I’m re-reading Let’s Talk About Love, and again struck by what a magnificent book it is. Taking Celine Dion as a focus, the book leads us on “a journey to the end of taste”, with author Carl Wilson interrogating his hatred of this wildly successful performance artist over themed chapters.
The chapter Let’s Talk About Schmaltz makes this claim:
‘Celine Dion’s music and career are more understandable if she is added to the long line of ethnic “outsiders” who expressed emotions too outsized for most white American performers but in non-African-American codes, letting white audiences loosen up without crossing the “color line.”‘
In preceding pages Wilson introduces the notion that schmaltz entered into American popular music in the early 19th C through immigrant groups (possibly beginning with Irish) who decanted their nostalgic longing for a life given up into songs that were a counterweight to the breezy parlor song, concerned with courtship and frivolity. It found a friend in Italian light opera – then massively popular across classes – which was gradually squeezed out of circulation by Serious Cultcha. It re-emerges through Sophie Tucker/Al Jolson, Sinatra, Bennett, Como, Liberace, Nana Mouskouri.
Wilson goes on:
‘In a conversation about Celine’s precedents with other music critics and big-eared fans on an email list, someone remarked, “I don’t think this particular Cinderella wears American sizes.” If you look only to gowns cut and fashioned in the Anglo- and African-American mainstreams, she has a point; but the kind of schmaltz-Americana in which Celine partakes has been a continuing strain in US popular music for two centuries, whether or not the people performing it were fully counted as American. Schmaltz circles the rim but seemingly never wholly dissolves in the melting pot, bubbling up again decade after decade.
I think this is because schmaltz, as Hamm insinuates in his discussion of parlor song, is never purely escapist: it is not just cathartic but socially reinforcing, a vicarious exposure to both the grandest rewards of adhering to norms and their necessary price. This makes it especialy vulnerable to becoming dated: the outer boundaries of extreme conformity, of uncontroversial public ecstasy and despair, are ever mobile. Schmalt is an unprivate portrait of how private feeling is currently conceived, which social change can pitilessly revise. And then it becomes shameful, the way elites of the late nineteenth century felt when they wondered what their poor ignorant forbears ever heard in light Italian opera. Likewise, as a specialization of liminal immigrants in America, it can become a holdover from a time “before we were white,” perhaps dotingly memorialized, but embarrassing head-on.