Musings on Cheesiness

I’ve been building up to a screed on the notion of cheesiness. I suspect I’ll never manage to address all its dimensions, and this will be quite unpolished, but here are some of my thoughts.

I first became fixated on the concept of cheesiness in 1997. I was living in Sevilla, and one night, while my Spanish roommate and I hung out on our rooftop terrace, I tried to explain the concept of cheesiness to him. That it was so difficult made it clear we were dealing with a truly complex concept.

There are many different ways to approach the concept of cheesiness. Here are some of the aspects of the notion I’ll try to explore below:
1. Dictionary definitions and the origins of the concept of cheesiness
2. Musings on the concept of cheesiness
3. Good versus bad cheese
4. References to cheesiness in popular culture
5. Words for the concept or similar concepts in other languages

Dictionary definitions and the origins of the concept

Dictionary definitions of cheesy and the origins of the concept of cheesiness are pretty clearly perjorative:

* Websters defines “cheesy” as “shabby” or “cheap”
* Oxford defines “cheesy” as “cheap and of low quality,” “hackneyed and obviously sentimental,” or “exaggerated and likely to be insincere”
* Wikipedia defines “cheesy” as “slang for not acceptable in a manner that most would think is embarrassing or just not ‘cool,'” “trite, contrived, cliche. Often of poor quality; shoddy.,” or “Unintentionally disingenuous, lacking subtlety and lacking discernment.”
* The top Urban Dictionary definition defines “cheesy” as meaning “Trying too hard, unsubtle, and inauthentic. Specifically that which is unsubtle or inauthentic in its way of trying to elicit a certain response from a viewer, listener, audience, etc.”
* This Quora.com discussion is by far the most thoughtful and extensive I have yet found online, but it still focus on the perjorative connotations of the term. For example, the top-voted posting states, “The word’s essential meaning is a lack of the authenticity, subtlety, or realism characteristic to honest expression, especially when exhibiting qualities that nonetheless attract, even inadvertently. Often applied to artistic works, it is not simply a description of style, but also concerns the motivations of the creator. While people associate it with all that is banal or sentimental, over-used, campy, kitschy, or tasteless, it is not really a synonym for any of these things.”

I have found the following theories of and notes on the origin of the term cheesy:

The Online Etymology Dictionary suggests several theories: “Meaning “cheap, inferior” is attested from 1896, perhaps originally U.S. student slang, along with cheese (n.) ‘an ignorant, stupid person.’ In late 19c. British slang, cheesy was ‘fine, showy’ (1858), probably from cheese (n.2) and some suggest the modern derogatory use is an ‘ironic reversal’ of this. The word was in common use in medical writing in the late 19c. to describe morbid substances found in tubers, decaying flesh, etc.” To break that down, there are two main lines of thought:

There is the suggestion that the term is an “ironic reversal” of the late 19c. British slang use of cheesy as “fine, showy.” This interesting discussion indicates that “cheesy” originally meant something GOOD, quoting “The Slang Dictionary” from 1863 as defining “cheese” or “cheesy” as “Anything good, first-rate in quality, genuine, pleasant or advantageous.” A related phrase is “The Big Cheese,” which still refers to the most important person in a given context, without the negative connotations of “cheesy.” It would seem that the definitions of “cheesy” as “cheap” or “low quality” are a reflection of the reversal in the use of the term, although I think the term is far more complex, even in its perjorative use.

The other main suggestion of origin is based in the substance cheese itself — the use of “cheese” as a medical descriptive term or, as is suggested on this site, “an allusion to the unpleasant smell of overripe cheese.” There’s also this assertion on the World Wide Words site: “There’s no shortage of expressions invoking cheese: one may be cheesed off (miserable, annoyed, fed up), or something may be cheesy (cheap, unpleasant or blatantly inauthentic). These refer to the unhappy habit of ripe cheese making its presence known to anyone within sniffing distance.” The commentator actually argues that the phrase “The Big Cheese” is unrelated to “cheesy” — that the phrase “the big cheese” is “based on the only positive slang sense of cheese that seems ever to have existed.”

