Thursday, January 27, 2011
In the late 1930s, by which time swing had caught on, the jazz of the Twenties had become "corney," that is, held in contempt. Previously a slang term within jazz subculture for non-jazz (meaning popular) music, "corney" was redefined by Armstrong in Swing That Music as "the 'razz-mah-jazz' style of the Twenties." It's possibly a metaphor derived from traditional Southern food: fried chicken, barbecue ribs, corn bread, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, and collard greens. Thus the word corney implies something common and everyday, ordinary, routine, overly familiar. A basic, if bland, staple. In his marvelous book, Visions of Jazz, Gary Giddins believes that corn is the "negative face" of hip. He writes:
Hip is witty and daring. Corn is meretricious and safe. Hip, because it is honest and takes risks, may withstand passing fashions. Corn incarnates those fashions. (89)
How are we to understand GIddins? Hip implies otherness, subjects standing outside of the dominant culture. To be hip is to be real, that is, authentic or genuine, detached from the mainstream, values associated with individualism, and hence with jazz. In contrast, corn suggests the masses (the corn-fed), that which is common or vulgar, that one is a follower of trends and fashions, and hence artificial. If you're hip, you swing, which is to say, you seek genuine pleasure. You acknowledge desire. If you're corney, you displace and defer pleasure, preferring instead material commodities and promoting utilitarian ethics. You're a creature of duty and of habit.