NPR logo The Kitsch Is Back

The Kitsch Is Back

I saw the film Greenberg the other day. There's a scene in which Roger Greenberg (played by Ben Stiller) is talking to his younger would-be paramour, Florence (Greta Gerwig). He puts Albert Hammond's "It Never Rains in Southern California" on the stereo and says something to the effect of, "You have to overlook the kitsch." Greta responds vaguely, not recognizing the song. But I also wondered whether she'd even know the meaning of kitsch. After all, what is kitsch anymore, and does it even exist?

At its core, kitsch feels like something less than art; it panders to the middle and is flagrantly anti-art, though it often apes or references art. This referential, ersatz quality is why it's so fun to collect. The value of kitsch exists in its novelty and in its connotations to more legitimate counterparts.

Hammond's song was a hit back in 1972. But by that year's standards, "It Never Rains" was pretty lightweight compared to some of the heavy-hitting songs and albums that were also charting, from Neil Young's Harvest to Sly & The Family Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On to Alice Cooper's Killer. Al Green sang "Let's Stay Together," Curtis Mayfield gave us "Freddie's Dead" and T. Rex charted with "Bang a Gong (Get It On)." In that context, it is a little hard to look past Hammond's kitsch, or to not view it through some sort of AM Gold lens.

Yet in this free-for-all post-ironic age of music, we seem to have lost the distinction between kitsch and non-kitsch. Recently, a friend of mine grappled with the popularity of She & Him, citing the fact that its style of music was so blatantly uncool that in the past, people who were trying to distinguish themselves as music fans wouldn't have taken the band or its sound seriously. In other words, She & Him might have been adored by some, but it also would have been appreciated — or at least acknowledged for — its "kitsch factor."

But kitsch — or what would have formerly been called kitsch — is cool and is part of the broader tapestry of music without being marginalized or made diminutive. So what has changed? For one, I think the sheer amount of references available to us at any given time is so abundant that it's conflated — perhaps even negated — the concept of value. The notion of authenticity is practically obsolete, and the idea of realness is just another categorical index, devoid of meaning. When real is gone, then there is no longer a litmus test for that which deviates from it. It's all real because it's all "real." We mined all the gold, and now we're mining the gilded.

Please share your thoughts on kitsch — whether it's still a category unto itself, or whether we're in an era that is essentially all kitsch, all the time.

Music Go Music "Light of Love" from Music Go Music on Vimeo.