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Posts Tagged ‘songs’

Conspiracy Theories

April 21, 2015 | by

presleyelvis-teddyed

From the cover of the “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear” single.

Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars. —Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear” topped the charts for seven weeks in the summer of 1957. It was from the sound track to Elvis Presley’s second film, the vaguely autobiographical Loving You, in which the King plays a delivery-guy-turned-singing-sensation who engages the affections of Dolores Hart, better known as the starlet who left Hollywood to become a Benedictine nun.

Anyway, everyone knows “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear” is kind of odd, with its BDSM undertones and its arbitrary hierarchy of animals—what’s wrong with lions? Plus there’s the one-is-not-like-the-others aspect of it: Elvis sings of a toy teddy bear in a menagerie of otherwise live animals. But the strangest thing about it is the characterization of teddy bears themselves: Read More »

Testimony of Simplicity

April 13, 2015 | by

diana-ross-upside-down-motown-4

Quaker in disguise?

“Personal pride does not end with noble blood. It leads people to a fond value of their persons, especially if they have any pretense to shape or beauty. Some are so taken with themselves it would seem that nothing else deserved their attention.” —William Penn

Upside Down” was the lead single on Diana Ross’s 1980 disco record Diana. The song, written by Chic’s Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers, topped the charts for a month, and it’s one of the great late-era disco dance hits: catchy, unexpected, propulsive, feisty. 

The plot is simple. A boy is turning her upside down, inside out, round and round, et cetera. And then: Read More »

On Being Blue

March 31, 2015 | by

vickyleandros

Vicky Leandros performing “L’amour est bleu.”

Of the colors, blue and green have the greatest emotional range. Sad reds and melancholy yellows are difficult to turn up. Among the ancient elements, blue occurs everywhere: in ice and water, in the flame as purely as in the flower, overhead and inside caves, covering fruit and oozing out of clay. Although green enlivens the earth and mixes in the ocean, and we find it, copperish, in fire; green air, green skies, are rare. Gray and brown are widely distributed, but there are no joyful swatches of either, or any of exuberant black, sullen pink, or acquiescent orange. Blue is therefore most suitable as the color of interior life. Whether slick light sharp high bright thin quick sour new and cool or low deep sweet dark soft slow smooth heavy old and warm: blue moves easily among them all, and all profoundly qualify our states of feeling. ―William Gass, On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry

Sixty years ago, the camp spectacle we know as the Eurovision Song Contest was born. And in 1967, said Eurovision contest was the site of one of the most shocking miscarriages of justice in international pop-music history.

The competition is famously political—some would say corrupt—and the winning songs have often raised a cynical eyebrow. So maybe no one was surprised when Luxembourg’s ’67 entry—“L’amour est bleu,” performed by the Greek singer Vicky Leandros—didn’t win. No one could have taken out the UK juggernaut “Puppet on a String.” But Luxembourg came in fourth! Behind the Irish entry, “If I Could Choose,” and France’s “Il doit faire beau là-bas”! It was arguably the biggest outrage since 1958, when “Volare” lost out to the insipid “Dors, mon amour.” Read More »

What Are Songs For

March 20, 2015 | by

Willard Cummings, Barracks Concert (detail), ca. 1942.

This was not quite what I’d expected.

I’d come to the psych wing of Butler Hospital, in Providence, Rhode Island, to present a music seminar or, more properly, a sing-along, as part of a community service requirement for my college. This was in the late seventies. I was in a brightly lit dining hall that smelled of tobacco and medicine. There were twenty-five or thirty folding chairs but only thirteen or fourteen patients, all of them sad and doughy, middle aged or older. I sat facing them on a gray wooden stool and looked out at the assembled not-quite crowd. They looked like retired firemen, metalworkers, or lunch ladies; men with mustaches, pensions, and bad habits; women with secrets; people who rode the bus, who stood in line and then stood in the same line again. I’d read The Bell Jar, some Randall Jarrell, and I had a vaguely romantic, if ill-defined, sense of life on the other side of what passes for sanity. But this was not a good advertisement for crazy. Read More »

A Sincere Mustache, and Other News

March 6, 2015 | by

mustaches

From a 1902 newspaper advertisement.

