Saturday, March 18, 2006

Some thoughts on music

Recently I've heard two old songs at least twice apiece, and while they were songs I loved when they first came out (in my childhood!), and songs I still sing along to, I'm increasingly uncomfortable with letting my kids hear them. (I should take the lesson that I grew up with these two songs on power rotation and never, ever paid attention to the lyrics... but anyway.) The songs: "The Piña Colada Song" and "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad."

Think about them for a sec if you never really have. In the first, the guy is bored with his girlfriend, so he takes out a personal ad looking for a replacement, implicitly without breaking up with the girlfriend first. Someone answers; they plan an assignation, sight unseen; and when they meet - [wahp-wahp-wahhhhh] it's "his own lovely lady." They've deepened their intimacy via the personals, they now know that each likes piña coladas and so on, and happily off they go to make love at midnight, in the dunes on the Cape, all oblivious to the fact that each of them had had full intentions to cheat on the other.

In the second, gosh, the girl is going to throw poor Meathead - I mean Meat
Loaf - out into the snow, because despite the fact that he both wants and needs her, there ain't no way he's ever going to love her. Sadly, his heart is permanently locked on some other chick who both wanted and needed him, but would never love him, though she at least had the decency to get out of bed and get out into the snow without argument.

Yuck. What amoral creeps ruled the airwaves in the Seventies. Is the new millenium any different? Hmm... I confess that I'm not keeping up well with the hits of today, though I'm reasonably familiar with the so-called "kid-friendly" tunes featured on Kidz Bop X ads. (Kidz Bop is a bunch of nameless children singing pop tunes, karaoke style. It's all the rage with those who don't yet need deodorant. The fact that these "kid-friendly" songs include "When September Ends" and "Vertigo" which are about as far from light and fluffy as you can get without actually venturing into "Cop Killer" and "My Name Is Luka" range, I wonder who's making the "kid-friendly" determination. Please note that I like these two songs quite a lot - I just don't think they're exactly "Puff the Magic Dragon," and yes, I know, I know - but at least "Puff" could make a reasonable pretense of being about an actual magic dragon.)

All that aside, If I had to take a stand somewhere on the general tone of Today's Music, I'd go with "painfully earnest," with the important caveat that my musical tastes don't run to hiphop, country, or dance, so I'm even more ignorant of these genres. There are worse fates than painful earnestness.

And so we move on to American Idol, a show I've never actually seen. I do, however, try to pay attention to commentary I hear about it, so I've reached a couple of conclusions that may or may not hold up. The first is that the show has rekindled an appreciation for singing, really from-the-guts appassionato performance. I just heard a brief music review on NPR of a - hmm, I think it was of a singer-songwriter rather than a band, but anyway the point of the review was that part of the singer's appeal is that he sings flat. I don't mean "without passion" in this case; I mean flat, as in, the note is supposed to be C# and he's singing C, if that. It's not a "bend," it's not remotely bluesy; the guy just can't sing. But some rarified stratum of music listeners considers his inability to hit the notes a feature, not a bug.

And this in turn reminds me of a science fiction short story I read years ago, "Vintage Season." In this story, which is told from the point of view of a man of the present day, a little clique of time travellers (not identified as such, yet) is travelling to all the "vintage seasons" of history: the spring just before the Black Death of 0-Dark-Ages (that's a military reference - nevermind), the summer before Hiroshima... I can't remember the specific examples beyond the plague one. But in the story's frame, the travellers are renting a house from the protagonist for the month of May, and they go on and on about the beautiful weather, the glorious sunsets, etc., etc. From time to time they mention another person, let's call him Bob though his name is probably Mephisto or something profound like that, who is the real connoisseur - he doesn't even arrive until the aftermath. Huh? thinks the protagonist, but with no other clues, can't figure out who Bob is, what the aftermath might be, or why these people want his house but only for a month. The travellers leave in a rush at the end of the month. The final scene shows us the protagonist near death, days later; he survives just long enough to see Bob, as they both hear the explosions coming closer as buildings are dynamited in a futile attempt to halt the advance of the Blue Plague. Something like that. Bob, or Mephisto, is a whacko who revels in rot, but who is seen by his contemporaries as a "aesthete" because he's so darn edgy; as a singer myself, I have a hard time seeing the people who enjoy the flat guy's singing as "aesthetes" of the same decadent type.

