Friday, June 12, 2009

Take Your Girlie to the Movies

“Take Your Girlie to the Movies” was originally a hit in 1919 by famed vocalist Billy Murray, the most popular male singer in America before Al Jolson. The song reveals how quickly the movie theater became a popular setting for the courtship ritual, and includes references to popular movie stars of the Teens (for instance, Billie Burke, perhaps best known to modern audiences as Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, in The Wizard of Oz), as well as social mores of that earlier era. According to journalist Jim Walsh, Billy Murray sold more records than any other pop singer in America between 1910 and 1920. Prior to the era of the compact disc, Murray’s legacy was kept alive by acoustic era record collectors and students of the early history of the phonograph. They exchanged discs and cylinders as well as dubs on open reel tape and cassettes. Because Murray spent much of his professional time in the studio rather than performing live, his recordings comprise the bulk of his legacy.

Murray was an extremely popular singer as early as 1905. By June 1906, Murray’s recording of “The Grand Old Rag” was the biggest-selling record in the Victor Company’s history. Songs recorded by Murray in 1905, such as “In My Merry Oldsmobile” and “Everybody Works But Father,” remained in record catalogs until the early 1920s, suggesting their popularity. In 1909 Murray formed the American Quartet (known as the Premier Quartet on Edison cylinder releases), best known for its interpretations of ragtime and novelty songs. Among the group’s early bestsellers were “Casey Jones,” “It’s A Long, Long Way to Tipperary,” “Moonlight Bay,” and “Oh, You Beautiful Doll.” By the 20s, Murray wasn’t quite as popular as he had been (his “old-fashioned” music was being displaced by jazz), but he still had hits with “(Down by the) O-H-I-O (I’ve Got the Sweetest Little O, My! O!)” (with Victor Roberts), “Strut, Miss Lizzie,” “That Old Gang Of Mine” (with Ed Smalle), and “Don’t Bring Lulu.” The latter song, “Don’t Bring Lulu,” was re-recorded by Kay Kyser’s band in 1935, although the song had been part of his band’s repertoire for at least a year. At the same time, Kyser also recorded Murray’s earlier hit, “Take Your Girlie to the Movies” (Sully Mason, vocal), and likewise had a minor hit from it. Hence from the Teens on, the movies had been a subject of popular music.

A Few Pop Songs Referencing the Movies:
The Beatles – Act Naturally
Jimmy Buffett – Grapefruit Juicy Fruit
Johnny Cash – Ballad of a Teenage Queen
Cher – Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)
Dennis Yost & The Classics Four – Spooky
The Drifters – Kissin’ in the Back Row of the Movies
The Drifters – Saturday Night at the Movies
The Everly Brothers – Wake Up Little Susie
Bertie Higgins – Key Largo
Alan Jackson – Here in the Real World
Kay Kyser and His Orchestra – Take Your Girlie to the Movies
Buck Owens – Act Naturally
Stan Ridgway – Beloved Movie Star
Yes – Cinema

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Cathedrals Are Not Built By The Sea

I’ve mentioned a few times previously on this blog my customary habit of scouring the bins for used records at my local Goodwill Store. The store is located a mere four blocks from my home, which I suppose encourages my weekly routine, and while I seldom find anything significant, an occasional gem sometimes can be uncovered. I found nothing during my visit today, but I did notice this time that there were an unusually high number of Christian music LPs. These sort of records, many of them pressed by small and obscure labels, can always be found in the bins there, but this time they comprised the majority of the records, and I don’t mean a simple majority, but perhaps comprising two out of three of all the records there (perhaps 70-80 total).

I’ve noticed this fact for as long as I’ve shopped there. Perhaps the percentage hasn’t been has high as it was today, but these types of records are nonetheless a noticeable and persistent presence in the bins. These Christian records—spoken-word recordings of books of the New Testament, collections of hymns by obscure gospel groups, traditional hymns sung by unfamiliar husband and wife duos (and families), and so on—have always been abundant in the used record bins. Sometimes I’ve found up to eight sealed copies of the same record, as if someone had dumped off the whole pile simply in order to get rid of them. There are more of these records in number than soundtracks to dreary old movies (e.g., Exodus, Dr. Zhivago) and albums by Montovani, Ferrante & Teicher, and The 101 Strings. Far fewer of these latter kinds of records show up than Christian LPs. People don’t seem to want to hold on to their old, once cherished religious records—why?

Elvis, for instance, recorded some great gospel records, but I’ve seldom come across these albums in the used bins. Of course most any record by Elvis is collectible and it is quite likely that some other collector may have grabbed them before I did, but I think the only used gospel record by Elvis I’ve ever come across at the Goodwill store is He Touched Me (1972), but I visually graded it poor, and since I already had an early pressing of the record, I didn’t pick it up. But a gospel record by Elvis is one thing, and a record by an anonymous gospel group consisting of four white nerds garbed in garish polyester is another. If I may speculate, I think these Christian records are dumped by the score at the local Goodwill Store because they just don’t have anything to offer. There’s nothing remotely “inspirational” or aesthetically interesting about them; they are empty signifiers drained of any transcendent meaning. They are dull and uninspiring, eerie and morose, the aural equivalent of a flickering neon cross attached to a rusting metal building alongside the highway.

