Tag Archives: Popular music

Psychedelia and children’s literature

 

In contrast to their American counterparts, English musicians in the late 1960s found psychedelic inspiration in their childhood reading lists, which, for just about every English child, included Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Kenneth Grahame, and A.A. Milne.

Songwriters like Robin Williamson (Incredible String Band), Syd Barrett (Pink Floyd), Peter Daltrey (Kaleidoscope), and others went on to create their own fantastical characters, nonsense verses, and imagery around themes of anthropomorphism, lost childhood, and The Quest.

This according to “Grumbly grimblies, frozen dogs, and other boojums: Eccentricity from Chaucer to Carroll in English psychedelia” by Peter Grant, an essay included in The Routledge companion to popular music and humor (New York: Routledge, 2019, pp. 49–57).

Above, Richard Dadd’s The fairy feller’s master-stroke, a painting beloved by fans of psychedelia; below, Syd Barrett’s The gnome, from Pink Floyd’s debut album.

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Sondheim and “Company”

 

Stephen Sondheim’s Company is considered to be one of the first concept musicals, moving in a different direction from the book musicals of creative teams such as Rodgers and Hammerstein.

The construction of Company combines aspects of a concept musical with a psychological narrative. An investigation of the musical’s dramatic layers furthers a metadramatic understanding of Sondheim’s unique and innovative version of the concept musical—a version that refuses to subjugate character development and emotional accessibility for conceptual didacticism.

This according to “Concept meets narrative in Sondheim’s Company: Metadrama as a method of analysis” by Natalie Draper (Studies in musical theatre IV/2 [2010] pp. 171–83).

Today is Sondheim’s 90th birthday! Above, a photo from around the time Company was produced; below, the show’s climactic song, Being alive, from a 2011 concert production.

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Hiplife and indigenization

 

In Ghana, hip hop music and culture have morphed over two decades into a whole new genre called hiplife—not merely an imitation or adaptation of hip hop, but a revision of Ghana’s own century-old popular music called highlife.

Local hiplife artists have evolved an indigenization process that has facilitated a dynamic youth agency that is transforming Ghanaian society. These social shifts, facilitated by hiplife, have occurred within Ghana’s corporate recolonization, serving as another example of how neoliberalism’s global free-market agenda has become a new form of colonialism. While hiplife artists are complicit with these socioeconomic forces, they also create counter-hegemonic projects that challenge this context while also pushing aesthetic limits.

This according to The hiplife in Ghana: The West African indigenization of hip hop by Halifu Osumare (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

Above, hiplife dancers photographed by Sadik Shahadu; below, Sarkodie, a current hiplife star.

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Queering Bruce Springsteen

 

The narratives of Bruce Springsteen’s songs resonate with many queer people, who are well aware of the possibility of a life-altering freedom that presents itself as the reward for stepping into your true self (even when that freedom comes, as is often the case, at great cost).

Springsteen is far from gay; some might argue he is one of the straightest men alive. Nonetheless, some fans regard his work as, in Rosalie Zdzienicka Fanshel’s words, “homoerotic or queerly suggestive”.

There’s also Carmen Rios’s “We’re here and we’re queering Bruce Springsteen” at one of the longest-running sites for queer women, Autostraddle; the queer writer Tennessee Jones’s short story collection Deliver me from nowhere, based on the album Nebraska; and the many queer Bruce Springsteen zines, from Because the Boss belongs to us to Butt Springsteen.

What exactly is so queer about Springsteen? Is it his extreme butchness, so practiced and so precise that he might as well have learned it from the oldest lesbian at a gay bar? Is it because his hard-earned, roughly hewn version of love is recognizable to those for whom desire has often meant sacrifice? Or is it something simpler? Do many queers love Springsteen because nearly every song he has produced in his 50-year career reflects a crushing, unabiding sense of alienation and longing—and what could be more queer than that?

This according to “Things that can only be found in the darkness on the edge of town: The queerness of Bruce Springsteen” by Naomi Gordon-Loebl (The nation 6 November 2019).

Below, Springsteen’s Tougher than the rest, a song (and video) discussed in the article.

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Lady Gaga and Weird Al

 

Parody is often filled with internal contradictions at both the level of the critique of the original artwork and the level of the quality of the parodied performance. Of course, “Weird Al” Yankovic is not the only artist creating parodies of Lady Gaga, and she is not his only target.

Even Lady Gaga herself creates parody as she borrows from the pop stars of earlier eras and comments on their work. Critics suggest that her success is due, in part, to her quotations from other artists, but her work goes beyond simple imitation. On the level of performance, her self-conscious employment of parody is partly responsible for her success.

