Thursday, July 31, 2008

Pop after Keynesianism

Pop songs from the early to mid 1970s are proving powerfully attractive at the moment - possibly in proportion to the anxiety I feel as the PhD deadline comes at me like a Mack truck. I've had Mccartney's Wings song 'Jet' on a loop lately. This one from Stevie Wonder is missing the horns that made Superstition burn and swing, but this version is wading deep in the funk and it's good to see Stevie in a studded denim hat, playing the clavinet.

While the global financial economy cracks and capitalism seeks new forms to articulate to, I keep getting pulled back to the early 1970s in pop music and I wonder if there's a structure of feeling in songs like Superstition that made sense as the Bretton Woods System cracked up and neoliberal practices and ideology began to ascend in the mid-1970s? The contradction of an ideology of free-market liberalism in Wall Street that is only too happy to demand state support is based on a type of Superstition: a crossing of the fingers behind the back that hopes either that no one remembers what happened last time the credit boom backfired or that the contradiction is buried beneath enough trickle-down gains that everyone that counts lines up and dances to finance capital's superstitious funk.

Not long after 'Superstition' Chic made their ironic paean to New York After hours Club life 'Goodtimes'-'Our new state of mind.'

Looking back on the construction and intent of the lyric in 2002, Nile Rodgers said:

Here’s what’s great about “Good Times.” At the time that we wrote “Good Times,” the country was undergoing the worst economic depression that it’s seen like the since the Great Depression, which is what they used to say, and people were furious with us for writing a song “Good Times.” And we used to look at people, and we were befuddled, and we went, “What are you talking about?” And we realized that we had done our job so effectively that all of our lyrics were shrouded in double-entendre because there was no way that I was ever just gonna write a song about partying and dancing. I mean, I’m a Black Panther, what are you talking about? And so it was always about compromise.

The Chic formula, basically what Chic is, what Chic was and what Chic is, is Bernard and I sat down and we thought about the one time in American musical history that black people were proud. You were proud to walk around and be a musician. And that was in the era of the big bands, you know? Even though Count Basie and those guys couldn’t stay in the hotel, they made their presence felt, and the next thing you know, they started staying in the hotels. They had to let them come in the front door. Because they had the power. Their power was music. And they started to assimilate into American society, and they would call themselves “Count” and “Duke” and this, and we went, “Yeah, baby!”

And to us, that was revolution playing itself out through art. You had a powerful tool that you could negotiate with: “Hey man, I got the groove!” “If you don’t want Count Basie, no problem, we’ll get on the bus and go back home.” “Oh, no, no, Mr. Basie.” “Well, if you want us, then we’ve got to register and stay in the hotel.” “Uh, okay.” And that’s what the deal was.

So when we wrote “Good Times,” what did we do? We went back to the Great Depression. And we went to, you know … I’ll tell you, here’s “Good Times,” straight up: Al Jolson. “The stars are going to twinkle and shine, this evening about a quarter to nine, and oh, la-la-la-la.” That’s how we started. We went back, and we took that, we thought of this guy in blackface, and we thought of Count Basie.

And we didn’t look at Al Jolson as being racist. We looked at Al Jolson as saying, “This is the music of these people that you’ll accept me as a white person putting on this makeup and singing it, but if this guy comes up on stage, you’d boo.” You know what I mean?

So we went back, and the lyrics are [sings from “Good Times”], “Happy days are here again,” which is directly [sings “Happy Days” from 1930s]: “Happy days are here again, the sky’s na-na, let’s get together, how about a quarter to ten? The stars are gonna twinkle and shine this evening about a quarter to nine.”

I mean, this was all seriously thought-out stuff. We didn’t just randomly write this. This was protest shrouded in double-en … I mean it was all of this stuff that had, as Bernard and I used to call it, DHM: deep hidden meaning.

If the song didn’t have any DHM, we weren’t putting it out! We, we would work on a song until it had a sufficient amount of DHM, and then we were cool with it.

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