Music, Satire, and TV – Part 1

I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of music in creating or aiding narrative satire in television. The first step was trying to grasp the differences between satire, parody, and irony, terms that seem to be used interchangeably by some writers. Satire uses humor to reveal or revile the vices, foolishness, or other shortcomings of an individual or entity. The rhetorical tools of satire include irony, sarcasm, reversal, parody, exaggeration/diminution, caricature, and utopianism/dystopianism. A number of these have exaggeration as a common characteristic. For instance, parody is an exaggerated imitation of a style and a caricature exaggerates weaknesses or shortcomings of an individual or group. Exaggeration (and its opposite) can also be used for other elements in a narrative, such as the facts of a situation. Irony and reversal make use of opposites, the former by juxtaposing and the latter by replacing. Of all of these tools, parody, irony, reversal, and exaggeration seem the most easily implemented in music. They are also the means by which music can complement the visual satirical narrative.

Parody in music is easiest to achieve when the original musical work is deeply entrenched in pop culture and words are involved, for instance when the parody is of a pop song. Among the masters at this style of musical parody, Weird Al Yankovic writes new and humorous words to well-known pop songs, such as “Eat It,” a parody of Michael Jackson’s 1983 hit “Beat It,” and “Word Crimes,” his 2014 grammar-focused adaptation of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” Yankovic often increases the parodistic effect by creating music videos that imitate the original videos, but even without the visual images, the humor is not lost on most people. Through his songs, Yankovic critiques the excesses and shallowness of pop culture. For example, “eBay,” a parody of “I Want It That Way” by the Back Street Boys, humorously highlights the consumerism of today’s society.

Parodies can extend beyond words to the particular musical characteristics and the practices and beliefs around a musical style. Mozart’s A Musical Joke, Saint-Säen’s Carnival of the Animals, and Stravinsky’s Pulcinella exaggerate to some degree known works or stylistic practices. Spinal Tap, the mock rock documentary, parodies the 1980s hair bands and their fans. Musically, the movie creates songs that use the same instruments and playing techniques coupled with structurally-similar lyrics delivered in the particular vocal style of the original bands. More than the style markers can be borrowed, of course. Melodies and harmonies can be directly quoted for effect. Guiseppe Verdi engaged in self-parody in Falstaff, quoting his earlier works for comic effect. In this case, the placement of the melodies at certain points helped to create the irony of their use.

In discussing musical irony, humor, and satire, John Covach calls the ability to decode the sonic symbols “stylistic competency.” [1] Synthesizing the work of Leonard Meyer, Leonard Ratner, and Robert Hatten, Covach defines stylistic competency as “the ability of a listener to discern, in any single piece, those features which are normative within a particular style (group of pieces), and to discern those features which are non-normative or innovative.” He examines pieces from two satirical docudramas, the afore-mentioned Spinal Tap and a Beatles parody, The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash. He argues that the humor in these songs lies in the audience’s knowledge of the original style or songs and that they recognize the deviations.

Likewise Sean Nye, in discussing the use of music in South Park, labels the variety of musical references used in the show a “genre system.” [2] This collection of musical styles includes punk, pop,  country, soul, clichéd Hollywood film cues, and American musical theater references, all of which are familiar to the audiences of South Park. By strategically placing the references in the underscoring and within the narrative, the creators of the show can heighten the humor or add a musical meta-commentary to their underlying message. Nye’s genre system is similar to Linda Hutcheon’s idea of “discursive communities” in which members share cultural knowledge and are thus able to recognize complex intertextual and polysemic references employed for irony. [3]

Stay tuned for more thoughts on the interaction between parody/satire, music, and television.

Notes

1. John Covach, “The Rutles and the Use of Specific Models in Musical Satire,” Indiana Theory Review 11 (Spring and Fall 1990): 119-44.

2. Sean Nye, “From Punk to the Musical: South Park, Music, and the Cartoon Format,” in Music in TV: Channels of Listening (New York and London: Routledge, 2011), 143–64.

3. Linda Hutcheon, Irony’s Edge: The Theory and Politics of Irony (New York: Routledge, 1994).

Posted in Miscellaneous Thoughts Tagged with: , , , , ,

CFP: Hidden Narratives essay collection

Kendra Leonard and I will be editing this collection. Please feel free to share widely.

