Let's Get Busy in Hawaiian

100 Years of Ragged Beats and Cheap Tunes

By 1940, music was everywhere and runaway variety was pop's most salient and democratic virtue. Encouraged by a radio smitten with the economies of canned music as it maneuvered through publishing feuds too sordid to go into, the record industry once again marketed the rural musics of the '20s—as "country and western," which had never fully disappeared, and "rhythm and blues," an easy, escapist, exclusively African American alternative to big-band dance music that instead of emulating the machine via arrangement exploited it via amplification. Jazzy Western swing and jump blues notwithstanding, country and r&b mined folkish sounds. In country, a constructed traditionalism—Bill Monroe inventing bluegrass in a cowboy hat, say—did battle with sinful honky tonk impulses; r&b swallowed every blues trick to hit the big city and was secularizing gospel's vocal calisthenics and ecstatic beats before soul knew its name. True, Nashville became Tin Pan Alley soon enough. But if Hamm is right to believe that pop belongs to the performer, not the composer, then the triumph of the twin roots genres was a fulfillment of history rather than the betrayal of civilized standards fogeys have whined about ever since.

Enter rock and roll, which has now prevailed in its many guises for nearly half a century. The standard oversimplification, which declares rock the bastard child of blues and country, ignores the pop savvy of its overseers and exaggerates the whiteness of its roots, but does serve to emphasize its proud dependence on the modal melodies and small-group dynamics that drove country and r&b. In addition to these essential attractions, rock foregrounded three elements that had been knocking on pop's door since 1900: youth, race, and rhythm. Pop music had always been youth music, never more than in the '30s, but '50s teendom—enjoying an explosion of spending cash as it resisted a resurgent nuclear-family ideology out of step with too many other realities—was far more sure of itself. And though American music has always been crossbred and American culture has never stopped being racist, the integration of pop in the '50s was far more drastic than anything suggested by the Mills Brothers on the hit parade. Of course whites maintained economic control and configured dozens of rock subgenres to their preferences and expectations—often to excellent effect, too. It's even conceivable that all of rock's radical racial metaphors were epiphenomena of the civil rights struggle. But it's crude reductionism to charge, for instance, that hip hop's pop reach is blackface all over again. African American musicians exert a status and power that was beyond them 50 years ago.

To prove it, there's rhythm. Since minstrelsy at the latest, the basic story of American and then world popular music had been cheap tunes getting their beats ragged. But the tunes, arguably part African themselves, remained paramount. With rock the balance shifted—Elvis and Chuck Berry, who had nothing on Jerry Lee Lewis and Bo Diddley, stressed and isolated the beat as even Count Basie's riff-heavy rhythm kings had not. And it was only 10 years after Elvis that James Brown upped the ante with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," which established polyrhythm as the nexus of pop musicality and jump-started a funk that motorvated not just George Clinton but Stevie Wonder, Miles Davis, Prince, disco, a rainbow of Latin tinges, and the entire techno movement, not to mention the hip hop fad. Still moving on up after two decades, that fad—a model of international phonographic cross-fertilization, with roots in the Caribbean as well as the South Bronx—has kicked as much ass as rock and roll itself. Before it's over, in some century or other, it threatens to stick unmitigated beatmastery and electronic sonics in the privileged place where melody and harmony have reigned since Bach.

** Yet though African rhythm clearly deserves pride of place, rock and roll has been so much more. You don't find folk in the country because folk is an urban idea about the primitive—an idea that's been sneaking around with the vulgarities of rock and roll since James Brown found his bag. It's folkies, whether they call themselves that or not, who are forever revitalizing outmoded musical resources they discover on old records. And bigger than that, folkies turn out to care a lot about words. Bob Dylan sold out faster than swing, and he was hardly the first of the multitude of troubadours manquées who turned out their own thousands of great songs—sometimes with bridges and fancy changes attached, sometimes strophic versifying, sometimes three-chord rants or laments or anthems. The urbane wit and commonplace succinctness prized by classic pop never died out, but rock's vernacular was more all-embracing—slangy or raunchy or obscene, earnest or enraged, confessional or hortatory, poetic or dissociative or obscure or totally meaningless. Some lyricist is recombining a personalized selection of those qualities as you read this sentence.

Where in classic pop the piano signified respectability and sold sheet music, in rock the guitar signified revolt and sold records. And where in classic pop Europe pursued pale imitations of American models alongside its own song traditions—which in the case of English and French music hall were far less fussy than, say, Europhile Jerome Kern—in rock it was Brits who grasped the possibilities. Not only did the Beatles et al. show American folkies a way out of their own gentility, they took for granted the music's countercultural thrust, which was self-evident on a continent that envied and disdained Yanks more than ever. From the day they hit Hamburg, the Beatles were destined to redefine youth culture as bohemian. Nothing is ever that one-dimensional, as waves of prefab teenpop and sclerotic balladry have been proving ever since. But consider for a moment the iconography and aesthetic pretensions of that lowbrow epitome, metal. Consider the reckless hedonism, the monastic immersion in virtuosity, the long hair, the antisocial stomp, the us-against-them rhetoric. This is something unprecedented, and like hip hop it shows no signs of going away.

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