Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Beethoven rolls over — again! And Tchaikovsky's heard it all before!

It's gotta be rock 'n' roll music, if you want to dance with some people, I guess. And it's gotta be heard the way they hear it.

My recent FB post venting about rock criticism [I've cut and pasted the post in a comment box below] was perhaps too categorical in seeming to dismiss rock music in general. I'm inferring that some of the blowback I got was provoked by this sentence: "Pop music, historically considered, is about memories, not merit."

Hopelessly dated — and that's a good thing.
What provoked me was an NPR interview with Greil Marcus, who I guess has some standing in his field and has just written a book (a book!) about 10 songs that define rock 'n' roll even though they aren't obvious "greatest hits."

The phrase "historically considered" is essential to understand what I was getting at. "Merit" can be applied to anything in the world, for sure. Yet in pop music — particularly since the advent of rock 'n' roll and the commercial triumph of youth culture — memories are the touchstone. The brief flowering of each new song attains a lasting bloom only in retrospect. In the short term, the song is  designed to lodge in the psyches of impressionable youth. From there, the immediately expected payoff is record sales and, more recently, increased downloadable prominence.

What rock criticism gets wrong is attempting to apply the long view of arts criticism to music explicitly designed for short-term marketability.  It's irrelevant and pretentious to do so. And putting up an ancient hit record against a modern "cover" (a wretched jargon term that was originally, and correctly, applied to white versions of black songs — for the sake of marketability, by the way) is a ploy designed to justify the critic, not the music.


Case in point: the Teddy Bears' "To Know Him Is  to Love Him" versus Amy Winehouse's 2007 recording.

If I wanted to play Marcus' game, I could launch a crit-fit all my own. It could  go in several directions.  For example, I could don my classical cap snugly and smugly — risking the accusation that I come to praise the monster, Phil Spector, who wrote the song — to say that the key change in the bridge section raises the intensity just at the point when the anxiety behind the girl's unquestioning devotion bursts through.

The texture also thickens (more apparent with the Teddy Bears than the minimalist Winehouse) to heighten the anxiety, and the melodic line becomes more chromatic, especially toward the end, at the words "Someday he'll see that he was meant for me," after which the backup vocalists drift behind the singer through V and IV back to I for the "A" section to repeat. (It's not insignificant that "me" in what I've quoted rests on the dominant, the second-most important pitch after the tonic, or key center, thus reminding us that the girl is really focused on herself, not him. And, just after "me"— for the Teddy Bears, not Winehouse — the girl's self-conscious, BuddyHollyesque "uh-oh" is the perfect fillip .)

If the egregious Marcus were my model, I might point out that the song, especially in this version, is sort of the inverse of what classical settings of the Mass do with the "Credo."  There, anxiety enters the music after "Et incarnatus est" (indicating the provisional nature of this life) and the texture typically thins and darkens with the words "sub Pontio Pilato passus et sepultus est" (= suffered under Pontius Pilate and was buried), only to brighten suddenly and shed chromaticism with "Et resurrexit".

In "To Know Him Is to Love Him," in contrast, the certainty is frontloaded in the "A" section; the mood is one of calm devotion. The song's dark counterpart to "Et resurrexit" in the Mass is "Why can't he see? How blind can he be?" — questions that introduce doubt into puppy-love sentiment as decisively as "And he rose again on the third day according  to the Scriptures" introduces triumph into the Credo.

Or, switching hats, I could stick more to pop history/sociology, and draw attention to the special value of the doo-wop style, of which the Teddy Bears' version is a fair white representation. The dappled texture of doo-wop's solo and group phrases has its parallel in similar contrasts between soloists and chorus in classical Mass settings. Whatever the other merits of doo-wop, it was great to dance to — both the fast (I still pop my 45 of the Del-Vikings' "Whispering Bells" onto the turntable now and then and twitch spasmodically, somewhat like Peter Sellers in "Dr. Strangelove") and the slow tunes.

The background vocals gave continuity and drive to the melody; in the slow songs, the heavy overlay of triplets on the basic slow four was intoxicating. For the Teddy Bears, the men repeating "And I do, and I do, and I do" reinforces the main vocal line and embeds the girl's sincerity. Doo-wop is dependably capable of undergirding adolescent illusions. That's why I dared to share a personal memory about the song that did not  particularly flatter me. So what? "To Know Him Is to Love Him" did its job when it was supposed to, and in a style appropriate to it.

Winehouse's version fusses with the vocal line — nothing steady remains: She also fatally blurs the emotional contrast between the "A" and "B" sections. And discarding the doo-wop accompaniment for solo acoustic guitar is just plain wrong — the musical objective correlative of an addict's narcissism. However, the laws of pop decree that any original and its covers may properly be judged by how well they do in the marketplace, period. As I declared in my FB post: "Rock and roll is here to stay only [I should have said "mainly"] in the nostalgic minds of baby boomers" — and their kids and grandkids, who have music of their own to put money into and make memories of.