Saturday, November 29, 2008

Art for Art’s Sake Vs. Utilitarianism

This post is going to touch on a concept I learned in graduate school, but don’t let that scare you away. It’s about music, and I won’t test you on the material. I won’t even put you to sleep.

I mentioned an “innovation” for this post, but I am starting the writing an hour after I wanted to upload the post, so screw innovation. I’ll get my point across the usual way, if you’re kind enough to follow the in-text music links at the appropriate moment.

What I want to bring up is the times that music, usually a great bonding material, creates isolation. Music bonds people instantly when, for example, someone walks through a store that is part of the exclusive selling chain for the new AC-DC album, and he picks up a copy of Black Ice just as someone wearing a ratty AC-DC t-shirt walks by. T-Shirt Guy nods knowingly at CD-Holding Guy. What T-Shirt Guy doesn’t know is that CD-Holding Guy, who is now writing a blog post about the moment, had no intention of buying that CD anytime real soon. But I did nod back.

I like almost all music, in the sense that I can find a redeeming quality in almost any track. My students (and I) are amused at my fondness for “Shake That” by Eminem, an artist I dismissed for a decade but now listen to voluntarily. I listen to his work without having given up my affinity for Pérez Prado and Howard Jones. It’s one big all-inclusive music world in caithiseach-land. But not everyone lands as firmly on the fence as I do, and taking a side in the world of musical politics leads to snobbery and even ostracism.

In college, we discussed the trajectories of literary movements, some of which lasted a century. To keep this really short, I’ll note that sometimes people thought art should be ornamental, a way to make life more beautiful, and at other times, people expected art to serve a social purpose. In Latin American Modernism of the late 1800s, the point was to be pretty. By the time César Vallejo came of age, poetry served to educate the masses, give perspective on how life could be better. In the 1990s, an Indiana University professor wrote a paper in which he took Wordsworth to task for not addressing the plight of the homeless. Sheesh.

So it has gone with recorded music, in much more rapid cycles. From the early “frivolous” tunes of the 1890s to serious hymns and patriotic World War I music, to the Charleston, to Depression commentary and patriotic World War II music, to 1950s love songs, to anti-war Vietnam music, to “Playground in My Mind,” and so on. At times, there is a mix of trends and attitudes toward music. I got caught in one such whirlpool in the 1970s. It wasn’t pretty.

If you have been reading this blog for a while, you know that the 45s I owned when I was a toddler were all over the stylistic map. I developed a preference for bouncy, melodic music, but I didn’t limit myself. That broad exposure to music set me up to be completely comfortable with what they were playing in 1976, as you will soon hear: cue the music!

What I am going to say now will make more sense if you cue the music. That minute of music includes snippets of “Sail Along, Silv’ry Moon” by Billy Vaughn and His Orchestra and “My Heart Has a Mind of Its Own” by Connie Francis. Those songs, and others I owned, put the alto sax and the classic 1-4-5 progression (the guitar in the Francis song) in my comfort zone. They made it very probable that I would take an instant liking to the third song in the clip.

So, on a Sunday morning in early April, 1976, WCFL in Chicago, the “other” Top 40 station in town, suddenly dropped into its rotation the new ABBA single. I heard it ten times in the next three days, then the song disappeared forever. From the first listen, I found “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do” (Atlantic 3310) very pleasing to my musical palate. What I didn’t know was that absolutely everyone else I knew would hate it.

I blame the limitations of AM radio for part of the problem. WLS and WCFL, like many stations of their time, did something they called “compression” when they played songs. Someone at the station would take songs and speed them up a tiny bit, thus saving ten seconds per song, the equivalent of a short song and two extra valuable commercials over the course of an hour. The DJs claimed that compression didn’t change the sound of the song, but I knew better. Listen to this approximation of “I Do” (easily the hardest song title to type, ever) as it came out of the speaker of my clock radio in 1976: Cue the music again! (You can compare that sound file to the one at the end of the blog.)

Compression made most ABBA singles sound as if there were a bit of Swedish Chipmunk in the singers’ DNA, which is unfortunate, as you know if you have heard them sing at the proper speed. In 1976, most of the people I knew were casual enough about music not to notice the pitch difference, so they thought all the artists on the radio sounded a bit odd. It was only the sopranos, however, who really sounded bad. They, and Eddie Holman, who sounded like a lesbian when he sang “Hey There, Lonely Girl” on WLS in 1970.

