Saturday, February 28, 2009

Yakety Yak

As a form of popular music, 1950s doo-wop was characterized by its playful use of nonsense syllables (take, for instance, the hyphenate “doo-wop” itself) repeated in order to create elaborate harmonic and rhythmic effects. Hence the paradigmatic example of doo-wop is probably the Coasters’ hit “Yakety Yak” (1958), a song written and produced by Leiber and Stoller. For the word yak—like the words ibis, vole, x-ray fish, and umbrella bird—is an invention, existing for the sake of completing the English alphabet in children’s books. Nonetheless, while an invented word, yak refers both to a mythical creature in the books of Dr. Seuss and to meaningless chatter, authoritarian speech that is to be ignored as an act of defiance. Hence the lyrics to “Yakety Yak” describe the recalcitrant response to the household chores a kid (presumably a teenager) has to perform on order of his parents. Stoller has referred to these songs as “playlets,” mini-dramas or character contests created by the songwriters to capture stereotypical teenage life. Another term for these “playlets” might be “whimseys,” a form of nineteenth-century parlor game that transformed any given piece of pre-existing prose into a poem. Thus, from the BBC News this morning:

US Republicans
Have broadly welcomed
President Barack Obama’s
Plan to withdraw
Most troops
rom Iraq
By 2010.

In the same way, “Yakety Yak” pulls snippets or quotes from common colloquialisms:

You just put on your coat and hat
And walk yourself to the laundromat
And when you finish doing that
Bring in the dog and put out the cat
Yakety yak
Don’t talk back

Rock music has always seemed particularly amenable to the invented word and the nonsense syllable, from Little Richard’s refrain in “Tutti Frutti,” “Awopbopaloobopalopbamboom,” to Roy Orbison’s “Ooby Dooby,” to Manfred Mann’s “Doo Wah Diddy,” to Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” to the refrain of David Seville’s “Witch Doctor,” also from 1958:

Ooo eee, ooo ah ah, ting tang
Walla walla, bing bang
Ooo eee ooo ah ah ting tang
Walla walla bing bang
Ooo eee, ooo ah ah, ting tang
Walla walla, bing bang
Ooo eee ooo ah ah ting tang
Walla walla bing bang

Although by no means a rock song, the Sherman Brothers’ “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” from Disney’s MARY POPPINS (1964), suggests the close association of nonsense or invented words, children’s books, kid songs, and the appeal the lyrics to rock songs have for adolescents, and, no doubt, why certain rock songs are so popular at frat parties.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Goodbye, New Yorker Films

I am saddened by today's news, as reported by IndieWIRE, that the decades-old distributor of European and arthouse cinema in North America, New Yorker Films, has announced it is shutting down. As a film student in the 1970s, thanks to New Yorker Films, I was able to see the work of a great many filmmakers that I would not have been able to see otherwise. I can’t begin to count the number of times I sat in a darkening theater when the “New Yorker Films” logo would appear on the screen; I saw it so often, it was like a fact of nature. For me the logo was synonymous with European arthouse films, films that for me formed my cinematic consciousness. I am very saddened by this news. According to the report, among the filmmakers whose films were distributed in this country were: Ackerman, Bertolucci, Bresson, Chabrol, Fassbinder, Fellini, Godard, Herzog, Kieslowski, Malle, Rohmer, Rossellini, Sembene, Wenders, Schlondorff, and many others. The full story can be found here. It is a sad day indeed.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Pop Aphorisms: XII

1. Record Collecting—A pseudo-scientific activity motivated by the same obsessive narrowness of focus that characterizes the autistic mind.

2. If Coldplay would realize how terrible it was, and were able to ironize that terribleness, it could be U2.

3. As a guitarist, Eric Clapton is to B. B. King what Gene Kelly is to Fred Astaire—what virtuosity is to grace.

4. Mallarmé’s advice to poets, “Yield the initiative to words,” finds its analogy in the lesson of Elvis, who understood rock music differed from classic pop by yielding the initiative to sound.

5. So many “important” albums have been named in the history of rock that the word “important” is no longer meaningful: the word is simply a ruse used to cloak individualized taste.

6. The problem of referring to a certain album as an example of a certain school of music (e.g., “punk,” “alternative”) is critically irresponsible, because it suggests that a particular school of music is more coherent than it actually is.

7. There is a crucial difference between a movie star and a rock star: the latter is seldom, if ever, able to stage a “comeback.” The “oldies” circuit is rock’s equivalent of country music’s Branson, Missouri—just a waiting room to hillbilly heaven.

8. To become art, rock music had to elevate the guitar to its primary expressive instrument, just as jazz since bebop elevated the saxophone. Unfortunately, it fell prey to the same pitfall: virtuosity too easily became pretension.

9. Country Pop—the last refuge of a failed rock ‘n’ roller.

10. In the era of Madonna, the need for publicity is obvious; in more honest days, though, they called it “payola.”

Thursday, February 19, 2009


According to John Tobler’s This Day In Rock (Carroll & Graf, 1993), on this day in 1977, Fleetwood Mac released one of the biggest-selling rock albums of all time, RUMOURS. The album is still in the Top Ten of the Top Selling Records of All Time despite being surpassed in recent years by Garth Brooks and Shania Twain, having sold to date 19 million copies, more or less the same number as The Beatles’ “white album.” It is astonishing that the album nonetheless has sold ten million fewer copies than The Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975, the all-time sales leader. While lists—lists being a form of indexing—of best sellers are no doubt interesting as well as provocative, such lists also make it difficult to determine the historical importance of an album, if by importance we mean significance. Although RUMOURS sold more in terms of copies than Fleetwood Mac’s previous, eponymously titled album, and more copies than the band’s subsequent album, TUSK, is it historically more important than either of these two other albums?

