Wednesday, October 7, 2009


Déclassé—To be demoted from a high status or rank to a lower one, especially in social status. The word déclassé is also applied to weapons considered obsolete or antiquated. It refers to that which is no longer viable or operational. The déclassé is not “kitsch”—tawdry, overly sentimentalized art of the banal representational sort—but refers to those features of our inherited culture that make us uncomfortable. It refers to those cultural behaviors that are now obsolete, forming the basis of an unwritten protocol that silently censors and marks the limits of proper taste. It proscribes movies that cannot be made, jokes that can no longer be recited, pop songs that now seem starkly ludicrous, silly, and pretentious. The interest in cultural productions that are considered déclassé is primarily historical, that is, scholarly: they are museum pieces which Time and History have rendered quaint, but nonetheless strange, artifacts. The déclassé may once have been highly fashionable, but is no longer—it no longer “speaks” to contemporary audiences and hence is out of fashion. These things may have a nostalgic appeal, but they no longer carry the sting of truth. A recovery or revival is unlikely.

Examples Of The Déclassé (In Language Or Sentiment), Hardly Exhaustive:
Harpers Bizarre – The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy) [1960s]
The Beach Boys – Be True To Your School [1960s]
Jimmy Dean – I Won’t Go Hunting With You Jake (But, I’ll go chasin’ wimmin) [1950s]
Leroy Van Dyke – I Fell In Love With a Pony Tail [1950s]
Wayne Fontana and The Mindbenders – A Groovy Kind Of Love [1960s]
Bobby Goldsboro – Honey [1960s]
Kay Kyser and His Orchestra – The Umbrella Man [1930s]
John Lennon – Woman Is The Nigger Of The World [1970s]
Loretta Lynn – The Pill [1970s]
Glenn Miller and His Orchestra – Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me) [1940s]
Joni Mitchell – Woodstock [1960s]
Wayne Newton – Dreams of the Everyday Housewife [1960s]
The Plasmatics – Metal Priestess [1980s]
Helen Reddy – I Am Woman [1970s]
SSgt. Barry Sadler – Ballad of the Green Berets [1960s]

Monday, October 5, 2009


The German inventor Emile Berliner patented the Gramophone in 1887. Unlike Thomas Edison, Berliner eschewed recording onto cylinders, and instead started recording onto flat disks—records. These early records were made of glass, later zinc, and eventually plastic, onto which sound information was etched into a spiral groove. The (figurative) arm of the gramophone (pictured), the playback device, contained a needle that “read” the sound vibrations in the grooves, transmitting this information to the speaker, which amplified the sounds. Berliner founded The Gramophone Company in order to manufacture both records and the technology to play them, Gramophones. Significantly, in 1908 Berliner began using Francis Barraud’s painting His Master’s Voice as his company’s logo, an image familiar to anyone who owns a few older RCA records. (The inventor eventually sold the licensing rights to his patent for the Gramophone and method of making records to the Victor Talking Machine Company, which in turn became RCA-Victor.)

I’ve always assumed that Berliner chose this now famous image as his logo in homage to Argos, Odysseus’ faithful dog. If you remember, in Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus returns home to Ithaca in the twentieth year of his absence, disguised as a beggar. Nonetheless, that remorselessly old, dying dog, which manages to keep warm only by lying on a composting manure pile, manages to recognize his master, Odysseus, when he speaks—by his master’s voice. Despite Odysseus’ disguise, despite the long absence, the keen ears of Argos can recognize his true master by the authenticating sound of his voice. Presumably, Berliner chose Berraud’s painting in order to suggest the crystal clarity of sounds etched on his records, that his records captured authentic sound.

Berliner was a very smart and clever man, and he chose to record popular singers of the day—Enrico Caruso, for instance—to help advertise his records and the Gramophone. But as Friedrich Kittler has argued, in Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (Stanford UP, 1999), from around 1880 on, composers of music have been “allied with engineers” (24). After this date, he writes, “The undermining of articulateness becomes the order of the day” (24). As a consequence of sound recording, noise itself became an object of scientific research, and the previous conceptions that governed musical theory became antiquated.

The phonograph does not hear as do ears that have been trained immediately to filter voices, words, and sounds out of noise; it registers acoustic events as such. Articulateness becomes a second-order exception in a spectrum of noise. (23)

He’s right, of course: recording is a process by which sounds are made, not “captured.” It’s a form of engineering. Consider the sort of composers considered significant and important since 1887: Schoenberg, for instance, Ives, Varèse (all born in the nineteenth century), and Stockhausen (born 1928). The latter’s Kontakte owes as much to electrical engineers as it does to the redefinition of music theory that occurred when sounds (and music) became understood as sonic vibrations. I don’t think contemporary musicians who also happen to be music theorists, such as Brian Eno and Chris Cutler, would dispute Kittler’s characterization of the recording of music as an “acoustic event,” nor dispute the idea that articulateness (of voice) is “a second-order exception in a spectrum of noise.” Such is the impact of technology on our idea of (popular) music.

