I don’t usually have much appetite for the kind of string-laden sentimental ballads that Rodgers and Hammerstein used to pound out for Hollywood. This one is from The King and I, the apex – or nadir, if you prefer – of big budget, socially tone-deaf, bombastic Hollywood exotica. The original clip form the 1956 film is everything that made big Hollywood musicals go out of fashion: mawkish emotion, terrible acting, unwavering devotion to social roles, and of course, racist as fuck. Oh, so so so so racist. What a terrible fucking song, you might say, why are we listening to it? Well, when Nina Simone gets her hands on it, it becomes an entirely new entity. Simone was one of the best interpretive singers of all time, besides being a songwriter with a lot to say in her own right, and when she wasn’t using her music as a weapon in the battle for civil rights, she could take the corniest kernel of half-forgotten Hollywood dreck and turn it into a heartbreaking torch song. Yes, old Rodgers and Hammerstein were telling us, in no uncertain terms, that we should stand by our mans, stand by and support and love and take care of our mans, because, although our mans may be shitballs, as mans most often than not are, they may – they may, they may, they might – sometimes say or do something nice, and isn’t that what love is all about, after all. Gross. Those are the same words Nina Simone sings, but when she sings them, it makes you think about the transience of love and how fragile and precious the good moments are, and how the special times are so few and far apart and have to be stolen from the world. Finding something wonderful in someone – anyone – is so rare, it’s a journey and a hero’s quest and almost certainly doomed to failure, and when you find something wonderful to love, you hold on to it, not because a white lady dressed as a Thai courtesan told you to, but because it’s a flicker of light in an otherwise bleak world.
Speaking of the euphemistic and insidious influence of rock and roll… Our fragile moral fibers were pretty frayed by the time Elvis Presley got through with them. Elvis gave a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘shake a leg’. When Elvis threatened you with a shake, a rattle and a roll (and whenever Elvis sang anything, really) the euphemism was exposed for just how threadbare it really was. Popular music had always maintained a veneer of decency by employing double entendres of varying transparency, and using the guise of romance as a cover for carnality. The advent of rock’n’roll made short work of all decency. There was just no pretending that the music and the activities it inspired were anything but torrid – it was right there in the name. Rocking and rolling only means one thing. All we needed was Elvis the Pelvis to really pantomime it out for us.
Chuck Berry, besides all of his other notable achievements, wrote the unifying mission statement of rock’n’roll. Or as close to one as anyone’s ever gotten. He announced the arrival of a new culture, a new generational movement. I hate it when writers resort to those awful words, but, really, he “Changed The World Forever.” (Duh-duh-duh-DUHM!) Popular music and culture have mutated into unrecognizable shapes since Chuck Berry’s day, but the purpose of youth culture is still to shake off the old status quo. The spirit of making the old guard roll over in their graves doesn’t change with the generations. Chuck Berry himself is in his grave now, and he may well be tossing and turning over what the A$AP crew’s up to. But I’d like to think he’s at least getting a little chuckle, looking back at his legacy and the culture he helped create.
Watching old recordings of formative rock and roll songs by innovators such as Little Richards feels a lot like gazing at ossified sea creatures at the natural history museum. Wow, did all of life really spring from this? You’d be hard pressed to find Little Richard’s DNA in the musical stylings of, say, Fuck Buttons, but yet you know that it’s in there, just like you know that you carry the genetic material of some hominid in the Nile River Valley who got eaten by saber-toothed tree sloths or something. And that makes you mist up a little at the grandeur and awesomeness of human progress and the forces of nature that have buffeted it. Unlike the progress of hominids, though, the evolution of rock music as a cultural genus has taken place all in a single lifetime, which is to say, the lifetime of Little Richard, who is still alive at 85. A lot has changed in 85 years, but one thing hasn’t; you can still make yourself a star by mastering the two-and-a-half-minute rock song format that Little Richard helped to establish.
So many of the best early rock’n’roll songs were pure gibberish. The spirit of the music didn’t need words that made sense to make sense. The first rockers wrote silly words because they weren’t permitted to write the words the music brought to mind. Sex, obviously, sex and rebellion. But those things were implied, clearly enough that old people clutched their pearls and recoiled, while youths understood and responded accordingly. By tearing apart the fabric of decent society with their libidinous filth, of course. Here we are now, generations later, all decency long swept away by sexual freedom and miscegenation, our society in ashes. You can thank Little Richard.
Going back in time a while for some classic Elvis Presley. This song appeared in the movie Love Me Tender, which is where I assume the clip is from. I must confess that I’ve never seen an Elvis movie, though I suppose that I need to, at least for purely anthropological purposes. I understand that most of them were terrible but earned the star a lot of money. You can’t really fault Elvis for wanting to make a lot of money by way of terrible movies; in his day, rock’n’roll was considered a fad and the idea that a rocker like himself had a legacy that would be parsed by historians many years after his passing never crossed anyone’s mind. As it happens, Elvis Presley’s legacy is one of the great cautionary tales of the modern age. Elvis was truly one of the first beneficiaries-slash-victims of mass media pop culture, and one of its most enduring icons. So much so that his lurid rise and decline are more familiar to us now than his music. I imagine that if he hadn’t eaten all those Twinkies and maintained some semblance of dignity in his private life, the music would stand on its own well enough.
The eternally fashionable Buddy Holly. The man just continues to be an icon, decades after his short career ended in tragedy. You’ll want to remember this song for future reference. It’s one of those deceptively simple tunes that you can trace so much back down to. You almost can’t even call it evolution, because people are still copying the same basic structure without having to add too much. Some pretty famous people have used the formula with near-plagiarism faithfulness. But why mess with a perfect thing? There’s a reason why sharks and crocodiles haven’t changed in hundreds of millions of years; they’re already perfect, and so it is with the two-minute pop song as envisioned by Buddy Holly.