The Famous Door
Although I don’t have time to count them, since life expectancy in the United States is only 78.2 years, I suspect that the number of winter holiday songs—and I refer ecumenically not only to Christmas music but to tunes broadly celebrating the wintery season—must be around a zillion kazillion. From the morning after Halloween until New Year’s Day, they are inescapable, and singers in innumerable styles (and of varying religious and cultural backgrounds) keep making CDs of songs still widely thought of as Christmas music.
In the music business, as in government finance, partial fixes are not fixes at all, but, more often, appeasements and, sometimes, impairments. Last week, the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), the industry body that runs the Grammys, responded to pleas from its appropriately panicked membership and announced a plan to improve the awards through consolidation. NARAS eliminated 31 award categories—nearly one third of the 109 categories honored in past years.
Thirty-five years ago this Saturday, Phil Ochs, the earnest singing polemicist of the 1960s, hanged himself. He suffered from depression and other emotional problems, as his father had, and he drank too much. I was thinking of Ochs earlier this week, when I was with a group of legal scholars at a conference on “Bob Dylan and the Law” at the Fordham University Law School.
Jameson “Nick” Hathaway, the Tin Pan Alley tunesmith who died this week at age 96, is most memorable for his forgetability. Among song composers of the pre-rock era, Hathaway was such a marginal figure, even in his time, that his name long ago drifted off the margins, off the desktop, out of the room, and took a drive to a place populated only by minor academics, nostalgaists, and other people like me.
Elizabeth Taylor had nothing to do with music—or, more accurately, nothing to do with the formal standards of technique that traditionalists still conflate with musicality—and that fact has led me to realize something about Frank Sinatra. In all the encomia to Taylor in all the media this week, one of the few aspects of her career spared inflation was her brief and tenuous but illuminating dalliance with theatrical song in the film version of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, produced in 1977.
Sprinkling some vinegar to counteract the oily Graham Nash, David Crosby provided a bracing moment of skepticism toward the generally sanctimonious pop-star posturing documented in No Nukes, the movie centered on a series of concerts and rallies staged to protest nuclear power and nuclear arms in 1979. Pop musicians are not particularly well-equipped to speak with authority on issues such as nuclear policy, Crosby said at a press conference captured in the film; but they have a public forum, he said, and can’t help themselves.
There’s always a strain of porn in pop music—not just sexiness or sensuality, which are different things, of course, but an industrially strategic manipulation of words, music, and images to manufacture desire. Clever performers have exploited this, sometimes upending it to comment upon or to subvert that desire, since Josephine Baker petitioned for African American equity in a snake dance. I grew up with disco and “Push, Push in the Bush” on top-40 radio.
In the era of the last presidential administration, Randy Newman, the distinguished elder of pop-song irony, wrote a tune called “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country,” in which he gave George W. Bush credit for doing no more harm than the Caesars, Hitler, or Stalin. “Now, the leaders we have,” he sang, “while they’re the worst that we’ve had, are hardly the worst that this poor world has seen.” In the same spirit, I’d like to offer a defense of “We Belong Together,” the Newman song from Toy Story 3 that just won the Academy Award for Best Song.
In Manhattan after the Second World War, I’ve been told, a group of African American dancers, musicians, painters, and writers gathered regularly for martinis and mutual support at the home of the dancers Dorcas and Frank Neal, in Chelsea. The core membership included James Baldwin, Billy Strayhorn, and Talley Beatty, the choreographer, who told me about the group when I was researching my biography of Strayhorn in the early ’90s.
The revolution will always be harmonized. If no song in itself can change the world, revolutionary change usually happens to music, as it is today in the Middle East. News feeds from Tahrir Square and now from Tehran have been capturing streets full of young people singing anthems of uprising, just as eighteenth-century revolutionaries sang in Paris and Philadelphia. In Cairo, the song that emerged quickly as the semi-official anthem of the revolution is “Long Live Egypt,” a buoyant, gently hip-hoppish pop tune by the Egyptian group Scarabeuz and Omima.