Some Acoustic Events:
The Beach Boys, Caroline, No [album version]
The Beatles, Revolution 9
The Doors, Horse Latitudes
Electric Light Orchestra, Telephone Line
Brian Eno, Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks [album]
King Crimson, 21st Century Schizoid Man
Pink Floyd, Money
Lou Reed, Metal Machine Music [album]
The Residents, Eskimo
The Shangri-Las, Leader of the Pack
Frank Zappa, Lumpy Gravy [album]

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Mermaid, Nymph, Siren

A siren, in Greek mythology, was an assemblage or portmanteau, part bird, part woman, and was both dangerous (a “siren” to this day warns of danger, a usage derived from the siren’s song that lured men to their doom) and seductive—a prototype of the femme fatale. At least originally. In later folklore, they lost their wings, and became fully aquatic and mermaid-like (“la mer” meaning “the sea” in French, hence mermaid means “sea-maiden”), revealed by the fact that in the Spanish and French languages, for instance, the word for mermaid is respectively Sirena and Sirène. Hence sirens and mermaids are often confused in the popular imagination. In contrast, the Greek word nymph, a female spirit usually associated with a specific geographical place, has both “bride” and “veiled” among its meanings; a “nymph” has come to mean a young woman of marriageable age. Hence the words mermaid, nymph, and siren all refer to highly seductive and desirable women, although potentially dangerous: for the Victorians, a “nymphomaniac” was a fundamentally disturbed woman, revealed by her excessive interest in sex. Perhaps because of its association with the word “nymphomania,” the word “nymph” seldom occurs in the lyrics of popular music. Mermaids and sirens, however, are mythical creatures that often make appearances, figures of elusive beauty. I’m including Bobby Darin’s “Beyond the Sea” in the following playlist, primarily because it is the precursor song of Van Morrison’s “Queen of the Slipstream” (“Going away far across the sea/But I’ll be back for you/Tell you everything I know”): both are romantic songs are about nymphs, beautiful young women waiting for the return of their lovers. But both “Can't Get It Out of My Head” and “Queen of the Slipstream” are also figurations of the Muse, signaling the singer is among the poetic elect.

Mermaids, Nymphs, And Sirens:
Aeon – Nymph
Tori Amos – Siren
Tim Buckley – Song to the Siren
Cream – Tales of Brave Ulysses
Bobby Darin – Beyond the Sea
Electric Light Orchestra – Can’t Get It Out My Head
Hall and Oates – Maneater
Van Morrison – Queen of the Slipstream
Nightwish – Siren
Robert Plant – Song to the Siren
Sade – Mermaid
Shel Silverstein – Mermaid Song
XTC – Mermaid Smiled

Saturday, October 3, 2009


Fire — “If we go back far enough,” Freud wrote in Civilization and Its Discontents, “we find that the first acts of civilization were the use of tools, the gaining of control over fire and the construction of dwellings. Among these, the control over fire stands out as a quite extraordinary and unexampled achievement. . . .” He theorized that the first human (male) to renounce his desire to put out a fire by micturating, “was able to carry it off with him and subdue it to his own use. By damping down the fire of his own sexual excitation, he had tamed the natural force of fire.” In other words, the first major step toward human civilization was the renunciation of instinct. Woman was put in charge of fire—the hearth—because her anatomy made it impossible to put out a fire with the phallic equivalent of a fire hose. As if to link fire and the phallus in an explicitly Freudian way, Jean-Jacques Annaud, in his film Quest For Fire (1981), included a scene a which a female performs fellatio on one of her male companions, presumably for the first time in history (although the ur-fellatrix, unlike Eve, eludes the historical record).

Hence fire is essential to civilization, and yet is also capable of destroying it: it is both fascinating and terrifying—the fire that signals the apocalypse. In the popular imagination fire is most often associated with erotic passion (“c’mon baby light my fire” Jim Morrison implores in the famous song), but when is fire more closely associated with fire in the eschatological sense—the conflagration that signals damnation, the end of the world? The Meat Puppets’ “Lake Of Fire” is once such song; Black Sabbath’s “Black Sabbath” (“Satan’s sitting there, He’s smiling/Watches those flames get higher and higher”) is another, the distant precursor of which is the Louvin Brothers’ “Are You Afraid To Die.” Bob Seger’s “Fire Lake” is a song about fire in the Freudian sense, except rather than singing of the renunciation of instinct, the song celebrates its return (return of the repressed). Johnny Cash’s version of “Ring Of Fire” is famous, but Anita Carter’s version is better—passion, yes, but passion linked with self-destruction. Beautiful self-destruction, self-sacrifice, is also explored in Blue Oyster Cult’s “Burnin’ For You.” Setting aside the banality of songs about passion, there have been some very fine songs about fire. As opposed to those who say the world will end in ice, these songs say fire.

