Thursday, January 20, 2011

One Joke Over The Line

I've mentioned before on this blog that I got in good natured trouble with a girl awhile back over an affection I feel for Lawrence Welk.  While I perfectly well understand that Lawrence isn't for everyone... I guess I just think he's the best... and any doubts entertained honestly and publicly about him in my presence I've got zero tolerance for.  Sort of stick my finger in my mouth and go pop, you know?

I think the doubt I heard that night, which ended with her looking me right in the eye and kissing me on the cheek or head or something (which felt patronizing... as if I were a puppy or something... which is to say, as a man, it was great.) had something to do with Lawrence's incredible taste in women.  In fact, I'd argue that his taste was so good, that now that  he is dead, the women still come onto Public Television and more or less tear up in his memory (every week!) Which gives even Arab funerals a run for their money.  This is a guy from Minnesota folks!

She thought his taste was bad...very bad.  His depiction of women wearing candy colored dresses instead of Katherine Hepburn trousers... and swinging on swings, instead of speaking with authority into cell phones.. and dreaming wistfully of romance... instead of scheming with their girlfriends at lunch... was too much for a modern sensibility.  And, I'm sympathetic.  However, it's not as if my role models are the fools I watch on TV.  And it's not as if I believed Barbara Mandrell and her sisters bore a passing resemblance to the terminal figure on the evolving Woman picture that shows a woman having just stepped out of a long procession of figures starting with apes and, second to last... housewives. 

I guess I thought Ms. Mandrell et al were superflous... fun.... entertainment.  Like make believe.  Like a Brand of Make Believe... if you would... or will, or could imagine.

Some folks can't.  And that's OK.  But it causes it's own problems.  And being offended... or getting your sensibilities all charged up, can on occasion make you seem like a Godamned fool.  I should know... I've more often than most thought I knew the right answer.  And more often than most allowed society to decide for me.  But that's none of your business.

This evening I was eating dinner with some folks and I asked, given that  these things are always on my mind, what they thought of certain settled cultural questions:  the one that was on my mind this evening was the Jefferson Starship song, "Sara."  A demonstrably awful song.  I remember liking it when I was 11 years old.  If I ever saw the video... with the singer and his love interest sporting matching mullets, and a bracing Great Plains tornado scene (which serves mainly to distract music lovers from the pointlessness of the "instrumental section." The first riff of the song, a harmonica line, sounds like Stevie Wonder stubbing his toe. Though you could say the same about a lot of Willie Nelson songs I love.. so, go figure.)  I've got nothing good to say about Jefferson Starship, except that it is frequently on my mind as one of the warning signs of what ego can do to something fairly great (Jefferson Airplane, for example.)  That said...

I've had some friends over the years, even my adult ones, who basically love the song even today. It's true that they are not from America.... though you can find American's listening to late night syndicated radio and AM Radio who are more than happy to sing along to the song "Sara."  As much as it pains me to admit this, I cannot come to the conclusion they are demented.  And this plays right into my rationalization for torturing self styled hipster, beautiful females with Lawrence Welk:  what's cool isn't just a matter of what the other kids like.  Or what is politically correct (like a woman in a role as boss:  very common trope of modern commercials.. as it should be.)  Or some fairly obvious characteristics which form a recognizable constellation that pleases the senses and heart: you know, like stories of romantic loss... like the song "Sara"? 

My old Korean (not Korean American) roomates oftentimes revealed a taste for things far more technologically advanced then even nerdy Americans.  For example... back in early 2003, I remember  Young Ju, a woman who lived with me, getting on the computer she shared with me and hanging out on this one site... instant messaging people, and looking at little boxes playing constant music, and cartoons popping up... her laughing and seeming for all the world to be highly entertained.  I couldn't understand why anyone would appreciate such an obviously crazy form of computer usage.  I could understsand email, or archive's and forums... or list-serves, or just Wikipedia.... but this Manga like mish-mash seeemed insane to me: what Wired magazine would put on its somewhat tongue in cheek page: Japanese Schoolgirl Alert.  What are those wacky Asians up to now?

