5 captures 22 Dec 2017 - 16 Dec 2018
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POP VIEW; How Pop Music Lost the Melody
By STEPHEN HOLDEN
Published: July 3, 1994
FLASHBACK. IT IS A SATURDAY morning in 1953. On Martin Block's weekly radio show, "The Make Believe Ballroom," the No. 1 hit is the novelty sensation "(How Much Is That) Doggie in the Window?," which has carried "the singing rage, Miss Patti Page" to new heights of popularity. The chirpy Bob Merrill song, which Ms. Page croons demurely in a molasses alto, punctuates the title phrase with cute little dog barks. In the lyric, the singer falls in love with a puppy with a waggly tail that is displayed in a pet shop window.
The picture the song conjures of a sweet young thing pining for an adorable pooch distills the cozy middle-class dream world of early 1950's pop culture. "Doggie in the Window" is an airtight bonbon of candied sweetness and light.
Flash forward. It is a sultry Saturday evening in 1994. You can hear the car coming from blocks away. As it turns the corner and cruises down the avenue, the boom-boom-boom of its speakers has the stunning effect of a machine-gun volley from an army tank.
Above the beat is the sly, insinuating voice of the gangster rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg drawling his obscenity-laced adventure stories of sex and crime from his three-million-selling album, "Doggystyle." Except for a reworking of the 1962 hit "Sukiyaki," newly outfitted with smutty lyrics, "Doggy style" has nothing that could be described as a tune. Snoop's cool, sarcastic rappings are wound through a collage of party sounds and electronic squeaks. His monologues of inner-city life have been spliced into a catchy soundtrack that exalts the brutal thrills of an outlaw existence.
"Doggystyle" presents itself as an aural fun-house mirror of the real-life urban hell that all the moral strictures and positive-thinking platitudes from the era of "Doggie in the Window" were meant to preclude. But there is no denying the place of "Doggystyle" in pop music history. It belongs to a long tradition of black street song that connects the bawdy blues of the late 1920's to Curtis Mayfield's "Superfly" to Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five's rap anthem "The Message."
In "Doggystyle" and its many gangster-rap cousins, everything that was not only unsayable but unprintable in 1953 is now being shouted and sneered. On the cutting edge of pop where hip-hop, grunge and metal rock meet and sometimes merge, nihilism and obscenity are threatening to become the new pop kitsch, as much a knee-jerk lyrical posture as the squeaky-clean cliches of togetherness and happily-ever-after that twinkled through the perky pop ditties of the early 1950's.
Those songs from the 50's, along with the rest of mass culture during the cold war, exalted a collective innocence romanticized by censored Hollywood dreams. In those days, the power of positive platitudes promised more than insulation from life's pain. A collective belief in slogans like "progress is our most important product" was felt to be an almost physical shield from Communist evil. America's innocence was a badge of our moral superiority to the rest of the world.
But beginning in the mid-1950's, the pendulum began its long, slow swing in the other direction. Around the same time that the boom of the atomic bomb began to echo through millions of American nightmares, its distant thunder infiltrated American pop in a way that was at once ominous and thrilling. The rumble was accompanied by a new mass-culture iconography whose central image was a young man with curled lips, half-closed eyes and slicked hair plucking an electric guitar, his body in sensual spasm.
FORTY YEARS LATER, THAT image has been duplicated, refined and elaborated almost to infinity. The beat has darkened and thickened from a raucous clatter into a heavy, mechanized trudge. The Communist menace may have receded, but the music in the air is anything but relieved. True, traditional Hollywood dreams still have a footing in country music and in the pumped-up ballads of Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Michael Bolton. Nevertheless, expressions of faith, hope and love have increasingly given way to a sour misanthropy.
In today's hard-edged sounds, you can hear whole chunks of the secure dream fortress that was the America's postwar fantasy of itself go clunk. Divorce, single-parent homes, child abuse, poverty, crime, the widening gap between rich and poor, racial inequality, guns, drugs, AIDS, nuclear weapons, the endangered environment and on and on -- humans are the scourge of the planet and Americans aren't exempt.
The most memorable slogan in pop this year may be a flippant admission of defeat: "I'm a loser, baby, so why don't you kill me?" from Beck's hit song "Loser."
