Monday, February 10, 2014

Return of Old Fogey, or a Letter to Jon Keller

It seems Old Fogeyism and the generational issues associated with it are around us everywhere these days.  The 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ coming to America, the start of the so-called British Invasion, and in particular their appearance on the Ed Sullivan show has kept them in the spotlight.  One particularly egregious example that was brought to my attention comes from Jon Keller, a popular political commentator on the Boston-area news station WBZ-AM and the CBS Boston website.  Keller’s latest editorial, titled “Beatles Show Public Craving For Songs That Aren’t Moronic,” was a brief piece that barely scratched the surface of these issues.  Its main point was a comparison of the timeless Beatles (epitomized by “She Loves You”) as “real songwriters” to “trashmen” and “trashwomen” like Miley Cyrus.  Here is my response:


Dear Mr. Keller,



I was alerted to your latest edition of “Keller at Large,” because I have written and discussed these issues before.  First, there are a number of small factual errors that need to be corrected.  The name of the song by the Trashmen is not “Surfin’ Bird, King of the Surf”: the song is called simply “Surfin’ Bird”; “King of the Surf” was the B-side of the single.  The song was not a #1 hit, at least on any chart that anyone pays attention to: it went to #4 on the Billboard pop chart, the most authoritative chart for these matters; and even on the less authoritative but sometimes cited Cash Box chart it did not go to #1.  And instead of attributing the song to cheap wine, you might note that it was an homage to (or, alternately, a theft of) two different songs by the R&B group the Rivingtons: “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow” and “The Bird’s the Word”.  Meanwhile, “We Can’t Stop” was hardly Miley Cyrus’s breakthrough hit; in fact, it was her sixth top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 pop chart.

As to more substantive matters: What do you mean by “moronic”?  Are you referring to subject matter, or to writing style?  And your particular choice of song lyrics from “She Loves You” and “We Can’t Stop” is highly selective, to the point of being misleading.   Let’s choose another lyric from the same Beatles song (in fact, picking up where you left off):

Because she loves you
And you know that can't be bad
Oh yes she loves you
And you know you should be glad


Is that the hallmark of “real songwriters”?  Whether we label this “moronic” is perhaps too subjective a choice, but in terms of both topic and word choice it appears to me to be as unsophisticated as the work of Miley Cyrus that you cite.  And I say this as someone who is a big fan of the Beatles, and not of Miley Cyrus.  The fact is that the Beatles’ songs were quite simplistic in those days – lyrically they matured a lot over the next few years.

Meanwhile, the party song has a long pedigree in popular music – consider “Let’s Have a Party” by Wanda Jackson, “Splish Splash” by Bobby Darin, “Havin’ a Party” by Sam Cooke, “Party All the Time” by Eddie Murphy, “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” by Wang Chung, among many others – most with fairly insipid lyrics.  In fact, we can consider this song from the Beatles’ mature period:

Yes we’re going to a party party
Yes we’re going to a party party
Yes we’re going to a party party

I would like you to dance
Take a cha-cha-cha-chance
I would like you to dance
Dance yeah

As easily as you selectively chose Beatles and Miley Cyrus lyrics, we could compare such a song with some of the best writing by Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, or another songwriter from the heyday of Tin Pan Alley, in order to prove that the Beatles’ songs were moronic, or at least unsophisticated.  In fact, I imagine that in 1964 many people did this: I’ve heard stories about English teachers complaining that they sang “Yeah yeah yeah” instead of “yes yes yes”!

Your comments suggest that you suffer from what we might call Old Fogey Syndrome This is not meant as derogatory; I suffer from it too, at the age of 37.  It is is simply the general trend that, as we age, we gradually lose interest in contemporary music, or at least contemporary popular music.  But I think that your selectivity reflects a not very careful attempt to justify your Old Fogeyism through misleading comparisons. 