Perhaps it is time to explore the importance of “importance.” For “importance” is the word normally invoked whenever popular music becomes an object of academic study. Many articles and books have been written on so-called “important” albums and musicians, in which the critic, by necessity, makes the assertion that such-and-such is “important.” And yet inevitably, as Simon Frith has observed, whenever a particular album (or musician) is deemed “important,” a study of ideological effects ensues, following conventionalized, highly predictable routes (see the first twenty pages of Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music, Harvard University Press, 1996). If the determination of “importance” allows us to designate the significance of a particular album or musician, what sorts of information does the designation also happen to repress? The problem with “importance,” as a designation of significance, is that it leads to an uncritical identification with a particular album or musician, which is why analyses seeking to establish importance inevitably follow the predictable path of ideology. The trick is to establish significance while still remaining critically aloof, if not disinterested, in the object of study, not because the object is analogous to a specimen under a microscope, but to avoid predictability and redundancy, or pleonasm.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

And Then There Were 170

Frequent visitors to this blog know that I submitted a proposal, on Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night, to Continuum Books’ 33 1/3 series of books on significant rock albums of the past forty years (or so). This past Sunday evening, the series’ editor, David Barker, posted the (long) shortlist of proposals still under serious consideration, trimming the number of proposals from 597 to 170. I’m very happy to report that my proposal made the initial cut and is still under consideration, as is my friend Tim Lucas’s, on Jefferson Airplane’s Crown of Creation. Tim sent me a congratulatory note today, to which I responded reciprocally. I sincerely hope we both make it—I would very much like to see our work appearing in the same series— although I don’t wish to calculate the odds of that probability. But we shall see.

While reader comments (available on a pop-up window) on the short list are widely varied, by and large the comments by those authors whose proposals were rejected the first round are congenial and supportive of those who made the initial cut. Believe me, I know what it’s like to receive a rejection, as I didn’t make the cut the last time there was an invitation for proposals, nor did Tim. While of course I would love to contribute a book to the series, there are a good many albums on the short list I would love to read a book about. Congratulations to all who have made it so far. I wish you all the best, and please do likewise.

Friday, February 13, 2009


A few days ago, over at the 33 1/3 blogspot, John Mark posted a link to an article about performance artist Genesis P-Orridge (second from left on the TG album cover), once and present member of the band Throbbing Gristle, and, in the 1980s, the co-founder of Psychic TV. While the article makes rather explicit the masochistic aspects of P-Orridge’s being, his tale is thoroughly Gnostic in its underpinnings (e.g., the conviction of an incomplete and/or inadequate Self that can be overcome by the union with one’s “lost” half or twin; the fundamental distrust of the material world; body hatred; and so on). His quest for identicalness can be understood, in one way, as an attempt to reassure one’s unstable sense of identity through the display of that self-image in the identical image of an Other. But as I read his story, I also found myself thinking of the Frankenstein myth of a body cobbled together with incongruous parts, but also a modern revision of that puissant myth, Pierre Jeunet’s ALIEN: RESURRECTION and the image of the cloned but strangely androgynous body of Ripley, the successfully manufactured eighth clone in a series of failed attempts.

Only one filmmaker could possibly translate the strange story recounted in that article into a film: David Cronenberg. Think of Cronenberg’s films such as DEAD RINGERS (the perverse relationship between the identical twins Beverly and Elliot Mantle, which culminates in their catastrophic re-imagining of themselves as Siamese Twins), THE FLY (the Brundlefly hybrid), CRASH (the masochistically linked couple immersed in the delirium of a Folie à deux), and M. BUTTERFLY (a revision of Balzac’s Sarrasine with its focus on the highly ambiguous gender identity of Song Lilling, as s/he vacillates precariously between female masquerade and femininity). In DEAD RINGERS, the Mantle twins’ desire to merge into one another is similar Seth Brundle’s aspiration at the conclusion of THE FLY, to splice his genetic material with the DNA of Veronica and their unborn child in order to create a male/female/fly/offspring hybrid—“Brundlefly.” This same aspiration for a hybrid form is referred to in the article, and in P-Orridge’ s writings, by the neologism pandrogeny—“There is no reason to accept anymore what was once a God-given form. People can now choose to be even more fictional,” writes Genesis P-Orridge in an article available here. What is fascinating in his remarks is his reconceptualization of what, in Jungian psychology, is called the quest for individuation (psychological differentiation, the development of the individual personality). Normally individuation involves a subject striving for a life that is meaningful, complete, noble, good, and so on. But in the aforementioned essay and elsewhere (a lengthy interview, in parts, with P-Orridge on these topics is available on youtube here), he recasts individuation as the biological transformations enabled by or through technology—as does Seth Brundle, as well as many of the protagonists in Cronenberg's male melodramas.