Saturday, June 8, 2013

Elements of the Parodic Table

Sole surviving member of my immediate family, I’m also happily single and childless. But, by a one-thing-leads-to-another sequence of the ilk that determines so much of life, I acquired a sort of quasi-niece several years ago. (Long story.) The other day she asked if she could use my dining room for a tea party for a few of her Millennial friends. My dining room has a cherry hutch containing a variety of china cups that I never use – I inherited them (plus the hutch and the table for that matter) from my mom, who did use them. It was an odd request for her set, but I had no objection.

While the event was in progress, I was out for part of the evening; when I returned, I opted to stay out of the way and read Stephen King’s recent novel Joyland in the den. (I’ll leave comments on that for another blog.) Still, I couldn’t help being sufficiently aware of the goings-on to notice that the whole exercise – the elegant clothes, the good china, the good tableware, the good tablecloth, etc. – from their perspective was a comical parody. They even burlesqued an upper-crust accent that no longer exists, but which still can be heard in movies of the 1930s and 1940s – one that sounds as though it belongs midway between London and Philadelphia. (This accent was pretty much gone by the 1960s.) From the laughter, they seemed to be having fun with it. As a soundtrack, they were playing some of my vinyl from the 1950s and early 60s. My music collection is not especially big, but is a hodgepodge ranging from the 1930s through the 2010s in a mix of vinyl, tapes, and CDs. (No, I’m not as old as much as the music.) The 50s/60s fare they were spinning no doubt seemed sufficiently ancient for their purposes, but I made my one intervention by suggesting that that it wasn’t. I recommended instead what already was loaded in the cassette player: an all-1940s mixed tape (remember mixed tapes?) of Glenn Miller, Kay Kyser, Andrews Sisters, Benny Goodman, and so on. It was a hit. They even danced to it.

Although I then withdrew from the party, the music filtered through. The difference in tone between the 50s music and the 40s that replaced it was stark, and distracted me (in a good way) from Stephen. I don’t refer to the stylistic difference between big bands and early rock. I mean … what? … attitude, I think. (Naturally, I’ve noticed this before, but hearing a packet of one followed immediately by a packet of the other brought it into sharp relief.) The 40s are sophisticated: youthful, but adult. There is more than a little humor, but the love songs sound adult and real. The 50s rock is all innocent earnestness – very much a teen way of looking at romance and breakups, even when sung by non-teens. (The 50s were the first decade when folks started doubting the value of growing up.) Both are utterly different from what airs in the 21st century, which is so often deliberately dark (e.g. Kanye West), vengeful (even in light pop such as Adele’s Rumor Has It), or just plain cynical (e.g. Theory of a Deadman). It would be hard for a modern artist to reprise 40s or 50s fare except as parody.

William Straus and Neil Howe, authors of Generations: The History of America’s Future 1584 to 2069, argue that generational types repeat in a predictable 4-beat pattern. Millennials, they say, should have a lot in common with the GI Generation. Maybe, but you can’t prove it by the music. Or by tea parties.

Maybe the rising cynicism of our times is a good thing. (Yes, our times: rising cynicism is not confined to one generation; it’s just a bit more concentrated there.) If you expect the worst, after all, you aren’t going to be much disappointed. Sometimes, though, it is refreshing to listen to the songs of more hopeful eras.

Love is Hell, a love song for our times


  1. And I just posted on another blog about how cynical movies were getting. ;)

    As part of the cynical Gen X crowd, I'm finding all the cynicism to be a bit tiring actually. I was discussing the major differences in tone between the two "Clash of the Titans films. The 1980 film was driven by love, filled with a spirit of wonder and adventure. The 2011 film was driven by vengeance and was full of anger and viciousness. Perseus had no time to fall in love, or even enjoy the adventures and creatures he met. He was too busy looking cool as he did the "Gladiator" jump right at the camera. :)

    I love your descriptions of 1940s and 1950s music. Spot on! I also love the shot of "Alice in Wonderland" for your tea party. That is one of my favorites of the Disney cannon. So darn creative and clever in it's adaptation of the source material. It is sooo Disney and yet it's Disney at it's most trippy (with "Fantasia" possibly beating it in that department".

    1. We seem to have paralleled the path of classical Greek tragedy in its heyday (without the literary merit). Sophocles tsk-tsked that he portrayed humans as they ought to be, whereas the young modernist Euripides portrayed them "as they are." He disapproved.

      If Strauss and Howe are right, idealism should cycle around again in the arts and elsewhere -- though I may be pretty old (at best) when it does.

      Old Walt could be very trippy indeed, couldn't he?

  2. Great validation of happily single. Yet, in the same breath, I admit to looking up "the Rules" and their - more reasonable - variations. Either way, I can always count on your engaging and informative writing to get me thru an hour of cardio on a Sunday.

    1. Thanks for checking in.

      One of the great blogs on living single is Bella De Paulo's over at Psychology Today: . She often is funny when taking apart stats that supposedly show the health and wealth advantages of marriage -- almost uniformly they really show the deleterious effects of divorce. Counting divorced people as single, as most studies do, is, she says, like running a drug trial that counts the people who quit using the drug because it made them sick in the control group of people who don't take the drug. Never-marrieds nearly always fare as well as or better than the marrieds -- much better if you reverse the usual method by counting the divorced among the marrieds.