Saturday, January 17, 2015

Must We Dance To Lousy Music?

I went to an interesting wedding a few weeks ago.  It took place in a small church on the North Side.  The church itself was hardly decorated, as if the celebrants were taking advantage of the Christmas decorations, and the members of the wedding, while dressed in semi-formal garb, were hardly unified in their outfits, though the bride did have a traditional dress.

In terms of music, not only were the songs themselves a bit different (I recognized "O, Fount Of Every Blessing"), the performers were young, acoustic musicians--two guitars and a mandolin.  The bride did not process in to any of the usual songs.  The song that everyone left the wedding to was a joyful 3-chord strum.

Later, at the reception, when it was time for the new bride and groom to dance their first dance together, that same acoustic band played a slower version of Talking Heads' "This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)."

And then later on, when the "real" dancing started, the Djs started playing the same old crap.

I was telling a friend about this.  He said, "Let me guess.  'Brick House?' 'Love Shack?'"

Exactly.  And "Happy."  Not the Keith Richards' song.  The Frozen one.

My questions are these:  why the huge disconnect between good music and dance music?  Why the need to play the same tired songs over and over again any time there is dancing?  Why the standardization?  Why the safety?

I know I show my age, but it was not always so.  Or maybe it was.  I guess I cling to the model of the 60's, when, as shown in the movie Quadrophenia, the kids are dancing to "Green Onions" by Booker T. and The MGs, or the television shows like Hullabaloo or American Bandstand, where the audience dancers are dancing to whatever is new, whatever the band is playing, whether it's a hit or an up and coming song.

Most likely, I'm just reinforcing my own shattered myth that popular music was better back then, that there was a way to dance to most any Beatles song, that it was way cooler to dance under a black light to "Inna Gadda Da Vida" than it is to do the "Love Train."

But, really, I think that there is something more insidious going on.  And I'm sure I've spoken of it before.  It's the need to play "Seven Nation Army" at a sporting event.  It's the need to have certain go-to songs at weddings and dances.  If you chaperone high school dances like I do, then you know that Usher's "Yeah" is going to be played.  And I could name others.

The insidiousness I refer to falls on no one but us.  Modern society is more branded, more brand conscious, than at any time in history, I think.  Music, in particular, has entered a stage where the golden age of rock (by my reckoning, 1960 to 1990) is something that we all fall back on for safe, nostalgic reasons.  That's in our commercials, our social events, our cultural references and everyday lives, so it isn't a shock that the same old stuff would be played at weddings everywhere.  It's just a disappointment.  People all over the country's weddings really have joined in on a love train.

Because even if the song is by a groundbreaking artist like The Beatles, the wedding reception song is going to be "Twist And Shout," not "Come Together."  The Rolling Stones' song at a football game is going to be "Start Me Up," not "Can't You Hear Me Knockin'" (which would be really cool when a football team gets inside the red zone, if you think about it."

Eddie Murphy used to mock white people for listening to lyrics of dance songs.  If he is right, and it really is just about the beat, then people should be able to dance to anything with an acceptable rhythm, not just the narrow playlist of large-gathering America.  But they won't.  Because, really, every dance these days is just a safety dance.


goofytakemyhand said...

Given your parameters, you must have some thrilling requests at weddings and dances such as:

R.E.M. - Everybody Hurts
Warren Zevon - Searching for a Heart
Beck - Loser
Lucinda Williams - Joy

Robert Berman said...

Mind you, representations of dancing on TV shows and movies may not represent reality. Shows like "American Bandstand" existed precisely to showcase new music, so that's what they played. Kids went there not just to dance, but to be on TV, which happened to require dancing to songs they didn't know and maybe didn't like. The complicated dance solos I saw on Soul Train were probably concocted back home in the living room to totally different music.

Each generation has its music canon, and the savvy curator adjusts his offerings to the perceived expectations of the crowd, because he knows that when he plays a song they know, their reaction is not just a response to the soundwaves. It's their limbic system summoning the good vibes they had on various occasions when they previously heard that song.