Thursday, September 23, 2004

Pop Culture For Adults

Like many of my age-group, I jumped onto the late 90’s Swing music revival with both feet (Not literally. I never got into the dancing part. I think I’m still technically obliged to take swing dancing lessons with my wife some day. Any day now. Right after football season. Some year.).

Anyway, unlike those who soon rushed off in search of the next great fad, I hung around. Never being much of a socialite, the live music scene was always a peripheral thing to me anyway. I was happy listening to recorded music. So when the local bands dried up, I had plenty of others to choose from. Like darn near every band who had ever recorded since the 30’s. We live in magical times.

Anyway, I can’t say I truly “studied” the genre in some musicology sense. It just sort of supplanted my previous purchases of classic rock, pop, or even classical for a while. Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Count Basie, Louis Prima, Duke Ellington, and many others became the stuff I’d pop into the CD player over dinner, or just when unwinding after work.

The music hit me at the right time. I was ready for something different. In general rock and pop seemed grating to my nerves more than anything. A mixture of the shallow and the self-important, cast around themes almost none of the performers seemed to have an adult perspective on – regardless of their actual age. And when I did find a pop tune or two I enjoyed, it never really launched a rediscovery of anything interesting going on. Just a quirky little twist the rest of those in the genre ignored in favor of cranking out more crappy Hip-Hop “gangsta” bilge.

Anyway, through Swing I became acquainted with some of the original pop music, and pop singers. People like Louis Prima (again), Billie Holliday, Mel Torme, Nat King Cole, and of course Frank. What, he needs a last name? We know who Frank is. He didn’t have to pretend he didn’t have a last name – like fame-whores Cher, Madonna, and Sting - but we still know him by the one name. He didn’t have to change his real name to something more stage friendly, like Dean Martin. Francis Albert Sinatra he was born, and that’s who he remained until he died. The guy in the middle here:

I got deeply into Frank the moment I discovered him (actually prompted by hearing a biography piece about him on NPR shortly after his death - which I can't find on the Web, but here's a Time magazine piece that has the same general sentiment). At first I reasoned that my liking was based on him having a good voice, but an excellent taste in song selection. That was true as far as it went, but there was more as well. I think part of it was just the opposite of what had turned me off of modern pop. Frank sang like an adult. He could sing with humor, or melancholy, or passion. But he didn’t sing like an adolescent, and couldn’t have managed if he tried.

I think this was the general sense that had drawn me into swing in the first place. It was pop music – but it was meant for adults.

So much of modern pop music – and pop culture generally – is about celebrating perpetual adolescence. I guess the vast majority of people must have enjoyed adolescence more than me. I couldn’t wait to grow up. My pre-adult years were not torturous or anything. They were just … well shallow, self-important, and lacking perspective. Not a state of life I was eager to sustain.

Makes me wonder why we put so much energy into political elections. Cultural problems aren’t resolved politically. It doesn’t matter which party occupies the seat of government if the people are hell-bent on acting like children. How is the government supposed to resolve real problems like this if our fellow citizens childishly demand immediate gratification while accepting virtually no responsibility or sacrifice themselves?


Of course, I have no answer either. But at least I can kick back, lose myself in a little adult pop-culture from a bygone era, and feel a bit better about it for a while. Those who never leave the pop-mainstream will never know what they're missing.


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