A Few Songs About Fire, Not Ice:
Anita Carter – Ring Of Fire
Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath
Blue Oyster Cult – Burnin’ For You
Chrome – Firebomb
The Cramps – Sinners
The Crazy World of Arthur Brown – Fire
King Crimson – The Court of the Crimson King/The Return of the Fire Witch/The Return of the Puppets
Barry McGuire – Eve of Destruction
Meat Puppets – Lake of Fire
Michael Murphy – Wildfire
The Rolling Stones – Play With Fire
Bob Seger – Fire Lake
Talking Heads – Burning Down the House
James Taylor – Fire and Rain
The Marshall Tucker Band – Fire on the Mountain

Friday, October 2, 2009


“In Fritz Lang’s M,” writes Raymond Durgnat, “the child murderer (Peter Lorre) sees his next victim gazing into a shop window full of toys. He pauses by the next window, and his reflection is hemmed in by a display of serried knives. In yet another window, the movements of an attention-getting spiral and an arrow have a mesmeric, mechanical quality, like the psychological pressure pounding inside his head. Photographed as reflected in the shop window, your character is transparent to what he is gazing at—his desires and obsessions are more solid and real than he himself. . . . ” (Films and Feelings, p. 232). The urban flaneur (Baudelaire: “a person who walks the city in order to experience it”) is naturally drawn to the shop window, as shop windows theatricalize desire, framing by means of the window casing toys, clothes, fashionably dressed mannequins, glittering baubles and beads—Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the boys and girls gazing at potential gifts in A Christmas Story, the puppy about which Patti Page sings in “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?” But windows also reveal the truth, a world freed of illusion. Perhaps the best window song is therefore George Jones’ “Window Up Above,” in which the window up above voyeuristically allows, by chance, the singer to know the truth about his marriage, and express the heartbreak that follows: perversely, the window has allowed him to see the way things actually are, his wife in the arms of her lover: the horror and fascination of gazing into the face of Medusa.

The Window And The Flaneur:
50 Cent – Window Shopper
Aphex Twin – Window Licker
The Beatles – She Came In Through The Bathroom Window
Jimi Hendrix – Blue Window
The Hollies – Look Through Any Window
George Jones – Window Up Above
Billy J. Kramer – From A Window
Metallica – Dirty Window
Patti Page – How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?
The Rays – Silhouettes
U2 – Window in the Skies
Hank Williams – Window Shopping

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Under The Sea

When I was growing up, Jacques Cousteau (1910-1997) was the most famous undersea explorer in the world. I knew about him primarily through his films and TV programs, although he also wrote many books as well. He pioneered techniques used in underwater photography (he was a filmmaker as much as sea diver), exploring the world’s oceans aboard his base ship, the Calypso (eventually the subject of an homage song by John Denver). Beginning in 1968, he hosted the television series The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, a show which ran for several years, until the mid-70s. A few minutes of research on the web revealed that in 1959 he addressed the first World Oceanic Congress, which in turn led to his appearance on the March 28, 1960 cover of Time magazine. In April of 1961, he was awarded the National Geographic’s Gold Medal at a White House ceremony hosted by President John F. Kennedy. I don’t recall hearing of Jacques Cousteau before that time, but I certainly remember him from the Sixties on.

Among his very earliest films was Épaves (1945, available here), which captured the poetry of the undersea realm. The decaying wreckage of sunken ships resembles the ruins of undersea cathedrals, through which, like something from a Surrealist painting, we watch divers swim, like strange birds hovering in the air. His underwater photography captured sea creatures from all over the world, creatures rich and strange. Weird and occasionally nightmarish, they resembled things from another planet. Because of his keen sense of the delicate ecology of the ocean, he was like a crusader, a Naturalist capturing through his poetic films all the beauty, awe, and mystery of nature. His films took us out of our dreary, quotidian reality and daily routine, and provided an escape into a world serene and delicate, a pure realm uncontaminated by humans and their machines. I choose to think that Jacques Cousteau influenced popular culture as well, including its music. Most certainly songs about the sea (and songs about being under the sea) are a venerable subgenre of folk and popular music; “under the sea” songs are popular among schoolchildren as well. In the Sixties, though, songs about being under the sea were really the equivalent of a psychedelic trip, thanks to films of Jacques Cousteau. Some dream of flying, but when I was a child I dreamed of being a fish, not a bird, able to swim underwater indefinitely. One of the very earliest dreams I remember in my life was set underwater, in a vast river with a powerful current, and I was struggling to find sunken treasure. Fish swam by me lazily. Surprisingly, I saw a door on the bottom of the river, perfect in every way, so I swam for it. I reached out for the knob, pulled, opened it—and woke up, a bit like Dorothy opening the door to the world of Oz, which perhaps I had recently seen, I don’t know.

Or, perhaps my dream was influenced by those poetic and hauntingly memorable films made by Jacques Cousteau, as some of the following songs may have been as well.

Bobby Bare – The Mermaid
The Beatles – Octopus’s Garden
Jimmy Buffett – A Pirate Looks At Forty
John Denver – Calypso
Donovan – Atlantis
Jimi Hendrix – 1983… (A Merman I Should Turn To Be)
Roy Orbison – Leah
Marty Robbins – Devil Woman
Squirrel Nut Zippers – Under the Sea
The Verlaines – Cathedrals Under the Sea
Patrick Watson – Man Under the Sea
XTC – Mermaid Smiled