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)

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Rocky Mountain Way

We’re heading off this morning the Rocky Mountain way, planning to spend a couple of days or so with Becky’s niece and her family, who live in an A-frame home 10,000 feet up in the Rocky Mountains. I couldn’t help but think of two of the more famous songs about the Rockies, Joe Walsh’s “Rocky Mountain Way” and (of course) John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High.” But there’s also Gene Autry’s “Blue Canadian Rockies” (written by Cindy Walker), later covered by The Byrds on Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968), and Lightnin’ Hopkins “Rocky Mountain.” For movies, there’s Errol Flynn’s Rocky Mountain (1950) and the Three Mesquiteers’ Rocky Mountain Rangers (1940), which has absolutely nothing to do with the Rocky Mountains. Likewise, the Randolph Scott western, Rocky Mountain Mystery (1935), has nothing to do with the Rockies as it was filmed in Big Bear Valley, California. At any rate, we’re off for a real Rocky Mountain high, not a stand-in: a little hiking (I’m not up for more than a little), cold, crisp air (and, I hope, cold, crisp beer), a lot of beautiful scenery, and a little sight-seeing. I’m told, since their home is so isolated, to prepare for a brilliant night sky, as the stars at night are something to see. Apparently there will be some requisite Milky Way gazing as well, which is fine with me. Sing it, Joe.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Private Parts

Near the end of the half-time show of Super Bowl XXXVIII, Justin Timberlake reached across Janet Jackson’s chest in order to remove a cup from her black leather bustier. In doing so, he happened to reveal her right breast to millions of viewers. Predictably, in the aftermath of the event, many Washington lawmakers invoked the rhetoric of moral outrage. A few months after this particular Super Bowl, Congress approved a measure allowing the FCC to increase the maximum fine from $27,500 to $275,000 for violations of decency on television and radio. In fact, the measure was later inserted into the 2005 defense authorization bill, revealing the control of televised images is on par with national security.

In a world in which decorum is the only morality left, the exposure of Janet Jackson’s breast on national television was a fundamental breach of etiquette. American culture obviously believes the censorship of body parts is a deep, fundamental value worth preserving at any cost. If a black woman’s breast (don’t they always come in pairs?) can be revealed to millions on national television, what could be next? It would seem the proper covering of body parts is as equally important as national security. However, just so the point can’t be conveniently neglected, Jackson’s breast was not totally exposed—she was wearing a nipple shield big enough to cover completely the areola. This curious fact led many conspiracy-minded critics to conclude that the event was not accidental but a tasteless stunt, engineered to revitalize the aging pop star’s fading career.

The Timberlake-Jackson event is yet another instance of the problematic nature of pop music in American society: inevitably, it would seem, pop music generates controversy. In any case, censorship and proscription lead to counter-strategies and evasive tactics, among them being the use of slang and euphemism, as the lyrics to many pop songs, so linked to vernacular expression, attest. As might be expected, sex organs are highly fetishized body parts in pop lyrics, but so too are breasts, legs, and gluteal muscles. But where’s William Burroughs when you need him? I know of no pop song featuring a Talking Asshole.

Infernal Organs And Body Parts:
Chuck Berry – My Ding-A-Ling
The Black Eyed Peas – My Humps
Jackson Browne – Red Neck Friend
The Commodores – Brick House
Sheena Easton – Sugar Walls
Peter Gabriel – Sledgehammer
Iggy Pop – Cock In My Pocket
K.C. and the Sunshine Band – (Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty
Led Zeppelin – The Lemon Song
LL Cool J – Big Ole Butt
Mojo Nixon – Stuffin’ Martha’s Muffin
Primus – Winona’s Big Brown Beaver
Reverend Horton Heat – Wiggle Stick
Salt-N-Pepa – Shoop
Bob Seger – Night Moves
Rod Stewart – Hot Legs
Wreckx-N-Effect – Rump Shaker
Frank Zappa – G-Spot Tornado
ZZ Top – Tube Steak Boogie

Monday, June 1, 2009

“More Popular That Jesus”

The way the story goes, John Lennon’s infamous remark about the Beatles being “more popular than Jesus” was printed in an interview that appeared in the London Evening Standard in early March 1966. Lennon is quoted as saying, “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue with that; I’m right and I will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first—rock ‘n ‘ roll or Christianity.” Apparently, so the story goes, his remark created nary a stir in Britain upon the publication of the interview.