The other aspect of the “I Do” issue, for my friends, is that they had not been exposed at an early age to Billy Vaughn and Connie Francis. I was able to enjoy all of the ABBA music I heard: rock(ish), Calypso, pseudo-classical, and jazzy stuff. The style of “I Do” was something with which I had no experience: schlager. All Europeans have been exposed to the stuff, via the Eurovision Song Contest and any number of releases by German singers. I didn’t know in 1976 that schlager was to be disdained. I liked the sax, the harmonies, and the structure of “I Do.” And when I finally heard the song in stereo, in a car with a good sound system, in late May, 1976, I fell for the voices and the sax.

Everyone shook their head in disgust and snickered to my face. I just pined for a song I had not bought while the 45 was available. I recreated it in my head, especially in biology class, when I was not intrigued by the lesson.

It was another 45 I let slip by. But one day in Shoals, Indiana, my brother (future Iraq veteran brother) found a copy at the Alco Dime Store. While everyone was up the hill at my Aunt Helen’s house, having a pre-Christmas dinner, I rigged my grandparents’ console stereo so it would play the 45 over and over, and I listened to the song 25 times.

When I went back up the hill, my siblings shook their head in disgust and snickered to my face.

I didn’t let them bother me, because they hassled me in numerous other ways already. But my credibility at school was dropping because I liked this song. What was I to do about that?

I kept liking the song, but I shut up about it. Those people were lost causes, not worthy of attempts at conversion. (I say that to mask the pain.)

This is where “art for art’s sake” comes in. “I Do” is a vase, meant to sit on a corner table, as “Sugar, Sugar” and a number of other Jeff Barry songs are meant to do. There is a place for the utilitarian song, like Edwin Starr’s “War.” But I, unlike a lot of people of my generation, am willing to devote three minutes and fifteen seconds to sonic delight with no redeeming qualities. It does occur to me that some of the people I know who think music must have a purpose are in the habit of plopping themselves down in front of Big Brother XLV or a Minnesota Timberwolves game. And no, friends, I am not referring to anyone who reads this blog.

A complaint (and praise) I have heard about the recordings of ABBA is that they are in control of what they do. In that aspect, I see their work as an attempt to produce pop in a classical form. I don’t mean orchestral rock in the style of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, but an attempt to be crisp in the performance of the songs. One such song, “As Good As New,” is documented as having given Madonna the idea for “Papa Don’t Preach.” And one of the most raw songwriters and performers you’ll ever hear, Kurt Cobain, often had ABBA cranking on the tour bus. Go figure.

In such company, I no longer feel bad about enjoying their music. I don’t listen to it to feed my brain, but it covers a multitude of wounds after a long work week. And something few notice is the depth: buried in many of the smooth songs is an instrument that lunges against its tethers. It takes some doing to tease the rage into the open, as in this case: Cue the music yet again!

That somewhat raw guitar is buried in the depths of an ABBA mix. I know where it is, of course, so it sounds obvious to me. I’ll be interested to know if the chord structure and occasional specks of other instruments and voices give it away, or if you are left wondering which song is its source. If you ask, I’ll tell you Wednesday.

So, I have always seen ABBA’s work as art without attempts at pretentiousness. Close to the other end of the spectrum I would place Bob Dylan, whom I respect for reasons that are basically the polar opposites of the reasons I respect ABBA. I thank Bob, for example, for singing in such a way that I always thought I could be a star, too.

The rock critics who grew up listening to the Vietnam-era music of the 1960s then became the judges who trashed ABBA at Rolling Stone and elsewhere. In 1981-82, I read in Rolling Stone something to the effect of “The Visitors is a pretty lousy album, but given the size of their stock portfolios, we should be glad ABBA is making any music at all.” Just Wednesday, I read about the ABBA corpus in a new Rolling Stone LP guide, and the consensus was that the albums were pretty good and worth acquiring. It’s funny what happens when the critics are people who listened to ABBA as kids, rather than Hendrix, the Stones and Dylan.

I don’t feel vindicated, per se, I just feel glad that there are people besides me who can handle art for art’s sake in the musical realm. I just hope they like Dylan and Eminem, too.

