t like schlock because it isn’t tasteful, as if a man on the verge of starvation all his life who sits down to his first big meal should be into how the food tastes.
True Schlock music uses any and every sound available because it’s thrilling to use them all. This thrill increases the emotional impact of the song — if the thrill is added honestly without worrying about what should be appropriate. Like in Phil Spector at his best, Motown at its earliest extravagance, and some bubble gum and disco.
Post Schlock music takes consumption for granted and moves on from there. And rightly so. Since if that banquet continues night after night for our formerly starving man it can’t have the same emotional impact it did the first time–or at least can’t have it for his kids, who must figure out something else to do with their affluence. Examples of the Post Schlock solution are Paul Simon, representing the cerebral, and the Beach Boys, representing the religious.
Anti Schlock music is another solution and that’s okay too. Anti Schlock is done simply by people who could be schlocky if they wanted to. Folk music played by mountain people who only own a banjo is Pre Schlock, but folk music played by people who’ve been exposed to Mantovanni is Anti Schlock. Woody Guthrie after he came to New York is Anti Schlock. Willie Nelson after he left Nashville is too.
Folkie records that allow for some instrumentation, as long as it’s tasteful, like current stuff by Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, and maybe Linda Ronstadt are examples of Revisionist Anti Schlock, since it embellishes the idea of simplicity. It’s in this Revisionist Anti Schlock tradition that Anne Murray’s best work fall.
High Schlock music takes Schlock for granted with little sophistication, like Helen Reddy when she’s good (rarely) or Dionne Warwick at her finest. High Schlock music might also be termed Pop, and could include the works of the great Leroy Anderson. High Schlock implies a sense of fun. But it’s hard to do because it runs a greater risk of turning into Assumed Schlock of any of the other categories.
Assumed Schlock music takes consumption for granted as it turns into smug middle-class accumulation. It’s neither ecstatic, clever, or hostile, and it’s the danger the Post Schlock and Anti Schlock solution perceive and thus avoid. It’s like expensive dishes or pieces of furniture that are too good to ever use, and it only works when it gets burned into your head by repeated exposure, like Wrigley’s gum ads or hit songs you hate but end up humming because you’ve heard them so often. Like some of Helen Reddy’s biggest hits.
When Assumed Schlock becomes that familiar it’s Mass Assumed Schlock, or Archetypal Schlock. But Assumed Schlock that doesn’t become Archetypal has no excuse. It’s just dull, there’s no point to its extravagance, and it needs to be avoided. Like those parts of Helen Reddy’s recent albums that haven’t been big hits. If you haven’t heard them a jillion times they’re just dull. Not offensive, but dull. The instrumentation, the words, and the melodies seem intent on projecting nothing more than the idea of being pleasant. And the ability to hire as many musicians for the background as you feel like having. But why?
Like a Rhinestone Cowgirl?
One of the finest purveyors of schlock, and I say this without irony, is Glen Campbell. At an early stage in her career, Anne Murray got a big boost from her frequent appearances on his show, and they even recorded an album together. But while they are very similar as entertainers, I think it is because their paths have crossed rather than converged. While their greatest work lies in opposite directions.
Campbell is the country singer moved to L. A. who not only has his eyes fixed on the mainstream but inhabits it. After all, he was once briefly one of the Beach Boys. So he practices Schlock at its finest, not as someone who is “selling out,” like the traditional country singer who screws up his records with too many violins, but as someone exploring the possibilities of his urban success.
As long as Campbell straddles the poles of his experience, between the Wichita Lineman who needs a small vacation and the Country Boy with his feet in L.A., I find his singing tremendously exciting True Schlock. But when he falls off into Pop he’s less interesting, because he’s less sure of how to resolve the Post Schlock dilemma. When he’s communicating the thrill and anxiety of Country Music on the verge of Schlock, though, he can’t be beat.
In perhaps his greatest song he personifies a scruffler down on his luck dreaming of being not “like a blue-jeaned hippie” or “like a Harvard graduate” but “like a Rhinestone Cowboy,” and a powerful dream it is. No wonder the song haunted Johnny Carson for weeks.
