Belle of Liberty

Letting Freedom Ring

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

My Generation, Right or Wrong

“You make this world lousy.” “We didn’t make it.” West Side Story

I’ve been on such a music kick this last week or so, my blog followers must be wondering whether I’m becoming a one-note bell and what all this has to do with politics?

In a word, everything. (Just as a reminder to my followers: I chose my blog/online name for a musical, as well as political, reason. The bells are the instrument I play).

Music - popular culture - is the driving force behind our political lives. It’s the drummer we all march to. Each generation seeks to find its own, distinctive drummers who determine whether we step off on the left foot, the right foot (traditionally, marching units step off on the left foot – no offense, my conservative friends) or whether we straggle down the street in a sort of a mob.

If music is the universal language, the teens of the Sixties and early Seventies certainly spoke a strange dialect. We, their younger brothers, sisters, and cousins followed along dutifully. We didn’t mind the folksy Hippie tunes (“If I Had A Hammer”).

But the wild guitar riffs of the likes of Jim Morrison – a friend once described his version of The Star Spangled Banner as 13-car pile-up on the freeway – well, either you liked it or you didn’t. There was no middle ground with heavy metal.

Strangely, it seemed to be a white kid thing. The black kids, as far as I could tell, didn’t think too much of heavy metal. Heavy metal music made one glad to be a social outcast. My kindly older brother, worried about my declining social status, tried to bolster my interest in popular music.

I felt no veneration for the musical gods of rock.  I was too much of a music-lover and drew the line at what was passing for music in those days. Elton John, yeah, okay, even though you couldn’t understand a word he sang. Judas Priest, Led Zeppelin, and Deep Purple – not so much.

Where I went to school, the heavy metal stuff was all the rage. Thank goodness there were pop alternatives to the migraine-inducing heavy metal rock. John Denver was my particular favorite. Barry Manilow – definitely chick music, but easy on the ears. Michael Jackson, very cool, obviously a real musician. He could carry a tune.

By the mid-Seventies, heavy metal rock was drifting off into its own current, out of the mainstream. Though it still had a large following, the Kid Brother generation had had enough of music you couldn’t dance to.

What, were our big brothers and sisters stupid or something? How were guys and girls supposed to get together to that kind of music? Much to the dismay of hard rock hucksters, in came Disco. Bland, soft, and melodic, they hated it. No matter, the kids were dancing again.

People started recognizing songs once more, even, perish the thought - adults. They could sing the lyrics. Dance bands could play the tunes at weddings and bar mitzvahs. It was fun. They invented dances to go along with the music. Couples entered disco dance contests.

Meanwhile, the hucksters on the left were fuming. People were enjoying music again. Couples were partnering. Everyone was out on the dance floor, having a good time. Having fun. Where was the angst, the rage, the anger? People were – uniting.

So they began a campaign against disco music. Can you imagine? Launching a smear campaign against possibly the most innocuous music of all time? But it worked. The creatures came crawling out of the woodwork, snarling into the microphones once more.

Disco passed its popularity zenith, as all musical forms, do. Dancing, thanks to Michael Jackson, didn’t go away, though. However, by the Eighties, we’d passed once again into a lyric-free, melody-free zone. The music, such as it was, sufficed for the current moment then vanished into a void, never to be remembered.

But an awakening seemed to have happened during the Seventies, for which my generation (right or wrong) I believe is responsible: they became more open-minded to all sorts of music, not just rock. Frank Sinatra regained his rightful place among the pantheon of musical stars.

I’m officially old now and well past the point of knowing any more what music is popular and what isn’t. The no. 7 song in 2009 – “My Life Would Suck Without You”. From what I can hear on the company muzak station, we’ve drifted back into a gentler, rhythm and blues current (thank goodness).

From what I can tell, it’s a more peaceful generation of music. Whether it passes the test of time only time will be able to tell. Whether it makes it into the canon of Americana depends on how much the music has to offer to Americana.

That is where the Generation Gap becomes a real problem. From generation to generation, we’ve isolated ourselves, planting our generational flags on one brand of music or another. Some music transcends time better than other music does.

American Patrol (written in 1885; recorded by Glenn Miller in 1942) and Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the U.S.A (1984), though written a century apart, fit very nicely into the same portfolio. Last summer, one of our bands tried to appease the Sixties crowd at a Fourth of July concert with some number by The Doors as part of American pop culture.

Some of the musicians thought it was groovy (it was certainly tamed down from its original arrangement for electric guitar); the rest of us begged the director to never do that to us again. The other band I played with once jettisoned a band arrangement of the disco number, “Gloria.” A John Denver medley barely made that band’s estimation of pop music and younger members actually vetoed The Beatles.

If you want to hear one of my bands play a pop tune, it better have been at the top of the pop charts for a long, long time. The band will play Take Me Home, Country Roads or Rocky Mountain High, but not My Sweet Lady (pretty number, but only John Denver fans know it).

If a brand of music is dependent on a certain type of musical instrument or piece of equipment, if it isn’t “portable”, it isn’t going to make it. Music that is artist-oriented, likewise, will fall into the time trap. That is one reason deejays have become popular at parties. It’s the only way artist-oriented, technology-oriented music can survive.

Today’s audiences would rather hear a recording than live music by someone other than the artist. Such musical parochialism guarantees royalties for the artist and their estate. Still, deejay music just doesn’t have the same impact as an old-fashioned sing-along.

Recordings have the tendency to discourage audience participation. Sing-alongs need a leader, and a band, where possible. Somehow, I can’t see people at a Memorial Day or Fourth of July concert waving American flags to the strains of “Back to the U.S.S.R.” The idiots do wave flags to Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” though. (Why is rock music so loud? So you don’t hear the lyrics.)

Contemporary music, save for some country-western artists, isn’t particularly patriotic, either.

More and more, big fireworks extravaganzas are accompanied by egotistical rock singers trying to plug their latest me-generation romantic ballads (which have nothing to do with Independence Day) than Sousa marches or God Bless America. I’ve been known to turn off the sound on the TV and use my own considerable library of music.

America is at juncture in the road of history where it’s ready to get back together and party, if the Tea Parties are any indication of the current trend. Like the high school pep rally I mentioned the other day, we’re tired of the gloom and doom, the same old Liberal war songs.

They’re singing patriotic music at the pep rallies, not anti-war songs from the Sixties, disco numbers from the Seventies, or whatever they sang in the Eighties. The Liberals have been trying to silence the Tea Party music, from a distance.

We need to put the Liberals on mute and turn up the volume on Americana, fife and drum corps, marching bands, country and western singers, even doo-wop groups. You can’t march if you don’t have a drummer. The Liberals know the value of music in uniting people of disparate generations to a cause (or disuniting them, as the case may be).

But so do we.

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