15 nov. 2011


I thought of a pretty good idea to write an article about kitsch, a concept that has a strategic place in the title of my book Apocryphal Lorca: Translation, Parody, Kitsch, but that requires further development.

The elements of kitsch are secondhandness, but also a nostalgia for origins. Take the tin-pan alley song "The Birth of the Blues." It is not a blues song itself, but a pop song in another form that is about the blues. Specifically, about its origin or birth:
Oh, they say some people long ago
Were searching for a diffrent tune
One that they could croon
As only they can

They only had the rhythm
They started swaying to and fro
They didn't know just what to use
That is how the blues really began

They heard the breeze in the trees
Singing weird melodies
And they made that the start, the start of the blues

And from a jail came the wail
Of a down-hearted frail
And they played that
As part of the blues

From a whippoorwill
Way up on a hill
They took a new note
Pushed it through a horn
Until it was worn
Into a blue note

And then they nursed it
They rehearsed it
And then sent out that news
That the Southland gave birth to the blues

The secondhandness and the evocation of origins are in tension. The endless repetition of the song, the numerous versions by Sinatra, Armstrong, Sammy Davis Jr, and Crosby, add layers of kitschiness to it. There are other non-blues songs about the blues, like "Lady Sings the Blues" and "Blues in the Night," or maybe even "Mood Indigo."

That's an easily identifiable case. But what about a real blues song that becomes kitschified? Or what if there is no origin there at all? The search for origins itself gives rise to secondhandness. What if Lorca is already kitsch, and the kitschification of him is simply a logical next step?

To condemn kitsch is to commit oneself to some notion of the non-kitsch, the authentic, yet the search for the authentic is already part of the mechanism of kitsch. I feel I'm reinventing deconstruction here. You know, one of those aporias.

Even though it's misinterpretation, mistranslation all the way down, I still feel that there is an aesthetic judgment to be made. Some aesthetic appropriations breathe new life into the original material. Mingus's music, for example ("Better get hit in your soul"). Some of Ellington's reinterpretation of folkloric materials.

Whenever you feel embarrassment, or that something is in "bad taste," then something interesting is going on. I find the lyrics to "The Birth of the Blues" intensely distasteful.

So my essay would have two parts, one on Lorca and one on jazz. I plan to make this my traveling piece, so I could give it various places where I am invited to speak, Iowa and Belfast for example.

3 comentarios:

Vance Maverick dijo...

The first work of criticism I can remember reading -- about age 12 -- was Gillo Dorfles' Kitsch. Mostly concerned with visual art and (even more) with craft. (It might have been there that I saw the Continuous Profile of Mussolini, copies of which still turn up in Italian antique shops.) He too requires a notion of the authentic and good for his somewhat different definition.

Andrew Shields dijo...

This reminded me of parts of Ethan Iverson's recent discussion of "folklore and innovation":


(He takes a while to get there.)

John dijo...

Are you going to engage with Clement Greenberg's essay, "Avant-Garde and Kitsch"?

I'm suspicious of judgments of "kitsch." Confessions of aesthetic embarrassment, though -- that interests me a great deal.

I'm usually embarrassed when Frank Sinatra interpolates his own words into a standard song. He's trying to sound so cool, and his modifications are usually for the worse. Not his rhythmic or melodic modifications (which are almost always wonderful), but his verbal ones.

It's like rockers trying to sound tough. They usually embarrass me too. Or guitarists trying to look like Keith Richards -- even Keith Richards trying to look like Keith Richards! The self-conscious construction of cool. Embarrassing.

Sinatra's hat. Same thing. Embarrassing.

Best wishes with your article. I'll be eager to see it.