The Sad Decline in Music: Benny Goodman vs. House Music

Part I: Cole Porter vs. The Beatles
Part II: Billy Strayhorn vs. Drake

I apologize for the slowness in the appearance of this third battle, but I have just been released from the sanitarium where it was necessary for me to spend over two weeks recovering (in glorious silence) after I was nearly fatally exposed to today’s musical challenger. I am happy to report that my new eardrums, replacements forged of stretched sheep’s bladder, are performing well (the originals, I stabbed with an ice pick when I was unable to mute the computer’s speakers).

I have only myself to blame. I was warned not to try to listen to more than thirty seconds at any one sitting, but you know me—I scoff at danger, I love a shortcut—and in my brazen cockiness, I experienced over one full minute! of the thing called “House music.”

You will forgive the awful pun, but not in my house, never again. And you will be just as charitable to re-listen to the old joke, suitably applied: How do you teach someone to play House music? Stop the lessons early!

For there is no musical goal in House, other than to serve a beat and prolong it as long as possible before its victim becomes comatose. Too, a great deal of House is produced by a computerized machine called a synthesizer. Judging from what I heard, these machines have already been hacked, probably by the Chinese military, in what will undoubtedly be a successful campaign to render listeners unable to form coherent thoughts.

Benny Goodman House
Benny Goodman House

(Click on either picture to search for representative music.)

And then there is Benny Goodman, about whom how much do I have to say? Carnegie Hall? Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson when no white band would have them—and not just that—but that every band should have snatched them up? Gene Krupa? Harry James? Classical, Small Band, Big Band, and straight Jazz?

I recall reading (but can’t remember where) of a man who was once interviewed Goodman. They were to leave Goodman’s apartment, and upon exiting Goodman said, to the effect, “Just a second.” He disappeared back into his apartment, where the reporter heard him diddle-diddle-toot trying to work out some short phrase. After a few seconds, Goodman returned as said, “Ready to go.” That was the kind of thing that got Goodman into Carnegie Hall, and what kept him in our view for so long. Hard work, incessant practice, and devotion to the music. Music that was created to be beautiful and lasting, not just functional or ephemeral.

So let the battle commence! (Low blows welcome.)

In anticipation, and to save us time, I answer possible arguments:

“Why all this jazz? Most jazz stinks. And there’s classical you know, which is much better.”

I do know. And we’ll hear some in the next battle. Remember, though, we’re talking about popular music and its decline; 60-70 years ago, (certain) Jazz was popular music. To really show the retrograde, we’ll have to go back to a time when classical was popular—and it wasn’t called classical, just music.

“How come you’re always picking something that everybody knows is good, against music that is obviously poor? You’re stacking the card!”

(In a whisper) You know, of course, by admitting that, you’re admitting that the decline of which we speak is real.

“Say, Briggs. I heard ‘Techno’ was better than ‘House’. Why not play some of that?”

You heard wrong. It’s worse—rumor is, they’re banning it and “Trance” next Geneva Convention. Truly, I was charitable in picking what I did.

“But you can’t dance to big band!”

Which is why they called them “dance bands”? If you like a beat, may I suggest Sing, Sing, Sing? If you want it to mimic House, take a ball and peen hammer and smack yourself with it just off the beat: you’ll get the same effect.

“You’re a snob, Briggs. I likes what I likes.”

Amen, brother. On both counts. But I prefer the term elitist; and nowhere do I argue that you don’t like what you like. Having granted that, now tell me why any particular piece of House music is better than, say, the Carnegie Hall recordings—scratchy and limited as they are—of Benny Goodman.

“But if Benny Goodman is better, and I still like House, then that means I don’t like what’s better. It means I like what is worse, maybe even bad.”

You said it.

“What does that say about me? Tell the truth.”

How the hell should I know? I’m no psychologist.

“I’ll stick to calling you a snob, then.”

It’s still a free country, bub.

“And ‘free’ is exactly what this discussion is worth.”

Now you’re just trying to hurt my feelings.

16 Comments

  1. Hmm … Interesting. Like saying “The sad decline in desserts: cake vs. ice cream”. What if one likes both? I’m sure you will agree: there is no accounting for taste. I prefer Shaw over Goodman myself.

  2. Your continuing quest to show that your likes are supperior to those of the masses has me thinking — which I don’t like to do when I’m at work. So I thought I’d have some fun with this….

    Why does a person listen to music?

    Further, why does anyone partake in any form of entertainment? I will always contend it is to escape from day-to-day life. Thus, the best compliment anyone can pay any form of entertainment, is that it is “mind-numbingly great”.

    However, you seem to listen to music for the technical greatness of the instrumentation, or the poetic nature of the lyrics, etc… I’d call that a philosophical study of music, and everyone knows that philosophy isn’t entertaining; this isn’t up for debate.

    So, some crappy logic:

    P1) The best entertainment is mind-numbing.
    P2) The more entertained people are, the more popular the entertainment.
    P3) The more popular the entertaiment, the richer the entertainer.
    P4) All entertainers behave rationally (economically speaking) with regards to profit.
    C) Therefore all entertainment will be moved towards the mind-numbing and away from the philisophical.

    Might I suggest you watch the movie “Idiocracy” for a better description of where our entertainment is headed. 🙂 You may just quit this whole music debate altogether and prepare for the entertainment apocolypse!

