Tuesday, December 04, 2012

The overlooked cultural collapse of 1950s pop music

Our car came with a trial subscription to XM radio, which we have enjoyed just enough to listen to all the time and not enough to actually purchase. In particular, we (that is, I) are intrigued by the decades stations - 40s on 4, 50s on 5, 60s on 6, etc. They're like very pleasing history lessons for we who are remarkably ignorant about even the recent past. I'm no expert in American popular music, and so neither am I big snob about it. I like mid-century soul and R&B and its well-packaged Motown incarnations, and also whatever sounds nice enough to listen to on continuous repeat for a while. Repeat is the only test of quality for me, and a test of psychological endurance for my husband. Not knowing much about the history of popular music then, I was surprised to discover what's on rotation on the 50s on 5 channel.

The '50s were in my mind the decade of Sam Cooke and Chuck Berry and Little Richard, and also doo-wop. Most of this stuff is cheesy, but since I also love country music, I have developed a substantial appetite for cheese. And it's not as though mainstream rock and roll like Sam Cooke is about anything other than young love, failed love, aspiring love, and dancing. I take that to fall within the realm of cheese, and what distinguishes good cheese from Kraft cheese is the ineffable lyrics-music combination of "Good Times," not the lyrics alone. (Amateurs like me can always claim "ineffability" for their side.) What I failed to realize but have learned from 50s on 5 is that the 1950s may have been a decade made almost entirely out of not even Kraft cheese but string cheese - 10 years of children's songs. (Note: this post would have maximum effect if you were to open Spotify and test its claims. At the very least, you will be briefly entertained.)

The 1950s seems to have produced four types of distinctly childish music. First, food music. "Peanut Butter" is not a real song. It is a product ad. It is one of apparently an entire genre of 1950s hit songs in praise of children's foods. Another example is "Pizza Pie," a song describing a man's lifelong affair with pizza, which gets him a wife, feeds his children, and whose continued consumption is his dying wish. There is also "Ginger Bread," which is an extended metaphor comparing a girl to the eponymous cake. Then there is cartoon music - the songs that narrate stories that sound like the plotlines of Saturday morning cartoons - "The Thing," "Sea Cruise," or "The Battle of New Orleans."

And a third category of such music is made up of noise songs - songs that have few actual lyrics, but seem to exist as avenues for their singers to test the bizarre combinations of sounds that the human throat can make. "Blue Moon" and "Da Doo Ron Ron" are famous examples, but I've also been introduced to such gems as "Ling Ting Tong" (not only nonsensical, but also vaguely racist and improbable - "I went to Chinatown way back in old Hong Kong"), and "Don't You Know Yockomo," "Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow," "Hully Gully," "Rama Lama Ding Dong," "Tutti Frutti," "Loddy Lo," "Ooh Poo Pah Doo," "Ooby Dooby." Etc. Does this strain of insipidity grow out of doo-wop, which in turn sounds like it grew out of an inordinate national glorification of college a capella? Or out of bebop? Both? Your blogger does not know, but seeks information.

Then there are the songs that I can only thematically describe as "pre-teen love ballads." These songs must make up well over half of the station's rotation. I cannot even begin to list them all, but they consisted practically the entire oeuvre of groups like Dion and the Belmonts, Frankie Lyman and the [appropriately-named] Teenagers, Neil Sedaka, etc. They are love songs, but clearly pitched at "lovers" whose romances begin and end in their prepubescent dreams. For example, "My Boy Lollipop." In addition to being about nothing at all, it demonstrates the vocal quality of a very talented cat. "Pink Shoe Laces," another Shirley Temple sounding number, is also rather amusing when played in the present. The problem with this obnoxious genre is that the love it celebrates aspires to be relatable, but is so caricatured as to only be so to the very young, if even them. "Each night I ask the stars up above/why must I be a teenager in love?" As these singers would themselves say about this, ooh-a-ooh. There are songs about girls' names, their socks, and the totally plausible proposition that a high school break-up is the most shattering thing that can happen in a life. But nothing to appeal to love that adults might experience.

Now, these songs are not all bad. I like "Tutti Frutti" and "The Battle of New Orleans," for example, and indeed first heard the latter when I was about nine. Which is my point. These are all songs that in 2012 would almost certainly appear on albums marketed explicitly and exclusively to children. And moreover, while it's certainly hard to imagine how this would be mainstream Top-40 music today, what seems more relevant to me is that this kind of music is also a noticeable departure from what is played on the '40s and '60s stations. It's like the entire musical culture of America disintegrated into a pile of sugary mush only palatable by children for 10 years, and then magically reconstituted itself again for adults. These decade-lumps are of course very inexact categories, a fictive convenience for the radio stations, since many of the songs from the late '50s are indistinguishable from those of the early '60s, and so for the '40s. But still, if the playlist of the 50s on 5 station is a representative indicator of what was popular during its chronological purview, this suggests that there was a surprising collapse in musical quality and taste sometime in the 1950s. and children briefly inherited the kingdom.* Why? What happened?

