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no respect week

In Defense of Schlock Music: Why Journey, Billy Joel, and Lionel Richie Are Better Than You Think

When Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” first rumbled into earshot in the summer of 1981, few presumed it would have much staying power. The song was a hit, but not a huge one, reaching No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 on December 19 and hanging on at that position for two weeks before tumbling down the charts and off radio playlists. There was no sign of “Don’t Stop Believin’” in the tallies of the year’s top-100 hits in either the U.S. or U.K. It was a curio, memorable mainly for its unorthodox structure, serving up three verses and two bridges before finally arriving at its money-shot chorus (“Don’t stop believin’/Hold onto that feelin’”) at the 3:23 mark.

The rock-critic consensus on “Don’t Stop Believin’” was unsurprising: Disdain was the order of the day. Critical conventional wisdom cast Journey as doubly deplorable. They were not merely (to use the period’s choice epithet) “corporate rockers”; they were cynical corporate rockers — erstwhile San Francisco hippies who had shelved their prog-fusion ambitions and hired a cornball singer, Steve Perry, to chase Foreigner and REO Speedwagon up the pop charts. For critics, Journey was like a one of those moldering foodstuffs that you dread finding in the back of your refrigerator: When forced to deal with it, you take bacon tongs in hand, hold it at arm’s length, and drop it into the trash. In a 166-word blurb in the 1983 edition of the Rolling Stone Record Guide, Dave Marsh, the Bruce Springsteen biographer and guardian of rock-critical orthodoxy, gave one-star reviews to all of Journey’s albums while emptying his rucksack of insults: “Stepford Wives rock,” “calculated,” “nitwit,” “plodding,” “banality,” “utter triviality,” “exploitative cynicism,” and worst of all, surely, by Marsh’s lights, “Paul Anka and Pat Boone.” Rolling Stone’s regular magazine review of Escape, the album that opened with “Don’t Stop Believin’,” was no kinder. Critic Deborah Frost’s contempt boiled over into mixed metaphors (“a veritable march of the well-versed schmaltz stirrers”), with special scorn aimed at the lyrics of “Don’t Stop Believin’”: “Lord knows how many weary pilgrims have managed to tramp down the memory lane of adolescent lust without the side trip that Journey make to the dank hole of dreck-ola … addressing their audience as ‘streetlight people.’” Frost wrapped up her piece with a vision of Journey’s obsolescence: “Maybe there really are a lot of ‘streetlight people’ out there. If so, my guess is that they’ll soon glow out of it.”

The truth, we’ve learned, is stranger than fiction, to say nothing of Rolling Stone album reviews. “Don’t Stop Believin’” hasn’t just stuck around: It has sunk its teeth into the collective unconscious. Today, the song sounds irrefutable; its dramatic slow-boiling arrangement — the tolling piano chords, arcing 16th-note guitar riffing, and mock-operatic vocals — is the essence of arena-rock grandeur. As for schmaltz-stirring: The song’s inspirational bromides, its images of desperadoes stalking noirish streets on a quest for hidden, um, emotion — “Streetlight people/Livin’ just to find emotion/Hiding somewhere in the night” — these sentiments have proved alluring enough to pull in just about everyone: cutesy indie-pop a cappella singers; the Chicago White Sox, who embraced “Don’t Stop Believin’” as the theme song of their 2005 championship run; David Chase, who used it as the soundtrack for The Sopranos’ final scene; Ryan Murphy, who made it the big finale of Glee’s pilot episode; Kanye West, whose live band played a note-for-note rendition in tribute to the rapper’s late mother; even Bruce Springsteen, who romped through a shaggy cover alongside Lady Gaga, Sting, Elton John, and other stars at a 2010 Carnegie Hall benefit concert.

In short, 33 years after its release, “Don’t Stop Believin’” is pop-music Holy Writ. History has certainly been kinder to Journey than to the reviewers who savaged them. If you examine the top singles in the 1981 Village Voice Pazz & Jop Critics Poll, you’ll find Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” in the No. 1 slot. “Don’t Stop Believin’” got nowhere near that list, of course, yet today Journey’s anthem haunts our culture like no other song from 1981. “Don’t Stop Believin’” has become a standard not in spite of the qualities that repelled critics — the clichés, the pretensions, the overweening emotionalism, Steve Perry’s too-tight jeans and too-tremulous tenor. It has become a standard because of them. Put another way, “Don’t Stop Believin’” has endured because it belongs to a tradition that has given us our most indestructible songs, a tradition as time-honored, as sturdy, as it is maligned: schlock.

