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April 25, 2018

Language of Poptimism

I just want to talk about an interesting, early piece of "poptimism" in a sense. (Poptimism is "the belief that pop music is as worthy of professional critique and interest as rock music." Source). It's a song called "I Want To Hear a Yankee Doodle Tune" by George M. Cohan. George M. Cohan is one of those revered Tin Pan Alley-era songwriters that rock fans scoff at and pop fans forget. He was also apparently very proud of his Irish heritage.

There's a recording of "I want to hear a Yankee Doodle tune" done by George Cohan. Please note that the notion of a songwriter singing their own songs was not common in his time. Singing and songwriting were very different professions whose skill sets rarely intersected. You'll occasionally find composers singing their own songs, like Cole Porter doing the full version of "Anything Goes." It's not common.

There's three things about this song that are incredible. First, it's basically an early poptimist anthem. Seriously! Poptimism hadn't been invented yet, but we've had a lowbrow / highbrow distinction for as long as brows have been low and high. This song comes down squarely on the side of "lowbrow is the way to go-brow."

It's really clever
And lasts forever,
You hear it once, forget it never,
For now we are coming to hanky, panky, popular melody days.

That it's the music, there's no doubt of it.
Cut all the cheap cadenzas out of it.
Music to please the gang
With plenty of biff and bang;

Music that all the children hum a bit,
All the composer's glories come of it.
It's so ringing,
That's what is bringing
The popular melody craze.

Moreover, he's not just saying that the "popular melody" should be appreciated on its own merits for its emotional qualities and catchy tunes, but he puts down classical music as "pretentious" and a "pain." Change the lyrics around and this is indistinguishable from a modern day pop forum calling indie music pretentious and tuneless.

I've always hated
That overrated
Pretentious music, complicated,

And compositions
That have conditions,
And intermissions that please musicians.

It's hard to hear it, or just be near it,
Upon my word I always fear it,
For I'm the original cranky, Yankee popular melody fool.

Give me a tune that's worth a listening,
Give me a tune that's worth a whistling.
I want a Sousa strain
Instead of a Wagner pain;

Give the trombones a chance to blow in it,
Give me a dash of rag and go in it.
What I'm stating
Is advocating
The popular melody school.

By the way, he's mostly... speaking through the melody, isn't he? There's no real melody in the verses. Try playing it on the piano and you'll see what I mean. Instead, he's using complex rhyme schemes and a chanting... Now I'm not saying George M. Cohan invented rap, but!

We're not just here for poptimism, though. George M. Cohan is going a step forward and saying that liking popular music is patriotic compared to all that highbrow stuff. This element of poptimism has been lost to the ages as pop music has stopped comparing itself to classical music and instead started comparing itself to rock.

For I'm the original cranky, Yankee popular melody fool.

I want to hear a Yankee Doodle tune,
Played by a military band.
I want to hear a Yankee Doodle tune,
The only music I can understand.

Oh! Sousa, won't you write another march,
Yours is just the melody divine.
You may have your William Tell,
And Faust and Lohengrin as well,
But I'll take a Yankee Doodle tune for mine.

He's so darn American that he cannot even understand non-American music. American music is Sousa marches and ragtime. Meanwhile, classical music is made by Germans like Wagner (composer of the opera "Lohengrin") and Italians like Rossini (who wrote the William Tell overture). Pop music is even militarized - he specifically wants it played by a military band. The modern poptimism debate is nowhere near this level of upping the ante.

So we've got early poptimism, poptimism = patriotic. but here's something more. George M. Cohan was born in America. His parents were born in America. His grandmother was born in America. Yet he's got this sort of... Irish accent on this recording. Notice how he pronounces "I" as "uh-ee" [ʌɪ] instead of [aɪ], and sometimes he rolls his 'r's [r]. The Irish were sort of a big deal as the new immigrants in town that the naturalized folks feared.

The origins of this song are unclear. The record with this performance on it lists it as being from mother goose, yet there are no examples of this song being in the list of musical numbers done in the show. One source, "Off Broadway Musical" (Off Broadway Musicals, 1910–2007: Casts, Credits, Songs, Critical Reception ) is skeptical of that origin: "possibly mother goose". Songs were written for characters in musicals, meaning that the "songwriter's intent" is very different from the modern songwriter's intent.

His choice to perform this song with an Irish accent underscores a few things: this character is sufficiently close to Ireland as to still have an Irish accent and is either a recent immigrant or the children of recent immigrants; they were very likely working class.

He combined this with a "poptimist" anthem with strong patriotic overtones. What is this saying? We're hearing an immigrant talk about how much he loves popular music, patriotic music. This song, in a way, positions the working class immigrant consuming self-described "trashy" music as more patriotic and American than the middle class consuming operas by foreign-born composers.

Nowadays the 'elite' music tends to be made in the same country as the 'pop' music, or the 'pop' music may even be foregn. either way, Americans are no longer arguing that *their* music is better because now their music is both the cultural lowbrow and the highbrow. classical music has been pushed to the fringes of cultural acceptability, relegated to a position as an arcane art enjoyhable only by learned folk instead of having the mass popularity it enjoyed during Cohan's time. It's not even in the picture, though many classical music fans undoubtedly still hold the position that their music is superior to hanky-panky popular melody days. it's a sign of how the music world has changed - and curiously, how language was used to do so.