Or rather, a roadside neon cross on a beautiful, star-filled summer night. The tawdriness of the manufactured symbol is rendered insignificant by the sheer magnificence of the universe itself. The neon symbol says: I’m a cheaply produced, short-lived, and profane object. The night sky says: Behold something greater and more magnificent than yourself. The title for this entry is inspired by a poem by Wallace Stevens:

Cathedrals are not built along the sea;
The tender bells would jangle on the hoar
And iron winds; the graceful turrets roar
With bitter storms the long night angrily;
And through the precious organ pipes would be
A low and constant murmur of the shore
That down those golden shafts would rudely pour
A mighty and a lasting melody.

And those who knelt within the gilded stalls
Would have vast outlook for their weary eyes;
There, they would see high shadows on the walls
From passing vessels in their fall and rise.
Through gaudy widows there would come too soon
The low and splendid rising of the moon.

Stevens suggests that churches aren’t built by the sea because the sound of the sea would overpower any sermon that could possible be recited—the attention of the weary churchgoers would be drawn outside, to the overpowering sound and sight of the sea, not to the paltry words that make up the (familiar) sermon. The wind, the occasional storm, the moonlight, the primordial sound of the waves lapping the shore—all phenomena of the natural world—spiritually satisfy the tired parishioners much better than does the church itself. No wonder the records I saw today are dumped off by the dozen.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

A Dirty Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Waste

It is an error to believe that the Hollywood Production Code prohibited sexual content—it did not. Rather, it simply codified its ciphered expression (e.g., the pan out the window, with the curtain gently flapping in the breeze, to indicate the sex that was about to take place off-camera and out of sight). As Slavoj Zizek has shown, the Hollywood Production Code of the 30s and 40s “was not simply a negative censorship code, but also a positive (productive, as Foucault would have put it) codification and regulation that generated the very excess whose direct depiction it hindered” (The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime, p. 6). Stated in another way, the role of censorship is far more ambiguous than it seems. Prohibition does not simply function in a negative way, but in fact generates the excessive, all-pervasive sexualization of everyday experience. Edgar Allan Poe referred to this unintended by-product of prohibition as “the imp of the perverse,” the obscene underpinning that supports systems of symbolic domination. In other words, prohibition encourages the subject to develop a “dirty little mind”: without the prohibition, the perverse impulse remains dormant, inactive.

Hence the best marketing strategy, the best way to sell something, is to hint at the existence of some transgressive image or form of expression while maintaining a socially acceptable decorum at the same time: you must be able to activate the spectator’s dirty little mind while nonetheless adhering to standards of decency. The asterisk, for instance, is a stigmatic mark that both conceals, and yet signifies, profanity, e. g., in the word mother*****r. A famous use of the asterisk is in the title of the Rolling Stones song, “Starfucker,” which became “Star Star” on Goat’s Head Soup (1973). In the audio-visual realm, bleeping is to the audio track what the asterisk is to print media: the bleep interferes in the aural reception of the offensive word while also pointing out that it was actually uttered. The bleep and the asterisk (and the “Parental Warning: Explicit Lyrics” sticker) are therefore censoring devices that prompt and encourage in the mind of the subject the very “dirty” thoughts they presumably function to prevent. I suspect that the placing of the “Parental Warning” sticker has had the unintentional effect of selling far more units of a particular album than would have happened without it (yet another instance of what Foucault means by “productive” codification leading to excessive expenditure).

The censorship of rock and rock music began with Elvis, who, famously, in September 1956, was censored when he appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show: when Elvis began to sing and dance to Little Richard’s “Ready Teddy,” the camera moved in so that the television audience saw him only from the waist up. Here are a few other examples in the history of rock:

Jimi Hendrix – Electric Ladyland (1968) (for the album’s U. S. release, the twenty nude women were replaced by a close-up of Hendrix performing live)
John Lennon and Yoko Ono – Unfinished Music No. 1—Two Virgins (1968) (sold in the U. S. in a plain wrapper in order to cover the couple’s full frontal nudity)
Blind Faith – Blind Faith (1969) (for the U. S. release, a nude young girl holding a phallic model airplane was replaced by a picture of the band)
Alice Cooper – Pretties For You (1969) (on some copies a sticker was placed over the drawing of the girl on the right in order to conceal her exposed white panties)
Santana – Abraxas (1970) (cover had a sticker with an excerpt from a review of the band covering the black woman’s exposed genital area)
Alice Cooper – Love It to Death (1971) (RCA record club issue printed only the top half of the front cover, with the bottom half left blank)
Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here (1975) (early copies of the album in the U. S. were issued with dark blue cellophane in order conceal the cover picture of the man in flames)
Nirvana – Nevermind (1991) (the genitalia of the male baby were airbrushed away)
Chumbawamba – Anarchy (1993) (cover depicting childbirth in close-up was sold in the U. S. in a plain white sleeve)
While Zombie – Supersexy Swingin’ Sounds (1996) (nude girls on the cover and interior booklet are given bikinis in the “clean” version)