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The dominant narratives of women in music have neglected, obscured, or minimized the successes and importance of countless female musicians who became the driving forces in the development and success of their genres. Instead, such narratives emphasize the rarity of the female musician or attribute her success to a male mentor, especially in the period before second-wave feminism. While recent research has uncovered the histories of forgotten women in art music, little work has been done on the careers of women in vernacular musics. For instance, Ruth Alice “Ronnie” Gilbert was a founding member of the Weavers, a long-time activist in social issues, and a highly influential singer-songwriter who is often overshadowed by Pete Seeger. Similarly, Carol Kaye of the California-based studio group known as the Wrecking Crew is responsible for some of the most iconic bass lines of the 1960s and ‘70s and is heard in more than 10,000 recordings. But she too has not received scholarly attention for her musical labor. Women have also made significant contributions to other roles in music creation; during World War II, women worked in the Gibson factory, producing more than 9,000 “Banner” Gibson guitars, some of the most valued instruments the company ever produced. However, the work of these women in developing and creating these iconic instruments went unnoticed until 2013, when scholar John Thomas uncovered the story. All of these cases remind us that there are numerous such hidden histories of women in music. This project seeks to demonstrate how recovering erased narratives can enrich our understanding of music and music historiography. We invite work that challenges the accepted historiographical model and examines the musical labor of women in vernacular musics of all types. We also welcome work that explores other facets of women in the music industry such as session work, engineering, administrative and support roles, and similar activities, as well as the role of female fans and audience culture.

Please send an abstract of 350-500 words to paulajbishop@gmail.com by December 31, 2016. The deadline for full essays is July 1, 2017.

Posted in Writing

More on Dylan

As a follow up to my post on Dylan, here are some recommended readings/listening:

Posted in Rock 'n' Roll

Bob Dylan and the Nobel Prize for Literature: Challenging the Gatekeepers

[The following was a talk given at the Center for the Advancement of Research and Scholarship/Center for Advancement of STEM Education Nobel Panel, Bridgewater State University, November 14, 2016.]

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The announcement that the Nobel Prize Committee had awarded Bob Dylan the prize for Literature…

for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition

…set off a flurry of accolades and a firestorm of criticisms. Many American writers reacted the way poet Amy King did when she wrote, “Great literature is not easily consumed like pop songs that rhyme.”

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Others bemoaned the loss of well-deserved attention that the prize often bestows on young or lesser-known writers, and still others were simply snarky, such as Jodi Picoult, a New York Times-bestselling fiction writer, who tweeted that if Dylan could win the Nobel for literature, maybe she should get a Grammy.

Tweet from Jodi Picoult: I'm happy for Bob Dylan. #ButDoesThisMeanICanWinAGrammy?

Dylan, not surprisingly, had nothing to say about the award in the immediate weeks after the announcement, leaving the world and the committee wondering if he would even accept it. And so, once again, Bob Dylan shook up the establishment and challenged several entrenched ideas. While there is much that can be said about his challenge to the notion of what literature is, I am going to focus on the musical and performance ideals that Dylan destabilized.

When Dylan arrived in Greenwich Village in 1961, he was mining the rich American traditional material that circulated among practitioners. He admired the songs of Woody Guthrie, followed the cultural restorative work of Pete Seeger, and consumed record collections such as Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. Dylan’s eponymous first album recycled and reimagined this older material, but his next album, Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, contained mostly original material that seemed traditional yet challenged the boundaries of that tradition. His songs tapped into a part of the American psyche that critic Greil Marcus has called the “old weird America,” and at the same time explored alternate ways to construct the songs and expanded the thematic material. He borrowed from the older tradition, weaving a lyrical allusion from here with the echo of a melody from there, using his own material to hold these ideas together.

Though he became a regular fixture on the folk scene in the mid-60s, he publicly rejected that label. He claimed that his songs were not folk songs, but simply contemporary songs. The public was left to wonder what constituted folk music. Can it be new or must it be old? If you borrow and bend, is it an original work?

Following in the footsteps of folk music activists such as Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, Dylan moved towards socially-conscious themes during the mid-1960s, protesting the treatment of minorities and warning of the dangers of war, nuclear weapons, and governmental authorities. Dylan stood out among his peers for his use of language and imagery to underscore his message. One of his most notable examples was “Masters of War,” a diatribe against the arms buildup of the Cold War.

And just as he was crowned king of the protest songwriters, he rebelled against his own rebelliousness by contradicting himself in interviews and being coy and obtuse concerning the meaning of his songs. He later cynically admitted that writing protest songs was a way to remain relevant and sell records. Dylan thus challenged the effectiveness of social activism through music, especially considering artists were making money off the stories of mistreatment and inequities of others.