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Schlock, at its finest, is where bad taste becomes great art. Schlock is music that subjugates all other values to brute emotional impact; it aims to overwhelm, to body-slam the senses, to deliver catharsis like a linebacker delivers a clothesline tackle. The qualities traditionally prized by music critics and other listeners of discerning taste — sophistication, subtlety, wit, irony, originality, “experimentation” — have no place in schlock. Schlock is extravagant, grandiose, sentimental, with an unshakable faith in the crudest melodrama, the biggest statements, the most timeworn tropes and most overwrought gestures. Put another way: Schlock is Rodgers and Hammerstein, not Rodgers and Hart. It’s “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” not “Manhattan” and “My Funny Valentine.”

Schlock’s supreme pop-music form is the power ballad, but it thrives in many genres, speaking in a range of musical accents, registers, tempos, and time signatures. What’s consistent is the spirit in which schlock speaks: unself-consciously, with no embarrassment about its opulence, its pretensions, its vulgarity. Since at least the 1950s, popular-music culture has been gripped by a cult of cool. But schlock isn’t cool. Schlock carries a torch, and the torch burns white hot. Schlock is Meat Loaf, sweating buckets, as he rears back to deliver the final chorus of “I Would Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That).” Schlock is the maudlin creak of Cat Stevens’s singing voice and the rippling ostentation of Mariah Carey’s. Schlock is Chicago’s “If You Leave Me Now,” an almost vulgarly pretty song, with a melody that billows and shimmers like a silk sheet settling down on a Louis XIV four-poster bed. Schlock is Jason Mraz, riding a burbling white-reggae groove, crooning about world peace, earnestly and nonsensically: “We’re just one big family/And it’s our God-forsaken right to be loved, loved, loved, loved, loved.” Schlock is Usher trying to coax you into bed, and Rod Stewart pressing the point (“Don’t say a word, my virgin child/Just let your inhibitions run wild”) while a saxophone murmurs its agreement. Schlock has no shame, no limits; it is not bound by any sense of propriety or proportion. It is unchained melody.

The etymology is revealing. Schlock comes from the Yiddish shlak, meaning secondhand, or damaged, goods; it describes something both inexpensive and of dubious value, something cheap, junky, tacky. In the 1920s, schlock was a slang term among criminals for stolen merchandise, for booty that you fenced in bulk — and critics often invoke the term schlock when describing music that has the whiff of shoddy illegitimacy about it, music that is the result of industrial-pop production and is by implication formulaic, relying on pilfered materials, borrowed ideas, clichés. A secondary meaning of shlak is apoplectic stroke, which may resonate with connoisseurs of musical schlock — with anyone, for instance, who’s experienced the Richter-scale-rattling spectacle of Céline Dion singing “All by Myself” live in concert.

Schlock has a close relative in another Yiddishism, schmaltz — a label often given to music that is swamped by goopy sentimentality, as a roast chicken is swamped by rendered fat. Much schlock music qualifies as schmaltz, or is at least very schmaltzy. But schlock is a broader category than schmaltz; it makes room for songs that are grandiose but less reliant on lachrymose sounds and sentiments. (Toto’s “Africa” is schlock but not schmaltz, concealing its torch-ballad bombast beneath a placid easy-listening arrangement.) Other terms are sometimes used interchangeably with schlock: kitsch, cheese, camp. Schlock contains elements of these, but none are true synonyms. Schlock is more dignified than kitsch like “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” or Red Sovine’s tearjerker trucker ballad “Teddy Bear.” It is weightier, more substantial, than pure pop cheese like the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” or novelty-song cheese Los del Rio’s “Macarena.” And while certain listeners embrace schlock, with both affection and condescension, as camp, schlock itself is allergic to the irony that is a prerequisite of camp. A karaoke singer might perform “The Rose” or “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” or “Kiss From a Rose” as a campy sendup, but Bette Midler and Poison and Seal take those songs seriously — offer up those roses on bended knee. Schlock is earnest and solemn; it’s ambitious and aspirational and exalted. It shoots for the moon or, at least, for the penthouse suite.

