- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 23, 2005

For some artists, becoming kitschy is a humiliating devolution, like Vegas-era Elvis Presley. Others should feel lucky to peddle kitsch.

Take Paul Anka, the 63-year-old casino crooner. He was a 1950s teen idol — and he co-wrote one of the kitschiest songs ever — Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” And yet he makes six figures per engagement on the Atlantic City-Vegas axis.

Better take a fresh look at him. Paul Anka has never been cool. But now, at least, he’s no longer frozen.

Mr. Anka’s new CD, “Rock Swings,” a set of 1980s pop and 1990s alternative-rock songs (including, most brazenly, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun”) done Sinatra-style, is going over big in Germany. And it’s impressing key radio programmers here in America, according to the New York Times, which means the album has a shot at winning over young listeners.

I’ve listened to “Rock Swings,” and I’ll come right out and admit I liked it. But I’m pretty sure its appeal lies more in its outrageousness … its kitsch value … than in any inherent quality of performance or craftsmanship.

Culture critic Roger Scruton argues that such a postmodern wink is one of the principal ingredients of kitsch: “Kitsch is not just pretending; it is asking you to join in the game … the pretense must be mutual, complicitous, knowing.”

That’s not exactly right. Kitsch can be sincere, like a velvet painting. And, furthermore, kitsch is a function of critical judgment. Thomas Kinkade doesn’t believe he paints kitsch. His customers don’t believe they’re buying kitsch.

Similarly, Paul Anka didn’t mean “Rock Swings” to be taken as a late-career stunt.

“He believes he’s reinvigorating a classic genre,” says Sean Ross, vice president of music and programming at Edison Media Research.

It may not matter, because, as time passes, memories of an artist’s cheesiness — or, alternately, his debasement from cool to cheesy — passes with it. Thus, an aging artist has a clean slate with the public.

“One of the things that’s happened with younger listeners discovering older music — whether it’s the swing revival or, to some extent, Norah Jones — is that it gets to a point where it’s not your parents’ music,” Mr. Ross says. “It’s something new and exotic. Without the baggage of it being your parents’ music, there’s no problem appreciating it in front of other people.”

Younger listeners, especially, are open to reassessing kitsch. The post-MTV generation has learned instinctively to consume music from an ironic distance. Less emotionally invested in the music of their own generation than their hippie forbears, who sanctimoniously believed they’d cornered the market on authenticity, today’s listeners can be more receptive to discarded musical styles of the past.

Sometimes the kitsch-reassessment phenomenon benefits the genre rather than the artist, as happened in the mid-1990s with young bands such as the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies and Squirrel Nut Zippers composing new material in the style of old swing and hot jazz.

Of course, genre revivals can also directly profit the original artists, such as when the spacey, experimental easy-listening music of Juan Garcia Esquivel saw a surprising resurgence alongside the swing and ska revival of the ‘90s. The instrumental jazz-pop trumpeter and savvy businessman Herb Alpert, who co-founded A&M; Records, may see a similar niche opening up now: He recently reissued several of his classic late-‘60s albums with the Tijuana Brass.

Neil Diamond seemed to embrace his kitsch status by appearing as himself — or a deliberate parody of himself — in movies such as “Saving Silverman” and the forthcoming “Lucky 13” (about a boy who tries to patch up his father and grandfather’s relationship at his bar mitzvah).

But, after persistent phone calls from ultra-hip producer Rick Rubin, Mr. Diamond is now inviting a kitsch reassessment of his own.

Mr. Rubin, who has worked with rappers such as the Beastie Boys and Jay-Z, is also an expert at what might be called the Extreme Kitsch Makeover. He plans on doing for Mr. Diamond what he once did for the late Johnny Cash.

When Mr. Cash died last year, he commanded monumental respect from fans and the industry. He probably would have done so even if he hadn’t recorded four startlingly vital albums with Mr. Rubin, one of which included a cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.”

Yet it’s worth remembering, respectfully, that the great Mr. Cash wasn’t immune to the kitsch virus. There are more than a few dubious albums on the fringe of the Cash canon, including a 1975 children’s album and the 1977 concept album “The Rambler,” on which Mr. Cash converses with hitchhikers as he road-trips across the country.

Mr. Rubin must see the same potential for restoration in Mr. Diamond, who hasn’t released a set of new material since 1996’s country-roots effort “Tennessee Moon.”

“I don’t think Rick regards Neil Diamond as kitsch,” Mr. Ross says. “I think he regards him as someone who made great records but hasn’t done his best work in a long time. Neil Diamond can fill up an arena with women of all ages who appreciate him on his own terms, not just for his camp.”

Maybe I’m wrong then. Maybe there’s more than kitsch value to “Rock Swings.”

After all, vanilla teen idol-turned-gospel singer Pat Boone’s “In a Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy” — a “Rock Swings” precursor of 1997 that featured big-band versions of songs such as Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” and Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” — fell flat on its face. (“Everything is relative,” Mr. Ross observes. “There’s not a whole lot else that Pat Boone could’ve done to get an album even that big.”)

I hope I’m not wrong.

That’d mean the David Hasselhoff-loving Germans knew something before I did.

And I can’t afford a Thomas Kinkade.

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