Lenny and Me

August 25, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston
(No sociology, just what Chris Uggen calls self-indulgery.)

Leonard Bernstein was born on this day in 1918.

Earlier this summer, I was walking around Tanglewood on a weekday. The Koussevitsky music shed - the open-air concert venue – was deserted, so I walked up onto the stage and stood on the conductor’s podium where decades earlier I had seen Bernstein stand and conduct. (I’ll spare you the photo. I was not wearing my tux.) But that was not the first time our paths – Lenny and mine – had crossed.

In the early 1950s, Bernstein was a visiting professor at Brandeis. No doubt he felt at home in a department that was eager to go beyond the bounds of what traditional music departments did.

Some years later, when I was a sophomore at Brandeis, I had a campus job in the music building. A few days a week, at 5 p.m., I would play records (this was long before Spotify, long before CDs) for the students in the Opera course. I mean, I would play the records if any students came to the classroom in the music building, which they rarely did. I think a couple may have come when the topic was Don Giovanni; that’s the only reason I can think of that I have some familiarity with “Madamina,” the openng aria. We never got beyond that.

The classroom had a piano at the front for the instructor to use – a Baldwin baby grand – and sometoimes I would sit there and do my inept version of playing piano. I’d never had a lesson, and I played a sort of jazz by ear. (I recall that Horace Silver’s “St. Vitus Dance” was one of the tunes I was trying at the time.) One day late in the semester, I noticed a small metal plate, about 2" x 3" attached at the right edge of the piano above the keyboard. I read it. It said something like, “This is the piano that Leonard Bernstein learned to play on as a child, and is donated by his parents. . . .” I played that piano more frequently for the rest of the semester.

Here’s the Bill Evans solo version of “Lucky to Be Me,” from “On the Town” (1944 – i.e., when Lenny was 26). Evans takes some liberties – modulating the last eight bars to A♭instead of F the first time through. But Bernstein’s own chord changes on the bridge are incredible as is the melody – very chromatic and hence not easy for singers.

Soundtrack of the Zeitgeist

August 22, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Yesterday’s post was skeptical about a link between pop culture and the Zeitgeist. I questioned whether the a change in the content of fiction or film or other products of the imagination reflected important social change. Still, when done well, Zeitgeist explanations often sound plausible.

Chris Molanphy knows a lot about popular music. He has  a feature at Slate called “Why Is This Song No. 1?” where he would give a super-hit of the day a full physical exam. The performer, the producer, the studio, the way the song evolved musically, the market, the audience, the distribution – all the elements internal to the music business and the creation of songs come under his stethescope. (See his take on “Love Yourself” or Drake (“One Dance” and “Hotline Bling”) or any of his other pieces here)

Molanphy also appears in a regular segment on The Gist, where he and host Mike Pesca turn back the pop-music calendar to a single year. Historical hindsight allows them to align the hits with forces outside of the music itself – politics, the economy, the general spirit of the time. When you’re looking backwards, the temptation to go full-out Zeitgeist is irresistible.

Here they are discussing 1999.

PESCA: What’s the case for its importance, what’s the case for its artistic value, what’s the case for 1999?

MOLANPHY: The case for 1999 is that this is American-led pop at its absolute apex. This is the height of the Clinton era writ large in pop music. It’s empire America at its peak, very candy colored, very Total Request Live, very Britney Spears “Baby One More Time” even. . . and surprisingly a lot of artists who were hits in this TRL era of pop have proved quite enduring. Britney Spears . . . Back Street Boys . . . Christina Aguilera . . . Nsync.

If the first half of the nineties was all about rather grim-faced music – it was about grunge, it was about gangsta rap – this is the candy colored half of the 1990s.

PESCA: This is the Clinton expanded economy, the Internet, this is the years of peace and prosperity, this is the pre-9/11, pre-wakeup-call, good time.

MOLANPHY: If you watch that year’s VMAs. . .  All of the artists that you see on this list of number ones are there. Britney Spears is there, Christina Aguilera is there, the Back Street Boys are there, and all the Latin Pop stars. Ricky Martin is there. . . You see a culture that feels like the good times are going to last forever. The dot-com era is at its height, Clinton’s in the White House, unemployment’s at five percent, everybody’s got money to burn, and the good times are here again. We know what happened two years later, but we know that 1999 is a very neon colored bright and shiny year, and for that I have an odd sort of nostalgia. [Emphasis added. Listen to the entire episode here].                            

Pesca even implies that the “good time” Zeitgeist of 1999 somehow knows what will happen two years later when it will give way to a bad times mood descending upon the country. “This is the pre-9/11, pre-wakeup-call, good time.” To paraphrase Yogi Berra, prediction is easy, especially about the past.”

Sometimes the producers of pop culture do try to come up with songs or movies or TV shows that align with the Zeitgeist as they perceive it. Usually, that means copying the most recent big success.  So we get a wave of superhero movies or doctor TV shows. (There are probably equivalents in music; I just don’t know them.) Sometimes it works; often it flops. As the screenwriter William Goldman famously said, “Nobody knows anything.” Including culture analysts who write about the Zeitgeist.    

Take My Zeitgeist, Please

August 21, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

So many plays today, on and off Broadway, are small, character-driven dramas, the kind that let the actors show their chops. Jesse Tyler Ferguson in “Fully Committed,” Jeff Daniels and Michellle Williams in “Blackbird.” Perhaps America in the post-Bush era is becoming more inward looking, more cautious about external adventures, more attentive to problems at home. I mean, that’s the kind of bullshit interpretation favored by some op-ed writers and bloggers. They take some trend in popular culture as a reflection of an all-encompassing spirit of the times (in German, Zeitgeist). And why not? After all, popular culture is by definition popular. It must strike a responsive vibration in the psyches of lots of people.