Music critics have been dropping the word schlock for years, but few efforts have been made to define it or theorize about it. The closest anyone has come in recent years is Carl Wilson’s discussion of schmaltz in his brilliant book about Céline Dion, Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste. To find a more a head-on consideration, we have to travel all the way back to 1976, to a terrific Village Voice article by critic Tom Smucker about, of all things, the Canadian chanteuse Anne Murray. In the piece, Smucker lays out a taxonomy of schlock: True Schlock, High Schlock, Pre-Schlock, Post-Schlock, Assumed Schlock, Archetypal Schlock, Anti-Schlock, and Revisionist Anti-Schlock. He also provides a helpful definition. Schlock, Smucker writes, is “materialism in a Dionysian mode. At its best it represents the entrance into the mystery of America — the vulgar ecstasy of consumption — and is more exciting than sex. People who’ve always had money don’t like schlock because it isn’t tasteful, as if a man on the verge of starvation all his life who sits down to his first big meal should be into how the food tastes.

I’m not sure about the more-exciting-than-sex part, especially since so much schlock is about sex, or has sex hovering over it.  But Smucker was right to detect the class and status anxieties that swirl around schlock. Tastemakers — Smucker’s “people who’ve always had money” and those, wealthy or not, with cultural capital — have generally kept their distance from schlock, regarding it as debased, inferior, embarrassing, the soundtrack of the great unwashed. (This is one reason why you find relatively less schlock, pound for pound, in indie music.) Rock criticism has done an about-face since Rolling Stone sneered at “Don’t Stop Believin’,” and today’s critical orthodoxy tilts toward omnivorous “poptimist” appreciation, with an open attitude to the commercial mainstream. Still, critics remain squeamish about schlock. When the word is used by record reviewers, it’s usually as an insult, certainly not as an asset, and not even, in most cases, as a neutral descriptor. Today we have a new regard for once-maligned genres, including bad ol’ corporate rock; we’re learning, slowly but surely, to move past the defensiveness of “guilty pleasures.” Yet schlock remains a musical pleasure for which we can’t quite relinquish our shame.

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History, though, tells us to take schlock seriously. For one thing: Schlock is history. Schlock is primordial: It was there at the beginning — of music itself, undoubtedly, when the first Paleolithic flutist tooted a tune on a cave-bear femur to honor his god or woo his mate. As for our popular-song tradition: Follow its roots back, and you will find schlock. You hear it in the lovelorn bleakness of the Delta blues; in death-haunted country ballads; in gospel testimonials; in the Scottish and Irish ballads that flowed into American folk and pop; in the grotesque plantation nostalgia of blackface minstrelsy; and in the schlock ground zero of Victorian parlor song, with its paeans to pious children, saintly mothers, martyred soldiers,  imperiled trees, old oaken buckets, old homesteads, old men.

That history haunts today’s hit parade. As long as schlock is on the charts, the past is never far away. Schlock believes in yesterday: in auld lang syne, in the way we were, in the summer of ’69. Cultural historians tell us that homesickness is the American way, the primal condition of a nation of immigrants and road-weary nomads. So perhaps it’s not surprising that schlock nostalgia has flourished in our popular music. You’ll hear schlock whenever a plaintive melody is hitched to a lyric that yearns hopelessly for a vanished yesteryear: when the crooner pines for a white Christmas “just like the ones I used to know” or the pop diva mourns the one that got away. The past moves through schlock in surprising ways. At the turn of the 20th century, Tin Pan Alley songwriters revived the “back to Dixie” trope that was a staple of blackface minstrelsy, churning out countless songs about train rides home to the pastoral South. In 1973, Gladys Knight and the Pips revived the revival, taking “Midnight Train to Georgia” to the top of the charts; and it was Knight’s hit that inspired keyboardist and songwriter Jonathan Cain to place Journey’s small-town girl and city boy on a “midnight train going anywhere” in “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Decades and centuries pass; revolutions, musical and otherwise, remake the world. The schlock train keeps chugging along.