Things went differently in the United States. Roughly five months after the aforementioned interview was published in England, some of Lennon’s remarks from the earlier interview were excerpted and reprinted in the 29 July 1966 issue of Datebook, a teen magazine, apparently to coincide with the release of Revolver on August 8. Within days of the magazine’s appearance on the newsstands, the American backlash against the Beatles began. It took a few days for the remark to circulate in the media, of course, but by 11 August, or right around that date, rock music, at the very least an annoyance, became a full-blown “social problem.” The vast popularity of the Beatles led many adults to conclude that the band’s influence on teenagers was immense, on the assumption, I suppose, that young people would accept their messages uncritically, the personal beliefs of the Beatles being like scripture. The first edition of Bob Larson’s Rock & Roll: The Devil’s Diversion, the subject of which he called “the moral and religious significance of rock and roll music,” was published in January or February of 1967, that is, about five months after Lennon’s remark was reprinted in Datebook. A second edition of Larson’s book followed in 1968, and a third in 1970. However, in a footnote in the third edition (1970) of his book, Larson claims that Lennon’s remark, “Christianity will go. We’re more popular than Jesus now,” appeared in the 21 March 1966 issue of Newsweek. I haven’t confirmed that reference, but I’ll take his word for it. If so, one wonders why the remark didn’t prompt such controversy in the American media until it was reprinted in Datebook in July later in the year.

Peter Watkins’ film Privilege (1967), about the trials and travails of an influential British pop star, was probably being filmed when Lennon’s remark was first published in Britain. But Lennon’s remark, “We’re more popular than Jesus,” was re-deployed and spoken by a character in AIP’s Wild in the Streets (1968), a satirical allegorical fantasy about the political dangers posed by a charismatic rock star. Written by Robert Thom (Death Race 2000, 1975), the film draws on a wide variety of themes, including, perhaps most importantly, the Oedipal romance. It features a weak father (Bert Freed) and a terrible (castrating) mother (Shelley Winters). The mother’s character was probably inspired by the Angela Lansbury figure of 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate, and like the Angela Lansbury character, the Shelley Winters character is shown to be politically ambitious once she learns that her runaway son has become rich and famous. The film’s anti-hero is Max Frost (born Max Flatow, Jr.), played by Christopher Jones, whose lack of proper maternal love is the implied motivation for his desperate need for adulation and affection. Precociously intelligent but also highly self-centered, Max escapes his unhappy home life to become a multi-millionaire by age twenty-two, by forming a hugely successful rock band and by hiring a fifteen-year-old financial genius as a band member. In order to suggest his fundamental immorality, we learn that Max has fathered several illegitimate children with whom he has no contact, literally and emotionally neglecting them in the same way his mother did him. Oddly, he likes to sleep with children, and encourages his band members to use LSD. He does nothing to discourage being seen as a Christ-like figure; in one scene, his hook-handed and slightly stoned band member, played by Larry Bishop, asks Max if he has the power to restore his missing hand.

After learning that 52% of the U. S. population is under twenty-five, Max uses his celebrity status to hijack the proceedings at the youth-oriented political rally of Senatorial candidate Johnny Fergus (Hal Holbrook, sharing a family resemblance to John F. Kennedy, in the same way that Millie Perkins, who plays Fergus’s wife, is meant to suggest Jackie Kennedy). Revealing that he is fundamentally a demagogue rather than an entertainer, Max presents a platform to reduce the voting age in the United States to fourteen (“Fourteen or Fight”) and initiates a covert plan to gain control of the Senate, first by engineering the successful Senatorial bid of drug-addled band member Sally LeRoy (Diane Varsi). Eventually, by lowering the voting age, he is elected President of the United States. In his Oedipal struggle for control over his figurative father, Johnny Fergus, Max lures away Fergus’s son Jimmy (Michael Margotta), “brainwashing” him to his way of thinking and turning him against his parents. Throughout, during his speeches Max has called his youthful minions “troops” and “babies,” and once he is President, he enacts laws imprisoning those over thirty, requiring them to ingest large quantities of LSD. Not only does the film want to suggest the demagoguery of rock stars, but American youth are shown to be terribly misguided, mindlessly throwing support behind an individual who is fundamentally a self-serving tyrant, able to use the power of the media to shape his image for his own ends. The film also invokes the hippie hysteria of the late Sixties, an hysteria that was in part spurred by the counterculture’s embrace of non-Christian (largely Oriental) religion. I suspect that one of the sources of inspiration for Robert Thom’s script was the “CBS Reports” documentary hosted by Harry Reasoner, titled The Hippie Temptation, that aired on 22 August 1967. Indeed, in general the film seems heavily influenced by the media depiction of the counterculture in the late 1960s. The film is one instance of the widespread reaction to Lennon’s remark, and perhaps one of the earliest films to do so.