As a self-professed performance artist, Lady Gaga becomes a nexus of imitation in which she both showcases and expands the limits and the understanding of both parody and performance. Through his own parodies of Gaga’s parodic work, “Weird Al” highlights this reality.

This according to “Performing pop: Lady Gaga, ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic and parodied performance” by Matthew R. Turner, an article included in The performance identities of Lady Gaga: Critical essays (Jefferson: McFarland, 2012, pp. 188–202).

Above and below, Yankovic’s Perform this way, a parody of Lady Gaga’s Born this way.

 

Above, Perform this way: Weird Al Yankovic at Edgefield by Paul Riismandel is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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Peter Gabriel and locatedness

 

Peter Gabriel is one of contemporary music’s great experimenters. From his work in the progressive group Genesis, through his pioneering solo albums, to his enthusiastic embrace of world music and new technologies, Gabriel has remained steadfastly consistent in his redefinition of music’s boundaries and influence: geographical, virtual, and thematic.

Central to his aesthetic is the idea of locatedness: what it means to be in a specific place at a given time, and to reflect on that time and the changes that inevitably occur. Gabriel’s work can be understood as a series of reflections on the “where” of being—including politics, psychology, philosophy, psychogeography, and inward reflection. His constant traveling—through identities, influences, and media—defines him as one of modern culture’s truly global citizens.

This according to Peter Gabriel: Global citizen by Paul Hegarty (London: Reaktion, 2018).

Today is Gabriel’s 70th birthday! Above, performing in 2011; below, In your eyes from Secret world live.

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Filed under Performers, Popular music, World music

Smithsonian Collections Object: Debbie Harry Photography, National Portrait Gallery

Debbie Harry Portrait, 1986 (printed 2004), National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of The Motion Picture Group, Inc., Philadelphia, PA USA.

“Color me your color, darling, I know who you are” –Debbie Harry

In this picture taken by Francesco Scavullo—a fashion photographer well known for his 1972 Cosmo centerfold photo of a hirsute Burt Reynolds splayed across a bearskin rug—Debbie Harry appears in a leather jacket, metal-studded bracelet, heavy raccoon-style eye makeup, and artfully mussed/moussed blonde hair with black roots peeking through.

A promotional shot for Harry’s second solo album, Rockbird (1986), the image is much more stereotypically “punk rock” than most images seen of her before. The juxtaposition is all the most striking given that Rockbird is the most purely pop album of Debbie Harry’s or Blondie’s career (and probably the most dated, for better or worse, given the transparently time-stamped mid-1980s production).

As a photographic subject Debbie Harry has provoked seemingly endless fascination—at least judging by the massive volume of images in circulation—not just for her striking appearance but also, it could be argued, for the intimate, yet equally enigmatic, nature of so many of the photos. Taken together, the images invite comparison to pioneering female photographers ranging from Cindy Sherman to Francesca Woodman—except for the fact that most of the photos are not technically self-portraits.

Debbie Harry has to be one of the most photographed women in rock history (notably, almost every biography of Blondie and Debbie Harry is presented as a “pictorial biography” as well). Her image has long been considered so crucial to the band Blondie, featured on posters and in books and magazines—some of which would notoriously crop the rest of the band out of the original image—that their label Chrysalis Records saw fit to launch a “Blondie Is A Group” marketing blitz in 1978. But the band were hardly dupes in this image-making enterprise.

For one thing, this imagistic breadth reflects the band itself that Harry has fronted for all these years. Nominally a “punk” band who were in the mix of the early CBGB scene, Blondie was ultimately better known for being on the vanguard of multiple musical crossovers and cutting-edge stylistic trends than for their “punk rock” cred—weaving together old and new, mixing elements of punk primitivism with melodic ‘60s pop, Phil Spector studio productions, classic girl groups, Jamaican rocksteady, disco, early rap, and many other genres besides.

In Lester Bangs’ long out-of-print band biography (and extended think-piece-cum-rant) titled Blondie (1980), he quotes drummer Clem Burke who asserts “that music goes hand-in-hand with image.” A somewhat novel sentiment for a rock band in the early MTV era—especially one that emerged from one of the most sacrosanct undergrounds of all time—Debbie Harry and Blondie were just as savvy and creative with their imagery as with their music. Chris Stein, Blondie’s guitarist and most frequently-featured songwriter who also happened to be Debbie Harry’s life partner at the time, was also an avid photographer on the side. His primary subject was, unsurprisingly, Debbie Harry (alongside bandmates and his life as a working musician).

