10 March 2012

By(gone)-Product of an Era

A few nights ago, my roommate was laughing in awe and befuddlement at the musical stylings of one Richard Cheese, a lounge singer whose choice of subject matter is, to put it mildly, eclectic. Music is ultimately a reflection of the culture that created it. As such, Country is typically about working on a farm or driving a truck while pretending not to care what others think, Punk is about railing against an establishment or fighting oppression by wearing mismatched articles of torn clothing, Rap is about growing up on the mean streets only to sell out and buy a mansion while the public school clings to its one microscope, and Lounge singing is about losing an entire year's income on keno and drowning subsequent sorrows in margaritas.

Obviously, there are exceptions, far too few (especially in Rap and Country, but that's for another discussion) overall, but exceptions all the same, and Richard Cheese is a Lounge singer who sings about... really what everyone else sings about and then some, just filtered through the style of a Rat Pack-era Vegas Lounge act. If it sounds like he's a novelty act, that's because he probably is, but here's a question:

What's wrong with that?

When Swing Kids came out, I remember being obsessed with "Sing, Sing, Sing (With a Swing)" by Louis Prima not just from the trailers for the film, but also the Chips Ahoy! commercials of the time. This was about 1993, and I was completely alone in my newfound obsession with this era of music. Although bands like Cherry Poppin' Daddies and Squirrel Nut Zippers were around, their popularity was niche at best. This was the grunge era of music, when bands like Stone Temple Pilots, Alice In Chains, and Nirvana were all the rage. None of it really interested me, which is why stuff like swing held so much appeal; it was practically the polar opposite of alternative, but didn't have that lofty pretentiousness of classical or the tired banality of older rock.

Later on, as tended to happen to me with trends and fads (don't get me started on POGs.), I grew out of swing just in time for everyone at my high school to declare it the next big thing. Along with Ska, swing didn't just become a type of music people liked, it became a lifestyle, with people adopting the dress sense of these bands like The Mighty Mighty Bosstones or The Brian Setzer Orchestra and some even starting ska-themed bands of their own. Just like grunge, I didn't really care.

At least, I didn't care until I heard "Zoot Suit Riot" and some little assortment of machinery started whirring and clicking away in my head. It wasn't trying to reconcile its anachronistic terminology with modern-day living, I'd worked that out years ago. Rather, it was the two-pronged question of, "How many people know what a Zoot Suit even is (let alone a riot centering around them), and is there any modern equivalent that isn't already represented in some other genre of music?"

In other words, why does this style and genre of music not only have to be a reflection of the era that created it, but ultimately be stuck in that era?

Think about this, if I wrote a song meant to be played on an old-school synthesizer like the Fairlight CMI, would my lyrics have to make references to leg-warmers and big hair? Would my album's artwork have to feature someone in a pair of shutter shades and a jean jacket?

Why would a swing piece about MySpace seem so weird or even hokey? Why would it be written off as a novelty track on par with "Telstar" or "Witch Doctor"?

If I sound crazy, here's one last little bite of food-for-thought: When you hear the term "Hammond Organ" what exactly do you think of first? Electric organs were meant as inexpensive alternatives to traditional pipe organs that smaller churches couldn't afford. So, if that was their intended use, and given how frozen-in-time swing and lounge acts seem to be, why have so many progressive rock bands implemented them so pervasively? Just look at Keith Emerson or Rick Wakeman or David Greenslade. Sure, most of them moved onto more advanced synthesizers, but the Hammond Organ still got a lot of mileage outside of churches, yet so many people probably still think of hymns and old radio plays.
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