There is also this view based on the photographer’s “Say Cheese”: “Photographers these days often prefer to use ‘Say, one, two, three’, as it produces the same grins and makes sure that all the sitters smile at the same time. While it appears that virtually any ‘long e’ word could have been chosen instead, ‘cheese’ has stood the test of time and has resulted in a new adjective – ‘cheesy’. People began to speak of ‘cheesy grins’ or ‘cheesy smiles’, as demonstrated by Ambassador Davies, in the 1960s. The word ‘cheesy’, meaning ‘vulgar’/’tasteless’, derives from the perceived insincerity of cheesy grins.” It seems to me unlikely that the modern usage of “cheesy” is based solely on the photographer’s use of “Say Cheese,” although photographer’s may have chosen to use the word “cheese” because of its other associations, and it certainly is interesting that saying “cheese” produces a cheesy smile.

Musings on the concept of cheesiness

Clearly the concept of cheesiness is perjorative at its roots, but I believe the concept has outgrown its roots, or at the very least the concept has a utility as a descriptive term. That is, I think the dictionary definitions and origins are less important than how the concept of cheesiness is actually used today, and how it should be used, once properly separated from its perjorative connotations.

I don’t think “cheesiness” can truly be defined. It is more one of those “know it when you see it” adjectives, and it has the added complication of being quite subjective, although some of the subjectivity is due to a reluctance of many to describe the music (or other art) they like as cheesy. I personally do think that one can objectively declare that something is cheesy or not, once the perjorative connotation is removed.

One note: I mostly discuss cheesiness in music, but the adjective “cheesy” can be applied to all media and art forms (movies, books, paintings, etc), as well as many other things as well (“that was a cheesy party” or “that was a cheesy parade” — of course, almost all parades are cheesy).

Turning to the attempted definition itself, and again focusing on music, I’m going to posit a number of half baked theories and associations, because I find it helpful to circle in on the notion of cheesiness, and I think it is fun to throw out broad propositions. Of course, all are open to debate and many exceptions.

At its root, cheesy music typically is earnest, sincere, and direct — unironic. Ironically, cheesy music is often enjoyed ironically, but that is absolutely not my frame of mind. I think the ironic mindset reflects a certain detachment from the sentiment being expressed, which is the opposite of the mindset of cheesy music, which has an utter dedication to the the message. Sometimes people try to make cheesy music, but if they are approaching it with an ironic mindset, then it is not really genuine cheese. Or perhaps an ironic mindset is one aspect of what makes some cheesy music bad (of course, there are many other ways for cheesy music to be bad). And perhaps if someone succeeds in intentionally making good cheesy music it is because they recognized that the utter lack of detachment is critical to making good cheesy music.

Cheesy music is typically unnuanced in its sentiment and expression. Cheesy music is typically smooth and polished, and instrumentation is important in enhancing cheesiness: Strings, sax in a pop song, synth washes, etc. almost always increase the cheese factor. Cheesy music doesn’t hold anything back. It often has a sense of grandeur. Cheesy music is often ridiculous, but it only sometimes works.

The 80s were unquestionably the most cheesy decade on record, across all forms of expression, music, fashion, movies, visual arts, etc. I have decdicated a whole separate compilation to cheesy 80s music, called Grilled Cheese.

More authentic music tends to be less cheesy. For example, old time country music (and Latin music, Jazz, etc.) was less cheesy than much of what it has evolved into. World music often becomes cheesier as it is exposed to more outside influences, especially in modern times. And if old time, authentic music is cheesy, it is more likely to be good cheese (see, for example, old doo wop and old Latin ballads). It seems that modern production techniques have played a real role in making more music the bad kind of cheesy.

It seems that cheesiness is a cross-cultural concept, at least in modern times. (See below for what I hope to develop into a list of word equivalents in other languages.) It does seem that some places seem to have more cheesy music than other places, and typically of the bad sort in modern times. Is there a cultural tendency towards cheesiness? Good or bad cheesiness? I won’t venture to state any specific opinions because of the obvious sensitivity of such an inquiry.