There is a contradictory puritanism at work in much of this music. As casually as today's songs allude to once-forbidden topics like sex and drugs, and as freely as they express defiance and rebellion, they do so in a tone that is more despairing than gleeful. The sex is likely to be vengeful and joyless, the drugs more deadening than enlightening. For today's gangster-rap outlaws, freedom of self-expression often equals violence and misogyny. For grunge rockers, pleasure, if not accompanied by anger and rage, is suspect, and sweetness and softness are taboo.
This change in attitude has been a long time coming. It has coincided with pop's ascendancy into the pre-eminent cultural rite of youth. With the rise of the rock album and the baby-boom counterculture in the 1960's, pop began freeing itself to say whatever it wanted, any way it wanted. And its message was a resounding refusal to be nice.
Once free, the leading edge of pop evolved from a soothing background music into an assertive foreground music, from a passive romantic daydream into an aggressive, anti-romantic slice of life.
"There is nothing/ No education/ No family life to open my arms to," growls Philip Anselmo, the lead singer of the speed-metal band Pantera in "Strength Beyond Strength," the opening cut of its recent No. 1 album, "Far Beyond Driven." Sounding like an enraged attack dog surrounded by roaring motorcycles, Mr. Anselmo exhorts mob rule and offers a pungent image of the President holding out his hand on television and drawing back a stump.
In an artier mode, the singer Trent Reznor of the industrial rock group Nine Inch Nails, whose newest album, "The Downward Spiral," recently hit Billboard's album chart at No. 2, proclaims the nonexistence of God, and compares human beings to pigs and reptiles. In "Big Man With a Gun," he impersonates an armed macho authority figure in a psychotic rage, confusing his weapon with his penis. The narrator of the title song imagines the physical sensation of shooting himself in the face. Mr. Reznor's singing veers from a sneering hiss to a frenzied scream against a pummeling drum and guitar assault.
The songs on Soundgarden's recent No. 1 album, "Superunknown," describe feelings of guilt and helpless complicity in a rotten social system. "The day I tried to live/ I wallowed in the blood and mud with all the other pigs," cries Chris Cornell's lyric for "The Day I Tried to Live."
In the music of Pearl Jam, the best-selling rock band of the 1990's, the pain takes on a more personal edge. Eddie Vedder, Pearl Jam's lead singer, echoes Bruce Springsteen's brawny vocal heroism. But where Mr. Springsteen's music spoke of transcending personal hardship through faith, courage and hard work, Mr. Vedder's songs are the cries of someone unable to shake off personal demons. The images of abuse and persecution that run through Pearl Jam's music turn the majesty of classic guitar-driven rock agonizingly against itself.
In "Rear View Mirror," from Pearl Jam's second album, "Vs.," the singer stumbles off in panicked flight from childhood memories of beatings and humiliation and "enmity gagged by fear." "Rats" declares that human beings are a lower species than scavenging rodents because rats "don't drink the blood of their so-called best friend."
The malaise of modern life has become embedded not just in lyrics like these but in the very form and fabric of the music. A music that has surrendered melody to beats is a music that trusts the body more than the mind. A music that is often literally deafening is a music that acknowledges a world whose technology is beyond people's control. A music that speaks in fractured, elliptical gasps instead of telling a story with a beginning, a middle and an end is a music that implies that there is no future -- or at least no future that could be imagined with any certainty.
As much as it reflects a sense of disappointment and diminished possibilities, today's cutting-edge music is also the expression of an institutionalized adolescent male rebellion that dates back to Elvis Presley.
It was another canine, Elvis's 1956 recording of "Hound Dog," that fired one of the rebellion's opening salvos. This crude, funny, sexy, shout of frustration at a dog who "ain't never caught a rabbit" genuinely shocked the pop music establishment of the 1950's. It injected a pop climate feminized by World War II love songs with a shot of testosterone and augured the hyper-masculinization of music that embraces hard rock, heavy metal, punk, funk and hip-hop.
In retrospect it is almost touching to recognize the degree to which the baby-boom generation recycled its parents' optimistic pop dreams in the late 1960's, even while appearing to reject them. Instead of exalting true love and happily-ever-after, the baby boomers raised the ante of love from a comfy togetherness to an even more unrealistic utopian cosmic consciousness. That heady bubble, symbolized by the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love" was quickly burst.
