Sunday, March 09, 2008

When the Music Really Died

Although Don McLean has been famously reticent about discussing his song "American Pie," it's quite obviously a historical exploration of rock music starting from the 1957 death of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper. But how could it properly be said that the starting point of the narrative is the death of music? Many commentators have assumed (and I think rightly) that McLean was making the Holly death a line of demarcation between what was known as "rock and roll" but subsequently became "rock." The theory goes that the fun was sucked out of music. When the "Sergeants," presumably a reference to the Beatles, "played a marching tune, we all got up to dance, but we never got the chance." In other words, the days of the sock hop were past, and music such as that found on "Sgt. Pepper's" was not something to dance to.

In a sense, I don't disagree with McLean that music died. But I think he didn't go back far enough to find its death. I think it can be argued that in one sense "the music" died when "rock and roll" started. Elvis, Jerry Lee, Chuck Berry, and the like were the ones who forever altered music from a shared, communal experience to the province of the individual. To some degree, the rise of television made this an inevitability. It probably wouldn't have mattered who it was that appeared on Ed Sullivan, the very fact that somebody was being set apart as a featured performer would have caused a shift in public perception, as millions of viewers would have had an Adam and Eve experience and realized that they were naked, that they lacked the musical aptitude of the star being featured, and that there was a gulf between performer and audience (some would argue that it wasn't for 20 years, until Johnny Rotten and the punks came along, that this chasm began to once again narrow).

However, this is not the whole or even the most important reason that the music died. To be sure, Elvis and company were not the first musical stars. Obviously, Sinatra was a pop culture icon, and even back to the Big Band era there was a consciousness that some people were singular in their musical talent. Yet this did not stop the masses from indulging in song. According to a recent New York Times article, in 1943, serviceman Pete Seeger conducted a competition among fellow G.I.s, in which they were asked to list all the songs that they knew the melody and words to. He could list 300, but he wasn't alone in having a large number to draw from. Even in an ipod saturated culture, I think it would be unlikely for any one person to be able to list more than a handful of songs that they could sing completely off the top of their heads, and even more unlikely that any two people have songs in common. As evidenced by the Fox show "Don't Forget the Lyrics," being able to recall words of even popular songs is now a skill rather than something commonplace.

I remember attending a family reunion as a kid, and finding it odd that singing was incorporated along with card playing into the day's entertainment. However, the demographic of this gathering tilted toward the WWII generation, people who came of age in a time when singing was something that people did when they got together. And it wasn't always sanitized family gatherings where they indulged their tendency to sing. For generations, the pub was a place to go to not only drown sorrows through the power of drink, but through the power of song. Today though, even if drunken louts in a bar wanted to limber their vocal cords, who could hear them over the jukebox? Other than church, where do people get together and sing anymore? And even in churches, where traditions keep root a little bit longer than in other places, I'm noticing a trend toward music being provided by "worship teams," while parishioners sit quietly in their pews and watch.

So what happened other than TV to hasten this trend? Although the cultural changes wrought by "rock and roll" are well documented, there is not a lot of attention paid to one way it changed the music milieu and hastened the demise of communal singing. According to music scholar Michael Gray:

...before rock'n'roll you had to enunciate. Every word had to be heard (even though the words so carefully delivered weren't generally worth any attention). With rock'n'roll the meaning of the words, as a general rule, mattered less than their sounds, and the voice became an instrument. The grown-ups who laughed at Presley's 'mumblin' didn't understand. It was actually exciting to have part of the record where you didn't know what you were singing when you sang along with it. (From the Bob Dylan Encyclopedia pg. 585).

While it might have been exciting, it also precluded you from singing the song without the record as accompaniment. And this means that people were less apt to sing together, and in a manner of speaking, the music died.


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