Would You Kindly Look the Other Way?
By Andrew Alexander
The artists I've chosen for the videos that accompany this essay have a lot in common. They describe emotions that everyone knows about firsthand. They are all curious about what will happen next. One measure of a great pop song is that the moment it's over, you want to hear it again. You can own a copy, play it when you like, but somehow you never end up possessing the thing itself; I think that could be a working definition of 'glamor.' A song grabs our attention--begs for it, clamors and demands it--and then asks if we would kindly look the other way. I've known most of these songs for many years, but it still feels as though the first encounter was recent (another measure of a great pop song).
I chose these songs for the huge amount of information they hold. In this sense, curating is just another process of finding and discovering in art. With enough stuff in the world already, the task becomes to select from among the things that have already been created. Everyone's a curator just as everyone's a critic, and thank god for that. I'm hopeful that any democratization of these terms is a sign of human evolution.
I want to add that I am insouciant about political obligations for art, which can shift our attention away from the dreary realms where things must serve a purpose, or even worse, a public purpose. What I seek as critic and curator is the point where a beautiful personality imbues everything, but the person is remote, or even better, invisible. Collecting and examining, re-evaluating, highlighting and understanding the things that have been made, is a part of growing up, and is as essential to growth as breaking with convention.
The interspersed narratives in the videos aren't always so very pretty. There's something of the horse sale, with a few too many gums and teeth, so there are selections focused on the strictly mechanical; and yet wondrous aspects of art emerge that seem far more promising than their milieu. There's redemption implied.
Self-creation becomes world-creation, although these songs speak to very different worlds, and a good song should arrive in our world like a visitor from another. From where are their guns drawn? I suppose my loves in art are idiosyncratic and biographic in a way that's still open, both as survival strategy and desire to flourish. The least axiomatic or rule-bound critic has a narrative, and is as free to get it wrong as one's peers will allow. I hope that my searches have turned up a few new songs for curious listeners.
You should project these videos as large as possible, billboard-size on the side of a building at night. The music sounds fine on headphones, but if you can hook the audio in to concert-quality speakers, all the better. It is about the length of a classic Hollywood film, so it can and should be watched in that way--in a single sitting, with that quiet inner eye of yours looking for the paths to project your desires out.
To open with, the Paris Sisters' dreamlike sound, followed by their drearily ordinary human speaking voices, illustrates the nature of pop music for me. We should never hear the object of our adoration speak. We need a source of comfort in our daily defeat by the ordinary, and this can only come from something extraordinary, unattainable, elusive. Opera, ballet, silent film, theater and records are the art forms that get this right, and they are, not coincidentally, the art forms that gave birth to the notion of the star.
Judy Ongg is an exceptional woodblock print artist. The cool mystery of her 1967 hit "たそがれの赤い月" has clearly found its correct setting played on a jukebox in a dark and empty room. The jukebox player is never seen, but I'm certain he feels as I do, which illustrates another of the great strengths of pop music. Through pop music, we find fascinating people, a great number of them, who share our innermost dreams, and we need never speak to them.
Is it possible for a performer to be a star and also
under-appreciated at the same time? The truest fans will answer yes. We flatter ourselves thinking our devotion is needed, that it is evidence of something special and worthwhile in our nature.
Life is not a gas, so one admires the sleekly modern way that Marc Bolan sings that it is.
Ricky Nelson was a television star before he began to sing, and through him the industry began to discover the previously untapped synergy between televised image and rock music, a combination that came to dominate the culture of the second half of the 20th century. Somewhat related to this is the fact that beautiful people when they sing can bond the salacious to the innocuous without giving offense to anyone. It's why we like "Honeycomb" especially.
Cab Calloway was a star across all modes of performance as
he was able to project his identity through almost any medium. Here he even successfully becomes a cartoon, giving voice to Koko the Clown's grief at the presumed death of Betty Boop. Cartoonist Max Fleischer used a device of his own invention,
the rotoscope, to turn filmed footage of Calloway's dancing into animation.
Three extraordinary canaries. Even from the beginning, Honey Cone encountered disfavor because the band was named by a record executive. I could never let deliberateness or manipulativeness disqualify my affections, so I remain a fan.
The shots of the sweet life outside of Rome are from the 1962 film Il Sorpasso, a comedy in which cloistered, celibate intellectualism comes up against full-blooded, seductive, stylish hedonism, and both lose. Beach-goers in the movie dance to a solid cover version of this song, but YouTuber rene thevissen wisely replaces it with the original by the incomparable Ben E. King.
Late in her life, Blossom Dearie performed Sunday concerts at a Thai restaurant off of Broadway not too far from her Manhattan apartment, a cozy arrangement for her and her many fans.
Louis Jordan was the king of the jukebox, and often his records speak to the force of personality that can rise above a world of slights.
Thank goodness for film cameras and for the fact that someone thought to point one at Sweet Emma. How many stars once blazed with nothing and no one to record them?
A girl in the audience rolls her eyes at the end, making Timi Yuro seem like a star who, even in her hurt, is being unfairly bullied.
Only Astrud Gilberto could make shared existence followed by death seem desirable. Quiet walks by quiet streams and a window that looks out on Corcovado... It certainly doesn't sound like too much to ask for.
No one seems less qualified than the shockingly self-absorbed Chet Baker to tell you that you don't know what love is. But here he is announcing it to the citizens of Rome in 1956. Dislike him if you like, but it's true. You don't know what love is.
In 2000, I interviewed Dr. Nina Simone, I was one of only a very small number of journalists to do so at that time. I planned the interview weeks in advance, so it could happen at a time entirely convenient and amenable to her. Even so, she was plainly annoyed because my phone call caught her on the way to the pool.
Elvis' version of this is so fantastic I'm surprised it's not considered more definitive. The crooning seems an effort to haunt all of Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana at once.
The world is indeed 'a mighty big place,' but even big places come to an end. Through the magic of television, Skeeter Davis appears to be delivering the terrible news from outer space. Perhaps it's predictive: maybe the announcement will be sung.
The end has come, the credits roll and Morrissey sings "Moon River." If you listen closely, you can hear Audrey Hepburn cry.
Andrew Alexander is an independent writer, critic and curator living in Atlanta.