Mainstream soul and R&B from the same era and slightly later did not, as I said, take up "heavy" topics. They're not "edgy" or showily "transgressive." I would of course dislike them if they were, having already explained my disdain for "realism" in popular art. They're mostly love songs, about longing for girls, music, or, sometimes, Jesus. But just because they're not brutal doesn't mean they're childish. Rather they're broadly open, which means that they're both superficially "clean" in their lyrics but musically playful and moving. "You Send Me" is a light love song, but not one that describes love at any specific age - Sam Cooke can be, errr, sent at 16 or 56. The appeal of all pop music for me is the difficulty it presents in creating something new and good while staying within the old constraints of popular taste; unpalatable edginess is simply too easy. Breaking all the rules is no achievement. And you don't have to win all the time - Cooke too sometimes succumbed to the pitfalls described above ("Only Sixteen," perhaps, although there is some irony in that, but no irony in "Let's Go Steady Again"), and certainly lots of other what we now bizarrely consider "serious" rock-and-roll did too, although perhaps "serious" rock critics might say that "Tutti Frutti" is only proto-rock, or a foundation-building song for later, edgier singers. I wouldn't know.

I admit that the above is not a decisive or very articulate distinction between adult and childish pop music. Popular culture is tricky to draw lines in, since the whole thing is about surfaces, passions, perceptions, and predictions about how other people will be moved by something. I could not tell you with reference to any concrete qualities of music why Sam Cooke is really good and "My Boy Lollipop" is garbage. I don't even know that it is, I just feel very strongly that it is, so of all cultural domains, I have least faith in my musical instincts. So, instruct me, musical historians.

*Not that there never was grossly childish adult music after this period - "Yellow Submarine" comes to mind, and also what might be the worst song of all time, "Barbie Girl," although that was clearly ironic in its vulgar way.


Withywindle said...

I'm gonna say there's lots of less childish music from the '50s, but it doesn't get played on 50s Stations. I.e., you'll find Frank Sinatra and Lena Horne and Most Happy Fella elsewhere on the dial. So part of the story is that music was beginning (continuing?) to fracture into appeal to different demographics, and the bubblegum pop was the stuff for tweens. Which isn't to say it wasn't a treacly decade, all in all, but it wasn't just a treacly decade, even restricting one's focus to best-selling music.

Miss Self-Important said...

Frank Sinatra would be a hangover from the '40s according to this chronology, in much the same way that Sam Cooke is a precursor to and later moves easily into the role of an icon of the 1960s, though both are in rotation on the 50s channel. The question is the stuff in between - doo-wop as a genre, "teen" bands and crooners who seem to be quite a bit older than the age they voice in their songs, hit songs about food, monsters, and strings of sounds. I know that's not ALL there was to the music of the 1950s, but why was it such a notable component, and especially a component largely absent from the 1940s AND the 1960s (which suggests that the issue is not just demographic fragmentation)? Is this just the arbitrary preference of the XM producers for children's fare, or is it actually a sign of the times?

Withywindle said...

Frank Sinatra is doing new and interesting things in the 50s; "hangover" doesn't do that justice. I think it is a sign of the times, but one that XM exaggerates. (I.e., the audience of Americans who were 12 in 1955 is larger than the audience that was 22 or 32 or 42; distortion effects follow). As to why it was a sign of the times--I feel suddenly diffident about my ability to give a good answer--this diffidence afflicts me on alternate Tuesdays--so I leave that to your other commenters.

Miss Self-Important said...

Oh, yes, the audience. Good point. I had forgotten about that element. That's why regular FM stations now define "oldies" as the music of the '60s to the '80s. So yes, that might explain the bias towards infantilism, but is there a comparable body of infantile hits from the subsequent decades to which we will soon be exposed?

Withywindle said...

Barney made a great many CDs; what say you to an all-Barney station on XM?

Andrew Stevens said...

I'm no musical historian, but it has always been my sense that you are correct - there was much more popular music for children written in the '50s than subsequently. I would argue for World War II and the Baby Boom. The audience for popular music is dominated by the young and immature at all times. With World War II, there weren't many of those among people older than 25. With the Baby Boom, there were lots of them on the very young side (and indulgent parents who would purchase for them). What you get is a cultural landscape dominated by children, as the cultural landscape would continue to be dominated by the Baby Boom for most of their lives.

Miss Self-Important said...

Withy: As a child of the '90s, maybe when I'm 70, I'll be into it.

AS: So are you saying that the popular music of the 80s is really still targeting the same audience as the 50s targeted? Or does the new (smaller) cohort of youth eventually replace the Boomers, even in our lifetime? Because I could see an argument for the gradual maturation of pop music from "The Battle of New Orleans" to "Can't Buy Me Love" to political rock like "What's Going On?" But then '80s Madonna would represent another regression into childhood.

Andrew Stevens said...

Young and immature, remember. Eventually even the Baby Boomers mostly grew up.