What I never would have guessed then.... is that I shared a taste with 600 million others (and really, many more than that) for Young Ju's fix:  and at first it would be called MySpace... but eventually it would just be Facebook.  Just like that, seven years later, I was sorta watching cartoons, looking at pictures (my Korean friends all had Camera/Phone/Walkman/Mp3players... which you could not buy here.)  All of it on one Website all my friends were on.  What had seemed silly now seems not only normal, but somewhat mandatory.  And I do it not alone: but with everyone I've ever done anything with.   Whatever accounting there is for taste: I'm hopping wasn't auditing me in 2003.

My point is that Koreans, and Japanese, and many other countries around the world are not backwards, or behind us... and yet, my Korean roomates.... all of them.... had extremely odd taste in music.  The first example of this I ever heard was at a Chinese Restaurant I used to go to for lunch, where on speakers above your head played "chinese" pop music.  All the songs were super lyrical, and belted out with enormous earnestness... a sort of parody of rock and roll.  One song, completely in Chinese would suddenly end it's ascending and exciting refrain, "Happy Birthday!"  As if the guy were singing "My Way."  And whatever the singer was doing, it's true, he was doing it his and his fans way... but not me, and my country's way... more or less.  Happy Birthday!  Happy Birthday!  Sing it again!  I love that pop song Happy Birthday!  Given that I have no idea what the song is about, I'm hoping it is about a man who dearly loves (somebody) and wants the best for them on their Birthday.

What's this got to do with my Korean friends?  Well... it's the same thing.  They loved music that was Atomically heart felt, earnest, and sugary sweet cornball cool.  If there could be such a thing. Oh wait, that's right, there is!  It's called Jefferson Starship.  And Barbara Mandrell.  And "To All the Girls I've Loved Before/ In and Out of My Backdoor."  Stuff liked by a lot of people who weren't Asian... and who knew the words.  And who sang along.  And sometimes... get this.. were very cool.  Authentically cool.  Mainstream interesting and cool.  And yet... there's "Sara."

So, most of the Korean Americans I've known (only a handful) couldn't really stand, as teenagers, the Korean exchange students I've been friends with.  And from talking to others... and reading... and talking to Asian groups at our local University, it's obvious that there is plenty of animus from the Americanized Asian group toward the, to put it crudely, off the boat group.

A great deal of this seems to be due at least in part to the fact that the Americans know who P Diddy is, and the Koreans might be somewhat less on that page.  Of course, in Seoul, tastes, among the congnescetti are going to be basically the same the world over.  But a cross section of the population will not correlate in such a global manner and this causes prejudice between the Native group and the Non Natives, just as it has since the stone age.

And it isn't as if most of my friends actually don't judge the Koreans as well.  They do.  They think they are cute.  While the Koreans think of themselves, like we all want to, as cool.  The Americans laugh at the Koreans taste, and giggle about their "ignorance."  It is simply a settled fact that Eminem is better than Jessica Simpson, whom, man and woman, every last Korean I have known (from Korea) dearly loves to listen to sing:  especially the song "I'm loving Angels Instead" (of having sex with you--- my explanation for the lucky souls who have no idea what this song is).  Which, as we all know turned out to only be true for a year or so.  Then along came Nick.  Thanks National Enquirer. 

So.... is it possible that we are all wrong... and that there is something to our earnest interest in the human spirit, and the gliding wonder of a song.... any song... which this cultural appropriation, and argument, and prejudice is failing to consider?  Is it possible that Jessica Simpson is really transporting us, with Barbara Mandrell and Jefferson Starship to a place that isn't laughable?  It's not something I am nearly as comfortable answering, as I am in my fandom of Lawrence Welk. 

Am I freaking out here and dodging critical faculty?  Am I saying that we should give every song a pass?  No. 

We  need to signal with a full language of many channels of emotion... so we can achieve efficient communication between many different  groups... confidant that we know something about each other.  Our signals are messy, but on the local level, they require instances of common presumption.  And the media--- music, art, various cultural groupings... really help.  But does this mean Jefferson Starship sucks?

It doesn't make it suck.... though, surely Jefferson Starship objectively sucks, no?

I can't tell you the number of times I have been with a friend.... oftentimes a wealthy person from a different culture... speeding down the road in a sports car, or Mercedes... them, enthralled by sharing my American Road Culture Shared Archetype.  And then, they turn it up:  hey... I know that song... and the windows are down.... and the wind is in your hair... and the low sun lights up the world in it's Golden Hour saturation of hope... 

a corny harmonica plays it's line.