Still, for many, Dylan was the embodiment of the folk revival movement. Performing in a simple fashion with only his acoustic guitar and harmonica, he brought to mind the older generation of folk, traditional, and blues players, and thus conveyed the authenticity central to the folk music revival’s perception of itself. Many were therefore shocked, dismayed, perplexed, or outright angered over Dylan’s decision to go electric in 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival. In doing so, he was questioning the definition, ideals, and sound of “folk,” as well as asking who gets to be the gatekeeper along that watchtower. After that performance, the “enforced conformism” of folk, as writer Bob Stanley called it, crumbled under the pressure and the movement fractured into a number of different styles and approaches.

So if Dylan’s work was not strictly folk music, was it really “pop songs that rhyme” that are “easily consumed,” as Amy King asserted?

First of all, pop songs are assumed to be formulaic with repeated elements and simple chord progressions. While Dylan was capable of producing songs that adhered to this, he was just as apt to create variable length verses and lyrical lines, as he did in the apocalyptic anthem, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” in which the verse lengths vary from 9 to 16.

Second, pop songs tend to have themes that resonate with, but do not particularly challenge, young listeners, usually focusing in an uncomplicated way on the possibility and pitfalls of idealized romantic love. Though Dylan wrote of love and its loss, the words often painted complex and confusing pictures. For instance, in “Love Minus Zero,” he vividly describes his lover as faithful, mysterious, and wise then he digresses to scenes from a Renaissance tapestry.

Compare this to other pop love songs from the same year: “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” by the Four Tops, “Stop! In the Name of Love” by the Supremes, or “I Got You Babe” by Sonny and Cher. Quite the contrast, right?

As long as you have those songs in your head, compare the smooth vocals of these singers to Dylan’s signature nasally, high-pitched voice. His was clearly not a pop voice, and he was aware of that. His voice was one of the characteristics that most challenged people’s ideas of song performance, and the reason that a number of record labels rejected him at first. Furthermore, he tended to accent unaccented syllables and seemingly mispronounce words, defying the pop music conventions of Tin Pan Alley. And yet he still managed to land a record deal with Columbia and sell records.

It’s hard to imagine how anyone could label Dylan’s work as “easily consumed.” When I teach Dylan in a pop, rock, or folk music class, student reactions drift between ambivalence and distaste. Since I can only spend a day on his music, contextualizing it within the historical framework of the 1960s, it may not be surprising that they do not immediately enjoy his songs. Colleagues in my field who teach longer courses on Dylan’s work find that their students learn to appreciate his music because they have been given time to find the value and meaning in the opaque, metaphor-driven, didactic imagery that constitutes his language. Lyrics filled with lines such as these…

with your mercury mouth in the missionary times / twelve misty mountains / seven sad forests / they're selling postcards of the handing, they're painting the passports brown / black is the color, where none is the number / inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial / fifth daughter on the twelfth night

…seem impenetrable and require sustained thought. Fans and scholars have spent years trying to decode the lyrics, and Dylan himself hasn’t helped, often saying that they don’t mean anything, leaving us to wonder if song must have a meaning or if it can simply exist with no further purpose.

While fans and managers shoehorned early rock ‘n’ rollers like Elvis into a particular public persona, Dylan refashioned himself as each new wind blew through his life. He was variously the Woody Guthrie-style hobo-like songster, the black shade wearing hipster who smoked weed and hung with the Beatles, a strident protest singer, a soft-voiced balladeer, a born-again Christian, a painter, and a recluse, among others. He answered the public’s questions about who he was by offering a different view of himself every time, thus calling into question the public’s right to know and the role of personality in the construction of a pop star. With each new interview, nothing was revealed, as he might say.

Dylan challenged every aspect of what it meant to be a folk and pop singer, a performer, a songwriter, and even a public figure. With the awarding of the Nobel and his initial spurning of the attention, a national conversation has begun over what is a poem and what is a song, what is art and what is pabulum for the masses. One might even wonder what a prize is, what it is really worth, and why one institution has the cultural leverage to award it over another. The Committee’s decision to select Dylan for a literature prize also highlights the difficulties and subjectivity of categorizing categories, and this ambiguity somehow seems fitting for him.

Rolling Stone headline: Bob Dylan: "The Nobel Prize Left Me Speechless"Dylan has always had a knack for prying things apart, intentionally or not, and it is in those moments that we can look into space created and perhaps realize a new truth.

Posted in Miscellaneous Thoughts, Rock 'n' Roll

Do We Like Sad Music?

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As reported in the New York Times, a researcher with the Okanoya Emotional Information Project of the Japan Science and Technology Agency thinks we do. The study tested people’s reactions to different types of music. The researchers learned that we respond to sad music with what they called “vicarious emotions.” These are to be distinguished from “felt emotions.” Vicarious emotions can be invoked by the music, but we do not feel those emotions in the way that we would when presented a real-life situation.