Like Glen Campbell (and Johnny Carson), Anne Murray is an out-of-towner who’s made it in the big city. But in her case she moved from Nova Scotia to Toronto and then no further. This may be an admirable case of Canadian nationalism but it implies drawing limits nonetheless. Toronto is not the center of North American entertainment the way L.A. is, even for Canadians.
So that, when Anne Murray releases her “mainstream” schlocky albums, they may accurately reflect her position as the Queen of Canadian music, and the hick who made it in Ontario. Perhaps she feels herself to be at the center of Schlock, but these albums fail, because she is not at the center of Schlock here.
In a way, such albums don’t reflect her position in Canada either. Since implied in the position of Numero Uno in Canada is the question of making it below the border. For instance, the articles I’ve read about her in the Canadian press like to speculate on her chances of success in the States even while they celebrate her loyalty to Canada.
What Toronto Has to Teach Us
Anne Murray’s failed attempts at Archetypal Schlock may also have been inspired by the lack of emotional risk in this type of music, since Murray is a woman of emotional limits. If this is true, it’s an understandable but unfortunate decision, since her abilities don’t lend themselves to the form. Unlike Glen Campbell — whose gifts lie in the expression of a pinched expansiveness, and so produces great post-country Schlock –or Helen Reddy –whose gifts lie in the direction of a light, hopefully playful directness, suitable to Archetypal Schlock–Murray’s gifts lie in the expression of intimacy, albeit reserved intimacy. So she is best suited to the Anti Schlock musical sensibility often called folk music that is an urban recollection of “simple” country life.
When she gives in too far to her reservations, though, and doesn’t even imply a private life, she does it with a style of music that doesn’t imply a rural past –Assumed Schlock. And rather than sounding sophisticated, she sounds cut off from herself. Out of touch.
It’s possible that this attempted sophistication also expresses the native emotional restraint of most Anglo-Canadians, and so seems more comprehensible up there, where her career remains more in the center of the spotlight. But I doubt it. I have heard that even in Canada she has lost her appeal to the hip college age audience.
Which is a shame, because as her two great albums show, she is not only capable of projected herself to fit these hip norms, but is at her best when she does so. It’s also a shame because these are the norms of many of the most successful women singers, as Brian Ahern’s work with Emmylou Harris shows. CountryFolkMORrock is a music of the mainstream.
In other words, there’s no reasons Anne Murray can’t become a Big Star and remain Canadian, except for her mistaken schlock infatuation. Which is the greatest shame of all. Because at her finest, Anne Murray offer a way out of one of our musical and maybe cultural traps.
On the one hand we live with the leftover myths of those public figures of the ’60s who gave their private lives for their public art and so consumed themselves, like Janis Joplin. On the other hand, in reaction to this, there are those who survive in the ’70s by being too smart to risk too much and so risk losing their emotional depth. Or those like Linda Ronstadt whose public success threatens the existence of the private self that made them successful in the first place. Can Linda Ronstadt remain super successful and a symbol of unloved but undaunted womanhood?
The Revisionist Anti Schlock Anne Murray offers a way out of this, since she’s someone with a rich emotional life that can be used but not used up by her public career. She’s someone who remains intact, not be being shallow, but by a sense of limits, who also remains capable of projecting emotional depth.
In fact, when she is shallow, which is what Schlock makes her (unlike someone like Glen Campbell, who is broadened by it), she doesn’t seem real. She doesn’t seem intact. Unfortunately, the cultural solution she should represent remains obscured by this self-destructive desire for mainstream schlock success that she’s unsuited for. And so she remains –as new, exotic, and partially successful as Toronto itself. A work of Failed Schlock.
And all we can do is hope she will figure it out and dig up the right producer. In the meantime buy Highly Prized Possession, if you can find it. You’ll like it, honest. And watch for her next appearance on the Mike Douglas Show. Because she doesn’t like Johnny Carson.
Tom Smucker, Village Voice