A final note: It intrigues me that the original sheet music for “I Do” includes a verse that ABBA never recorded. It’s no more significant than the rest of the lyrics, but it would be fun to hear it. Fun for me, and maybe not for you. Oh, well.

For Wednesday, I’ll bring you one of my childhood 45s, one I recovered after the Great Vinyl Meltdown, one that proves that you should never start a record label just to find a home for your own recordings. See you Wednesday!

ABBA, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do


musicobsesion said...

I am for the art.

whiteray said...

As one who was in college when ABBA came along (and thus of an age when Vietnam and its rock soundtrack was a vital part of my life and so on), I'll freely admit there are some of the group's singles that I love: "Waterloo," "SOS" and the sheer melodic delight of "Dancing Queen" (greatest glissando ever!) still please me, especially when heard adjacent to Big Mama Thornton, Bob Dylan, Steely Dan, U2, Coolio, Madonna, Joss Stone, Neil Young (utterly timeless) or anyone else!

Lizzle-ba-Dizzle said...

The first time I heard an ABBA song was one of the defining moments of my life. The first few bars of "Ring Ring" washed over me and it was the greatest thing I'd ever heard. Oh, wow. It made me really uncool, because it was 1995 and I was listening to my parents' music, but oh, were my ears happy.

Art for art's sake? Yes, please.

Barely Awake In Frog Pajamas said...

If you ask me, life's too short and there's too many headaches to deprive yourself of something that makes you happy (no matter how uncool it might be considered).

On our Thanksgiving trek, Paloma and I listened to everything frpm Pet Sounds to Chinese Democracy as well as albums by the db's, Carpenters, Men Without Hats, Burt Bacharach, Beatles, and, yes, ABBA.

Any major dude with half a heart said...

As you know, I have little time for the Taste Police. So I'll see your "I Do I Do etc" and raise the stakes with the Spice Girls' "Wannabe". A glorious pop song.

The first couple of Abba albums featured a number of schlager type songs which in quality eclipsed most of schlager music, even if they are the Fredos of the Abba canon. Hasta Manana is a good example. Even Ring Ring has a schlager sensibility.

For a while I joined the Abba-bashing. They became the music my mother listened to. They were my mother's age (well, Agnetha was a bit younger). They were ubiquitous. And I was into Dexys, German new wave (Neue Deutsche Welle), AC/DC...

But secretly I still loved their music. Slowly I acknowledged doing so "ironically". With time, wholeheartedly.

The Name Of The Game, IMO, is their most mindboggling song.

Yah Shure said...

When music got "serious" in the early '70s, my fellow college radio renegades and I went the other direction, delighting in spinning Raspberries, Big Star, ABBA and the bunch. We couldn't have cared less what the rest of the campus thought; having fun times with some great tunes kept us somewhat sane amidst the chaos.

"I Do X5" remains my favorite ABBA record. The quality of the group's production was what set them apart, and helped to create an entire planet of closet ABBA fans. I've long enjoyed segueing "I Do" with Billy and Connie. Another great college segue was to go from "SOS" into "Nineteen Hundred And Eighty-Five" from 'Band On The Run.'

The radio term for speeding up a tune is "pitching" a record, whereas compression narrowed the audio's dynamic range. The purpose of pitching the records was to make the competition's music sound like it dragged in comparison to your station's "brighter" sound. Some music was already pitched by the record companies themselves (United Artists even pitched Gerry Rafferty's *entire* City To City' album in the U.S. And when some stations pitched that up by *another* two percent...) I was ordered to pitch the records at one of my stations, and whaddaya know, it made Merle Haggard actually sound happy. The good times really weren't over for good!

What?! Eddie Holman *wasn't* a lesbian?

caithiseach said...

Hey, Yah Shure, thanks for the insider insight on the matter of pitching. That is a far more accurate term for what is going on; it's what I did to "I Do X5" to get it to sound like 1970s AM.

I do promise you, though, that I heard/saw a WLS DJ on Chicago TV, bragging about "compression" and saying that they got in an extra song and two more commercials pper hour. He was probably just a pretty voice with little concern for accurate terminology. I think I know who it was, but I won't knock him here.

And to the rest of the commentators, I feel so . . . not alone now. It doesn't surprise me that the authors of such varied and intriguing blogs would be willing to admit that "even this stuff" has merit. What a great row of comments. Thank you.