Martha Bayles   Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music.
The Free Press, 453 pages, $24.95

reviewed by Mark Steyn

Martha Bayles holds out till page 20 before slyly sidling into pop culture’s all-purpose anthem: “At some point,” she writes, “every critic tries to unpack Ellington’s famous title, ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.’” No need to feel so sheepish. As a distillation of the key distinction between pop music and the conservatory crowd, it’s hard to beat. But is the title Ellington’s? He sure enough wrote the tune, but the lyric is credited to Irving Mills, Ellington’s (white) publisher, an old-school Alleyman with an eye to the main chance, who wasn’t above passing off staff lyricists’ work as his own and cutting himself in on the songwriting royalties.

I don’t suppose Miss Bayles is aware of Mills’s claim, but even if she were, who wouldn’t rather believe in Ellington? On the one hand, a cool cat doodling at the keyboard and intuitively hitting upon the definition of what he does; on the other hand, an opportunist Tin Pan Alley hack measuring out the syllables and contriving a hit title to fit. It’s no contest. But the likelihood is that the phrase is Mills’s. It is, after all, in the preferred form of his opening lines: “When my sugar walks down the street/ All the birdies go tweet-tweet-tweet” or his suggestion for a novelty song about the first woman to attempt transatlantic flight, “You took a notion/ To fly across the ocean.” (“Mr. Mills,” his trainee lyricist Dorothy Fields protested, “nobody takes a notion to fly across the ocean.”) To those who believe that popular music is raw, soulful, earthy, authentic, passionate, Mills is everything they despise. “There is a sharp dividing line,” Miss Bayles writes, “between the ‘folk’ artist (black) and the ‘bourgeois’ exploiter (white).” The requirements of myth dictate that popular music’s most exhilarating philosophical statement be assigned to Ellington. We make our choice, Ellington or Mills, and thereby hang our tale.

The finest achievements in pop culture are a coalescence of art, which is incidental, and craft, which is crucial. To George Gershwin, Porgy and Bess was an obsession, and he had no choice but to write it out. To his brother, Ira, it was a professional lyricist’s latest assignment. Pop music today has its smattering of fitful artists but a conspicuous lack of craftsmen—those who provide the rules, set the standards, ensure there are minimum entry requirements. It’s instinctive. When Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Mercer wrote “I Thought About You” …

I peeped through the crack
And looked at the track
The one going back to you

… they didn’t sit around figuring “Hey, this is a train song, so we need lots of monosyllables with plenty of ‘k’ rhymes to bounce staccato off the notes and thereby emphasize the clicketty-clack rhythm”: that came naturally. Is it better than Schubert? That’s up to you. But at least it’s efficient. Confronted with “Fuck the Police” by Niggaz With Attitude …

Searchin’ my car, lookin’ for the product
Thinkin’ every nigga is sellin’ narcotics

… Mercer would barely have registered the content, but he would have raised an amused eyebrow at the attempted rhyme of “product” and “narcotics” and, more than that, would have been astounded at how the words are not, in any way, musical words shaped to the notes or intervals. Martha Bayles is a child of the Sixties, so it’s a pleasant surprise to find that she rightly identifies as Bob Dylan’s principal defects his “deliberate obscurity, self-indulgence, pretentiousness, and (most damning) indifference to the aural texture—the music—of words.” He might be a great prophet, he might be America’s true political opposition, he might be a handsomely bound Ivy League–approved poet, he might even have “the rude beauty of a Southern field hand musing in melody on his porch” (Robert Shelton in The New York Times), but he is not, on the whole, any sort of songwriter.

Miss Bayles’s subtitle makes her point: “The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music.” Rap, metal, grunge flaunt their lack of beauty: the ghetto sucks; kids are angry; what is there to be beautiful about? To which Miss Bayles sniffs: “London in a recession produced the Sex Pistols; Kansas City in a depression produced Count Basie.” As for “meaning,” by emphasizing the social context and textual analysis at the expense of the music, rock has diminished its capacity for any meaning whatsoever. To Miss Bayles, “the hardy affirmative spirit of Afro-American music”—by which she means any pop, jazz, country, blues, soul, or rock ’n’ roll tune she happens to dig—has been perverted and brutalized by the influence of European intellectual poseurs.