Schlock is pop’s repository of Victoriana. When Kanye West raps a corny ode to his mother and Beyoncé sings one to her daughter — when “tears in heaven” tumble for Eric Clapton’s dead son and David Bowie’s doomed astronaut in “Space Oddity” warbles “Tell my wife I love her very much” — we are back in the 19th century, in the parlor room where families gathered to sing maudlin and morbid ballads to, and about, each other.

Accordingly, schlock often has an old-fashioned ring. Schlock’s signature musical instrument is the piano, that dowdy crown jewel of the Victorian parlor. (If a song opens with ponderous piano chords — a stately “Let It Be”–style intro — you know it’s a schlock anthem.) There are other telltale schlock sounds: syrupy string orchestrations; saxophone solos; black gospel choirs, annexed by white singers to give choruses a soulful boost; Barry Manilow modulations — the florid key changes that appear on the far side of the middle-eight, like a herd of unicorns bursting into view on a mountain ridge. Schlock is theatrical, and its flair for the dramatic harks back to earlier, hammier eras: to the vaudeville of Al Jolson, the Broadway of Ethel Merman, the Vegas of Elvis’s later years.

Yet schlock adapts. In 1998, two London-based record producers, Mark Taylor and Brian Rawling, used a new pitch-correction software program, Antares Auto-Tune, to create a vocal hiccup in the chorus of Cher’s “Believe.” The result, that little vocal trill, sounded “futuristic,” robotic. It also sounded old, replicating, with a digital-age shiver, the mordent, the plaintive quaver or catch in the voice that was a staple of sentimental Irish ballad singing and was imported to American pop in the 1920s and ’30s by crooners like Russ Columbo and Bing Crosby. Over the past several years, Auto-Tune–slathered vocals have become one of pop’s schlockiest sounds, adding an air of desolation to heartsick ballads by rappers turned crooners: West, T-Pain, Drake, and the current master of ardent hip-hop schlock, Future. It’s just one recent example of the way new sounds and new technologies are absorbed into schlock — of how swiftly the cutting edge is deployed in the service of pop’s most unapologetically bourgeois music.

Schlock keeps up with the times in other ways, expressing the Zeitgest in the usual schlocky fashion — sentimentally and emphatically. The schlock ballads of the late-19th and early-20th century registered the shocks and dislocations of a rapidly urbanizing and modernizing world, telling tales of lost rural idylls, shattered families, and despoiled maidens; the lavishly orchestrated schlock-pop of the 1950s caught the confidence and bloat of American Empire at its postwar height. Today’s schlock is time-stamped, too. Consider the hydra-headed postmodern beast that is Katy Perry’s “Roar,” which cannibalizes one schlock classic of the ’70s (“We Are the Champions”), one of the ’80s (“Eye of the Tiger”), and one of recent vintage (“Brave”), en route to a chorus that gives Helen Reddy’s 1972 feminist-schlock rallying cry “I Am Woman” an ecumenical post-feminist spin: “I am a champion/And you’re gonna hear me roar.” Like so much 21st-century schlock, “Roar” is, if you will, Oprah-opera: an inspirational aria that speaks the language of the self-help book and the pep talk, in a musical setting big and burly enough to work as halftime show-rocking “jock jam.”

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The list that accompanies this essay, “The 150 Greatest Schlock Songs,” is one listener’s schlock canon. Like all lists, it’s limited by personal taste and by space; there are many fine songs — whole schlock genres and traditions—that didn’t make the cut. Some of the greatest schlock is Latin music; French chanson is a virtual tout­-schlock zone. But I’ve stuck to Anglo-American pop, on the theory that every list has to stop somewhere.

I had other ground rules. This is a list of the best schlock songs, not the most “essential” or significant ones. Any historically conscientious survey of schlock would have to take account of, for example, Perry Como, the Carpenters, Tom Jones, “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” “From a Distance,” “Truly, Madly, Deeply,” and dozens of others musicians and songs absent from my list. A decent argument could be made that “Hotel California” is the schlockiest popular song of all time, but it’s not here, either.