Ken Levine has a different take. He’s a sitcom writer (Cheers, Frasier, The Simpons . . .), who blogs  (every day!) mostly about the entertainment industry.  Working in the biz, he is highly sensitive to the non-Zeitgeist constraints on what does and doesn’t wind up in the cultural stream.

He wrote recently (here) about “Fully Committed,” which he saw on Broadway. He must have gotten to the theater early because apparently he read all of the Who’s Wenho bios in the Playbill – offstage people too, not just the cast. Maybe that’s what people in the biz just do. Or maybe it didn’t take him all that long to read the bios for the entire cast (n = 1) so he kept reading. The bio for the writer of the show (Becky Mode) reminds Playbill readers that since 2001, this play has been “one of the ten most produced plays in the United States.” Wow. Is this ranking a clue to the Zeitgesit? Does the popularity of “Fully Committed” reflect a 21st-century concern with full commitment? Or with trendy restaurants?

Not according to Ken Levine. He thinks it’s about the economics of theater.

It’s one actor, one desk, and two phones. It also must be one of the ten cheapest plays to produce in the United States. The actor gets quite a workout, but still, it’s very doable. Especially if a theatre is planning its season and has another play that requires say...actual costumes.

The theatre scene is really run today on a tight budget. . . . The requirements today (unless you’re Tony Kushner or Tom Stoppard) are this: No more than four actors, preferably one set or just a few props that can suffice for a set, and not a lot of wardrobe or effects. I feel bad for us playwrights because that severely limits the kinds of plays we can write . . .

This reminded me of Wendy Griswold’s classic 1981 article about American novels in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some culture analysts saw in them a “femininization” of American culture starting in the 1890s. Before then, American novels were more about masculine and uniquely American concerns (think Moby Dick, Huck Finn, Last of the Mohicans). The more sentimental novels read by Americans (mostly women) came from British authors, not Americans. But towards the end of the century, American writers began to pay more attention to domestic matters.

The feminization idea is consistent with other trends in American society. But Griswold shows that the change had much less to do with a shift in the Zeitgeist than with the enforcement of international copyright laws. Prior to 1891, American publishers did not have to pay royalties to a foreign author. They could reprint titles by British writers very cheaply (a copy of A Christmas Carol, which cost the equivalent of $2.50 in England went for six cents in the US). American authors were fully capable of writing sentimental fiction, but publishers preferred the cheaper imports. American novelists turned their efforts to subjects and genres where British writers couldn’t compete  (think Moby Dick, Huck Finn, Last of the Mohicans). Then, once copyright laws guaranteed royalties on both sides of the Atlantic, British “feminine” fiction lost its economic advantage, and publishers issued more and more sentimental work by American authors.

I don’t know. Maybe the spirit of the times in the US did change in the late 19th century, with religion and middle-class women feminizing the culture. Searching for the Zeitgeist is a game anyone can play. Or you can take Deep Throat’s advice and follow the money.

Ideology and Memory

August 16, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Political ideology shapes what we see and what we consider important, as I’ve blooged recently (here and here). Ideology also skews what we remember and how we remember it.

The worst terrorist attack on this country happened on Sept. 11, 2001. George W. Bush had taken office nine months earlier on Jan. 20, 2001. Yesterday, Rudy Giuliani said, referring to Bush’s two terms,“Under those eight years, before Obama came along, we didn’t have any successful radical Islamic terrorist attack inside the United States.” Here’s the video.

He is not the only one to make this mistake. Bush’s former press secretary Dana Perino left the White House at the end of Bush’s term and took a job at Fox News, where in 2009 she told viewers, “We did not have a terrorist attack on our country during President Bush’s term.”  (A video is here. Push the slider to the 0:35 mark.)

I do not think that Giuliani and Perino are deliberately lying. It’s just that their political views have prevented them from seeing or remembering the facts. The belief that George W. Bush effectively prevented terrorist attacks does not square with the fact that the attacks of 9/11 happened when Bush had been in office for nine months. If the facts don’t fit the belief, too bad for the facts. They are no match against the need for cognitive consistency.

What is striking about the Giuliani/Perino view is how widespread it is. I have long thought that one of the great public-relations achievements of the Bush administration was its ability to create the impression that the attacks happened on someone else’s watch. Many people seem to believe that it was someone else’s fault, though they never get around to thinking who that might be. Maybe Obama.

Even today, few people publicly blame the Bush administration for being asleep at the switch. That is certainly true of Giuliani. He loves to recount his reaction on that day.

At the time, we believed that we would be attacked many more times that day and in the days that followed. Without really thinking, based on just emotion, spontaneous, I grabbed the arm of then-Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, and I said to him, “Bernie, thank God George Bush is our president.”

The Bush-Cheney administration had been in office for nine months, getting regular reports from its terrorism experts like Richard Clarke warning of Al Qaeda, reports that Bush-Cheney discounted. Clarke, when he heard the news on the morning of Sept. 11, said to himself, “Al Qaeda.”
Rudy Giuliani said, “Thank God George Bush is our president.”

Given his public commitment to Bush, Giuliani could not very well publicly acknowledge any facts suggesting that Bush was at all responsible for the attacks. It seems that he cannot even acknowledge those facts to himself. And so he winds up making a statement that is so obviously wrong the video instantly flies around the Internet (or at least around the leftward territories).