I wasn’t alive to be a teenager in the 1950’s, for which I mostly thank god. I don’t think I would have done well growing up in the 50’s. But if I had, in some alternate narrative dimension, been an American teenager in the 1950’s, I would have gone to all the sock hops. Buddy Holly would have been my ray of sunshine, just as he was for a whole generation. He turned so many people’s heads in so short a time. I’m shocked and impressed by how fresh those records still sound. Imagine what a bolt of lighting it was the stodgy old ‘hops. Also – and I never tire of saying this – give Buddy Holly credit as being one of the all time fashion icons. Honest-to-God, there are porn stars who’ve built careers emulating his look. That’s not a thing young sockhoppers in the 50’s got to enjoy!
Not many songs can claim to be genuinely world-changing, but if any song can be held up as an historical artifact, it’s this one. The title of ‘historical artifact’ is a deeply unappealing one, especially for so delightful a song; it implies that the work should be mulled over in hushed wonder rather than enjoyed, and that goes against everything a rock song is meant to be. Peggy Sue has endured in popularity for so long after Buddy Holly himself died (and could well have been entirely forgotten) because the simplicity and joy of it is immune to time and trend. The enjoyment of a high spirited and catchy pop song is very pure and needs no explanation or broader context. However, there’s a lot to be learned from it as well. Obviously – and it’s no hyperbole – you can hear the seeds of decades of future music that was to follow. Buddy Holly was one of those touchstone artists that thousands of kids listened to and felt the tingle of inspiration. As for broader context, all you have to do is watch the video clip, in which the introduction is longer than the song. Needless to say, it’s a peek straight into 1957, with television serving as the museum diorama. Everyone is white and wears cocktail attire, no one dances. The matronly emcee warns viewers that this is for the young ‘uns and advises keeping ‘a nice open mind’. Small wonder, then, that within a few years an entire generation of young ‘uns exploded in a revolution of sex, drugs, and liberation.
I can’t help but feel jubilant now. For no other reason than some people just affect you that way. Yep, Buddy Holly warms my cynical soul. There’s a simplicity and an innocence to those old songs. As if Buddy Holly and his peers created rock’n’roll just because it was too much fun not to. It’s innovation with exuberance. That’s why we’re still gravitating to the same songs so very many years later, why we remember Holly despite how short his run was in this world. It may be a bit of a soundtrack cliche for coming of age movies, an object of nostalgia for how great some of us imagine the 1950’s were, but it holds up undeniably well.
This is one of those rare songs that wasn’t just good, wasn’t just popular, but somehow managed to be a cultural catalyst for an entire generation. When Buddy Holly burst out with his stripped down rockabilly, young people all over the world pricked up their ears and took notice. And, just like the legend tells of the Velvet Underground a decade later, a lot of those young people went on to form bands of their own. One of those bands was the Rolling Stones, who made it their first American single. Besides inspiring the nearsighted to stop bumping into things, Buddy Holly inspired rock musicians to write their own material, a thing the previous generation’s pop idols were not expected to do. The young Stones lagged behind on writing their own songs too, but they made the most of the material they chose, and their Not Fade Away has become even better known than the original. Buddy Holly and his Crickets had borrowed the song’s beat from Bo Diddley, an innovator in his use of West African rhythms; the Rolling Stones re-Africanized it, with emphasis on maracas and blues harmonica. It came out an entirely new, more scandalous animal, and in its turn made a lot of young ears prick up.
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.
Again, I have to stop and be amazed by the purity of Buddy Holly’s music. There are obvious reasons why his songs continue to be popular, so long after his death. They’re damn catchy and that never goes out of style. Neither does his style ever go out of style; nerdy but handsome, handsome yet nerdy. But what I really like and find striking is just the simplicity. The music is nothing more than a few guys with guitars could play in their garage, and they sound so perfect, without any production magic or superfluous fancy instruments. And the ideas are the same way; simple and meaningful. Holly wasn’t trying to be deep or fancying himself a poet; he wrote very plain lyrics, but never dumb ones. I would say they’re truthful lyrics that everyone can understand and relate to. Being able to express something basic about the human condition, and make folks dance while you’re at it, all in well under three minutes – that’s mighty fine talent, and it’s still the backbone of pop music.
Buddy Holly had some wisdom. He wrote the most reasonable and comforting breakup song. It’s all about the part where you get the fuck over it and move on. That’s pretty important, and you don’t get that message in pop songs very often. For the very valid reason that the most intense drama makes the best fuel for songs, usually, so the most popular things to write songs about are that moment when you first fall in love and that other moment when somebody breaks your heart all to pieces. You can’t blame people for constantly writing about those things; those are some pretty interesting things. But there are other things too, other moments throughout life that are less exciting but no less important, and you can’t expect your life to just be all drama all the time. Therefore, it’s very nice to get a friendly reminder that at some point, after you’ve thrown away god knows how many nights wallowing in heartbroken misery, one day you’ll wake up and find that you simply don’t care anymore.