The guiding principle of this list is that schlock is too important a tradition not to take seriously and that taking it seriously means making astute judgments about that tradition. Not all schlock is terrible; only some is transcendent. For me, the great stuff is defined by an alchemical blend of beauty and brazenness — ideally, by vast quantities of both. “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” the 1998 Aerosmith power ballad written by Diane Warren, is great schlock on the strength of its tune alone. Steven Tyler’s audacious scenery-chewing vocal tips it into Hall of Fame territory; the lyric, narrated by a lovestruck weirdo who stays up all night gaping at his sleeping girlfriend, seals the deal.

But again: à chacun son schlock. You might love Billy Joel’s inescapable “Piano Man,” and you’d be right to call it a schlock classic; I think it’s a horrible song. Joel’s “Until the Night,” on the other hand, is great, a magnificent bit of ersatz–Brill Building–pop-pomp that deserves canonization, and gets it. I have a fondness for sex schlock, for songs that dress up shameless come-ons in costume-drama finery. This explains the inclusion of Barry White’s “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe,” the Isley Brothers’ “Between the Sheets,” Solomon Burke’s “Music to Make Love By,” Extreme’s “More Than Words,” and Benny Mardones’s breathtakingly skeezy Lite-FM staple “Into the Night,” and it’s why I chose “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” over any of dozens of other Neil Diamond anthems. Grunge and post-grunge are schlock-heavy genres — the inchoate angst, the mommy-and-daddy issues, the dudes earnestly mewling their pain over crashing guitars. But I’ve never been a fan, which is why the list includes only one peak-grunge song (Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy”) and why there’s no “With Arms Wide Open,” a song that will be lighting up karaoke machines and oldies radio well into the 22nd century.

What you will find on this list is a different view of history, a discombobulated version of the popular-music canon. Many familiar pop gods are here, yes, but they are sharing their throne room with musicians generally relegated to less posh digs. There are no Bob Dylan songs on this list; there are five songs written by Lionel Richie. A schlock-centric history makes room for underrated greats (Johnnie Ray, Peter Cetera, Sade) and privileges often-maligned genres (soft rock, Quiet Storm soul, Nashville pop-country). It champions alternative golden ages: Rock culture enshrines the ’60s, but schlock loves the ’90s, the heyday of Whitney and Mariah and Garth and Shania and other titans of the blustery schlock power-ballad. Schlock prizes the rhapsodic over the rugged, the voluptuous over the volatile; a list of great schlock songs therefore flips the usual rock-critical gender and age biases, tilting toward the gentler, more sentimental “women’s music” that rules radio formats aimed at middle-aged listeners, like adult-contemporary and country. Schlock chooses pop metal over the rock critic’s favorite, punk — although Carl Wilson may have been onto something when he called punk “anger’s schmaltz.” Schlock goes for that old softy, Paul McCartney, not the critic’s darling John Lennon — although, come to think of it, there is no schlockier song than Lennon’s drippy “Imagine,” and what is Lennon’s 1970 primal-scream-therapy ballad “Mother” if not anger’s schmaltz, a Janovian update of the Victorian mother song?

The truth is, we’re capricious in our judgments about schlock. Dave Marsh derides the “triviality” and “banality” of Journey’s schlock-rock, but there is no more flaming schlock purveyor than Marsh’s beloved Bruce Springsteen, and an honest listener will admit that the only thing separating the beautiful-loser melodrama of “Don’t Stop Believin’” from that of, say, “Jungleland,” is the relative tameness and tautness of the former, whose poesy is practically Noël Coward compared with the Boss’s Beat-poetic ejaculations (“Beneath the city, two hearts beat /Soul engines running through a night so tender”) — to say nothing of the Clarence Clemons sax solo that clocks in at nearly half the length of Journey’s song. Schlock thrives in musical precincts that pretend to be above such things, and critical gatekeepers have often gone along with the charade, damning Bon Jovi’s bombast while ignoring — or, rather, relishing without owning up to — Bon Iver’s.

