I have been listening to Studio 360 since it began on the radio in 2000. I now listen mostly via podcast, so I never miss an episode. Their American Icons series, which has explored works ranging from The Lincoln Memorial to Moby Dick (A Peabody Award Winning Episode), is often brilliant.
But the most stunning moment came in 2014 when host Kurt Anderson interviewed Taylor Mac. Near the end of the interview, Anderson told Mac, “in a very few years, five max, you are going to be a MacArthur Genius.” Kurt’s cosmic clairvoyance came down in 2017, when Mac won the MacArthur Fellowship.
One of Studio 360s ongoing series is called “Guilty Pleasures,” where artists discuss cultural creations they are embarrassed to admit enjoying. Guests have discussed liking things such as Godfather III and Styx. I came up with the idea of pitching “Lawrence Welk” as a guilty pleasure, and last June I was invited into the studio to record my commentary. The segment was broadcast on Public Radio Stations last week, and of course is available via podcast.
Thanks so much to Jocelyn Gonzales for producing the segment, along with Tommy Bazarian. Below is the original pitch I wrote:
Guilty Pleasures: The Lawrence Welk Show
Growing up in the 1970s I listened to classic rock: The Who, The Stones, Hendrix, Led Zeppelin. It was hard, and it was rebellious. Lawrence Welk was the opposite. His style was called champagne music because it was sweet and airy. The Lawrence Welk Show was a mix of singing and dancing by a regular cast dressed in brightly colored dresses and suits. All done to the backdrop of an orchestra playing the American songbook.
As a kid I found the show simply boring. I remember my grandfather, a cattle farmer in southeastern Iowa, watching two television shows: Lawrence Welk and Hee Haw. When visiting him, I didn’t mind watching Hee Haw, it had jokes a kid could understand. But once Lawrence Welk came on I said goodnight.
I rediscovered the show in the late eighties when they began rebroadcasting it on PBS. By that time I had long since quit doing drugs, but for an hour on Sunday evening I felt like I was high again. Everything about the show I found hilarious: the hairdos, the over-the-top costumes, the cliché stage sets, the predictable arrangements and the relentless smiles on the performers’ faces.
As I continued to watch, however, I came to love it as more than something to laugh at. I came to appreciate its sincerity and the genuine talent of its performers: the brilliant accordionist Myron Floren, the Irish-American tenor Joe Feeney, and the great tap dancer Arthur Duncan.
Duncan was one of the first African Americans to be featured on a variety show when he started in 1964. While in some ways he performed a stereotypical role on an otherwise white show, he was also often a dance partner with white women, which might have bothered a few rural viewers. Lawrence Welk grew up speaking German in North Dakota, so just his accent made problematic the notion of a homogenous American identity.
The peak of Welk’s popularity, the 1960s and 70s, was a time of enormous social conflict, but through it all, the world of The Lawrence Welk Show remained a champagne bubble of joy. The simplicity of this dream broadcast to a real world of pain is to me what makes the show so powerful.
At the time I rediscovered the show, I went to visit my grandmother in a Florida nursing home. She was clearly depressed. As we talked someone in a neighboring room was screaming. She complained of how all the food came wrapped in plastic. “Well at least on Sunday evenings there’s Lawrence Welk”, she said, eyes brightening. As I left, walking down the hall I heard the sweet sounds of the show drifting from every room.