The Menace of Professional Music
I’m 35, and in 16 years of hanging out in bars about twice a week, I’ve sung in one only once. I mean really sung, not karaoke, not the “Bah-bah-bah” part of Sweet Caroline, but singing spontaneously for joy, camaraderie, and the sheer hell of it.
It was at a bachelor party of an Irish immigrant in the summer of ‘94. I was one of only three Americans in the room. Maybe that’s why we sang in the first place—it was the least American night I ever had in America.
About 20 of us stood in a circle singing loud, boozy Irish folk songs. “Stancil Hill,” “Molly Malone,” “The Wild Rover,” and several others that I never heard before or since. I knew the lyrics to none at the start, but by the end of each I joined in, full-throat.
Some of you may not relate to this, since you already sing fearlessly and frequently. Others are saying, “You’re 35? You look amazing.”
Yeah. I know. But my limited musical experience is not unique, and I believe it is the common American experience today.
This fate was prophesized before I was born. And I don’t mean by the mysterious voodoo woman who laid a wrinkled palm on my mother’s belly the morning after I was conceived and said, “You got a man-child a-comin’.” No, I mean much earlier in the 20th century, and a much more general prophesy.
In 1906 the conductor John Philip Sousa wrote an essay titled “The Menace of Mechanical Music.” In it he declared, “Tubas are heavy. It would profit a man to wear one about his person like a pull-over jacket, rather than hold it in his arms.”
Wait… I’m sorry. That’s from his patent application for the Sousaphone.
Ah, here it is. In an essay on phonographs, player-pianos, and other mechanical music devices, Sousa began on a dark, shall we say, note:
Sweeping across the country with the speed of a transient fashion in slang or Panama hats… comes now the mechanical device to sing for us a song or play for us a piano, in substitute for human skill, intelligence, and soul. Only by harking back to the day of the roller skate or the bicycle craze… can we find a parallel… [You all know about how Levant Richardson invented the ball-bearing skate on December 9, 1884, right? Good, I didn’t want to have re-roast that chestnut. Some audiences…] [I]f we turn from this comparison… to another which may fairly claim a similar proportion of music in its soul, we may observe the English sparrow, which, introduced and welcomed in all innocence, lost no time in multiplying itself to the dignity of a pest, to the destruction of numberless native song birds…
Not a bad metaphor for a bandleader, huh? Sousa’s prophesy was that:
Under such conditions the tide of amateurism cannot but recede, until there will be left only the mechanical device and the professional executant…
I hate to say it, Johnny boy, but ya nailed it. Here is Sousa on romance: "The Spanish cavalier must abandon his guitar and serenade his beloved with a phonograph under his arm."
Today, Lloyd Dobler holding a boombox over his head is the most romantic image in American cinema, to people of a certain age and a certain socioeconomic class. At the very climax of Say Anything, Dobler says exactly nothing. Peter Gabriel, the specialist, says everything.
Think of your own romantic experiences. To express affection, you likely turned to the pro and the machine, and made a mix tape.
On the future of warfare, Sousa says, "[W]hen the nation once more sounds its call to arms and the gallant regiment marches forth, there will be no majestic drum major, no serried ranks of sonorous trombones, no glittering array of brass, no rolling of drums..."
Instead, he says, it will be it will be, “Whir -- whir – whir” (that’s Sousa imitating a mechanical device winding up), “Song by the Bungtown Quartet: ‘Your Name is Dennis.’”
Now, you may not remember from the introduction, but my name is Dennis! No amount of googling has turned up The Bungtown Quartet, or their monster hit “Your Name is Dennis.” Still, it pleases me to know that in 1906 nothing would ignite a young man’s courage and ferocity quite like being told that his name was Dennis.
Was Sousa right? Think of Apocalypse Now, when the US Army chases the Vietnamese off a beach while blasting Richard Wagner’s “The Ride of the Valkaries” through helicopter-mounted reel-to-reel stereos.
In real life, consider the Second Battle of Fallujah in November, 2004. At the battle’s start, the journalist Dexter Filkins lay face down with some marines on a rooftop, taking heavy fire from Iraqi insurgents. A voice cried over a minaret loudspeaker, “The Americans are here! The Holy War! The Holy War! Get up and fight for the city of mosques!”
“And then,” Filkins writes, “As if from the depths, came a new sound: violent, menacing and dire… I looked back over my shoulder. A group of marines were standing in front of a gigantic loudspeaker… It was AC/DC. I recognized the song immediately: ‘Hells Bells,’ the band’s celebration of Satanic power, had come to us on the battlefield.”
It wasn’t “Your name is Dennis,” but it did the job.
Today, one of the most popular TV shows of the past 10 years, American Idol, is dedicated to separating the professional executant from the amateur, often cruelly. Early each season, the tone deaf and the arrhythmic are mocked by experts for having the temerity to believe in themselves.
Recently, on a British variant of this show, a supposedly homely and definitely nervous woman was mocked for daring to stand before Great Britain and sing. In a heart-tugging manner worthy of Leni Riefensthal, the camera cut between judges shooting side-long glances at each other and audience members rolling their eyes… Until suddenly—we discover that an anonymous out-of-shape spinster can sing!?!
Now, I’m not a monster. I watched Susan Boyle sing that stupid fucking Les Mis song like 9 times. I may have almost cried every time. But I deeply resent the intended message: that her worth is based on her talent.
In an interview in 1981, John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotton, identified the modern problem perfectly: “A concert these days is a bunch of gits on a stage with all these idiots standing in pits worshiping them, thinking they’re heroes. There should be no difference between who’s on stage and who’s in the audience.”
What seemed to a group of Irishmen like a perfectly logical thing to do at a bachelor party—sing with joy—turned out to be an extremely rare event to this American. It shouldn’t be. I read these words in the shadow of the Old Town School of Folk Music, which will soon expand across the street. A good sign-- maybe the tide of amateurism can flow once again.
To arrive at that goal, the rest of us need to stop worrying about being mocked, stop worrying about being judged, and stop worrying about even being bad. Just get out there and sing. I mean, God dammit, son! Your name is Dennis!