Wednesday, June 6, 2007

The Popular Music

I try to take a vacation, occasionally. When I go to the South Seas Tropics for a few weeks worth of drinks served in halved coconut shells with many Straws and Umbrellas by topless Maidens, I think (incorrectly, it turns out) that I leave the responsiblities of my Office behind.
But it would seem that the rest of the Boys at the World Court at The Hague spent a little time watching old reruns of Lawrence Welk, and fell into an incoherent, bellowing rage. How exactly I am to apologize for Larry, a lifelong friend and highly talented artist, I do not know. He overcame being a German American with a pronounced speech impediment to become the dazzling impressario (and legendary cocksman) that he was, the odds be damned.
The complaint, as laid out to Me by Vice-Commissioner Nieuwschlander ('Gliek', to his friends), was that my people had taken something as elemental as the human desire to sing and make others happy, and turned it into another item in a crass marketplace, oftentide supplanting those who had written or popularized the songs with those who featured a better understanding of contract law.

Well, DO YOU BLAME ME? Well-I suppose that we're here, aren't we? So, you do. But I think I should at least have My Say before I start grovelling and whimpering for your forgiveness.

IT WAS THE JEWS! No, I'm sorry. But really: the fallout of years and years of making Jews the only ones who touched the filthy, filthy money was that The Chosen became especially good at managing the filthy filthy money. Later, we attempted to correct this imbalance, but somewhere in there, the idea of selling entertainment came into being, and We scoffed, at first.
And of course, The Jews got in on the bottom floor, and it was their game for a good long while.

Later, it would occur to the rest of us that a lot of money was to be made in this arena, and especially in the songs The Poor sang to each other to comfort themselves against the wretchedness of their lives. To this end, we started recording each and every bit of feeling-sorry-for-yourself music we could find.
The Poor Whites made some awfully soulful stuff. It reminded the older among us of the days of the madrigal and minstrel, albeit with a mouth full of chaw terbacky and a mind utterly destroyed by cheap hooch. So that was good. It was even better when made into something a Marching Band could play.
The Poor Blacks, on the other hand, made some stuff that frankly scared us. Or made us disturbingly aroused, one of the two. It made us want to both dance and pass anti-miscegenation laws, to be frank. And smoke Marijuana. And pass laws against the use of Marijuana.

Yes, the stuff that You People like to tell yourselves when you're feeling "blue" are the stuff of market gold, for some reason. It's possible that pathos is universal or something. I do not claim to know from Art, but I do know a thing or two about Markets.
When I wandered into this, all that was ever on a record disk was John Philip Sousa, or any number of recordings of old, dead Europeans. When The Poor people made music, it was in the back of some cracker barrel mart, some stinking gin pit, or some damned Church somewhere. Not a one of you had thought to put it down for others to hear and Buy.

Well, I knew some people, and they knew some people. At first, we sold Colored (or "Race") music to the Coloreds (or "Racials") only, and the hillbilly music to whoever would buy it, since hillbillies don't have money, and the stores I own won't take shiny pieces of broken glass, pig intestine or bandanas as Legal Tender.
But then we noticed something sly and wondrous happening: The Consumer liked the music the Poor Black made, and wanted to buy some. But there was a problem: The Consumer was supposed to strongly dislike The Poor Black. This in no way prevented many Consumers having lots of Quadroon and Octoroon babies, but still, appearances must be kept up.

So-we learned that if you cleaned up a performer of the lower class of Whites, put a suit on him and greased back his hair, he could both sing the songs of the Poor and Black, and still threaten abolutely no one with the ignominy of appearing to like Poor People. It was a win-win!
And the win-winning continued! There was among The Blacks a man who ironically referred to himself as a 'Duke'. He took what he knew of classical white music, Dixieland, Sousa and field calls to make a whole new thing now that everybody, in theory, could like.
I didn't like it. It scared the pantaloons right off of me, and I believe history has more than borne me out on this one. It was nice enough music, though not as Martial as I feel all music needs to be. The problem was that it was so nice, it was going to lead to Mulattoism and Reefer Smoking in all corners, clearly. Given a couple of decades, boys would be wearing their hair like girls, and you wouldn't be able to tell which Race was which anymore.

The Market had given, and now it was about to do itself in with a surfeit of maddening efficiency. But first; More Profit.
We had learned early in the game that if you promised enough whiskey to kill an honest man, or a fine automobile to these 'artists', they'd gladly take that in lieu of payment commensurate with what We were making on it. Furthermore, they probably thought (as a lot of us did) that this whole 'recorded music on a wax disc' phenomenon was some fickle Trend, so they needn't concern themselves with Posterity, and Future Profit.
And besides, if they saw fit to complain, we could still just take their songs and not pay even the mule that we promised them. Frank Sinatra could do that song of yours. So could Pat Boone! Maybe Elvis Presley is your boy. The point is, They didn't own The Courts, We did, and so...Maybe Willie Dixon depresses you anyway, so here's Led Zeppelin!

But what I needed was something to live forever. Here's where Larry Welk comes in. For years and years, we'd been packaging the misery of Others into songs suitable for a decent cocktail party. But maybe just maybe we could make it seem that this had always been our music, and we would rightfully celebrate this fact on a weekly basis, on Television.
The music of the Poor White and the Poor Black now made equal amounts of sense when delivered by a young White person who kept smiling directly at the camera, and oftentide set to a polka beat. Misery, pain, longing and pretty much any human emotion whatsoever were leached out of this Wheat that we had found, and processed it into Wonder Bread for the soul!
Music and The Market had always been about finding a place where we could all agree, and so we felt that maybe the agreement was made more likely if everything were made Nice.

There would be a fair amount of Blacks to tap-dance, and occasionally sing songs, given that they would have to sound completely indistinguishable from the Whites who largely captained Larry's show. We found many that did nicely.
The fact that many of the Blacks later learned that they could own their own work developed a wrinkle of sorts in the plan, but not really. Maybe some 'gangsters' own their own record labels where they release songs about killing each other, but that fits nicely in with the plan anyway, and even so, most of your multi-nationals could scarcely be said to be Black-owned.

In the end, many an enterprising young person of affluent background had learned how to write a song just as if they were a Poor, and we put these people to work in the business of cranking out songs like any other Product. The results, I think you'll all agree, were satisfying in the supreme.
There was even some who said that The Music had grown into its own entity, capable of sparking the spirit of Revolution in The Masses again. I suppose one could view it that way, but it would be hard to say, since that was still my recording studios, radio stations, record labels and stores that said how much one could say, so I doubt it strongly.

No, what was wrought was a place of true community that is much better, and will stand for the ages. It is a place where Engelbert Humperdink and Johnny Mathis stand, hands clasped, side by side, for all the ages. Where Andy Williams and Ben Vereen may share a spotlight.
Racial equality has been achieved, yet again, by The Marketplace doing what it always does: making the work of actual people into salable product.
You're welcome. And I'm sorry.

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