 

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One thing we all may be able to agree on: In 2014, schlock reappraisal is in the air. The 21st century has been a time of intensive pop-canon consolidation. We’ve seen a new body of popular standards, a latter-day Great American Songbook, consecrated by TV talent shows and YouTube home-video cover songs and the unnumbered zillions who’ve tipped back a strong drink and stepped onto a karaoke stage to take a whack at Gloria Gaynor or the Backstreet Boys or Bruno Mars. If you stop by your nearest karaoke palace — if you examine the repertoires of American Idol or Glee — you’re reminded that schlock remains the people’s choice. We mark our most important occasions, weddings and funerals and holidays, with schlock. We seek solace in schlock when challenged by hard times: when the Titanic goes down, when war separates loved ones, when the Twin Towers fall. And when it’s time to wow the judges on The Voice, we break out “Against All Odds” or “Open Arms” or “I Will Always Love You.”

We may never fully shake off the shame of loving such songs. No matter how far poptimist reclamation extends, there is nothing that will make a song like “Endless Love,” the Lionel Richie–Diana Ross duet that roosted at the top of the charts for nine weeks in 1981, less embarrassingly sappy. But the problem, it seems fair to say, lies with us — with our aesthetic prejudices, the limits of our critical imaginations, our insecurities — and not with “Endless Love.” We’ve learned to be wary of sentimentality, to favor abrasion and dissonance over lavish melodicism, or at least to prefer beauty and sentimentality in tidy little packages, preferably pegged to “literate” lyrics full of wry observations and piquant little ironies. We’ve chosen “good taste” over “bad taste” — a dodgy proposition in general, and a fool’s bargain when it comes to assessing the lurid carnival of popular music.

Take Lionel Richie. He is a slyly virtuosic singer and a songwriter whose knack for sumptuous tunes is matched by his weakness for ridiculous high-flown chivalric romance. He is, in other words, a brilliant cornball. As poetry, “Endless Love” is leaden (“Your eyes, your eyes, your eyes — they tell me how much you care”); the instrumentation, all tinkling pianos and swooning strings, is predictable and banal. Yet the song is beautiful, a ravishing flow of melody and harmony that never lets up, arriving in crescendo after crescendo. “Endless Love” is a tissue of clichés — which Lionel Richie folds into a gorgeous origami swan. If, as critics and canon-makers, we can’t find a way to hallow a song like “Endless Love” — if we can’t see fit to put Richie in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame alongside Springsteen and Michael Jackson and Madonna, the only ’80s hit-makers on his level — we may need to ask ourselves if our critical criteria are out of whack: if on some basic level we’re missing the point of the art form we purport to critique.

The truth is, big corny windswept sentimentality might just be the thing that pop does best. Music is the most immediate, the most visceral and ineffable of human inventions, and its essential power, the trump card it holds over the other arts, is its bald appeal to the emotions, the way a rapturous tune, a stirring beat, a charismatic voice, can override everything, transporting us to a realm beyond concerns about tastefulness or “cool” or even coherence. What the fuck is “purple rain”? It’s doggerel, that’s what; nobody has the foggiest idea what purple rain is. And yet, when Prince commands, “If you know what I'm singing about up here — c'mon, raise your hand!” our hands shoot up, because even though we don’t know what he’s singing about, we feel it.

“Journey,” Dave Marsh sniffed back in 1983, “gives the people what they want.” He was wrong, though. Schlock isn’t what we want, at least not what we want to believe that we want. We want to be connoisseurs and, lord help us, we want to be cool. Schlock delivers something more profound: what we need. It’s music that serves our awkward yearnings, in a secular era, for uplift, for a touch of the sacred, for a stairway to heaven. It’s the soundtrack we turn to for a good long cry in a dark little room, when we’re dumped by someone we love. We recoil from schlock even as we lust for it, because it hits us where it counts, revealing us at our most wretchedly vulnerable and human. Which is why, despite our high-minded instincts, we’re stuck with schlock. There are times in life when only thing that will do is a great big tear-jerking cliché, gusting along atop an even bigger melody. As the poet said: We’re livin’ just to find emotion.

Photo-Illustration: Photo by Getty