When I was a student in the late 1990s, there was a terrible enthusiasm for all things cheesy – cheesy music in particular, but also cheesy TV and cheesy fashion. A night at the student union nightclub called “Up The Glitter”, featuring songs like “99 Red Balloons”, “Making Your Mind Up”, “Come On Eileen” and “Funky Town”, went from a midweek once monthly (the preserve of the out and proud gay types) to the prized Saturday spot every week and even spawning imitators, such was its popularity. Teletubbies was openly watched and talked about. The Eurovision Song Contest drew appreciative parties. We mock-referred to anyone insistent on their way as “fascist”, and hid our own appreciations behind a wall of cynicism and irony. It was the done thing to read The Sun or Loaded (“for the tits”), rather than The Guardian or The Economist, which were much closer to our real interests.
Looking back, the cheesy trend fits well into our pre-millennial pop-culture overload take on modern life. Cheesy is to a large extent a result of being too well versed in pop culture. Aspects of culture which become overly familiar become first clichés, then cheesy, then cause revulsion, then lose their power entirely, to become historical documents rather than art. (This process is not however linear; there can be jumps from one to the other stage). Cheesiness is hence largely an overfamiliarity with certain stylistic moves and techniques in popular culture, engendering an ironic awareness of the text as artistic construct. (The text here can be considered not just the music or film etc, but also the performer or actor, if they have a recognizable repertoire – a known body of signs, in other words. Jack Nicholson’s post-Witches of Eastwick eyebrow raising is one such example of a familiar move becoming contemptible). Consider Elvis Presley – at one time vital and dangerous, by the time I encountered him, he was seen as a grotesque parody, subject of bad pictures in dole-scum livingrooms and tacky presentation plates sold in illiterate magazines. He was progressing from cheesy to revulsion. He came back in popularity thanks to the strength of his musical catalogue, but his films are already historical documents rather than living entries in the cinematic canon. James Dean can be considered likewise; similarly, cultural symbols as disparate Abba, Ice-T, Jaws, South Park clothes, John Travolta, the entire disco genre, The Evil Dead and John Grisham have all progressed from edgy to cheesy. They become assimilated into the culture; their tricks and angles become too well known, and “that thing you do” doesn’t work anymore. If all political careers end in failure, then all pop culture careers follow the process outlined above, except sometimes in cases of early death. (No-one ever called Jimi Hendrix cheesy, even after Wayne’s World’s rendition of ‘Foxy Lady’.) Nowadays it’s 1980s culture which is considered cheesy. That’s simply because tastemakers were children in that decade. It’s not long ago that 1970s culture was considered the epitome of cheesiness – now, in some respects, it seems like a golden age.
But cheesy also applies on the micro level, to small cultural methods and styles. The cinematic habit of dragging on the death of a supporting character as they gasp their dying, vitally important words, for example – Star Wars tore the arse out of it, and by the time Boromir declared his fealty to Aragorn in The Fellowship of the Ring, you just wanted the prick to fuck off and die quietly. Adverts involving The Simpsons – you know Homer is going to say “Doh!”, whatever happens. Kitchen sink dramas were forever scuppered the moment Monty Python had a sketch featuring a young man returning from mining coal to visit his working-class parents, with his mother fretting over his father who had injured his hand writing a sonnet sequence. Top Gun was so chock-full of extremely simplistic and effective moves that a whole movie was made of the parodies they enabled. “Hair metal”, with its masculine posturing and sub-Van Halen guitar, never survived the sniggers of Nirvana and the broader grunge generation, for whom its simple moves were all too obvious. Horror movie protagonists who dumbly make their way to the basement, or investigate some nameless horror, nowadays have cinema audiences berating them rather than cowering in their seats. Swelling orchestral strings at totally, like, emotional parts of power ballads these days create a sense of ennui rather than punching the air or proudly holding aloft that cigarette lighter. In all these moves, they’ve become overfamiliar clichés, and go on to be despised. “God, how cheesy!”
There’s a deeper angle to cheesy, however. Saussure showed the arbitrary connection the sign (the textual word) and the signified (the meaning or concept), and that signs were only explicable relative to each other. Cat is cat because it is not mat, bat, fat or hat. Structuralism then showed that this could be applied on a broader perspective, where items other than words could be considered signs, and thus form their own language, their own semiotic code. Claude Levi-Strauss applied it to anthropology, showing that human rituals had no essential connection to their meaning, and could only be understood within a social context. Baudrillard applied it to houseware, considering each item relative to others, while Roland Barthe’s Mythologies looked at everyday phenomena, from wrestling to wine, teasing out the underlying meanings and archetypes in everyday objects and events. In pop culture, stylistic moves and trends over time become assimilated, familiar and clichéd. The connection between signifier and signifier, the stylistic move and the desired effect, becomes apparent, self-evident, where it should remain unremarked, unobtrusive. Once it is apparent, it appears inauthentic, because for art to work the methodology cannot be seen. Bruce Springsteen’s performances are as “staged” as those of hair metal rockers, but because his music remains fresher than that of Ratt or Poison or Motley Crue (thanks to the greater skill of the E Street Band, in all likelihood), he gets away with it. (His “passing a kidney stone” performance in “We Are The World” has to be seen to be believed). Heavy metal is notorious for demanding authenticity, which is really a cry of frustration when something new is attempted unsuccessfully. The connection between move and effect becomes all too apparent, and anger cannot appear staged; it must appear immediate and self-present. Dr. Who, of course, descended deep into a pit of cheesiness in the 1980s, viewer suspension of disbelief ruined by shoddy effects and over-familiarity. Stock movie characters like the “tart with the heart” and the Machiavellian businessman have similarly lost all power and gained a distinct aroma of le fromage.
Some art is never cheesy. It remains fresh. It has a depth and complexity which enables those who enjoy it to constantly discover new things. One might cite Pink Floyd, John Coltrane, The Godfather films (despite the parodies and homages), Bjork, Kraftwerk, Bob Marley. But the days of artistic mystique, predicated upon unavailability, are gone. Cultural overexposure, thanks to the internet, is now the norm. Familiarity breeds contempt; it also breeds cheese.