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The emergence of kitch

The emergence of kitch — What happens when cool and uncool collide

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Not long ago, life was simple. The entertainment universe was split into two clearly marked camps: cool and uncool. The land of the former was an eternal bohemia where rebels blew smoke and coughed up their disdain for the Establishment. Jack Nicholson and James Dean. Early Bob Dylan and the Young Elvis. The land o’lame was reserved for a polyester-and-rhinestone brand of showbiz favored by blue-haired pensioners: Engelbert Humperdinck. Pat Boone. The Fat Elvis.

Then everything changed. In the last year or two, the two halves of the entertainment universe have collided, and what’s left in the debris is neither cool nor uncool but a mutant offspring of both: kitsch.

You can blame Quentin Tarantino and his embracing of ’70s pop culture in Pulp Fiction. Or Nick at Nite, cable TV’s wellspring of amicable camp. Or Spike Jonze, whose lauded Weezer and Beastie Boys videos gently parody Happy Days and Starsky and Hutch, respectively. Or the No. 1 box office success of The Brady Bunch Movie, that sarcastic hayride with the impossibly square TV clan. Or the return of that bawdy cocktail minstrel Tom Jones. Or the revival of finger-snapping lounge music. But any way you slice it, all of a sudden kitsch defines cool.

Theories abound. Maybe that ironic subset of the country known as Generation X got fed up with the sentimentality of Big Chill-style hippie nostalgia and, in the search for heroes other than Hendrix, turned to Torme. Or, on a brighter note, maybe America just realized there’s a vault of untapped talent out there: Like it or not, Tom Jones can sing.