August 16, 2006


Johnny Cash, Cornball: Can pop music be both great art and shameless kitsch? (Jody Rosen, Aug. 15, 2006, Slate)

Rubin's vision of Cash as Ye Olde Goth is evident in the choice of repertoire—he steered the singer toward dark, death-haunted folk songs like "Mary of the Wild Moor" and covers of Danzig and Nine Inch Nails—and in the relentlessly monochrome musical settings. Rubin has always favored minimalism. (Even his hip-hop records are stark.) But the fastidiously unadorned and solemn music on the American Recordings series—bare-bones rock ensembles playing stately tempos, with Play Mediabass piano notes tolling like church bells over minor chords—seems designed to clobber listeners with the idea that they are in the presence of a Great Man Singing the Truth. We usually associate kitsch in music with the big and blowzy, but the Cash-Rubin records use the opposite musical tactic for emotional manipulative effect. It's schlock austerity.

Not that Cash and Rubin were afraid to indulge in outright tear-jerking. From the tremulous versions of all-time weepers like "Danny Boy" and "Play MediaFirst Time Ever I Saw Your Face" to Cash's spoken interludes in "Play MediaWe'll Meet Again" and the new album's "Play MediaA Legend in My Time" (which packs an extra "My Way"-style self-mythologizing wallop), the American Recordings albums include some of the most purple musical moments this side of Mantovani. Cash's emotional forthrightness was a refreshing change from irony-choked popular culture. Still, sometimes too much is too much. Many a pop balladeer has been raked over the coals for lesser sins than Cash's corn-pone recitation of the Old West poem "Play MediaA Cowboy's Lament."

The most celebrated product of the Cash-Rubin partnership was the cover of Nine Inch Nail's "Hurt," and the resulting Mark Romanek-directed video was nominated for Video of the Year in 2003. But that video is the prime example of the occasionally dodgy taste that surrounded the rebirth of Cash. Trent Reznor's song was an ambiguous ballad about masochism; Cash reportedly interpreted it as a drug-addict's confession. But the Romanek video turns the song into ghoulish hagiography, interspersing file footage from Cash's younger years with lingering shots of the present-day singer, looking very old and unwell—an unseemly mix of reverence (Johnny is God) and exploitation (Johnny's Gonna Die Soon).

The problem with all this Cash-worship is that it's reductive. Cash had a long and varied career as an entertainer. Sure, he specialized in gothic country songs and murder ballads, and yes, he had a drug problem, wrecked some hotel rooms, and did other "rebellious" things. But he also recorded albums of children's music and clowned around with the Monkees on The Johnny Cash Show, a tacky ABC variety program he hosted for two years.

The odd point here seems to be that, Johhny Cash had a variety of different personae over the years but the last is particularly inauthentic?

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 16, 2006 9:28 PM

Success = inauthenticity, donchaknow.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at August 16, 2006 10:50 PM

Success has ruined a few rock'n'rollers, but not Johnny Cash. It was hard for even the smarmiest Nashville overproduction to overcome that voice. I even liked his coffee commercials.

Posted by: ted welter at August 17, 2006 12:22 AM
The most celebrated product of the Cash-Rubin partnership was the cover of Nine Inch Nail's "Hurt," and the resulting Mark Romanek-directed video was nominated for Video of the Year in 2003. [...] [T]he Romanek video turns the song into ghoulish hagiography [...]

Thus reminding us that the most interesting question about Slate is not whether they will be wrong, but just how badly will they make a mash of it this time?

Johnny Cash's version of "Hurt" is a great music video and those of you who haven't seen it ought to do so. The song itself is also a stellar improvement on Trent Reznor's version, and Mr. Reznor himself was reportedly close to tears when he first viewed the music video of Johnny Cash's performance.

Follow the link above and see for yourself if Ms. Rosen knows what she's talking about.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at August 17, 2006 12:48 AM

The Monkees were viciously underrated. Mike, in particular, was a real talent. Hey, he beat out Stephen Stills for the role!(They probably gave him the gig because his mother invented White-Out.)

Posted by: ghostcat at August 17, 2006 1:45 AM

He had me in tears reciting the Gettysburg address. I used to have it saved somewhere, but lost it with the latest hard drive crash.

Even if some scandalmonger digs up dirt on him, so what. He had a great voice and shared it with us all. That's all that matters.

Posted by: erp at August 17, 2006 5:31 PM

Here it is:

Posted by: oj at August 17, 2006 6:27 PM

Thanks oj. It's tucked away safe and sound now.

Posted by: erp at August 17, 2006 8:26 PM