Review | Mitchell Morris – The Persistence of Sentiment: Display and Feeling in Popular Music of the 1970s

The Persistence of Sentiment: Display and Feeling in Popular Music of the 1970s. By Mitchell Morris. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2013 [ix, 248 pp., ISBN 9780520275997 (paperback), ISBN: 9780520955059 (electronic text). Paperback, $34.95; ebook, $34.95]. Book: musical examples, notes, works cited, index. 

Long before Arby’s used Barry White’s bedroom raps to sell beef sandwiches, Plato and St. Augustine fretted about music’s ability to deceive us. Anathema to the rock genre, which values authenticity and realism, much of the popular music of the 1970s seems particularly deceitful. Cher bemoaned gypsy life, but she never lived one, and Karen Carpenter sang wholesome songs while dying of anorexia. Musicologist Mitchell Morris does something revolutionary with this music: he takes it seriously. His colleagues burst out laughing when Morris reveals his interest in Barry Manilow. “A good part of this protective frivolity,” Morris suggests, “comes from our uncertainty about these songs’ historical and cultural embeddedness. We try to talk about them, but our only languages are those of autobiography and personal response. And who among us wants to be seen so nakedly in public?”1 Morris’ erudite but accessible bricolage, The Persistence of Sentiment: Display and Feeling in Popular Music of the 1970s, ruthlessly contextualizes some of the so-called kitsch of the 1970s, rescuing this music from the realm of the personal and examining it in light of its epoch and its audience.

Except for one chapter about soft soul, each chapter in Morris’ monograph centers—albeit loosely—on a particular artist: Barry White, Barry Manilow, Karen Carpenter, Cher, and Dolly Parton. Decried by critics but beloved by certain audiences, these singers ostensibly eschew deep thought or challenging sentiments. Cher said, “I’m out there to entertain. I’m not supposed to be a cure for cancer.”2 Indeed, rock fundamentalists might consider the musical confections performed, and in many cases written by, these artists as melodramatic, slick, overproduced, crafty, and baldly commercial. A central aesthetic crime: a song, such as Manilow’s “Could it be Magic?”, provokes emotion unearned by its artistry. Theodor Adorno writes that “kitsch parodies catharsis,” and “one of its most tenacious characteristics is the prevarication of feelings, fictional feelings, in which no one is actually participating.”3 But what is wrong, Morris asks, with commodified musical baubles that delight? What is wrong with fictional songs that, in their lack of specificity, offer a fruitful space for the listener—perhaps as a gesture of emancipation and a celebration of selfhood—to insert herself ?4 Morris argues that “elaborations of style are transparent fictions, but often in our demotic listening habits we adopt them as keys to our own apparently deep feelings. And maybe they even help our feelings become what we want them to be.”5

What connects the music Morris analyzes is not a shared soundscape but rather a shared marginalized audience (blacks, women, gay men and lesbians, and poor southern whites). “The rock paradigm has rarely served such groups well,” Morris remarks, “because they historically have found authenticity too expensive to maintain and, in any case, lived lives in which there was perhaps greater need of consolation.”6 Instead of denigrating these songs, Morris mines them for insights about race, gender, class, and sexuality. What do the fantasy worlds of these songs, he asks—and the variegated responses to them among ‘70s audiences—reveal about the actual world of the 1970s? 

In his first chapter, Morris argues that Barry White embodied a new black masculinity, one of autonomy and erotic authority. The success of Johnson’s Great Society programs in the 1960s spurred significant growth in the black middle class; more blacks, especially those in the music industry, enjoyed the finer things. With this increased prosperity, a vision of hypersexualized black masculinity—embodied in the Black Panthers, Mohammad Ali, and the blaxploitation film Shaft—emerged.White performed in and exemplified this milieu. His songs, Morris argues, sounded like money. In a related chapter, “Transport and Interiority in Soft Soul,” Morris also discusses black subjectivity but in the context of the soul genre as a whole. Because of new pressures in the recording industry as well as technological advances in the studio, Motown and its competitors emphasized the singer instead of the band. An opulent, introspective style that “forsakes mere action to speak Being itself” favored softer, longer ballads with more overdubbing and more minor chords.7 Like White’s music, soft soul signaled prosperity; it spoke to sublime, almost unspeakable experience. What defines the genre for Morris is not a seemingly commercialized and “unchaste euphoria” but rather a “favoring of blissful possibility.”8   

More cringe-worthy for critics than soft soul is the showbiz giant Barry Manilow, who once played for gay audiences at the Continental Bathhouse, and whose musically effeminate, people-pleasing gestures disgust would-be tastemakers—and yet Manilow’s albums achieve platinum status. Morris describes Manilow’s typical fan: a woman, age thirty to forty, with an inattentive husband, a low-paying job, and a load of housework. Set against the backdrop of the women’s movement and the “problem with no name,” Manilow’s songs, like a Harlequin romance novel, offer escape. He sings to an unspecified ‘you,’ about what ‘you’ can do for him, and how much he loves ‘you.’ Manilow arranges these “unambiguous fictions of desire” as one long crescendo, almost like a musical orgasm.9 Morris writes:

If, by words or contextual setting, the music appears to reinforce a culturally significant value or to support the dispositions of a respectable constituency, then strong physical reactions can be forgiven or even approved. Examining Manilow’s romantic ballads, we have seen the problem presented by the bodily appeal of irresistible continuity that is so stylized and seems to be directed at a population whose desires appeared richly dismissible as the product of false consciousness.10

Through the example of Manilow, Morris articulates a main point of his book: by dismissing the music, one dismisses the fans.