In his book Lester Bangs goes on to criticize the band for its ever-expanding stylistic palette and its alleged inauthenticity as a result. A study in contrasts in his own right, Bangs was known for being in-equal-measures rhapsodic and curmudgeonly. His Blondie book began life as an authorized biography but was ultimately published without the band’s imprimatur. Referring to Debbie Harry’s “Lolita” image in particular, Bangs writes that he would “lay any odds…it sure as hell ain’t the same person as the one called Deborah Harry.” This all seems a strange line of reasoning, however, for a critic who lionized artists such as David Bowie and Lou Reed (who, to be fair, Bangs was also quite critical of at times) known to be similarly “blank” or “kaleidoscopic” in their music and image.

In Blondie Lester Bangs champions this very quality of self-invention when it comes to punk rock in the broader sense. He praises early punk and proto-punk bands, the New York Dolls in particular, for bringing rock ‘n’ roll back to its roots as “the ultimate populist art form, democracy in action,” for which the main quality required is nerve (“If you’ve got the attitude you can do it, no matter what anybody says. Believing that is one of the things punk rock is about.”) By this criteria, given their penchant for constant self-reinvention, it would seem that Blondie were the ultimate punk band of the CBGB scene, even if stylistically they didn’t fit the sound and the look many thought of as punk.

Debbie Harry encapsulates many of these “contradictory” qualities in her image, voice, and stage presence. She’s a Jersey girl who became the ultimate New York City hipster. A disco queen and a punk diva. A woman in her 30s by the time Blondie started scoring hits, Debbie Harry and Blondie created “teenage fun for adults and vice-versa” (Bangs). Debbie is a convincing and powerful singer of oft-sublime songs who at the same time can sound (and look) a little bit detached from it all—which only heightens the dramatic tension in the best of cases, check out “Atomic” for example—contributing lyrics that mix-and-match searing emotion, ironic twists, and occasional surrealism. In the visual realm, Debbie is widely considered to be beyond glamourous. But often with an observable wink, not to mention charmingly awkward at times.

Official video for Blondie’s “Atomic”

For those paying attention the pose may be transparently apparent, just as it’s most likely meant to be. For this reason, perhaps, Debbie Harry has become an icon of queer culture. On an early Blondie demo titled “Platinum Blondie,” Debbie sings in character—“I even tried wearing a wig for a while…but I got some peroxide at the beauty supply”—lyrics that would do most any drag performer proud. To this day she’s a fixture on the New York City LGBTQ scene, attending events like Squeezebox (in the 1990s) and Jackie 60 productions such as Night of a Thousand Stevies up to the present. If, in fact, there are “a thousand Debbies” it is very much by design. The tensions and potentials brought about by this pastiche-driven creative process—a playful overlapping of elements that at first appear to be disparate and incompatible—is hinted at in the image captured by Francesco Scavullo, a photograph that overlaps visual markers of authenticity and obvious stylization which resonate with Debbie Harry’s musical history.

This post was produced through a partnership between Smithsonian Year of Music and RILM with its blog Bibliolore.

Written and compiled by Jason Lee Oakes, Editor, Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM).

Bibliography

Bangs, Lester. Blondie (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1999-32447]

Bayley, Roberta. Blondie: Unseen, 1976–1980 (London: Plexus, 2007). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2007-34941]

Blondie were the most commercially successful band to emerge from the New York punk scene of the mid 1970s, producing a series of number one albums between 1977 and 1982 and selling over 50 million records worldwide. This book features 235 photographs of Debbie Harry and Blondie taken by the famous first-wave punk rock photographer. (publisher)

DeRogatis, Jim. Let it blurt: The life and times of Lester Bangs, America’s greatest rock critic (New York: Broadway Books, 2000). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2000-5597]

A biography of the gonzo journalist widely considered a romantic visionary of rock criticism. In publications such as Creem, The Village voice, and New York rocker, Bangs agitated during the 1970s for sounds that were harsher, louder, more electric, and more alive, in the course of which he charted and defined the aesthetics of heavy metal and punk. He was treated as a peer by musicians such as Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Richard Hell, Captain Beefheart, the Clash, and Debbie Harry. Bangs’s life and writings provide a window on rock criticism and rock culture in their most turbulent and creative years. (publisher)

Harry, Deborah, Chris Stein, and Victor Bockris. Making tracks: The rise of Blondie (Repr. ed.; New York: Da Capo, 1998). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1998-8232]

