Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Thursday, June 17, 2004


I forgot to mention in my post last night that Franklin Bruno argues that “rockism” is a stick-word with which to beat rhetorical opponents and should be avoided by thinking people. He’s got a point. But, but, but -- sometimes, it’s such a USEFUL word. But, OK, there are other ways to say it. Rock-snob-high-school-clique-ishness.


I remember reading some Rolling Stone magazine list of greatest albums some years ago that explicitly excluded Carole King’s “Tapestry” for being too mellow-singer-songwritery and Not ROCK enough. That’s what I was thinking of when I mentioned Carole last night.


I really am curious to understand the history of Wagner’s reception in America, and how Bugs Bunny affected it. Because affect it Bugs did.

I was trying to imagine classical objections to Bugs’s irreverent appropriation of Wagner’s tune and costumes. I couldn’t think of a reasonable one. Disrespectful, sure, but don’t classical composers lift folk and pop tunes all the time? Didn’t Bach lift tunes from his Italian contemporaries? Is cultural appropriation supposed to be a one-way affair? I haven’t heard any classical objections to the Bugs-Bunny-ization of Wagner; people are savvy; they know the anti-approprationist stance wouldn’t have a leg. So, does the classical establishment just pretend not to notice a whole opera audience whispering “Kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit”? I honestly don’t know.

(Digression on appropriation: I once heard -- a few years ago -- a hip-hoppy (speaking of wabbits) cover of the opening measures of Mozart’s wonderful G-minor symphony (# 41). As I recall, it was half-sung, mostly rapped, great dance beat, and that great Mozart melody. Wonderful record. No idea who did it.)

The pretense of the classical establishment is that everything from -- I dunno -- Monteverdi?, no, earlier -- to Webern and Shostakovich is under the Big Classical Tent. The implication is that well-rounded listeners APPRECIATE (if not necessarily LOVE) all of it.

If there’s a line of historical continuity that goes from Bach to Webern, there’s one that goes from Bach to Britney too. The split starts happening shortly after Beethoven. Johann Strauss gets called “light classic” and Offenbach founds “light operetta,” which gets picked up by Gilbert and Sullivan (Gilbert translated some Offenbach libretti) and evolves eventually into the American musical comedy. Jerome Kern (born in Europe; got rich in America) embodies the evolution, starting off as an operetta composer, famous now for having written a bunch of “classic” standard tunes -- Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, Ol’ Man River, All the Things You Are, Just the Way You Look Tonight. The musical-comedy tradition intersects mightily with jazz, as jazz musicians play the tunes and appropriate the chord progressions. The first large flowering of this hybrid happens in the big band swing era of the ‘30s. By the ‘40s, one branch of big band swing is evolving into R & B -- the line from Lionel Hampton to Louis Jordan to Chuck Berry is audibly direct. The R & B line represents the bluesier, less harmonically sophisticated strain than the musical-comedy strain of jazz, but the early rock-and-rollers covered lots of musical-comedy chestnuts. Etta James’s “At Last” and the Flamingoes’ “I Only Have Eyes For You” (both composed by Harry Warren in the ‘30s); the Platters’ “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”; Elvis and the Marcells’ different and wonderful takes Rodgers and Hart’s “Blue Moon,” from the ‘30s; Beatles’ “A Taste of Honey” and “Til There Was You” as well as a Burt Bacharach song, “Baby It’s You.” Bacharach had worked with Johnny Matthis and Marlene Dietrich before striking gold with Dionne Warwick; the line from Dionne to Britney has Donna Summers in between. (More or less.)

There’s a whole lot more to the story, of course.

The Big Classical Tent idea glosses over the changing SOUND and STYLE and SOCIAL ROLE of the classical trip. The idea is, classical is “cultural history”; the reality is, it’s presented in a culturally blinkered and ahistorical manner as often as not, and in general. Not in every specific, of course. A lot of classical presenters have their cultural-historical Thang together. It’s the general overview that Provokes me.

Music-without-context is fine, if you have the ears for it. Nothing wrong with it. I can love Bach without caring about his Lutheranism. Or love Bach without loving Webern. Or Britney. (I *like* Webern and Britney, but don’t love them. Someone else can love Bach and hate Webern and Britney. Bach sounds a lot different than both.)

Music is music.


My friend Mickle Maher writes:

“John -- re Britney: I heard Richard Thompson defend her, or at least one of her songs, on the radio once. He did an acoustic version of "Whoops, I Did it Again", in his aggressive, anguished way and I had to a concede his point that it's a great expression of a guilty soul, tormented by his/her making someone they (only) care about fall in love with them AGAIN. Off the top of my head I can't think of another song with that exact theme. You?”

JOHN REPLIES: I don’t know that song, but the situation as you describe it is interesting, and nope, I can’t think of another song that gets at it. Richard Thompson ROCKS. I’ve seen him play three times -- his musicianship, his guitar playing -- to quote Bob Dylan -- “I stand in awe and I shake my face.”


When I write last night about seeing Britney on SNL, “didn’t remember her songs,” I meant to say that *I* didn’t remember her songs. Like most stuff I see on TV.

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