Essay: Pop Then and Now

Music stars from rock and country, including (from left) Willie Nelson, Rod Stewart, Linda Ronstadt, and Elvis Costello, have recorded albums of American popular standards.

Although most modern music lovers have been seduced and shaped by rock music and all of its variations, listeners continue to be drawn to the universality, emotional directness, and melodic sophistication that infused the popular songs created in the first half of the twentieth century. The best of these songs, known to musicians and music lovers as standards, are rooted in a time when a live stage show was the only form of public entertainment, and enjoying music in the home meant learning how to play an instrument.

That changed when the invention of audio recording and playback machinery initiated a long, steady decline in the number of households with a piano, a home furnishing once considered almost as essential as a sofa. Eventually, as musical styles changed, the guitar became a more popular instrument, and technology’s influence meant that sounds created in a recording studio with electronic equipment could have more impact than those created by traditional musical instruments. By the 21st century, the rock star was a long established cultural icon, and much pop music had been stripped down to the raw components of unvarying rhythm; aggressive, minimalist vocalization; and sonic diversion, often based on snippets of previously recorded sound.

Yet several former and current rock stars, including Rod Stewart, Linda Ronstadt, Bryan Ferry, Willie Nelson, Carly Simon, Natalie Cole, Joni Mitchell, and Elvis Costello had recorded collections of songs written in the pre-rock era. Famous rockers had jumped at the chance to participate in “duet” albums with Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. Show business icons like Ray Charles, Barbra Streisand, and Barry Manilow, and niche performers like Bette Midler, the Pointer Sisters, and the Manhattan Transfer, had made multiple albums moving back and forth between pop standards and modern pop/rock.

More significant, in the new century a new generation of pop stars (who had recently discovered standards) and jazz artists (who had never abandoned them) began tapping into the ongoing thirst for songs that offered more musical and lyrical complexity than the music that was generally available on commercial radio. Harry Connick, Jr., Michael Feinstein, Diana Krall, John Pizzarelli, Steve Tyrell, Michael Buble, and the teenaged Rene Olmstead led a considerable subculture of jazz and cabaret artists fanning the flames of passion for pop standards.

Technology also had become a friend to lovers of the so-called Great American Songbook. The popularity of DVD’s and “catalog” CD’s spurred record labels and studios to release more background information, previously unreleased recordings, and outtakes from movies and records created during the heyday of movie musicals and prerock records. The result was that a 21st-century fan of standards could enjoy a deeper experience with his favorite songs and artists than could the music lover who came of age when the songs were first performed.


Pop singers who are associated with standards, such as (from left) Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, and Judy Garland, recorded not only new songs, but also new arrangements of songs that were written before the advent of electronic recording, thereby creating standards from forgotten material.

American popular standards still are the training partners of our most technically accomplished musicians, just as the songs provided inspiration for Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis. In jazz, improvisational skills are developed by soloing over the chord changes of established repertoire, such as pop standards like “All the Things You Are,” (Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II)), “I Got Rhythm” (George and Ira Gershwin), and “Night and Day” (Cole Porter). The dedication of jazz artists, maturation of pop musicians, and natural instincts of some young performers are the forces that have propelled the ongoing popularity of standards half a century into the reign of rock music.


The Rock Revolution

Baby boomers and those who came after—that is to say, people born in the second half of the 20th century—tend to acknowledge two epochs in music: the rock era and everything else. Defining the timeline of musical upheaval that rock wrought is not quite that simple, of course. Did Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88” in 1951 or Bill Haley’s “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock” in 1954 usher in the new era? The answers to this and other rock riddles are beside the point. The development of American popular music, like every other cultural development, is a process without hard boundaries at the beginnings and ends of a genre’s popularity.

Certainly, the sociological factors governing mid-century America—the end of war and arrival of postwar prosperity, the concentrated population explosion, the newfound spending power of young people, the acceptance of African-American performers in mainstream entertainment venues by white audiences—created a climate that accelerated the penetration of rock ‘n’ roll into mainstream culture. But despite the form’s relatively rapid rise, the idea that rock ’n’ roll, as a musical form, came rising up with revolutionary zeal in the hands of a few inspired performers is a myth. Rock, the broad class of music, did not supplant, for example, swing, the dominant pop music form that immediately preceded the “rock revolution.” Musically speaking, a more accurate history is that jump blues, an offshoot of early jazz, morphed with a little help from the boogie-woogie piano style of the 1930’s and the 12-bar blues form into the barebones rock ‘n’ roll of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and others.

This musical shift represented a sharp turn on the road of music history but not a complete detour. If anything, to stick with an automotive theme (one of early rock’s favorites), the midcentury turn toward rock ‘n’ roll represented a downshifting of gears in the musicmobile. That a younger generation of Americans embraced the shift was not new; it had happened before when jazz (played by small combos) caught the public’s fancy in the late teens and when swing (played by big bands) emerged 20 years later. This “downshift” also would happen later in the century when punk provided young rock fans with an alternative to the perceived bloated excess of late 70’s pop and disco, and when hip-hop’s long, slow fuse ignited the cultural bomb that exploded in the 1990’s. The periodic downshifting of collective musical taste allows, ironically, further refinement of the newly less-popular genre. Thus, the hot jazz combos of the 1920’s begat the pioneering be-bop ensembles of the ‘40’s, a time when most record buyers were focused on big-band swing. Later, the grooves in 70’s R&B and disco records bubbled along inconspicuously during the 90’s alternative rock craze, only to turn up (sometimes as direct copies in sampled form) in 21st century hip-hop discs. Old musical styles really don’t die, it seems; they simply fade away until the cultural climate generates a rainstorm of revivals (such as the nostalgia boom of the 70’s) or a DJ fishes them out of his milk crates to sample for a new groove.


