February 4, 2014

SOSNICK| Lawrence Welk: The King of Middlebrow

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By MIKE SOSNICK

Toward the end of winter break, I found myself engrossed in PBS reruns of The Lawrence Welk Show. Curled up in a plush recliner and wearing limited clothing, I figured I’d be able to laugh mindlessly at the absurd stiffness of the performers. Unfortunately for my mental relaxation (but fortunately for this column), the show’s strangeness didn’t begin and end at humor. Instead, the program’s Twilight Zone-esque disconnect with anything and everything cool in America still continues to haunt me.

I’d imagine that Saturday Night Live is what comes to most of this generation’s mind when they hear about The Lawrence Welk Show. To be honest, that sketch annoys me to no end; I don’t find Kristen Wiig’s tiny hands enjoyable, nor do I find any of her work funny. But what went over my head at the time was how well the sketch mimics the rest of the show. Fred Armisen’s aloof smile and counts of, “Ah-one, ah-two!” perfectly mimic Welk, while the choir is, if anything, not whitebread enough.

That being said, one should expect whitebread to be the program’s modus operandi given its host. There wasn’t much blues swinging in 1910s Strasburg, North Dakota. In fact, there wasn’t much of anything other than a couple hundred speakers of Low German, Lawrence himself included. Despite learning English in school, he never fully lost his Plattdeutsch accent, giving him his unintentional catchphrase of “Wunnerful! Wunnerful!” Despite my gripes with his show, I actually have the utmost respect for Welk. He was a successful big band leader and released some top-notch accordion easy listening. Plus, he must have been a damn good businessman to keep his show a ratings powerhouse in the rhythmless white American demographic for 27 years.

What continues to hold my perverse fascination with The Lawrence Welk Show is not the host, but the performances. It is hard to watch clips without feeling like my soul is being surveilled by androids. To start with, it seems like neither the performers nor the camera crew had any of the concept of the fourth wall. Having the foot-wide lapelled velvet-suit-clad musicians gleefully staring me in the face is made extra disturbing by their makeup-caked eyelids’ refusal to blink … ever. Call me a subversive rock n’ roll rebel, but ten blonde-haired, blue-eyed girls sitting in rows of school desks uniformly swaying as they chirp high-pitched bubblegum tunes is more ominous than cute. When the male crooners aren’t draped over conveniently placed wagon wheels in their poor attempt to be casual, they’re indistinguishable from minions recruiting for a cult. They bounce around with energy that only certain schedule 1 drugs should be able to provide, hyperarticulate their creepily jolly lyrics and never stop smiling painfully wide smiles that have to be products of repressed sexuality.

Particularly frustrating, though, is that much of the American public was listening to this schlock over everything else they were exposed to. The Lawrence Welk Show ran nationally from 1955 until 1971, a heyday for American pop music. The program’s first season saw Elvis’s “Heartbreak Hotel” at the top of the charts and Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was most popular during the show’s last. For the period between 1964 and 1969, when The Lawrence Welk Show was in the Nielsen ratings top 30, number one songs included “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Hey Jude.” So, while the rest of the country was introduced to the genius of John Lennon, Welk fans were instead snapping their fingers to The Lennon Sisters.

Granted, young people were not Welk’s target audience. I understand that religious fanatics, segregationists and senile nursing home residents needed musical entertainment just like everyone else, but it’s baffling to me that The Lawrence Welk Show could become the 12th most popular show in the nation the same year that Rubber Soul was released. Welk viewers didn’t have to dig deep to find the 6x platinum record, but opted instead to be serenaded by the likes of Mary Lou Metzger.

But, as frustrated as I am by the show’s popularity, the first few seasons of its success do make some sense. At a time when Broadway soundtracks were being challenged by rock and roll at the top of the charts, America’s stodgy white folk needed something to latch onto. They found solace from a world of sex and drugs in a bubble-filled soundstage where the music, the performers, the teeth and the peroxide-bleached hair were each whiter than the next.

After a square dance performance by Cissy King and Bobby Burgess on March 9, 1968, Lawrence offered some stellar praise: “We can always depend on these youngsters for something appropriate.” In a nutshell, the show’s goal was to be as unchallenging as possible, and it succeeded in sheltering a sizeable portion of the American public from groundbreaking musical trends. For a show that was less in touch than the Michael Bublé Christmas Special to become one of the most watched programs on television is more than just astounding; The Lawrence Welk Show is a dark mark on the otherwise impressive pop music landscape of the era.

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