Sunday, September 30, 2007

Daily Deliberation #7: Has the "Edge" run its course?

This question will take some time to explain, so bear with me. I came to this question this morning through a meandering train of thought that began with a reply to a comment by David on "Objectively Moral'. David's question was whether I could name any successful atheist civilization. My reply included the comment that there have been many unsuccessful religious civilizations, and that the Jewish civilization has not proved all that successful. But mulling over that comment while filling in nail holes in the wood trim in my entryway, I thought of how successful Jews have been in inflencing American culture, especially the entertainment industry. You could argue that Jews are primarily responsible for the success of the industry today, expecially in the fields of comedy, musical comedy and cinema. They pretty much invented the genre of stand-up comedy, and Vaudeville, the predecessor of radio and television, was practically a Jewish invention.

So I started doing a really bad impression of Al Jolson singing "Swanee":

Swanee - how I love ya, how I love ya
My dear old swanee.
I'd give the world to be among the folks in D-I-X-I-E-ven though my mammy's waiting for me,
praying for me down by the swanne.
The folks up north will see me no more when I get to that swanee shore


Truthfully, I only remembered the first 2 1/2 lines. But then I thought to myself "Could a song like Swanee possibly be popular today?" There isn't the least hint of irony, of unconventionality, protest, or bending of boundaries. Of course it may have bent some boundaries in its day, but I wouldn't know that. It just seems like a happy, cheerful tune of the type that seems the epitome of popular music of that era, and the antithesis of popular music today. What it lacks, to summarize the quality that separates the two eras of musical taste, is an "edge".

Why does music today have to have an edge? Why were people back then satisfied with music that had no edge? Were those truly simpler times? Many would say yes, but an honest examination of the times would reveal that they were anything but simple. We have a Lithuanian Jew singing a musical ode to a southern river during a time when Jews couldn't get a room in a hotel in much of the south. He sang happy tunes in blackface during the era of Jim Crow. If anything the times were far edgier than today. So why is our music required to be so edgy?

You can trace the lineage of edgy music to white guilt over civil rights, the war in Vietnam, feminism and all the accumulated social baggage that led up to and followed in the wake of the 1960's counterculture revolution. The result of that counterculture was an increased sense of skepticism, suspicion, doubt, even paranoia regarding social values and institutions. All of it ruled by a detached sense of irony. Nothing is as it seems. Happy tunes belie dark realities. The only way "Swanee" could be sung in the atmosphere of '60s protest is with irony and sarcasm. With an edge.

But the '60s are long gone, yet musicians who were not even born until a decade after are still looking for the right edge. Here in Minneapolis there's an alternative music station called the "Edge". I listen to it sometimes, and most of the music is pretty dreadful. Looking to make it big in edgy music seems to be like drilling for oil in an exhausted field. Most of the wells turn up dry. The whole enterprise is so transparent. It's just a pose. Edginess today is an affectation looking for an excuse for outrage, or cynicism, or just to bend the boundaries. But the old musical boundaries demarcated good from bad, enjoyable from unenjoyable. There may be good hunting along the borderlands, but the odds of hitting an oasis by going where no artist has gone before are pretty slim. Yet some thought that abandoning tone could yield possibilities, and so we were assaulted with atonal dreck by the likes of Philip Glass.

I think for many young artists, the whole idea of edginess is disconnected from any real need to protest anything. They're just imitating those that came before, and it's getting really old. A perfect example is the way that young females like Britney Spears or Cristina Aguilera sing. They affect a gritty, raspy, atonal quality that is just dreadful to hear. I covered this topic in an earlier post about Mary Ramsey, who has a beautiful singing voice, but without any semblance of an edge.

So my question: has the "edge" run its course? Or am I just an old fogey?

12 Comments:

Blogger Harry Eagar said...

If you think the masses are unsatisfied unless the music has an edge, you ought to hear the painfully edgeless songs they sing at high school graduations.

And they vote for 'em.

September 30, 2007 11:36 AM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

Two things;

It's been about posing for a long, as exemplified by the Milli Vanilli episode.

I saw Weird Al live on Friday and one of the best parts was him putting a bunch of current songs to a polka beat and playing while the videos for those songs played on large overhead screens. The juxtaposition of the edgy imagery with Al's upbeat polka beat, frequently in lip synch with the video, was hilarious.

The other thing to consider is that perhaps there's a "conservation of angst", where if the times don't supply, people look for it in their entertainment, and vice versa -- if the age supplies plenty, people want less elsewhere.

September 30, 2007 11:44 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

This deliberation seems to have an urban, northern inflection.

Where I come from, edge has been around for a long time, whether you mean in delivery (eg Mississippi John Hurt) or meaning ('Don't You Feel My Leg,' popularized by Blu Lu Barker, though I have been unable to find an author).

There may have been others, but my nominee for the first recording that was edgy in both senses is 'Devilish Mary' as done by Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers in 1926. If they'd had a drum, they'd have been a rock-n-roll band.

Also, it's hard to be edgier, presentation-wise, than to have your band led by a one-armed fiddler.

It's all been downhill since then, edgewise.

September 30, 2007 2:31 PM  
Blogger erp said...

What's an edge?

September 30, 2007 2:40 PM  
Blogger Ali said...

Damn. I hope Al tours Europe at some stage.

September 30, 2007 3:13 PM  
Blogger joe shropshire said...

The heavy-metal band Def Leppard has a one-armed drummer. They do not, however, have edge, so I'm not sure if Harry's theory holds water. It is neat to learn that 'Don't You Feel My Leg' has a history. We love Maria Muldaur's version.

September 30, 2007 3:37 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

erp - you know, attitude. It's a pose, where the music is more about defining the singer than it is about delivering music to an audience. Musicians with an edge are saying, through their music "I could sing this song straight, like Aunt Martha at a church choir, but that's not me, because I'm not anyone's Suzie homemaker Stepford Wife pumping out babies. I'm all about showing the world who I am, you know what I'm saying? Don't put me in no cubbyhole, don't try to put boundaries around me! Blah, blah, blah!"

Donny Osmond tried to get an edge back in the 1980s by hanging out with Ozzy Osboure and protesting music censorshio. Even Pat Boone tried to get an edge by dressing up in S&M leathers. It's really sad and pathetic.

October 01, 2007 4:41 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Susan's Husband's "conservation of angst" theory seems about right, to me.

But country music has been gaining in popularity for decades, and it's rarely edgy.

Also, there's the demographic factor. As the population ages, edginess will probably be more of a niche genre.

October 02, 2007 12:52 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Outlaw country was pretty edgy. They were real outlaws, some of 'em.

I agree there's been a reaction since.

I dunno how much Nashville you listen to, but it ain't all Tricia Yearwood these days, however.

October 02, 2007 9:35 AM  
Blogger erp said...

I haven't listened to popular music since the early 50's, you know, when people who sang, could, you know, carry a tune, and musicians, you know, could make sounds, you know that were pleasing to the ear and you know, went right to the heart. However, in the spirit of full disclosure, after the fact, I do think that Elvis Presley had a wonderful voice. Too bad he wasn't managed better.

October 02, 2007 9:53 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

When I do listen to country, it's Top 40 or oldies, so I don't exactly have my finger on Country's pulse.

As to Elvis, there are still a few of his standards that I enjoy. I dunno if his problem was bad management.

Bad diet, for sure.

October 02, 2007 11:43 AM  
Blogger erp said...

Elvis, like a lot of other youngsters who were catapulted into fame and tons of money, were too unsophisticated to know how to handle it. Rack and ruin followed. Plenty of the same in the papers every day.

October 02, 2007 12:35 PM  

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