Hole in Our Soul is a timely book, if only because popular music—or, at any rate, popular popular music—is dead, as dead as Kurt Cobain, a fellow most of us had never heard of until he turned up in the obituary columns. Now he’s become a household name without ever having produced a household song, a model example of contemporary shortcut celebrity. It would be interesting to discuss his music, if any of us knew what it sounded like. But even the experts don’t have much to say. Miss Bayles charts pop currents across the last half century without much other than her own taste, which is pretty reliable, and extensive quotations from rock’s leading critics, who aren’t. No matter how idiotic the rock biz is, rock criticism will always trump it. Is anything less relevant to Elvis than the respected commentator Griel Marcus? In Mystery Train, Marcus cites a number by the punk band X as “the best song ever written about Elvis” and drools with delight over the lyric: “man in the back says Presley sucked dicks.” Miss Bayles, striving piously to concentrate on the music, sighs wearily: “Of all the distortions found in Marcus, the most glaring is his utter indifference to the fact that 1950s rock ’n’ roll was, above all, a dance craze.” For a moment, she trembles on the brink of great insight into rock ’n’ roll: those who can, dance; those who can’t, figure out some other explanation.

America has had some sort of popular-music business for a century and a half, but almost all its critical analysis derives from the rock generation. Miss Bayles painstakingly counters the standard misconceptions, but, as they were mostly misconceived by other cultural critics, you sometimes wonder whether you wouldn’t be better off throwing the book away and settling down with a boxed set of Reader’s Digest sing-along favorites. So she dismisses the claim that rock ’n’ roll was a “revolution.” But who makes this claim except the likes of Rolling Stone’s Robert Palmer (“it was mid-Fifties rock ’n’ roll that blew away, in one mighty, concentrated blast, the accumulated racial and social proprieties of the centuries”) and Billboard magazine, whose “Hot 100 Chart” reference books all use July 9, 1955, when Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” hit Number One, as Year Zero of “the rock era”? But listen to the makers: Elvis admired Dean Martin and Eddie Fisher; Chuck Berry told me he wanted to sing like Nat “King” Cole. Look at the label of “Rock Around the Clock”: one of the authors was born in the nineteenth century; Mitchell Parish, lyricist of “Stardust” and “Sweet Lorraine,” once described it to me as “a good conventional Tin Pan Alley song.” Step back a little further: the Original Dixieland Jazz Band recorded for RCA, and so did Elvis; Tony Bennett recorded for Columbia, and so did Bob Dylan and Michael Jackson. The corporate continuity tells its own story about the rock ’n’ roll “revolution”: it’s revolution Romanian-style, where the ruthless manipulative Ceau?escu figure—Mitch Miller— gets toppled and replaced by a more popular frontman, but behind the scenes all the same people are in charge. Pop music is in trouble today because the corporations have moved on, evolving computerized entertainments like Nintendo instead of nurturing the careers of flesh-and-blood entertainers.

But “Rock Around the Clock” is a dividing line of sorts. Before it, there was barely any serious consideration of popular music. Miss Bayles plods ponderously through the pre-criticism era, lacking bonehead rock scribes to bounce off. But it never seems to occur to her that these years—the half-century before Bill Haley—were the best that American popular music has ever known, years which saw the rise of jazz, country, and blues, an indigenous musical theater, good commercial film music, and pop songs, a few of which could reasonably claim to be the only true art songs in the English language. Ignored by The New York Times and Miss Bayles’s predecessors at The Wall Street Journal, these artless artists just got on with it. Alas, critical attention would seem on the evidence to be far more harmful to popular art than any of the hedges and compromises demanded by the cloth ears of commerce. Jazz “purists” resent Louis Armstrong for ending his career growling through “Hello, Dolly!” and “What a Wonderful World,” but it still beats ersatz fusion tone-poems. George Gershwin made a pile of dough hosting a radio show sponsored by a laxative and used the money to write Porgy and Bess; today Stephen Sondheim is told continually he’s a genius, writes two shows a decade, and has seen his chosen form dwindle from American popular culture’s central thruway into a forgotten little back road. Rock music seems headed the same way. Madonna—a competent disco vocalist, in Miss Bayles’s assessment—has her significance pondered by earnest feminist professors, decides to pose nude on top of a German wolfhound, and finds her record sales have gone into free fall.