I have a couple of problems with this study, at least as it was presented in the article. First, reducing the musical language and its affect to minor=sad, major=happy seems to me to be too simplistic and ripe with problems of (mis)interpretation by listeners. The association does not cross all cultural boundaries and is not even a universal with audiences of Western music. I have worked for a couple of decades with trained and not-so-trained amateurs and non-musicians and found several people that do not respond in the expected way. Trained musicians and amateurs may have been taught to make that connection. I would argue, too, that tonality alone is not the only sound that people respond to in the music. Texture, melody, dynamics, harmonic progressions, and other characteristics add levels of nuance to the interpretation.

Second, the emotional reaction was determined through a list of descriptors such as bouncy, happy, solemn, gloomy. I would have been more convinced if they had included data on physiological responses. Words carry connotations and cultural and social baggage, and require that researcher and subject be in complete agreement about the meaning. I also wonder if, on any given day, we might react differently to a piece of music than on another day, depending on where we are emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually on that day. Perhaps this addressed in the full study, but it left me wary of their results, particularly because they did not appear to use a control group.

The title of the article is provocative, of course. “Why We Like Sad Music.” In fact, the researchers did not say we like it. They said we reacted to it and the emotions we experienced were different from what we would experience in real life. To “like” a particular type of music involved a complex series of social, cultural, and personal decisions and reactions and, again, can’t be reduced to its tonality.

Now I’m going to crank up some major mode Glinka and get happy.

 

 

Posted in Miscellaneous Thoughts Tagged with: , , , , ,

Kentucky

This post is really just to test sharing a Spotify playlist.

In spite of the fact that only Don was born in Kentucky and for the most part both Don and Phil were raised in Chicago and Shenandoah, Iowa, the state of Kentucky has retains a place of nostalgic prominence in the Everly Brothers narrative. On their album Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, the Everly Brothers recorded “Kentucky.” Written by Karl Davis of the non-brother duo Karl and Harty, the song describes an idyllic region:

Kentucky, you are the dearest land outside of Heaven to me.
Kentucky, I miss your laurels and your redbud trees.
When I die I want to rest upon your graceful mountains so free.
For that is where God will look for me.
Kentucky, I miss the old folks singing in the silvery moonlight.
Kentucky, I miss the hound dogs chasin’ coons.
I know that my mother, dad, and sweetheart are waiting for me
Kentucky, I will be coming soon.

Karl and Harty recorded the song in 1941 (OKeh OK 06163) and it quickly became a sentimental favorite among American servicemen overseas. Two country brother duos also recorded it: the Blue Sky Boys from North Carolina, had a hit with it in 1947, and the Louvin Brothers from Alabama recorded it in 1956.

In this playlist, you can hear all but the Karl and Harty version. If you know of other recordings of this song, please comment below and I’ll add them to the playlist. And since this is my first attempt at sharing a Spotify playlist, I would welcome any feedback.

Playlist: Kentucky

 

Posted in Country Music, Country Music Brother Duos, Everly Brothers

Digital Collections of Sheet Music

I’m writing a review on digital collections of sheet music. One frustrating aspect has been simply locating these collections. The Sheet Music Consortium lists the collections from which they harvest metatdata (i.e., collections that you can search using their tools), but they do not distinguish between collections that include page images and those that do. Not every institution with a digitized collection participates in the Sheet Music Consortium so the list is incomplete. Duke University has an extensive list, but they don’t always indicate whether or not there are images. And the list has quite a number of broken links.

I have compiled a list of digital collections of sheet music here. I hope that others will contribute to and correct this list so that it is a good resource for researchers, educators, students, and others interested in the sheet music from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. Just leave me a comment here if you any additions or corrections.

Posted in New Media Tagged with: , , , , ,

Here We Are Again

This seems like a good post now that I have retired some of my older blogs and websites and begun to consolidate the information stored there into this new site.

Don and Phil Everly began writing songs as teenagers. Their father, Ike, contacted Chet Atkins, who was able to place two of Don’s songs: “Though Shall Not Steal” was recorded by Kitty Wells in 1955 and Anita Carter recorded “Here We Are Again” that same year. Carter was the youngest daughter of Maybelle and Ezra Carter. I imagine Don felt very honored to have a member of the First Family of Country record his song.

In Carter’s recording, two voices can be heard on the chorus. I can’t find confirmation, but I believe it may be her older sister Helen. The melody is in the lower voice and the upper voice harmonizes in the same way that Don and Phil do. Carter is backed by Chet Atkins on guitar (probably electric), Jack Shook on guitar (probably acoustic), Donald Davis on steel guitar, Ernie Newton on bass, Tommy Waden on fiddle, and Owen Bradley on piano.

