Showing posts with label Schmaltz. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Schmaltz. Show all posts

Sunday, October 15, 2023


In the 1930s, “icky” referred to any popular music (jazz, big band, swing) that was considered overly “sweet.” For someone to dismiss a band’s music as “sweet” was a gesture of utmost contempt, meaning the music was “commercial,” that is, commercially compromised and “schmaltzy.” Decades later, the term “saccharine” had replaced “icky” to describe music that was overly sweet, although the term “saccharine” dates back to the late nineteenth century. The popular meaning of “schmaltz” is used to described something that is excessively sentimental, or “maudlin.” Maudlin, an alteration of Magdalene (as in Mary Magdalene) is used to describe someone who expresses sadness or sentimentality in an exaggerated way, as in a “maudlin drunk,” someone whose heavy alcohol consumption has caused them to be tearful, histrionic, and perhaps morbid. An analogous term for excessive sentimentality is “corn” or “corny.”

To be clear, an expression of sentimentality is not “saccharine.” It is “saccharine” when it is inauthentic, when it is manufactured authenticity. Both movie and music critics tend to disparage sentimentality, for reasons Charles Affron describes in Cinema and Sentiment (1982): “Art works that create an overtly emotional response in a wide readership are rated inferior to those that engage and inspire the refined critical, intellectual activities of a selective readership” (1). But as Affron correctly points out, it is the affective (emotional) power of cinematic narrative that has been responsible for the cinema’s massive popular appeal. “Their [the movies’] promptness to elicit feeling offends those who consider being moved equivalent to being manipulated, victimized, deprived of critical distance” (1).

Affron’s insight applies to popular music as well, which also has based its popular appeal on its affective or emotional power. The sentimentality expressed in songs such as The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” (for example) stands in stark contrast to songs that seek “to manufacture authenticity—to signify belief in the face of unbelief—through intense virtuosity . . . [these songs] create rampant ‘affective inflation’ that subverts its own efforts . . . and become audible expressions of what Lawrence Grossberg calls ‘sentimental inauthenticity.’” (Michael Jarrett, Sound Tracks, 82-83)


While I am fully aware that lists are made in order to provoke, I offer the following list only to illustrate the idea of commercially compromised music, of sentimental inauthenticity. Most all of them were commercially successful, but the reasons for that will have to be explored in a future post:


The Beatles – Love Me Do

Debbie Boone – You Light Up My Life

The Carpenters – (They Long to Be) Close to You

Vikki Carr – With Pen in Hand

Bobby Goldsboro – Honey

Whitney Houston - I Will Always Love You

Cyndi Lauper – True Colors

John Lennon – Imagine 

Wayne Newton – Dreams of the Everyday Housewife

Minnie Ripperton – Lovin’ You

Tommy Roe – Sweet Pea


For Further Reading: H. Brook Web, "The Slang of Jazz." American Speech 12: 3 (October 1937), pp. 179-184.