Showing posts with label Popular music criticism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Popular music criticism. Show all posts

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

I Wanna Be a Boss

Perhaps because Americans are so preoccupied with material acquisition, the workplace (or office space) is essential to their lives, a location where they spend huge amounts of their time. And if the workplace is so profoundly important, then so, too, as a consequence, is the boss. According to the OED, the word “boss” is an American word derived from the Dutch word baas, meaning “master,” although an older meaning of the word was “uncle.” Baas is supposedly related to the Old High German word basa, “aunt.” Primarily, although not exclusively, used by Americans, the word “boss” means “the equivalent of master in the sense of employer of labour,” but can be generally applied to “any one who has a right to give orders.” Since the word boss carries the meaning of “master,” to this day it carries a particular resonance in the American South, where, because of that region's history of slavery, the word must be used judiciously. I wonder, how many times is the word “boss” uttered in Cool Hand Luke (1967), a film set in the South in the context of a prison chain gang?

Americans also use the word to refer to “a manager or dictator of a party organization,” as in “party boss” (pastiched by the figure of “Boss Hogg” in The Dukes of Hazzard) or “mafia boss” (pastiched by Fred Williamson in Black Caesar). In the discourse of popular music, Bruce Springsteen is referred to as “The Boss,” although the designation carries no pejorative meaning, but is used to connote his power and prestige within the rock culture. But boss can also be used derisively, in the same way “big shot” carries two meanings, referring to someone who has power and influence, but also to someone who mistakenly believes he has power and influence. By 1960, the word boss had become a term of approbation, referring to anything the speaker perceived as new, original, exciting, or hip: a new clothing style, a new model of automobile, most anything, could be “boss.” In the spring of 1965, two California radio pioneers, Bill Drake and Gene Chenault, transformed the Top 40 format of Los Angeles radio station KHJ into something they named Boss Radio.

As far as I can tell (that is to say, so far as I know), the first use of “boss” in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll was by Eddie Cochran, in “Summertime Blues” (1958). Soon after, blues singer Jimmy Reed recorded “Big Boss Man” (1961), a song later covered by Elvis. But the word is no doubt is used far, far more often than I can possibly enumerate here.

A Baker’s Dozen Of Songs About The Boss (not Bruce Springsteen):

Gene Ammons – Boss Tenor (bebop jazz LP, 1960)
James Brown – The Boss (from the soundtrack to Black Caesar)
Albert Hammond Jr. – The Boss Americana
Mick Jagger – She’s the Boss
Jimmy Reed – Big Boss Man
Stan Ridgway – I Wanna Be A Boss
Diana Ross – The Boss
Rick Ross – The Boss
The Brian Setzer Orchestra – You’re the Boss
Shareefa – Need A Boss
Slim Thug – Like A Boss
The Sonics – Boss Hoss
They Might Be Giants – Boss of Me (from the soundtrack to Malcolm in the Middle)

Monday, January 7, 2008

Sunday, January 3, 1960

"…the personalities of the popular music industry have every reason to cultivate the child market and are quite willing to “rob the cradle.” This…means that children are compelled to learn how to respond to music, in a fashion their peer group will find acceptable, at increasingly earlier ages. Under these pressures, music can hardly help becoming associated with both the excitements and the anxieties of interpersonal relationships."

--David Reisman, The Lonely Crowd, qtd. in On Record, S. Frith and A. Goodwin, Eds. (Pantheon Books, 1990), pp. 10-11.

The “Number 1” record on the pop music charts the week of December 28, 1959-January 3, 1960 (the "week of" determination was Monday through Sunday) was “Why” by Frankie Avalon. The teen idol’s hit was about to be displaced on the charts, the next day, by Marty Robbins’s “El Paso,” a profound (if unconscious) narrative exploring the relationship between sex, obsession, and death, a entirely different view of love than the one in Avalon's momentary hit.

The lyrics to "Why" begin as follows:

I'll never let you go
Why? Because I love you
I'll always love you so
Why? Because you love me

No broken hearts for us
‘Cause we love each other
And with our faith and trust
There could be no other

Why? ‘Cause I love you
Why? ‘Cause you love me

In retrospect, David Reisman may have been among the first critics of American popular music to produce what Michael Jarrett, in Sound Tracks: A Musical ABC, Volumes 1-3 (Temple University Press, 1998), has called "aberrant readings or interpretations" (p. 195), because for Reisman, these ostensibly winsome, largely monosyllabic lyrics might just as well have been sung by the "other-directed" personality of modern America singing a song of love to the peer group to which he wants so desperately to belong as they are--so it would seem--about idealized Romantic love.

Although published almost sixty years ago, the analysis of popular music performed by sociologist David Reisman in The Lonely Crowd (1950) remains exceedingly insightful. I doubt that many music critics and scholars--at least those with a sociological orientation--would dispute his contention that the meaning of popular music resides in a large part in the way its consumers use it, that one’s identification with a particular kind of music is used as a means to form bonds with (or against) a particular social group. For Reisman, writing in the midst of the economic boom of post-war America, the consumption of a particular form of music was one of the various means by which the “other-directed” person was able to accommodate himself or herself to others to gain approval (the approval of the “peer group”): musical taste was largely pragmatic. As the quotation used as the epigraph to this blog reveals, Riesman believed that American industry had every reason to inculcate this type of “other-directed” person, so concerned about the opinions of others, because the "other-directed" personality was indispensable to the corporate, “team-playing” mentality: "The other-directed person wants to be loved rather than esteemed.” The anxieties and ecstasies of interpersonal relationships--the need to belong--should be inculcated in individuals at as young an age as possible. Hence, songs such as "Why."

As a sociological type, Reisman's "other-directed" personality might well have been the inspiration for the character of Arch Hammer in Rod Serling's "The Four of Us Are Dying," the Twilight Zone episode I discussed in yesterday's blog, and which premiered the evening of January 2nd: Hammer's skill of modifying his physical appearance (and hence personality) in order to blend seamlessly into any social group uncannily anticipates Woody Allen's Zelig (1983), although the character of Zelig is portrayed as an anxiety-filled conformist, not an "other-directed" personality, but the underlying anxiety is consistent in both types.

A compelling portrait of David Reisman by his former student, Todd Gitlin, is available here.