Among my many carefully-cultivated idiosyncrasies is my ability to have a song suddenly appear in my head and refuse to leave, like gum stuck to the bottom of a shoe. Last night, it was “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”...a big hit from the Civil War. I’m sure you remember it: “When Johnny comes marching home again/ Hoorah! Hoorah!/ We’ll give him a hearty welcome then/ Hoorah! Hoorah!/ Oh, the men will cheer and the boys will shout/ and the ladies, they will all turn out/ And we'll all feel gay/ When Johnny comes marching home!”
And voila! I had the subject of today’s blog, and it had nothing to do with my being gay.
Do you remember when songs made sense? When even the silliest of them used real English and complete sentences and you could actually understand the words? And can you remember any song prior to 1950 (other than, perhaps, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime" from the Depression era) that dealt with negativity or real anger or hatred? When did songs―like politicians―stop being for something and become against everything?
Is it simply because songwriters/performers have run out of things to say that so many have turned to endless repetition of the same few words? (The one that leaps to mind is from a few years ago, where the words “Thank you” were repeated 38 times. I can’t recall the name of the song, but think I might guess. Well, at least it wasn’t “F... You.”)
When did popular music switch from being an enjoyable canoe trip down a pleasant river to the equivalent of being thrown into a roaring rapids without a life jacket? It seems the purpose of popular music has switched from soothing and reassuring to reflecting the hopelessness/helplessness/anger of our world.
I know, I sound like one of those irritating “Well, now, in my day…” types I despise. But come on, folks: listen to what has become of our culture? What are we saying with so-called popular music? Where is the logic?
When―but far more importantly, why―did “Muthaf...ka” and “‘ho” and “bitch” become integral parts of our musical lexicon, and the people who utter them become pop icons richer than Croesus? How could it possibly come about that wearing a baseball cap sideways and tons of the ugliest, most gaudy jewelry imaginable while spewing unintelligible garbage could be the passport to fame and fortune once achieved by education and talent?
“Pop” music has always reflected the state of the culture in which it exists. We look back now with bemusement on the hullabaloo that accompanied Elvis’s appearance on the pop scene, and many people would point to today’s music as just being another version of the same thing. It was more Elvis’s hip shaking than the words of his songs which were the basis for the uproar, and just looking at today’s obnoxiously strutting and preening rappers creates the same reaction in me. But a profound difference exists in what messages the songs’ words convey.
There have always been songs of protest, but until fairly recently, most were at least based on hope. (Even the Nazi anthem“Die Fahne Hoch” was rousingly upbeat.) How much hope can be found in today’s music…if you’re able to understand one word out of ten?
Throughout time, each generation’s popular music has been decried by former generations as indicating the decline and fall of civilization as we know it. Ours is no different, and the world will undoubtedly survive the aural onslaughts of what passes for popular music today. But I am willing to bet that “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” will be around long, long after “Yo! F...k You, Muthaf....in’ ‘Ho Bitch” has been flushed down the toilet of time.
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