From firstname.lastname@example.org Tue Jun 4 01:05:10 CDT 1996
In article <31B3186A.email@example.com> Rob Kozlowski <Buskeat@concentric.net> writes:
>> Today's NY Times Magazine has a cover story on the "death" of the great
>> american song and in response to the question "Why don't they write 'em
>> like that anymore?" one commentator says "That can be summed up in two
>> words: The Beatles."
This is songwriter John Kander, part of Kander and Ebb, writers of "Cabaret", and the journalist is Jesse Green, whose affection for musical theatre appears to be profound.
>> What he means is that The Beatles made it popular for
>> performers to write their own material rather than rely on professional
>> songwriters and the result has been that songs are written from a more
>> personal point of view than such standards as "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"
>> or "Embraceable You". All I can say is "thank god!"
Well, now wait a minute. Nothing wrong with "Over the Rainbow", whose message isn't really that different from "There's a Place"...except that in the case of the latter song, the songwriter has *found* his "place where there isn't any trouble". And there's an equal amount of coquetry and sincere besottedness in "Embraceable You" as well as in "I'll Get You", though the lyrical treatment is decidedly distinct!
And when you're old enough, you'll find you can dance to either one. :-)
Rob Kozlowski then writes:
> The demise of the Great American song is due to the demise of the
> American Musical Theater...
I'm not ready to accept that yet, though this demise might be less profound if the ticket prices were in range of the Common Man. :-)
> ...which is due to the rise of television, movies...
Some of the best Broadway musicals arose during the late forties and early fifties ("Oklahoma", "On The Town", "The King and I", "The Music Man, "West Side Story", etcetera, etcetera, etcetera...) when television was new and ubiquitous. And movies have been serving up fun and frolic to filmgoers since the teens, without much apparent detriment to Broadway...sometimes even teaching far-flung viewers what the theatre was all about, and engendering a passion in them to seek out their fortune on the Great White Way.
>...and horny middle-aged foppish record company executives.
What Green misses here is that the forces of popular music were traveling in two directions during the twentieth century, if not more. And before there were record company execs (foppish, horny, or otherwise) there were song pluggers, whose job was to play a bit of a potential hit song to sheet-music purveyors and singing stars alike, with the hopes of selling the song to a) millions who'd buy sheet music to sing themselves, or b) to hitmakers of the twenties and thirties and forties, with the hopes that they might record it.
Green also misses the force of recorded music. He claims that "For 40 years, Broadway shows were the engine propelling American popular music, providing pop artists and jazz instrumentalists with the bulk of their material". I think we're really talking about two different streams of songwriting, certainly different levels of music consumerism. Part of his statement makes sense; but it's not the whole story.
Your average American couldn't often afford to run up to New York and see a Broadway show. In the early part of this century, your average American was far more likely to own a radio (where popular tunes were played amidst all kinds of vocal and comedic entertainment) or a gramophone, and invest in tunes (whether on cylinder or wax disc) that could be played over and over, danced to, romanced to.
These people weren't playing "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" (though of course the lyrics to that song were far more clever than "I Found a Million Dollar Baby (in the Five and Ten Cent Store)").
These people played simpler hits---standards in their own right, some of which *had* seen the light of day on the Broadway stage, but none of which really needed the lyrical calisthenics of words like "When love congeals, it soon reveals, the faint aroma of performing seals". Very nice indeed. :-) Now try something more sincere, from the heart: "Night and day, you are the one/Only you beneath the moon and under the sun...."
I think Green would term both these songs "classical standards", but there's a difference. The latter song (thank you, Cole Porter!) does exactly what Green derides the Beatles and their rock brethren for doing: it "fears pretension, prizes authenticity above artifice and trades in large, generic feelings that are expressed directly as possible".
Just what the Fabs did, most of the time. :-) And if you look back at popular lyrics of the middle ages, poets and lovers were singing about the same heartfelt sentiments ("Ich am in love longinge", one fourteenth-century lyricist says, and the archaism of the language doesn't hurt the sentiment one whit).
The Beatles and their ilk were part of the trend that Green properly recognizes as having begun in the forties (I'd put it earlier), where music fans "accepted---even demanded---less sophisticated material".