Harry, Deborah. Face it (New York: Dey Street Books, 2019). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2019-8835]

Musician, actor, activist, and the iconic face of New York City cool, Debbie Harry is the frontwoman of Blondie, a band that forged a new sound that brought together the worlds of rock, punk, disco, reggae, and hip hop to create some of the most beloved pop songs of all time. As a muse, she collaborated with some of the boldest artists of the past four decades. The scope of Debbie Harry’s impact on our culture has been matched only by her reticence to reveal her rich inner life, until now. In a mix of visceral, soulful storytelling and stunning visuals—including photographs, bespoke illustrations, and fan art installations—this book upends the standard music memoir while delivering a truly prismatic portrait. With all the grit, grime, and glory recounted in intimate detail, it re-creates the downtown scene of 1970s New York City, where Blondie played alongside the Ramones, Television, Talking Heads, Iggy Pop, and David Bowie. Following her path from commercial success to heroin addiction, the near-death of partner Chris Stein, a heart-wrenching bankruptcy, and Blondie’s breakup as a band to her multifaceted acting career in more than 30 films, a solo career, and the triumphant return of her band, and her tireless advocacy for the environment and LGBTQ rights, this is a cinematic story of a woman who made her own path, and set the standard for a generation of artists who followed in her footsteps. (publisher)

Marcus, Greil. “Ripped to shreds”, Ranters & crowd pleasers: Punk in pop music, 1977–92, ed. by Greil Marcus. (New York: Doubleday, 1993) 105–108. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1993-16366]

A discussion of Lester Bangs’s book Blondie, (RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1999-32447), published in Rolling stone, 24 July 1980. In the book, Bangs, a quickie-band-bio gun for hire, uses the opportunity to deconstruct the band—as well as the marketing of Deborah Harry as a sexed-up ice-queen bombshell—while lending depth to any analysis or appreciation of Blondie to follow. One of his key points is that the erstwhile punk and new wave band blazed new trails in emotional ambivalence—or, as he eventually argues—total lack of emotional content. Bangs writes that “what emotions do surface occasionally, what obsessions and lusts, are invariably almost immediately gutted by fusillades of irony, sarcasm, camp, what have you, ending up buried”. Bangs’s book is as much a treatise on postmodernist art as a simple band biography. (Jason Lee Oakes)

Metz, Allan, ed. Blondie, from punk to the present: A pictorial history. Musical legacy 1 (Springfield: Musical Legacy, 2002). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2002-12082]

Needs, Kris and Dick Porter. Blondie: Parallel lives (London: Omnibus, 2012). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2012-26761]

Drawing upon extensive new firsthand interview material from Debbie Harry, Chris Stein, and many other significant players in the band’s long history, plus a sizable archive of personal materials and unpublished interviews, this book is the definitive eye-witness account of the group’s long and often tumultuous existence. Beginning with the band members’ childhoods, backgrounds, and influences, the book is also an evocative homage to the unique New York scenes of the 1970s—CBGB, punk rock, disco, hip hop—that found their way into Blondie’s music. It charts the development of Blondie to their massive popular success and eventual break up. It also details how Debbie Harry set her career aside to nurse Stein through a debilitating and life-threatening genetic disease. It recounts the group’s 1997 reformation, subsequent renaissance with their No exit album, the controversies surrounding the 2006 induction to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, ending in the present with the release of Panic of girls. (publisher)

Peraino, Judith A. “‘Rip her to shreds’: Women’s music according to a butch-femme aesthetic”, repercussions 1/1 (spring 1992) 19–47. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature with Full Text no. 1992-4598]

The butch-femme aesthetic allows women to explore traditional gender roles and provides an alternative to the patriarchal basis of previous formulations of women’s music. Phranc, the folk singer, and Deborah Harry, the lead singer of the defunct rock group Blondie, consciously use irony and gender conflation in their performances, but present opposite extremes in musical style and in the portrayal of femininity. (Brian Robison)

Stein, Chris. Negative: Me, Blondie, and the advent of punk (New York: Rizzoli, 2014). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2014-21260]

On the occasion of Blondie’s 40th anniversary, Chris Stein shares his iconic and mostly unpublished photographs of Debbie Harry and the cool creatures of the 1970s and ’80s New York rock scene. While a student at the School of Visual Arts, the author photographed the downtown New York scene of the early ’70s, where he met Deborah Harry and co-founded Blondie. Their blend of punk, dance, and hip hop spawned a totally new sound, and Stein’s photographs helped establish Harry as an international fashion and music icon. In photos and stories, this book provides a snapshot of the period before and during Blondie’s rise, through photos and annotations, by someone who was part of and who helped shape the early punk music scene—at CBGB, Andy Warhol’s Factory, and the early Bowery. Stars such as David Bowie, the Ramones, Joan Jett, and Iggy Pop were part of Stein’s world, as were downtown characters like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Richard Hell, Stephen Sprouse, Anya Phillips, Divine, and others. As captured by one of its central artists and instigators, and designed by Shepard Fairey, this book is a celebration of the new wave and punk scenes, whose influence on music and fashion is just as relevant today as it was four decades ago.