The bass and acoustic guitar back the singers with the basic boom-chuck-chuck waltz figure common in country music. The piano supports the harmony with quarter note chords and adds chord tremolos in some spaces between the lyrics and tremolos on the melody at the end of the chours.

The verse is sung solo by Anita. The boom-chuck-chuck rhythm continues, but now the fiddle plays a countermelody softly behind the voice. The piano seems to be present, mainly as a rhythm instrument. At the end of the verse, the electric and pedal steel guitars offer a figure that leads us into the chorus, similar to the end of the introduction. Between the 2nd and 3rd chorus, the fiddle’s melodic filler is foregrounded briefly.

In 1958 Wanda Jackson also recorded “Here We Are Again.” Her rendition has many similarities to Carter’s, but a number of differences set it apart. First of all, in the introduction, the electric and steel guitar are replaced with male voices on a sustained “ah.”

In the verse, the male voices become more rhythmic, with a figure something like “ba-ba-ba-bop” that starts on beat 2 and ends on beat 3 of every measure. The voices have also divided so that they are singing their rhythmic figure on a chord rather than in unison. The piano player supplies tremolos and other figures reminiscent of Floyd Cramer throughout the recording. The boom-chuck-chuck heard in the Anita Carter recording is smoothed out somewhat by the additional activity of the background voices, piano, and electric guitar figures. An instrumental chorus follows the second chorus, with the electric guitar playing an unadorned version of the melody.

I prefer the Anita Carter version simply because I find the use of the vocables to feel somehow like putting on too much makeup–it becomes clownish at some point and detracts from natural beauty. But that’s just my opinion. If you like the Wanda Jackson version better, chime in here and tell me why!

 

Posted in Country Music, Everly Brothers Tagged with: , , ,

Things Go Better with Coke

According to Mark Pendergrast in For God, Country, and Coca Cola: The Definitive History of the Great American Soft Drink and the Company That Makes It (Basic Books, 2000), the “Things Go Better with Coke” advertising campaign began in 1963. The company was in a defensive mode and trying to re-establish their dominance in the cola industry. Previous ad campaigns had failed to corner the new youth market in the way that Pepsi had. Copywriter and lyricist Bill Backer created this memorable jingle, which was first sung by the Limelighters. The Everlys were hired to give their spin on this classic along with other popular performers of the mid-1960s, including Neil Diamond, Petula Clark, Ray Charles, The Moody Blues, The Supremes, and Aretha Franklin. This version appears to date from around 1965 based on Pendergrast’s information.

Posted in Everly Brothers Tagged with: , ,

Writer’s Constipation

For anyone who was following my old blog, you know that I committed to chronicling my writing progress, documenting the triumphs and tragedies. I made a glorious plan, set up a schedule, publicly announced it and immediately failed at it. It was the end of the semester…what was I thinking?

And then I contracted something that seems much worse than writer’s block. It was more like writer’s amnesia, with a twist of failing confidence topped with a complete lack of focus. I couldn’t figure out how to proceed with my book proposal because I didn’t know what one should look like. I would stare at the short one I had written to show to a publisher and freeze, unable to change any of the words or add new ones. It wasn’t that I loved what I had written, but rather that I couldn’t figure out what any of it meant or where I needed to go with it. I would develop severe brain cramps thinking about the whole thing, writhe in mental agony at my desk, and pray for relief. Hence the reason I call it writer’s constipation.

I broke through the log jam long enough to produce a version that my writing buddy read. He suggested that I should change my approach (coincidentally back to my original idea from which I had strayed when I couldn’t figure out how to make it work). I agreed with him and immediately got stuck again, cramped, writhing, and yelling at the writing gods.

Then a very generous colleague allowed me to read a book proposal she had written and it was like a light bulb went off. I began ripping, tearing, rearranging, borrowing from my dissertation, a conference paper I had written, my presentation from defense, and any other scrap of writing I had.

In the midst of this flurry of activity, the publisher (whom I had not heard from since our meeting in Boston back in February) emailed and said they are definitely interested and that I should deliver the proposal and several chapters as soon as possible. Another publisher contacted me out of the blue to inquire about the possibility of publishing it (obviously turning that one down). Today I got the go ahead to write a review for a journal on something related to my new media interests (oops, forgot about that one). I need to develop the oppositie of writer’s constipation for the remainder of this summer. Writer’s diarrhea?

Posted in Writing Tagged with: , ,