Maybe the sophisticated stuff was somehow also insincere as a carrier of the heart's message. Too much intricate artifice can often trip up the messenger. Sure, it sounds great when Betty Buckley sings it...but can you replicate it at home, in the privacy of the boudoir? :-)
Green's article occasionally dives into the most predictable r-n-r bashing. He quotes one Mike Greensill thusly: "Oh, I detest rock and roll in an almost paranoid way....The insistence of the beat, the lack of swing; it's so limiting. It's music for the crotch..."
Well, yes. :-) What was his complaint, exactly? One might as well deride the sky: "It's so wide, it's so big, it's so *blue*...I just can't *stand* it".
I've heard this argument ever since the mid fifties...probably before I could even understand what was being said. :-) And it doesn't hold water. Rock is exactly that: visceral, sexual, impassioned. That's what defines it. It's got a beat and you can dance to it. You can sing it too.
But rock---unlike the classical standard of the Broadway stage---is performance art as much as it's anything.
Rock's distinction? It's the expression of the writer, the singer, the player...whoever, in short, can make the song his or her own--- Link Wray's guitar angst in "Rumble"; Buddy Holly's gasping passion for "Peggy Sue"; Chuck Berry's celebration of "Rock and Roll Music"; you pick your favorites! There's a plethora from which to choose.
And sometimes (in a rare fit of genius) two artists can find the groove almost at once (viz. "Twist and Shout" by the Isley Bros and the Beatles). It's not the easiest accomplishment in the world.
Pop standards of the twenties onward had their own sense of verve, their own identity borrowed from ragtime syncopation and the swing of jazz (jazz, you older folks may recall, was also supposed to lead us to galloping ruin; it's about sex too, and love, and lust, but expressed a bit differently than rock and roll).
I accept Green's assertion that Broadway classics arise from tension: between "the studied and the natural"; but I'd argue with him that these songs are not the only progenitors of "the idiomatic and the timeless". Idioms and timeless expressions of love and longing are present in the Beatles' music---in almost every love song they ever wrote (and it's hard, as we've seen, to find one that's *not* about love!)
The Fabs weren't the first to do this of course; they drew their inspiration to compose from idol Buddy Holly. And while the Beatles *did* inspire a generation of rock singers to explore their own creative capabilities (one of the Fabs' great revolutions, I've always maintained), the Boys were tapping into one of the primary developmental roots of modern pop: the rock root, the one defined by music and lyrics as well as performance.
This is not a diminisher of the classic Broadway song...unless Broadway allowed itself to be bamboozled by a legitimate musical evolution. And how could that have happened?
Technology made it possible, at least. Not the demise of Broadway, not the theft of the "classics" by young puerile pups who couldn't write their way out of a paper bag. But as records grew in popularity, as 78s shrank to ten-inch longer plays and 33 1/3 longest plays, and thence to quickies on 45s, the emphasis shifted from sheet music of old---which *anybody* could sing---to the definitive performance.
C'mon. Tell me you *really* want to hear someone other than Paul Robeson do "Ol' Man River", or someone other than Gertrude Lawrence sing "Shall We Dance?" Broadway has its favorites, its definitives, too, though it's decidedly more flexible than rock.
Frankly, who wants to hear a cover of "I Am The Walrus"? Who can best John in doing "In My Life", or Paul's "Eleanor Rigby"?
These are standards of a different cut and color, and depend on the technology of recording and playback for their chromatic beauty.
Whether you're a fetishist for vinyl or digital, it's the unique quality of the definitive version that makes or breaks these songs. If the artist sings and plays sincerely, the hearer hearkens. And hits "replay". And hits it again.
You can't really compare the oeuvre of the Fabs, or the Stones, or any major group or singer of the rock milieu, to classic pop songs of the theatre. If there's been a loss in theatre, as Mr. Kozlowski remarks, it's not the fault of the Beatles.
One might well argue that Broadway melodies, pumped to rarified eccentricity and brilliance, were *ever* the rare bird. The common songbird flutters in and out of our lives and souls, and celebrates everyman's and everywoman's sharp pang of loss and love via words and music *instantly* accessible to humankind.
That's real pop...popular moods, popular sorrows. That's what real love---and all its attendant pain and joy---is about.
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