Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Some cultural things just go on and on and on

When I was a little kid in the early 1960s -- 6, 7, 8 years old -- the hip electronic item for the home was the hi-fi. This was a large wooden cabinet six or seven feet long, containing a turntable, an amplifier and radio, and large cabinet speakers. (See this image, where an example sits in the center.) And to play on their hi-fis, middle-class people bought LPs. If they were educated, or just culturally aspiring, they might buy opera and symphony records; if they were only lightly-educated, and staid middle class people like my parents, they bought Broadway cast LPs and a series of curious recordings called Sing Along With Mitch.

(Just as a reference, while my parents bought those dubious pop records, my wife's parents, who were immigrants but understood what culture was in a way my own parents never did, bought opera and symphony records, and my wife sings arias around the house to this day.)

On each Mitch Miller recording was a dozen or so standards sung by a male chorus accompanied by a sprightly orchestra. Mostly folk songs or songs from the turn of the century, like "Peg O' My Heart," "The Sidewalks of New York," "Sweet Rosie O'Grady," "Makin' Whoopie," and so on. I was a little kid and liked to sing, and the whole point of these records was that you were supposed to sing along, so they contained full lyric sheets, and that way I learned these moldy songs by heart. They struck me even then as utterly of the past, because even when I was 8 (C.E. 1964) I was listening almost literally religiously to Top 40 radio and memorizing those songs too ("I Want to Hold Your Hand," "Satisfaction," "House of the Rising Sun" and so on), and the difference was obvious, even to a little kid.

At that time "The Lawrence Welk Show" was not a syndicated museum piece as it is now, but still a regularly broadcast television program on a major network, ABC. My grandmother would simply not miss this show, with its happy-faced Barbie-and-Ken-doll cast singing mostly the same ancient songs (e.g. on YouTube: "The Beer Barrel Polka;" "Big Rock Candy Mountain"). This show, which drew from more or less the same songbook as Mitch Miller, seemed even stranger -- not just a similarly weird, old-fashioned indulgence, but an actively sinister force -- if you watched it, I felt, you would find yourself growing elderly by the minute.

Thirty-five years later, my wife's mother landed in an Alzheimer's care home, where one of the social activities was listening to live music. The music consisted of a person with an accordion playing those same old songs -- literally the same old songs, "Sidewalks of New York" and so on. Now if that was nostalgic music to my grandmother, who was maybe 10 years old in 1900, what was it supposed to represent to people 40 years younger than her, people who were, say, 70 in 2000? Why weren't they playing the Big Band music of the 1940s, which would be to those folks what the Lawrence Welk songbook would have been to my grandmother? Why, in fact, weren't they playing the classical music my wife's mother had chosen to buy and listen to when she had the choice?

Even more mind-bendingly, this year I visited the Assisted Living facility where my own mother was living. And they had a man playing accordion, and he still played the same songs, including "Sidewalks of New York" and "Sweet Rosie O'Grady." WTF. Is there like a Nursing Home Songbook, with the same 25 numbers in it? I am really concerned about this. When I wind up in a freaking Assisted Living Facility in 20 or 30 years, they still better not be playing those same fucking songs; they better be playing some Beatles and Rolling Stones, or some accordion player is going to get bopped by my walker. Of course by then the accordion player will be robotic.

All this came to mind when I saw this jaw-dropping bit on Mediaite: On his own television program on his own network, ancient Pat Robertson hosted Condaleeza Rice, and when she suggested that "mac and cheese" was a wonderful holiday food, Robertson blurted out:

What is this "Mac and Cheese," is that a black thing?

And I thought, how the hell does this thing that is the 700 Club, and the Trinity Broadcast Network, survive? It's not like it's in syndication like the Welk show. (And for the record, at least on the Welk show they sang numbers from the 1940s and 50s and even contemporary numbers like -- God help us, I'm not kidding -- "One Toke Over the Line.") Who in the hell is giving money to this ancient fraud Robertson and the desperately out-of-touch worldview espoused on his network?

Then I realized -- things that somehow contain and epitomize cultural moments and worldviews, even if they do it terribly, just go on and on. It's like the culture as a whole needs these things as ballast, to balance out emanations like "TMZ" and the CW. Not that I claim to know the mechanism of how that works.

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