_____. Point of view: Me, New York City, and the punk scene (New York: Rizzoli, 2018). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2018-50487]

A new collection of unseen photographs of New York City’s 1970s punk heyday, by one of the icons of the city’s golden age of music, Blondie’s Chris Stein. For the duration of the 1970s—from his days as a student at the School of Visual Arts through the foundation of the era-defining band Blondie and his subsequent reign as epicenter of punk’s golden age—Chris Stein kept an unrivaled photographic record of the downtown New York City scene. Following in the footsteps of his previous book Negative, this new book presents a more personal and more visceral collection of Stein’s photographs of the era. The images presented here take readers from self-portraits in his run-down East-Village apartment to candid photographs of pop-cultural icons of the time and evocative shots of New York City streetscapes in all their most longed-for romance and dereliction. An eclectic cast of cultural characters—from William Burroughs to Debbie Harry, Andy Warhol to Iggy Pop—appear as they were in the day, juxtaposed with children playing hopscotch on torn-down blocks, riding the graffiti-ridden subway, or cruising the burgeoning clubs of the Bowery. (publisher)

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The Smithsonian Institution’s Object of the Day, December 14, 2019: David Bowie and Bing Crosby Christmas Single

 

Album Cover, David Bowie and Bing Crosby Christmas Single, “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy,” National Museum of American History, The Sam DeVincent Collection of American Sheet Music.

The standard party line on “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy”—one of the more unlikely Christmas standards to be added to the Christmas canon in the past 50 years, perhaps second only to “Fairytale of New York” by the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl—is that its charm lies in the “opposites attract” pairing of David Bowie and Bing Crosby. And there’s certainly some truth to this oil and water pairing. The song was originally recorded for a 1977 television special titled Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas, which sees Crosby riffing on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with Swinging Sixties icon Twiggy and singing the aforementioned duet with Bowie. The latter is typically seen as the “oil” in this formula—“slick” both in the sartorial sense and in his slippery public image, which in the preceding decade had flitted between alter-egos from Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke to the Brian Eno-assisted “Berlin Trilogy” era (still in progress) that saw Bowie renounce some of his previous excesses both in music and lifestyle.

Bing Crosby, on the other hand, was the “water” in this formula—bland, familiar, seemingly safe and comforting to older, more conservative viewers. The two apparently had very little familiarity with one another’s work. David reportedly accepted the musical cameo because of his mother’s affection for Crosby, while Bing and the show’s producers sought to infuse their special—in the hoary variety show format complete with a convoluted overarching “plot”—with some young blood (even though David Bowie was 30 years old by this point in time). The producers intended for the duet to sing “The Little Drummer Boy,” an oddly martial song celebrating the earthly inception of “the newborn king,” composed by classical pianist and pedagogue Katherine Kennicott Davis in 1940 and first recorded by the Trapp Family Singers in 1951—none others than the Nazi-evading inspiration for The Sound of Music.

But Bowie wanted no part of singing one of the more staid tunes in the already-staid Christmas music repertoire and nearly backed out from the special. A last-minute emergency songwriting session with the show’s producer, scriptwriter, and songwriter-for-hire produced the contrapuntal “Peace on Earth,” whose wide-ranging melody and dovish lyrics served as a more passionate and pacifistic counterpoint to “Little Drummer Boy.” About midway through, Bing and Bowie snap into a sudden unison on the refrain: “Every child must be made aware / Every child must be made to care / Care enough for his fellow man / To give all the love that he can.”