It would also be interesting to compare the term cheesy to other related terms — corny, campy, tacky, kitschy, etc. Some of those terms are almost always used in a perjorative sense (corny, tacky) and some are almost always used in a positive sense (campy, kitschy?). Often the approximations for cheesiness in other languages will be closer equivalents to one of those alternate terms. For now, those alternate terms are discussed a bit in the discussion of the search for a Spanish equivalent for cheesy.

Another interesting exercise is to try to figure out why the songs on my compilation Voices of Longing are largely not cheesy, even though they share some overlap with the attributes of cheesy music. I think it is because the songs, although utterly earnest, are
not overly polished, are deeply rooted in authentic and long-standing musical traditions, and express deep emotion in seemingly more nuanced ways.

Good versus bad cheese

Finally, and perhaps most problematically, is the task of trying to identify good and bad cheese. I think whether something is cheesy is mostly an objective issue, but whether something is GOOD cheese is quite subjective. As I mentioned earlier, I think sometimes when people deny that something is cheesy, they are just responding to the typical negative connotation the term has.

Personally, I think some cheesy music can objectively be identified as bad cheese. Of course, many people may like it, so to them it is good cheese, but I do believe in a certain objectivity in judgments about many types of art, which is obviously a hotly debated subject more in the realm of the philosophical and beyond the scope of my comments here.

As noted earlier, I think most musical forms have, with exceptions, evolved more in the direction of bad cheese (soul, Latin music, top 40 music, etc). In part that may stem from modern production techniques, but it probably mostly reflects modern society, increasingly superficial, commercial, inauthentic, and inane. So I think a lot of bad cheese can be identified by some combination of those characteristics, which have some echoes in the perjorative dictionary definitions of cheesy. Another category of bad cheese, which somewhat overlaps with the first, is cheesy music that just doesn’t have a compelling enough melody, decorative elements, or sense of abandon to overcome intense sappiness or other potentially problematic traits. Finally, as indicated above, some bad cheesy music may also result from musicians trying to make cheesy music, but approaching it with an ironic mindset or insufficient abandon or inspiration.

Ultimately, it is more interesting to focus on highlighting GOOD cheesy music. Good cheesy music is characterized by the descriptive elements discussed above, without the negative elements present in bad cheesy music. Good cheesy music really works at some level, despite being characterized by potentially problematic elements (like sappiness or simplicity). Typically it can be said that an artist makes good or bad cheesy music, but some artists only sometimes manage to put together in a song the combination of aspects necessary to move the song over the line from bad to good. I have gathered some examples of good cheesy music on my compilation Stardust and some examples of good cheesy 80s music on my compilation Grilled Cheese.

Often, there are good and bad cheesy versions of the same song. For example, the classic “Stardust” appears in a good cheesy version by the Mills Brothers on my compilation of the same name and in this clip:

And in a bad cheesy version by Nat King Cole (who was great in his trio days but became bad cheesy later) in this clip around 1:20 from the movie Sleepless in Seattle (a movie that itself has a lot of bad cheesiness, although it still retains some enjoyability). Really, all the songs in this clip are good examples of bad cheese:

References to cheesiness in popular culture

It is an endless task to try to compile references to cheesiness in popular culture. Although I have not yet developed this section, in the future I’ll try to assemble things I come across, especially references to the concept in a nonperjorative sense (which are not as common). I’d love any suggestions anybody has.

• Psy, of “Gangnam Style” fame has come up with the catchphrase for himself, “dress classy, dance cheesy.” I’d say he dresses cheesy too, but the quote reflects a appreciative spin on cheesiness.

• In the movie The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the character played by Emma Watson (Sam) gives the protagonist Charlie a mixtape regarding which he says, “I am trying to participate [in socializing] by listening to Sam’s collection of big rock ballads and thinking about love. Sam says they are kitschy and brilliant. I completely agree.” The song playing is Air Supply’s “All Out of Love,” classic 80s cheese (I put their “Lost in Love” on Grilled Cheese).

• I have come across a number of places where reviewers have described various things as “good cheesy fun” or a “cheesy good time,” including a theater in Long Beach, Expendables 2, and a pirate dinner cruise.