In the Sixties, when dawned the “ongoing cottage industry of pseudo-literary analysis” of Bob Dylan, the first generation of rock critics found it easy to write about the lyrics, which were conveniently printed on the album cover. In the Seventies, with glam and glitter and art-school androgynes and records with gatefold sleeves, they wrote about style and concept. In the Eighties, it was video images and socio-political attitudes. Rock critics will write about anything to avoid writing about the melody, the rhythm, the harmonic structure. In many cases, it’s difficult, for the most direct example of pop as a vehicle for social protest is also the most uncomfortable reminder of how little the music matters. “It was lost on the revelers at Woodstock,” writes Miss Bayles, “that Country Joe and the Fish’s antiwar anthem ‘I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die’ was musically identical to ‘Muskrat Ramble,’ the New Orleans jazz standard by Edward (‘Kid’) Ory.” As a musical interpretation, the McGuire Sisters’ 1954 recording of “Muskrat Ramble” blows Country Joe and the Fish out of the water, but, poor things, because they weren’t singing about Vietnam, the girls were dismissed as bland, anodyne, pre-rock dinosaurs. Rap is the logical consequence of such priorities: the reduction of the music to a banal stationary backing track, the debasement of lyric-writing to a formless pneumatic laundry list of half-baked hoodlum exhibitionism.

Popular music, supposedly the multi- racial meeting place, has soured into a sterile apartheid. Of course, so have many other areas of modern life. The Writers’ Union of Canada recently held a conference “limited to First Nations writers and writers of color.” When persons of non-color protested about public funding of racially segregated meetings, the committee chairman helpfully explained that the notion of “color” now transcends race and embraces the realm of psychological self-definition. So, if a person of non-color felt as profoundly oppressed as a person of color, he or she would have assumed an identity that would make him or her eligible to attend. In the nineteenth century, white folks latched on to Negro songs, smeared their faces with burnt cork, and made a killing in minstrel shows. At the turn of the century, while black ragtime composers starved, white Tin Pan Alley hacks stuck “rag” in the titles of their novelty songs and sold millions. In the Fifties, R&B numbers such as “Roll With Me, Henry” were bowdlerized into “Dance With Me, Henry” by white singers who then cleaned up on the hit parade. For more than one hundred years, from the Christy Minstrels to Pat Boone, whitey has been seizing any half-decent black musical ideas and doing weedy but lucrative cover versions. If I were a person of color and casually switched on “Oprah!” and the rest, I’d reckon white folks were now doing the biggest cover version of all: appropriating my sense of profound oppression. Today, we are all victims: 50 percent of American women are date raped, 80 percent of lesbian parents are denied day-care facilities, 100 percent of celebrities are abused as children or are abusers of children or are undecided pending the outcome of their next memory-recovery session. This is the minstrel show of the alienation business, metaphorically smudging on the black-face for an easy-listening arrangement of the real thing. These days (Ellington again), we all got it bad, and that ain’t good, especially when most of the oppressed are about as convincing as Pat Boone singing Fats Domino. The song is ended, but the malady lingers on; all is pose and attitude. Can white men sing the blues? No, but black men have forgotten how, too. Black or white, though, anyone can buy a metaphorical bus ticket to the ghetto. The long-term problem of rap, metal, and grunge is that—unlike Jolson, Crosby, Sinatra, Presley, the Beatles—they’re strictly for losers.

Contemporary pop has graduated to the arts pages of our most sober newspapers to a degree that would have baffled Paul Dresser, Scott Joplin, George M. Cohan, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, W. C. Handy, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, Jimmie Rodgers, Bunny Berrigan, Woody Guthrie … But, almost in inverse proportion to its critical attention, popular music has become both less popular and less musical. Forget all those bogus generalizations about “energy” and “drive”; musically, Ice Cube’s “The Nigga Ya Love to Hate” (to select the first song title Miss Bayles quotes) isn’t a patch on “When My Sugar Walks Down the Street,” never mind “All the Things You Are.” If Ice Cube wasn’t rappin’ about terminating an unwanted pregnancy by booting his woman in the belly, none of us would be the slightest bit interested. And even then, we’re not that interested. This is one “authentic black experience” that doesn’t travel beyond the ghetto. I offer to Miss Bayles a statistic from the British record industry, admittedly not a body to which she is entirely sympathetic: in 1993, in the United Kingdom, Doris Day outsold all American rap artists combined.