Bing Crosby and David Bowie Perform “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy,” 1977

An oddly heartwarming moment in the midst of an otherwise stilted television special, legend has it that the newly-penned musical mashup was rehearsed for no more than an hour and captured on tape in only three takes. Following some charmingly awkward scripted banter, the performance proper gets underway with David Bowie’s keening vocals and hopeful lyrics, soaring over the musical anchor of Crosby’s rich baritone—singing the familiar Christmas standard—and a new Christmas classic was born (even if it took years, and really decades, to reach such an exalted status, helped along by a UK single release in 1982 that went to #3 on the charts). After their brief contact during taping, Bing pronounced that Bowie was “a clean-cut kid and a real asset to the show” who “sings well, has a great voice and reads lines well.” With Bowie getting ready to enter the most commercially-successful phase of his career after the song’s 1982 re-release—especially in the States, complete with a newly clean-cut, blue-eyed-soul image and a clutch of Nile Rodgers-produced post-disco pop megahits on the 1983 album Let’s Dance—the song suddenly resonated more deeply than it likely did during Bowie’s experimental Berlin period when the song was original recorded. Adding extra pathos to the broadcast of the original Christmas special, Crosby died before its 1977 airing, turning it into an unintended posthumous tribute.

So far, so familiar—the song’s oil-and-water formula, however accidental, created a magical musical moment. But what’s more intriguing, one could argue, are the unexpected parallels between Bing and Bowie—at least if one goes back to the place Crosby inhabited in the cultural imagination when he was just around 30 years old himself. Just as Bowie was widely praised and/or condemned for kaleidoscopic role-playing and musical ventriloquism, Crosby was likewise viewed as a “master of artifice” in his day. Beginning in the mid-1930s, just as he was entering his late 20s and early 30s, Bing turned himself into one of the first truly multimedia stars—an icon on record, on the radio, on film, and on television—creating a total, medium-spanning image that may not have been equaled until David Bowie came along, especially with the advent of the glam rock era and its emphasis on theatricality and storytelling.

Technological shifts in the recording studio were a key aspect of this transition in Crosby’s career, just as David Bowie benefitted from the advent of new sound processing technologies—and the rise of the music studio conceived as a musical instrument in its own right—starting in the late 1960s and coming to full fruition in the 1970s. In the early decades of the 20th century, sound recording was very much built on the established vaudeville norm for popular vocalists, with singers reaching for the “back row seats” of the auditorium even in the recording studio; and in fact, singing forcefully into a megaphone was well-nigh necessary to adequately capture vocals recorded onto a wax cylinder. With the transition from mechanical to electrical sound recording in the 1920s and ‘30s, and the great strides that were made in microphone technology—specifically the condenser microphones that were developed during the same time—the act of singing was transformed in the space of a handful of years.

Suddenly, the era of the vaudeville shouter gave way to the age of the crooner, whose intimate, hushed vocals—with microphones picking up every subtle nuance, every vocal inflection and emotional shading—were criticized by some at the time as overly “feminized” (another parallel with the gender-bending rise of the glamsters). The singer-songwriter and popular music critic Ian Whitcomb describes the controversy generated by the rise of the crooners: “The press had a field day disseminating the attacks on the ‘crooning boom’ by moral authorities. In January 1932 they quoted Cardinal O’Connell of Boston: ‘Crooning is a degenerate form of singing…No true American would practice this base art. I cannot turn the dial without getting these whiners and bleaters defiling the air and crying vapid words to impossible tunes’.” The New York Singing Teachers’ Association chimed in, “Crooning corrupts the minds and ideals of the younger generation.” Lee de Forest, one of radio’s inventors, regretted that his hopes for the medium as a dispenser of “golden argosies of tome” had become “a continual drivel of sickening crooning by ‘sax’ players interlaced with blatant sales talk.”

Still, despite Lee de Forest’s protestations, crooning took over the airwaves. And with radio’s shift from relying on live broadcasting as its sole practice to embracing the opportunities offered by magnetic tape—a technology developed by Nazis to spread propaganda—the new crooner-recordists such as Rudy Vallée and Bing Crosby could further manipulate and theatricalize their music and image. This was accomplished, at least in part, through the use of splicing and other sound editing techniques facilitated by tape (these recorded “performances” no longer needed to be approached as equivalent to a linear live performance, but instead could be edited and otherwise manipulated after the fact). But, much like David Bowie, Bing Crosby was a master of the medium—using the latest in high-technology and cutting-edge aesthetics to create deeply human portraits, aching and hyperemotional one moment, uplifting and utterly transcendent the next (no surprise then that David Bowie’s singing style was strongly influenced by the crooner-throwback style of English actor and singer-songwriter Anthony Newley). With the Christmas season largely perceived and encountered, especially in the modern secular imagination, as a time of new beginnings and personal transformations—all the while returning “home for the holidays”—a period suffused with both nostalgic regression and hopeful projection, it makes a great deal of sense that the duo of Bing Crosby and David Bowie would create a Christmas classic that taps into many of the same psychological dynamics, the tangled jumble of hopes and anxieties that likewise animate the crooner-glam musical continuum and its developments over the decades.