• The term “cheesy” is often used in titles of lists, like lists of cheesy jokes, cheesy ways to say good morning, and cheesy pickup lines.

• A December 2012 New York Times article called “Quentin’s World,” part of their series on “Visionary” movie directors refers to Tarantino’s “reputation as someone who could break all the rules, making movies that were simultaneously stylish, exciting and knowingly cheesy, and somehow get away with it.” I think being “knowingly” cheesy is not the same thing as being “ironically” cheesy. I think Tarantino’s cheesiness works because he is sincere in his intent and finds the cheesy mode of presentation most effective and, in a sense, authentic.

• A March 2013 New York Times article about “ineffective heavy-metal album cover art” included the album cover for the 1985 compilation “Metal Massacre VI,” featuring the grim reaper, a severed head, and a pile of skulls. The article states that “It’s unclear whether the artwork… was meant to be intentionally cheesy.”

Words for the Notion of Cheesiness or Similar Concepts in Other Languages

Spanish

As I mentioned previously, I first started thinking seriously about cheesiness in trying to define the term cheesy to my Spanish roommate in Sevilla and trying to find the Spanish equivalent. The closest we came up with was “hortera” which has some overlap but it is a bit different because “hortera” seems to cover the aspect of cheesiness relating to things that are cheesy in a stereotypically traditional or old fashioned way, but not necessarily the wholeness of the concept of the English word “cheesy.”

In recent discussions with native Spanish speaking friends, another candidate was the word “cursi,” but it appears “cursi” may be closest to “tacky”, which has some overlap with “cheesy” but is different. Here is an explanation I found of the term: “I’d call it ‘tacky’, ‘cheesy’, ‘kitschy’. In other words, ‘in questionable taste’. In his book Cassell’s Colloquial Spanish, A. Bryson Gerrard explains his British take on the word: ‘A colloquial but widely used adjective meaning something like “socially pretentious”; it describes people who give themselves the airs of a higher social class … When applied to things, e.g. furniture of clothes, it contains the idea of noveau-riche. High-class houses in the best Spanish tradition are furnished with an aristocratic simplicity and restraint, and the gaudy, ornate Empire-style furniture which you sometimes find in city apartments would be described as cursi. … Affectation, pretentiousness, excessive ornamentation are all involved.’ ”

An American friend who lives in Spain added, “‘Cursi’ is more Jersey Shore affectation of elegance or ‘unintentionally tacky’ than the more aware or ‘ironically tacky’ that you’re looking for. I’d go with ‘hortera’, although I might modify the word by adding ‘camp’ (with Spanish pronunciation), as I think that most of the people I hang out with now have an understanding of that concept.” That is a helpful perspective, although those comments emphasize a bit too much the notion of ironic appreciation of cheesiness, which is not my angle. I also think, as discussed above, the concept of “camp” may be different from the concept of “cheesiness” precisely because of some sense of irony inherent to camp. The Wikipedia definition of camp as a style seems to support that a sense of irony is key: “Camp is an aesthetic sensibility that regards something as appealing or humorous because of its ridiculousness to the viewer. The concept is related to kitsch, and things with camp appeal may also be described as being ‘cheesy’. When the usage appeared, in 1909, it denoted: ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical, and effeminate behaviour, and, by the middle of the 1970s, the definition comprised: banality, artifice, mediocrity, and ostentation so extreme as to have perversely sophisticated appeal. American writer Susan Sontag’s essay Notes on ‘Camp’ (1964) emphasised its key elements as: artifice, frivolity, naïve middle-class pretentiousness, and ‘shocking’ excess. Camp as an aesthetic has been popular from the 1960s to the present.”

I would love to have help in figuring out equivalents for “cheesy” in other languages. If there is another language you are fluent in, think to yourself whether there is a term comparable to “cheesy.” Ideally it would be a term that can be used both positively and negatively, but it may be that the closest concept has only a negative connotation. Or it may be that the closest equivalent is closer to tacky or campy, which would be interesting to. Please put any suggestions in the comments or in a message to me.

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