New Guardian column about the way we (meaning the Brits - I don’t know about how things stand in America) relate to pre-rock pop music, and reality TV’s radical rewriting of pop history. I think this is one of my better pieces for them!
As always in America, things are too diffuse to generalize easily.
My unscientific observation is that people over forty tend to roll their eyes at the Great American Songbook, their opinion of it having solidified in the 70s and 80s when it was for the most part lingering chintz, while people under forty are either blessedly ignorant of it altogether or interested in it in one of three ways: 1) as the sort of ahistorical cabaret of singing competitions and glee clubs which Tom discusses, 2) as an undifferentiated Man against which to position their beloved rock & roll’s rebellion, and 3) as a historical phenomenon fascinating on its own terms which the information-explosion of the internet has allowed them to wallow in more or less uncritically.
I’d cast myself in 3), of course, and I can’t help suspecting that 2) are the Nixon Republicans of the modern era, people who in the 60s loved jazz for its puncturing of longhair classical pretension (unaware that there was a further puncturing going on under their very noses) (the analogy is of course to hip-hop). But of course 1) dwarfs us both, and the blissfully ignorant dwarf us all.
The main difference I imagine between the UK and US is that such ignorance is far more possible in the US than it is in the UK, since “light entertainment” as a form died out in the US in the 70s, and the trainspotting enthusiast-types who were able to plug their old favorites in various capacities in the UK (I’m thinking of things like Pennies from Heaven) weren’t allowed near the controls of mass media franchises in the US after about 1980. If the music ”died” (as the Guardian’s — not Tom’s, I know — hed has it), it was a very long time ago here.
Or maybe it just feels that way because I grew up entirely ignorant of anything even slightly less monocultural than The Wizard of Oz — never heard Gershwin till I was eighteen, for example — and so for me all pre-rock knowledge (and most rock knowledge, honestly) has been hard-won, effortful, the stuff of research and concerted listening. I’m always thrown off when I meet someone my age or younger for whom it’s birthright knowledge; and as is usual for a convert I have to battle a sneaky aggrieved feeling that they don’t appreciate it properly.
The most disorienting thing is that “pre-rock” means so many different things; and for perhaps most people it actually means “concurrent with rock, just looking back.” Ella Fitzgerald’s Songbooks, for example — probably the most obvious way for people to familiarize themselves with a good chunk of the material — are very much a product of the 50s and 60s when she recorded them: a response, even a rebuke, to rock & roll, as self-consciously classicist as Leonard Bernstein recording the Western Canon at the same time. Ella, like Sinatra (or Bernstein) was of course a peerless genius; but by jazzing up, arranging, swinging, and Ella-Fitzgeralding the material, she and her collaborators did just as much to decontextualize it and erase its historical origins in the 20s, 30s, and 40s as any American Idol contestant; more, because no one calls American Idol renditions “definitive.” This kind of historical flattening bothers me as much as any more recent kind; which just means I’ve found a way to be a snob about this music even beyond the lengths to which most people who share my taste for it are prepared to go.
I’ve wandered far from any point I was going to make. I could just talk about this shit for hours, obviously; and will. Excellent piece, Tom!