This post was produced through a partnership between Smithsonian Year of Music and RILM with its blog Bibliolore.

Written and compiled by Jason Lee Oakes, Editor, Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM).

Bibliography

Dempsey, John Mark. “Bing Crosby: Rock ‘n’ roll godfather”, Going my way: Bing Crosby and American culture, ed. by Ruth Prigozy and Walter Raubicheck. (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2007) 67–78. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2007-26943]

Considers the reputation of Bing Crosby for contemporary audiences, having moved from the “epitome of cool” to being considered somewhat of a relic. This trajectory overlooks how Crosby played a major role in the technological revolution that aided in the development of rock music, specifically when it came to the emotional intimacy and sonic fidelity made possible by (then) modern-day microphones and audio engineering that led to the rise of the “crooners”—an influence that made its way to David Bowie via Anthony Newley. The Bowie/Crosby duet on Peace on Earth/Little drummer boy (1982) has taken on legendary status over the years, marking Crosby’s newfound relevance among younger audiences and Bowie’s movement into the commercial mainstream leading up to Let’s dance in 1983.

Ford, Paul. “How Bing Crosby and the Nazis helped to create Silicon Valley”, The New Yorker (May 8, 2013) https://www.newyorker.com/tech/annals-of-technology/how-bing-crosby-and-the-nazis-helped-to-create-silicon-valley. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2013-47258]

The nineteen-forties Bing Crosby hit White Christmas is a key part of the national emotional regression that occurs every Christmas. Between Christmases, Crosby is most often remembered as a sometimes-brutal father, thanks to a memoir by his son Gary. Less remarked upon is Crosby’s role as a popularizer of jazz, first with Paul Whiteman’s orchestra, and later as a collaborator with, disciple to, and champion of Louis Armstrong. Hardly remarked upon at all is that Crosby, by accident, is a grandfather to the computer hard drive and an angel investor in one of the firms that created Silicon Valley; and that Crosby, quite deliberately, took full advantage of new sound recording technologies that were developed relatively early in his career—from electrical recording to the development of condenser microphones to the advent of magnetic tape. His use of these technologies placed Crosby at the forefront of the crooner movement, which was considered quite daring and controversial at the time.

Giddins, Gary. Bing Crosby: A pocketful of dreams—The early years (1903–1940) (Boston: Little, Brown, 2001). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2001-13056]

Part I of a biography of Bing Crosby (1904–77). The author argues that Crosby was the first white vocalist to appreciate and assimilate the genius of Louis Armstrong: his rhythm, his emotion, his comedy, and his spontaneity. Louis and Bing recorded their first important vocals, respectively, in 1926 (Heebie jeebies) and 1927 (Muddy water) and were the only singers of that era still thriving at the times of their deaths, in the 1970s. When Crosby came of age, most successful male singers were effeminate tenors, and recording artists were encouraged to be bland, the better to sell sheet music. The term pop singer didn’t exist; it was coined in large measure to describe a breed he invented. Bing perfected the use of the microphone, which transfigured concerts, records, radio, movies—even the nature of social intercourse. As vocal styles became more intimate and talking pictures replaced pantomime, private discourse itself grew more casual and provocative. Bing was the first to render the lyrics of a modern ballad with purpose, the first to suggest an erotic undercurrent. Part II in this series is abstracted as RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2018-6672. (publisher)

Hoskyns, Barney. Glam! Bowie, Bolan and the glitter rock revolution (New York: Pocket Books, 1998). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1999-35073]

Glam rock was prefab, anti-craft, allied to artifice and the trash aesthetic. From 1970 to 1974 glam rockers such as David Bowie, Marc Bolan and T. Rex, Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music, and Iggy Pop injected life into the pop-cultural landscape. With glitz artistry, they were the gender-bending, trendsetting performers of the music movement that was centered in London but spread around the world. Glam rock’s progenitors are discussed, from Oscar Wilde to Liberace, as is the continued influence of glam on diverse artists, including Parliament-Funkadelic, Prince, The Smiths, Adam Ant, the New Romantic movement, glam metal (e.g., Poison), and Suede. (publisher)

Whitcomb, Ian. “The coming of the crooners”, Survey of American popular music, ed. by Frank Hoffmann and Robert Birkline. (Huntsville: Sam Houston State University, 2010) https://www.shsu.edu/~lis_fwh/book/roots_of_rock/support/crooner/EarlyCroonersIntro2.htm. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2010-47550]