Another piece of poptimism pits what may be called the 'rockists' of the day with an upstart 'poptimist.' The 'rockist' comparison is llabored - the "olden" music, parlor music, was never supposed to be particularly high class. Yet compared to the new generation of music, it seemed more sophisticated and worth protecting and took on an air of importance (hmmmmm, have we seen this play out before with other genres that lose their 'pop' status as a new genre comes into town?).

Note: the original song uses racial slurs. Just letting you know.
"The different lays of nowadays all set my brain a-whirl
they're not the kinds of songs they sang when mother was a girl
your spoony rags and c---- drags all made my poor heart ache
bring back the rhymes of olden times and just for old times' sake"

We briefly discussed the way this singer is dialectally coded. Her singing style is reminiscent of operatic singers, as most popular singers back in "the day" were trying to sound like classically trained singers. (most of them were not classically trained singers. You need real training to be a classical singer.). She rolls her r's even after a consonant: brrrain. She uses happy-laxing, which would have begun falling out of favor around this time.

The poptimist is Billy Murray, an early star of recorded music. He's also Irish (lots of Irishmen in early recorded american music).

"I don't care for your long-haired musicians with their classy melodies
THey're all full of high-tone ambition but their music doens't please
Give me something snappy and popular the king that d-kies play
lots of rhythm and I go with 'em and that's why I say"

"Won't you play a simple melody, like my mother sang to me?
One with good old fashioned harmony - play a simple melody."

"Oh you musical demon, set my honey a-dreamin', won't you play me some rag?
just change that classical nag to some sweet musical drag
If you will play from a copy of a tune that is choppy
you'll get all my applause
and that is simply because
I want to listen to rag."

Billy Murray also uses a sort of sing-talking in the beginning of "I don't care..." "They're all full of..." He uses an [i] sound for sure. There are no theatrical sounds here, no artificially rolled 'r's. Billy targets "that classical nag" and "high-tone ambition" (in other words, pretension!).

So we have three examples of rockism v poptimism being represented by different accents. The proud patriot immigrant who listens to authentic American music, the wannabe-opera/parlor singer, and the breezy ragtime enthusiast with questionable racial ethics. But how about something a little modern?

When rock and roll started getting national attention, the moral panic started about how bad this music was. Chuck Berry wrote "roll over beethoven," which is a more aggressively poptimist song. Instead of defending rock and roll, it goes on the offensive and dismisses classical music as irrelevant.

Roll over, Beethoven, and tell Tchaikovsky the news.

His "rock and roll" also chides people who play jazz too fast, which results in it sounding "like a symphony" - another jab at classical.

I have no kick against modern jazz
Unless they try to play it too darn fast
And change the beauty of the melody
Until it sounds just like a symphony

Curiously, there are many songs about rock and roll and how great it is, even after rock and roll as a genre was effectively dead. Many of these songs use the same type of "rock music accent". Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll" uses features from AAVE (hence why "long time" sounds like "lawng tam") but Robert Plant is from England. Chuck Berry's native accent is being used in these celebratory rock songs, and has in fact become a standard register for rock/pop in general.

Comparatively, pop music, which is more amorphous in nature, has few songs extolling its own virtues. New genres like electronic music and hip-hop don't engage in the same sort of "destroy the leader" song. Electronic music is usually instrumental or "conceptual," and a lot of it is underground. Hip-hop doesn't really try to attack other genres. Perhaps because hip-hop is so sample-centric, any genre is fair game for being used in a future hip-hop song.

Only pop song about pop music I can think of is by Poppy, and it's very ambivalent about the value of pop music. the chorus expresses this particularly:

Pop is when you hear a song
And cannot help but sing along
It's when you hate it but you still appreciate it
Pop belongs to everyone (oh oh)
Pop is on the radio
And who decides we'll never know
Somebody told me I should follow where the money goes

Pop is enjoyed by everyone, but the enjoyment is forced or laced with annoyance. It's also not democratically decided. Poppy displays no particular regional features. the conceit of the album is that she's some sort of virtual or created pop star, and the idea that "pop belongs to everyone" suggests that a virtual pop star should be "neutral." it's distinct from Cohan's irish wailing or Robert Plant's affected AAVE-isms. perhaps the reason we have almost no self-congratulatory pop anthems is the same reason pop mostly shies away from regionally-colored accents: pop is so amorphous, so attempting to be "timeless," that it's ultimately impossible to describe other than by saying what it's not. With "poptimism" becoming a real way of critics looking at music and artists calling themselves pop, perhaps pop may eventually gain an identity other than "popular music that doesn't neatly fit into another popular music genre." Perhaps we can have the return of Irish songwriters too?

1 comment:

  1. It's certainly true that there are a lot fewer pop songs about pop than (rock/metal/country) songs about (rock/metal/country), but there are at least a few more than one. Look on TV Tropes under "Heavy Meta" and Songfacts under "Songs about music". These came to mind for me:

    New York, London, Paris, Munich
    Everybody talk about pop music

    I write the songs that make the whole world sing
    I write the songs of love and special things

    Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs
    And what's wrong with that, I'd like to know

    This is the sound of all boys and girls
    You hear it playing all over the world

    So, as you note, contemporary pop is all about being popular everywhere, quite unlike the "Yankee Doodle" song.

    Special mention to this new wave song that defiantly asserts that it, too, is pop music:

    What do you call that noise that you put on?
    This is pop, yeah yeah!
    This is pop, yeah yeah!
    This is!