  3. Swade,

    Some people entertain themselves through practice death. Like jumping off bridges while secured only with rubber bands. Maybe listening to “mind-numbingly ‘great'” music is bridge jumping once removed?

  4. My favorite Goodman story:

    As you mentioned, Goodman performed classical music as well as popular. He once made some recordings with the Budapest String Quartet. At the end of the session, one of the Quartet said to him, “Mr. Goodman. You play very well. How is it you’re not better known?”

  5. Goodman versus HOUSE music???

    Strange battle.

    They’re different generations, different styles, taste, different goals… If you don’t like house, continue not to like it. I like both, but of course, all Goodman is good, and some House Music is horrible!

    Personally, the experience of being performer as a vinyl Disc Jockey (i.e., undergraduate fraternity house DJ…) led me to understand how I LOVE the type of music. The ability to mix specific – if looked through a microscope – House/Techno to conform the crowd into dancing, is powerful, and it feels FUCKING great. But the best experience is with a couple beers, some guys who enjoy the type of repetitive beat, and the desire to be lost within primitive sound.

    Briggs, I dig you, but let this one go ;o) Stop trying to be superior in thought of all things or objects or ideas, please.

  6. Steven (cool name, incidentally),

    This is from an interview with Oliver Saks in Harper’s on occasion of his new book Musicophilia. He says it better than I can.

    2. Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange tells the story of a young Beethoven fanatic who is “programmed” to be physically ill on hearing Beethoven played. More recently, we have learned that the use of music played a key role in the Bush Administration’s torture program. For instance, this weekend the Washington Post reports that psychologist James E. Mitchell directed that one prisoner be subjected to bombardment by music—he specified the Red Hot Chili Peppers. What is it about music that makes it suitable for use as part of a torture regimen?

    Music’s power does have a dark side. A daily example of this would be musical brainworms, the annoyingly repetitive musical phrases that may run through one’s mind for days on end. And of course music may be seen as dangerously seductive, as much of our literature reminds us. In Greek mythology, it was the bewitching music of the Sirens that lured sailors to their destruction, and Tolstoy brings up a similar theme in his story “The Kreutzer Sonata.” Using loud music as torture draws on these qualities of music, as well as simple sensory overload. I personally find the assault of loud public music—in stores, restaurants, airports–a minor form of torture. One wants to listen to one’s own music, in one’s own way, not to have it force-fed, especially at great volume.

  7. This is getting to be a pretty sad line…

    Look at the sade decline in motor vehicls.

    I give you are 1935 Rolls Royce and a 1985 Skoda.

    See. It’s a fact….

    [insert rolling eyed smiley here]

  8. We have had Jazz vs. Rock, Jazz vs. Rap, and Jazz vs. House.

    We know where Mr. Briggs stands.

    How about Jazz vs. Jazz — Louis Armstong vs. Miles Davis.

    I know what I am about to say is sacreligious, but Miles Davis killed jazz.

  9. Matron! ! Emp’s out of bed!

    Of course you can dance to big band music. That’s ballroom.

    To Steven with the beers and the record player: like most DJ’s other than those employed for private functions, you flatter yourself. In the seventies they were dancing to Boney M and ABBA with as much enthusiasm. Their bodies were moving differently because of the music.
    This is why clubbing is a mugs game. They are noisy anti-social places. When I am older, apart from wearing ”purple with a red hat that doesn’t go and doesn’t suit me”, I will attend tea dances.

  10. Elitist?! Just lovely. Yeah, two extra syllables does make it sound more sophisticated. But…it’s just a multi-syllabic euphemism for the one-syllable, four-letter word “snob.” Sorry, I am such a troublemaker. *_^

    Goodman’s Sing, Sing, Sing reminds me of the movie The Jungle Book. I think I will watch the movie this weekend, of course, with my children. This movie always puts me in a good mood. To refresh our memory: King Loui and Bare Necessities by Louis Armstrong.

    Doug M,

    YES, it’s sacrilegious to say that Miles Davis killed jazz. No explanation is really needed here. Anyway, I was fortunate enough to have seen him in concert twice when I was a graduate student.

    Wait a minute… I might have misunderstood you. What you really meant is that Jazz was dead because there has not been any jazz musician who is as brilliant/creative/innovative since his passing. Hmmm…maybe Beatles killed Jazz… 🙂

  11. “. . . what I am about to say is sacreligious, but Miles Davis killed jazz.”

    Not sacreligious; just wrong.

  12. Hilarious!
    So you listened to one full minute of house music before deciding you had understood enough about it and it’s cultural context to be able to form a qualified comparison to (of all things) Benny Goodman?!
    Pretty ridiculous to be honest, I mean, although I can see you write with a rather heavy chip on your shoulder (and a large degree of bias) why go crusading against a style of music you know nothing about?

    The purpose of house music, techno, any modern dance music is to elicit an exhilarating kind of gratification. It is to be young and excitable, and it is an experience unlike and incomparable to that of jazz. Although I love jazz, and acknowledge it has more layers of artform than that of modern day dance music I will say it is unfair to be so disdainful of genres of music that have equal merit but in completely different ways. Musical appreciation can be wonderfully diverse, if you don’t get it, don’t knock it.

  13. Kim,

    If I have to be honest—and your kind words have compelled me—than I must admit that it only took about six seconds (the first five were spent ascertaining my speakers weren’t broken). But I thought that saying a minute sounded more modest.

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