The apex of the crooner is traced—including the technological transformations they helped usher into the music industry and the criticism they faced in some quarters. In some cases, male crooners were criticized as not being “real men” and for “sapping the national virility”. The press had a field day disseminating the attacks on the “crooning boom” by moral authorities. In January 1932, they quoted Cardinal O’Connell of Boston: “Crooning is a degenerate form of singing…No true American would practice this base art. I cannot turn the dial without getting these whiners and bleaters defiling the air and crying vapid words to impossible tunes”. The New York Singing Teachers’ Association chimed in, “Crooning corrupts the minds and ideals of the younger generation”. Lee de Forest, one of radio’s inventors, regretted that his hopes for the medium as a dispenser of “golden argosies of tome” had become “a continual drivel of sickening crooning by ‘sax’ players interlaced with blatant sales talk”. The story begins in the 19th century, where the world of drawing rooms and minstrel shows propelled American vernacular singing into the 20th century. Modern technology—most notably, the phonograph, radio, and the cinema—transformed pop music into a commodity, which still retained the musical and lyrical sentiments of the Victorian romantic tradition. With the microphone becoming a totem pole of the early crooners, the crooning phenomenon would become international in scope. The natural American voice, conversational in tone with a touch of gentility, would become lingua franca of popular music.

Discography

Jones, David Robert (David Bowie) and Bing Crosby. Peace on Earth/Little drummer boy. 45-rpm record (RCA Records JV13400; PH13400, 1982). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1982-45536]

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Tina Turner’s second act

 

 

In 1958 Anna Mae Bullock, a backing vocalist in the Kings of Rhythm, married the group’s leader, Ike Turner; in 1960, ahead of the group’s first release with her as lead singer, Ike changed her name to Tina. The recording, A fool in love, became the group’s first million-copy hit.

Rebranded as the Ike & Tina Turner Revue, the group became a world-famous soul band; but the Turners’ relationship was deteriorating drastically due to Ike’s abusive behavior, and in 1976 Tina finally left him and the band, sneaking out of a motel room with only the clothes she was wearing and the 36 cents in her pocket. She subsequently relinquished all legal rights to the songs she had recorded with them.

After appearing with major artists including Rod Stewart and The Rolling Stones, Tina began to reestablish her career, and in 1984 she signed with Capitol Records. Three Top 40 hits and three Grammy Awards soon followed, and to promote her 1986 album Break every rule she toured for 14 months, performing 230 concerts. The effort paid off: the album went platinum, and its lead track, Typical male, was another Top 40 hit. By the 1990s she was firmly established as a major pop star and film actress, with an enormous and devoted international fan base.

This according to “Tina Turner” by Steve Valdez (Encyclopedia of music in the 20th century [New York: Routledge, 2013] p. 641); this resource is one of many included in RILM music encyclopedias, an ever-expanding full-text compilation of reference works.

Today is Tina Turner’s 80th birthday! Above, her 50th Anniversary Tour, 2008–09; below, Proud Mary in 2000.

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Johnny Mercer, America’s troubadour

 

Raised in Savannah, Johnny Mercer brought a quintessentially southern style to both his life in New York and to his lyrics, which often evoked the landscapes and mood of his youth (Moon river, In the cool, cool, cool of the evening).

Mercer also absorbed the music of southern blacks—the lullabies his nurse sang to him as a baby and the spirituals of Savannah’s churches—and that cool smooth lyrical style informed some of his best-known songs, such as That old black magic.

Mercer took Hollywood by storm in the midst of the Great Depression; putting words to some of the most famous tunes of the time, he wrote one hit after another, from You must have been a beautiful baby to Jeepers creepers. But it was also in Hollywood that Mercer’s dark underside emerged. When he drank, Mercer tore into friends and strangers alike with vicious abuse.

During World War II Mercer served as America’s troubadour, turning out such uplifting songs as My shining hour. He also helped to create Capitol Records, the first major West Coast recording company, where he launched the careers of many talented singers, including Peggy Lee and Nat King Cole. During this period, he also began an intense affair with Judy Garland, which rekindled time and again for the rest of their lives. Garland became Mercer’s muse and inspired some of his most sensuous and heartbreaking lyrics, such as Blues in the night, One for my baby, and Come rain or come shine.

This according to Skylark: The life and times of Johnny Mercer by Philip Furia (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003).

Today is Mercer’s 110th birthday! Above, a publicity shot from around 1947; below, the Moon river sequence from Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

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