And at last this opinion o' mine brings me to my second observation about American Idol: that what we're seeing is a little of what opera aficionados like to point out about Italy. In Italy, they say, opera is a populist artform, or at any rate it was. A shopkeeper or a teenager (I'm going to make an unfounded assumption and add "say, 50 years ago" about the teenager, but it may be true today) would be as likely to hum an aria as a pop tune. Why, the opera-lovers ask plaintively, can't we achieve the same thing here? Why can't opera be as popular as Beyonce?

My answer: because opera, like it or lump it, has a connotation that will not allow it to become populist here. There's Il Divo, true, but opera as opera-lovers understand it is not available to the populist ear. As Andrew O'Hagan said in the Telegraph,

Maybe opera is just too bold-gestured and not the kind of drama I can believe in when set in a modern context. Even where the music is lovely, and the look is right [...] there is something grandiose and even hysterical in opera's natural state which can obliterate subtlety. [...] The singing of words - "Get me a cup of coffee"; "No problem" - even in voices as capable as Stephanie Friede (as Petra von Kant) or Kathryn Harries (her mother), tended to ridicule all serious themes.

You can understand why people want to stage modern productions, but it is too literal-minded to imagine that things must move into the present day in order to be fresh. Opera's bombast and grandeur may be intrinsic to the past and to a notion of romanticism and society that no longer easily applies. Maybe that would explain why any modern opera that works (such as Jerry Springer) tends to be based almost entirely on pastiche.

(I found O'Hagan's attitude enlightening: he is precisely the problem with opera. He finds nothing opera-worthy in the modern age. In fact, he makes the absurd claim that opera cannot encompass the banality of modern life - which assumes that life in the past was free from banality, rather than that opera composers rightly chose not to hammer on the banality, for heaven's sake. Wha??)

You want to know where modern populist opera lies? In Miss Saigon. In Rent. Yes, even in Cats, and even in Jesus Christ Superstar. Look at how opera was born, and it's obvious that the Golden-Age-of-Musicals musical was the new opera bouffe, and that West Side Story was the harbinger of a new golden age of modern populist opera. These works call for bravura singing - of a different type from traditional opera, but similarly demanding in range, power, and emotion; they succeed on a story that strikes a timeless chord; they demand a suspension of disbelief beyond the fourth wall of spoken theater. But I think it's precisely because they have populist appeal that they aren't appreciated as the heirs of traditional opera by those who want opera to be loved by a new generation.

And finally: my oldest is learning to play "Ode To Joy" on the violin. I am so very proud.


Bilwick said...

I remember hearing the Meat Loaf song a lot, and while I cannot recall the lyrics word-for-word decades later, I don't recall any immoral about it. I thought the point of the song was that he (that is the song's protagonist) was being completely forthright in stating what he wanted while at the same time declining to mislead the girl with false promises of love.

Jamie said...

You have a point, bilwick, that the guy was at least being forthright, but my objections are twofold:

1. He had completely ruled out loving the woman, yet was not only fine with sleeping with her but actively resisted her efforts to get him out of her life, and

2. He was so self-involved that though it was "many years ago" that he'd fallen in love, there was no possibility in his mind that he might have, say, grown or changed since then. It was a nice little snapshot of the whole "I'm OK, you're OK" ethos that seemed to my preteen brain to define the times, a moral relativism and sense of self-importance that frankly doesn't square with what I see as my place here on earth (in this instance to try to become a better person and to teach my kids consideration and good character).

A possible third is just the whole run-of-the-mill fornication aspect, but I do live in the new millenium...