(here's Welk's show doing it's part with an, ah, OLD TIME GOSPEL SONG)


Aj Strong said...

Brian Wilson once said- "Someday I will make music people will pray to."
Now, lets think about that for a moment....
The hand that penned "Surfin' Safari" said that!
But what in the hell does this have to do with Jefferson Starship? Everything!
Oh, by the way, they had officially dropped the Jefferson from they're name by this albums release.
Brian Wilson showed the world how to construct a "pop" song and for the most part people have been using that formula (and for the most part fucking it up) since then.
Play the song Sara, then play something like "God Only Knows". You will find the similarities disturbing. Oh and that harmonica-
Sara was written by Peter Wolf former lead singer of the J. Geils Band who "attracted special attention for its innovative use of the harmonica as a lead instrument. Magic Dick is still regarded as one of the best lead harmonica players in rock and roll."-Thanks Wiki.
One of the saddest stories in rock n roll is the decay of the once mighty Jefferson Airplane. However, as in nature for every negative there is a positive. Check out the band "Hot Tuna" another offshoot of the mighty Airplane.
As to why people gush over "Sara"? I have to answer with Mr. Wilson, he created a "religion" of pop music. He made us laugh and cry and believe that love mixed with a perfectly constructed sound track was forever.
"Sara, Sara, storms are brewin' in your eyes
Sara, Sara, no time is a good time for goodbyes"

"I may not always love you
But long as there are stars above you
You never need to doubt it
I'll make you so sure about it"

Ah....sweet pop honey.

We can forgive Starship for "Sara", however we cannot forgive the musical monstrosity that is "We Built This City".

Jenny Enochsson said...

Oh, I wonder how Grace Slick (who seems like a lady with a lot of integrity) could go all Jefferson Starship.

"Surrealistic Pillow" was such a great album and Jefferson Airplane a wonderful band.

"We Built this City". Yikes! I just cannot understand the mania for the 80s. Perhaps that is becuase I am just old enough to remember it.

Thanks for this nice text, Andy.

Aj Strong said...

Actually Grace has publicly spoken very negatively about the "Starship" era. She was at the time still battling years of heavy substance abuse and we can assume with some accuracy that her presence during the writing and pre-production of Knee Deep In The Hoopla was minimal at best.

You don't need to remember the 80's to be aware of the sorry state of American music, it's the same today as then; actually worse.
Here is the top 10 on Billboards Hot 100 this week.
With crap like this I'm PRAYING for the next "We Built This City"

Aj Strong said...

Oh by the way Andy...Love the Brewer & Shipley reference!

Jenny Enochsson said...

I agree with, Aj, about the sorry state of music today (that also goes for most of the music from Sweden, where I am from). The music I listen to was made between 1870-1980, which is pretty old for a person who is "only" 34.

There are some modern exceptions, though. Glad that you, Andy, produce great songs in 2010, for instance.

Harlequin said...

as long as the music ( and perhaps the lyrics) touches a person's heart, that moment is one of those precious moments of unguarded humanity. i can't help feeling sentimental about this kind of experience.

Andy Coffey said...

Aj: As always your enthusiasm and erudition amuse and educate me.

Jenny: yeah, sometimes I understand why my friends love the '80s (or I sometimes enjoy the '80s... and sometimes it seems entirely foreign to me.) One things for sure, as AJ seemed to point out... fame's not very good for your health.
I'm glad you enjoy my efforts at music, as well, Jenny. We're all pretty creative bunch, thank goodness, huh?
AJ: Yes, the Brewer and Shipley reference came from that delightful Lawrence Welk link... he apparently didn't know what a toke was! Apparently the show created an enormous surge of interest in this somewhat unconventional "gospel" tune.
Harlequin: You know, as you no doubt gathered from my only somewhat tongue in cheek post: that is the rub! When we question the places our deepest feeling comes from, pathology is given keys to our house. So... by all means lets be less cool: and watch more Lawrence Welk! (Unless that's over the line.)
Thanks, and thanks for your note the other day. I grew up with a (rather rational) crush on a chick with your name.