In the end, the vengeful, iconoclastic side of hippie grandiosity proved far more prophetic than its dreaminess. Nine years after "Hound Dog," Bob Dylan's nasal sneer opened pop music up to natural voices. Mr. Dylan's stream-of-consciousness effusions undermined pop's already tottering conventions of song structure and rhyme and insisted that pop's subject matter be nothing less than the infinite self. Countless versions of that self have asserted themselves ever since.
Fifteen years after Mr. Dylan, rap music broke down the next major barrier to raw self-expression with its elimination of melody. Since then, all that has distinguished much rap music from talk radio, stand-up comedy and real-life television has been its relentlessly aggressive beat.
Where the pop of the early 1950's evoked a spick-and-span suburban kitchen, the music of the early 1990's suggests a steel-and-concrete sports complex built to withstand the herd's trampling assault. In this hard physical testing ground, there is little room for nurturing private love dreams. Ever since the gyrating guitar hero and his motorcycle mama superseded the smiling crooners as the romantic heroes of pop, the erotic focus of music has shifted from the spiritual to the physical. The rise of the music video clinched the pop star's metamorphosis from a disembodied voice into a piece of meat. The MTV parade of hunks and supermodels has helped to assert a new survival-of-the-hottest erotic hierarchy. Only the shapely are welcome in the safe-sex pleasure dome where Madonna, flanked by R. Kelly, Janet Jackson and Salt-n-Pepa, reigns as the high priestess of eros.
The rage fueling grunge-rock music stems partly from the unresolvable moral dilemma of finding your pain, frustration and alienation being used to sell burgers and blue jeans. The moment pop was absorbed by television, a medium that reduces everything it embraces into competing commercial images, it lost the higher moral ground it had long claimed for itself.
FLASH FORWARD. IT IS PRIME time on a Saturday night in 2014, and 15-year-old Johnny B. Badd has plugged his head into the MTVR channel for the weekly countdown of the top virtual-reality hits. No. 1 for the fifth consecutive week is the new "dark" version of the 1953 song "Doggie in the Window," whose original arfs-arfs have been sampled, treated and amplified into what VR-Stone magazine praised in its five-star review as "the most feral and terrifying cries ever recorded."
Starring in this six-minute slice of computer-simulated carnage is the country's hottest new virtual-reality star, Elvis Doggie Bag Man, a cartoon character with a tattooed Superman body and devil's horns. Although the video has already drawn the wrath of animal-rights advocates, MTVR executives point out that the creature used in "Doggie in the Window" is only a computer simulation.
Johnny has prepared for the Monday night countdown in his usual way, having consumed three extra-jumbo McPizza kings, several beers and a tab of Zump, a hot new street drug that makes virtual reality seem 10 times as real.
As Elvis starts to scream the title phrase against a bashing electronic beat, Johnny feels the rhythm pumping through his body and he imagines that he has slipped into the invincible tattooed steel body of the Doggie Bag Man.
Now Elvis-as-Johnny/Johnny-as-Elvis feels himself hurtling down an alley like a living bullet toward the canine snarls that grow louder and louder. A blast of lightning, and Johnny is suddenly eye to eye with the giant pit bull as it is about to spring for his throat, its jaws dripping, its eyes phosphorescent with fury.
As the pulse intensifies into a machine-gun barrage, Johnny's cries and the dog's howls lock in a delirium of rage and terror and excitement. His hands grasp the beast's throat, and suddenly everything explodes into a bubbling red sea.
The dog falls back into a heap. Johnny rises, his hands drenched in blood and entrails. He looks down at the dead animal and slowly raises his fist in triumph, smiling grimly as the music slowly fades.
"We ain't nothin' but dogs," he howls over and over. "Dead dogs. We ain't nothin' but dead dogs."
Photos: Bob Dylan -- His nasal sneer undermined pop's already tottering conventions of song structure and rhyme. (David Gahr); Elvis Presley -- His music added a shot of testosterone to the love song. (CBS); The Beatles -- Their utopian cosmic consciousness, symbolized by "All You Need Is Love," was a bubble quickly burst. Trent Reznor -- His frenzied screams are played against the pummeling drum and guitar produced by his one-man studio band called Nine Inch Nails. (Larry Busacca/Retna)(pg. 24); The bonbon and the badman -- Patti Page was the perfect demure alto crooner for the dream world of the early 1950's. (Interscope Records); Snoop Dogg's music pounds the streetscape like a burst of gunfire from a tank. (Photofest)(pg. 1)
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