I can sum all of this up simply by saying that I don’t think your editorial on the issue was very thoughtful.  It touches on issues which are really quite significant to an understanding of society – the generational divide, the appeal of music, the relationship of performer and audience – issues that, in my opinion, deserve a much more considered approach.

Sincerely,
Michael Press 


There are a couple of additional points that I want to raise, but couldn’t fit in the space of this already too-long letter.  First, I wanted to highlight some of the Tin Pan Alley songwriting I referred to in the letter.  In particular, I had in mind a song like “Blues in the Night” (lyrics by Johnny Mercer), a wonderful piece that evokes the blues in the format of a standard early-1940s pop song: 

The evenin' breeze will start the trees to cryin'
And the moon will hide its light
When you get the blues in the night
Take my word, the mockingbird'll
Sing the saddest kind o' song,

He knows things are wrong, and he's right 

Another song that came to mind is by the lesser-known Yip Harburg, responsible for “Over the Rainbow” (and all of the lyrics to the songs in The Wizard of Oz) as well as standards like “It’s Only a Paper Moon”.  The particular song is “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” a 1930s classic popularized in a moving performance by Bing Crosby.  The song was very topical in evoking the hardships of the Great Depression, especially those faced by veterans of “The Great War” who had sacrificed for their country and were now left penniless.  (The problem was so severe that it led to the Bonus Army march on Washington and its violent resistance.)

They used to tell me I was building a dream, and so I followed the mob,
When there was earth to plow, or guns to bear, I was always there right on the job.
They used to tell me I was building a dream, with peace and glory ahead,
Why should I be standing in line, just waiting for bread? 

. . . .

Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell, 
Full of that Yankee Doodly Dum,
Half a million boots went slogging through Hell,
And I was the kid with the drum!

It is compared to songs like these that “She Loves You” seems unsophisticated, even “moronic”.  But of course, we could also sample another contemporary, even better-known, Tin Pan Alley pop song:

But oh, if we call the whole thing off
Then we must part
And oh, if we ever part
Then that might break my heart

That song is, of course, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” by George and Ira Gershwin.  In particular, if we sample that section, we get a very unsophisticated comparison for the Harburg and Mercer compositions above.  The “heart”/”we must part” rhyme is especially grating to me, given that it became such a cliché of late 1950s rock & roll songs, especially doo wop songs.  But of course, it would be “moronic” to dismiss the Gershwins’ songs in this way.  The larger point is that selectivity is everything: we can find lyrics of great depth and emotion in the 1930s, the 1960s, or today, just as we can find banality; it all depends on which lyrics we select, how we present them, who is doing the judging. 

And how we judge lyrics involves a complex network of issues of age and the artist-performer relationship.  In my email correspondence with Kieran, he revealed that he considers the song “Imagine” to be “rubbish schoolboy poetry”.  While I disagree, I understand the description.  The words are very simple, although I think their power comes from that very simplicity.  (In my case, I've always thought this song was somewhat overrated, perhaps because I was sick of hearing it everywhere.)  But it's interesting to compare a group that he was fond of, an indiepop band from the 1980s called the Flatmates.  Let's sample one of their lyrics (from a song called "Shimmer"):

On a night that's made for love
I look up to the stars above
There's one they say for everyone
That comes out when the day has gone
 


That is very reminiscent of something like “Hushabye” or some other enjoyable but unsophisticated doo wop song from the 1950s.  To me, while I have some appreciation for the band, the Flatmates' lyrics often sound like the epitome of “rubbish schoolboy poetry”.  So what explains our differing reactions?  The Beatles (and not the Flatmates) were part of my formative musical experience in my teens, whereas for him the Flatmates filled that role (he was born in the early 1970s).  Our tastes are formed early on, but I think we have a very different interaction with music in our youth than we do later on – even the same type of music.  Our tastes change over time.  But even so we still look back on the music of our youth nostalgically, and our judgment of it is colored through that lens.


*Thanks to Stephen Press for bringing the Keller piece to my attention. 

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