  • John McPhee on writing, illumination, and mustaches: “Robert Bingham, my editor at The New Yorker for sixteen years, had a fluorescent, not to mention distinguished, mustache. In some piece or other, early on, I said of a person I was writing about that he had a ‘sincere’ mustache. This brought Bingham, manuscript in hand, out of his office … A sincere mustache, Mr. McPhee, a sincere mustache? What does that mean? Was I implying that it is possible to have an insincere mustache? … Across time, someone came along who had ‘a no-nonsense mustache,’ and a Great Lakes ship captain who had ‘a gyroscopic mustache,’ and a North Woodsman who had ‘a timber-cruiser’s guileless mustache.’ A family practitioner in Maine had ‘an analgesic mustache,’ another doctor ‘a soothing mustache,’ and another a mustache that ‘seems medical, in that it spreads flat beyond the corners of his mouth and suggests no prognosis, positive or negative.’”
  • Pop music is heralded as one of life’s simple pleasures: a chance for pure escapism. Why, then, are so many pop songs really, really, really sad? “Love songs have always been more likely to deal with the yearning for love, the complications of love, love’s betrayal, or the loss of love (or even, sometimes, the loss of life) than the fancied bliss of love fulfilled … a strain of sadness has long been laced through the popular songbook. Music listeners’ likes have never been restricted to things that make them happy.”
  • On Kingsley Amis’s misanthropic masterwork, Ending Up: “The finished product is short and brutal, a series of cackling vignettes of man’s cruelty to man, all conveyed in Amis’s crisp, beady prose. It is also very funny, growing funnier with each fresh misery, mishap and atrocity. The blurb on my Penguin edition draws attention to its ‘humanity,’ but it might more accurately have highlighted its inhumanity: few novels have ever been quite this bleak, quite this nasty.”
  • The impressionists are often derided as “the painterly equivalent of easy listening,” but they still have much to teach us: “While Degas was in America in 1872 he was much taken with the Southern Creole women, feeling they had ‘that touch of ugliness without which no salvation.’ Let’s not get too politically correct here. His remark has a general application. It speaks to a shared aesthetic disposition. By ‘ugliness,’ Degas means ordinary life—a girl having her hair combed on a beach; women unperturbed, unself-conscious at their ablutions; a laundress stretching, yawning, another one ironing. They are the painters of modern life, in Baudelaire’s encapsulation. As modern as T. S. Eliot’s woman who yawns and draws her stocking up in ‘Sweeney Among the Nightingales.’ ”
  • “Jane Austen’s earliest writings are violent, restless, anarchic, and exuberantly expressionistic. Drunkenness, female brawling, sexual misdemeanor, and murder run riot across their pages.”

The Ants of God

January 21, 2015 | by

The budding South Sudanese community in Omaha, Nebraska.

nuer still

A still from The Nuer, a 1971 documentary.

More than a hundred years ago, my relatives emigrated from Czechoslovakia to Nebraska, thus escaping the privilege of becoming fodder for the aristocracy’s canons. Why Nebraska? The railroad advertising pictured illustrations of the thick loam of the prairie, calculated to resemble their homeland’s. The land was theirs for free if they worked extremely hard on it for five years, and many did, and prospered.

This century, the Nuer from South Sudan have immigrated to the same region, but they aren’t so fortunate. Having escaped one of the world’s worst war zones, endured extremely harsh conditions in refugee camps, and traveled eight thousand miles to resettle, the Nuer face poor Nebraska neighborhoods policed by gangs like the Bloods and the Crips.

The Nuer fled fighting in a very remote area in South Sudan, much of it accessible only by boat or on foot. I know. I walked into the region thirty-five years ago, lugging in heavy sound equipment to make a sequel to The Nuer, the highest grossing ethnographic film of the time. The original, from 1971, was extremely beautiful, shot by Hilary Harris, Robert Gardner, and George Breidenbach. It documented the traditional Nuer lifestyle as depicted by E. E. Evans-Pritchard, the British academic who founded the discipline of social anthropology on a study of their culture. The sequel to it was never finished, but I translated and published Cleaned the Crocodile’s Teeth, a selection of their songs, their most complex art form.

Never would I have imagined that people from so far away would move within a hundred miles of my birthplace in Ogallala, Nebraska. So many resettled in the state that it now has the world’s largest population of Nuer outside South Sudan. Had I impressed them with talk of a landscape similar to their own, the way the broadsides had lured my relatives? It couldn’t be—all I’d had to do was mention snow to the Africans and their enthusiasm waned. Originally, resettlement agencies sent the Nuer to rural Minnesota, Virginia, Arizona, California, and upstate New York. They had to establish themselves quickly: all our government gave them was a loan for the plane ticket from Africa, less than three hundred dollars cash, and food stamps. They had to start paying back the loans within six months—a tall order when you’re traumatized by war, not yet fluent in English, and largely unaware of American customs. Through informal cell phone networking, the Nuer converged on Nebraska. Cheap housing attracted them—and openings in the meatpacking industry, that mainstay of immigrant labor. In many Nuer families, both spouses work two shifts. The slaughterhouse was a psychologically difficult workplace, as they had just fled a war that had more civilian casualties than World War II. The slaughterhouse worker I spoke to was bothered by the screams of the half-dead cattle while their hides were ripped off with hooks. You are supposed to wait until the eyes tell you what to do, he said. Read More »

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