In what is by far the most philosophical and speculative chapter in the book, one that betrays his allegiance to a psychoanalytic framework, Morris analyzes the myth and music of Karen Carpenter. In the 1970s, the wholesome optimism inhering in Carpenter relegated her to the ranks of the decidedly uncool, yet the Carpenters won multiple Grammy awards. Very closely miked, Carpenter’s melancholy voice—especially juxtaposed against her brother’s simple, straightforward arrangements—sounds intensely intimate, Morris writes. Perhaps because white, middle-class, suburbanites comprised Carpenter’s audience, Morris explores in this chapter the erotics of music, comparing lip-syncing to kissing, explaining why people hate the sound of their recorded voices, and claiming that Carpenter’s voice brings listeners back to their infancies.11 

The final chapters chart the hilly careers of Cher and Dolly Parton, who played up their marginalized identities in a way that resonated with gay fans. In Cher’s trilogy of early 1970s hits (what Morris terms her “dark lady” songs), Cher performs ethnic drag, exploiting racial tensions while tapping into the emancipatory current that enlivened the 1970s.12  Cher, who “counts as white—but not that white,” portrays herself as an abject figure in these early songs.13 With her 1979 disco album, Cher becomes a diva, Morris argues, precisely because she seemed to have “overcome ineradicable marks of a stigmatized identity.”14 On the other hand, Dolly Parton celebrates, instead of conquers, her stigmatized identity: “Although I look like a drag queen’s Christmas tree on the outside,” Parton says, “I am at heart a simple country woman.”15  Crossing over from the country to the pop charts, Parton and her producers manufactured a strategic sound, one that included the typically pop inspired ‘soft-shell’ elements of country, while employing a steel guitar and exploiting Parton’s trademark vocals. Drag queens adore Parton, Morris shows, because she exudes camp; she enacts a narrative of liberation (poor girl done good), but without eliding the rural South.

A strength of the book—and at times weakness—is what Morris admittedly calls a “loose-jointed” approach, but his breadth and unpredictability delights. For instance, in order to better understand Parton’s cartoonish appearance, Morris tracks the history of literal cartoons employing the hillbilly motif, such as Lil’Abner, which leads to a discussion about the glut of “hick fantasy comedies” on CBS in the early 1970s. Throughout the book, Morris divulges little-known trivia (a suburban white woman wrote the lyrics for the Stylistics’ song “You Make Me Feel Brand New,”), and chooses only the most colorful quotes. For example, about Sonny and Cher one journalist wrote, “You might say Cher-sing is actually a genetic Armenian contralto imitation of an Italian interpretation of Soul.”16 Morris, however, sometimes strays into a psychoanalytic no man’s land, making claims difficult to defend. To wit: “It may be that for all music one of the things we listen for is whatever echo we may find of a lost maternal sonic presence.”17 Also, a conclusion chapter would have been a welcome addition, as Morris ties the book together somewhat haphazardly. These minor quibbles aside, Morris is a philosopher at heart, and two hundred pages of his mind travel amply reward the curious reader. 

For his interest in what many musicologists might call fluff, Morris positions himself as a scholarly renegade. Indeed, his book is revelatory, not only in subject matter but also in approach. Although many scholars write about popular music, few write about such discounted artists. Morris cites a single scholarly article about Manilow, more than thirty years old. Cultural critic Martha Bayles ponders disco, Morris points out, but she terms it “the invasion of the sex robots.” The existing scholarship on 1970s popular music leans heavily toward the more ‘respectable’ genres of rock or singer-songwriter. In addition, as only a musicologist can, Morris thoroughly analyzes the music, including Manilow’s Band-Aid jingle!Its inclusion of both textual and sociocultural analyses, combined with its impressive historical research, its fascinating philosophical musings, and Morris’ beautiful writing, make The Persistence of Sentiment a unique book and one highly recommended for cultural studies and music scholars. 

By Jenny Dolan

  1. Mithcell Morris, The Persistence of Sentiment: Display and Feeling in Popular Music of the 1970s (Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2013),3
  2. Ibid., 168.
  3. Ibid., 28.
  4. Ibid., 55, 82, 109, 163.
  5. ibid., 100.
  6. Ibid., 25.
  7. Ibid., 71.
  8. Ibid., 65.
  9. Ibid., 112, 109.
  10. Ibid., 115.
  11. Ibid., 138. This chapter offers insights for scholars of phenomenology and affect.
  12. Ibid., 148.
  13. Ibid., 148.
  14. Ibid., 170.
  15. Ibid., 176.
  16. Ibid., 152.
  17. Ibid., 139. In the book’s introduction, Morris offers a poignant and thought-provoking discussion of generational objects. Drawing on the psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas’ theory, Morris explains that a generational consciousness imbues certain objects with a meaning shared by those who encountered the object as adolescents. Morris writes: “we all have these objects, and when we are young and wrapped in ‘generational narcissism’ we are apt to think of them as permanent; but the approach of midlife finds our objects displaced by those of our successors. We become history along with the things we have chosen to love.” The goal, Morris says, is to let these songs “die to generational use so that they can live as other kinds of objects.”