Footlight Parade

Why then, to suggest a paradox, does it seem that standards died? Popular genres, in fact, sometimes suffer a fate worse than death—becoming an anachronism and embarrassment, especially to young listeners eager to define themselves by allegiance to the latest style. This certainly is what happened to the Broadway musical, a form more dominant than rock and roll in the first half of the twentieth century yet by its end an enterprise with which no self-respecting hard rocker wanted to be associated. Even so, the appeal of Broadway’s traditions, discipline, and power had attracted rock legends like the Who, Elton John, and Paul Simon. Successful and critically acclaimed shows had been built around the music of the Four Seasons and Billy Joel (notwithstanding a glut of uninspired and failed “jukebox musicals” in the early years of the 21st century). By the 2010’s, Broadway, helped along by an unexpected ally—television—was distilling the American obsession with TV shows like Glee and American Idol and the previously intractable enemy, hard rock, into stage musicals that ran the gamut from traditional revivals to bone-rattling rock shows like Spring Awakening, American Idiot, and the hugely popular parody, Rock of Ages.

Restored film and album packages provide a wealth of material on original-era versions and reinterpretations of standards from later periods. “The Busby Berkeley Collection” includes Warner Brothers musicals from the early days of sound films. The “Till the Clouds Roll By” DVD and Singin’ in the Rain set provide extra material on the mid-century trend of producing biopics about songwriters or building a film around their songs. Ella Fitzgerald recorded several classic albums individually devoted to specific songwriters or songwriting teams.

Despite many rock fans’ image of Broadway as full of absurd flamboyance and dated performance styles that render the form irrelevant, musical theater’s history of song (not to mention the stagecraft that made modern rock concerts possible) is formidable. The stage provided the first hit songs that drove the radio and recording industries and later jump-started the movies when sound was incorporated into film. As musical theatre developed from a happy diversion in the 1900’s and 10’s into a breeding ground for star performers and composers in the 20’s and 30’s, reaching the zenith of popular acclaim in the 40’s and 50’s, the form also set the stage for its own decline. By developing into a highly sophisticated and nuanced art form built on the contributions of teams of writers, actors, singers, musicians, and directors, the musical became a cultural institution ripe for marginalization. Thus began the decline of Broadway, just as the musical itself had pushed classical music farther into the background of public consciousness, and just as punk would provide the vehicle in which a later generation could accelerate away from what it considered the pop stagnation of the late 70’s.

But with their inevitable fall from pop grace, staged and filmed musicals left behind a unique foundation, strong enough to support the careers of some of the century’s greatest artists and provide the music lover a source of richness that could not be duplicated by what came after. Rock music necessarily cast aside the detailed structure, harmonics, and lyrical maturity of standards to concentrate on simplicity of rhythm, melody, and lyric. In gaining a vast new set of voices and championing the simpler music and sentiments of folk, country music, and the blues, rock drew young music fans away from one of their country’s greatest cultural achievements, the pop standards of the 20th century.

The “big six” composers whose songs dominate the broad collection of American popular standards written before 1950. Top row (l-r): Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter. Bottom row: Harold Arlen (l), Richard Rodgers with partners Lorenz Hart (center) and Oscar Hammerstein II. Kern, Gershwin, and Arlen also relied on lyricist partners. Berlin and Porter wrote their own lyrics.

Luckily, a wealth of recorded and filmed material exists to bring these songs back to life, or reveal their charm and depth to the uninitiated. New interpretations are constantly being created for audio recordings, while forgotten and restored works from movies and television continue to be released on DVD. Often, rock lovers are drawn into the world of standards without even knowing it, by something like David Lee Roth’s version of “Just a Gigolo,” or an American Idol contestant’s singing their grandparents’ favorite song. For rock musicians and fans, a full appreciation of standards means listening to them, playing them, and separating the greats from the near-greats, including song, composer, and lyricist. How is a Cole Porter number different from an Irving Berlin song? Why are Gershwin and Kern so celebrated among jazz players? Which Rodgers is greater, the partner of Hart or Hammerstein? And who was Herbert? Romberg? Youmans? Friml? And who, really, are Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber? Two of our greatest artists? Or composers who finished off Broadway as a source of popular music?

To answer these questions and to fully appreciate the music of pre-rock America, you have to appreciate the context in which the music was first created as you’re listening to it—a time without iPods, TV, or even radio. To absorb the legacy of 20th-century pop music is to transport yourself to a New York City apartment at the beginning of the 20th century. All you have for musical exploration, if you’re lucky, is a piano, some sheet music, and a $1.50 orchestra seat to the hottest show in town.

More to come.

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