Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A shadow narrative of a 1960s when crooners were still king

Or, "Pop Memories of the '60s" is arresting and perverse

So Laura and I were watching TV the other night and somehow she came upon this incredible extended infomercial hosted by a guy in an awesome mustache and a mock-turtleneck and a sort of bizarro Florence Henderson type, and it was advertising a 470-disc Time-Life box set called "Pop Memories of the '60s." This does not have the hosts, but it should give you a flavor:

Now, I am going to be honest and explain, this is the sort of thing I always like because I happen to believe that the dead center of the middle of the pop mainstream is almost always more revealing of culture than the stuff that is edgy or critically acclaimed or enjoyed by the fancy people and hipsters and therefore ends up being canonized in the long run.

And as you can clearly see above, "Pop Memories of the '60s" is nothing if not a portrait of the unhippest, boringest pop mainstream imaginable. But it's also somewhat arresting and, I don't know, kind of funny because of the ways that it seems to represent a kind of shadow narrative of 1960s music. In the same year that Hendrix played the national anthem at Woodstock, Glen Campbell released and recorded "Wichita Lineman." See what I mean?

So instead of the '60s being about the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Dylan and Hendrix, this box set it's about Bobby Vinton, Petula Clark, a little Dionne Warwick, some late-period Elvis and early-period Stevie Wonder

This is pop music that is still heavily influenced by the crooner era, and dominated by smooth, way-out-in-front vocals backed by a full orchestra. That's not so unusual -- Elvis and a lot of other early rock 'n rollers always took certain cues from crooners, at least in their slow songs. But there is still something striking about how totally alive and well the big-band, crooner, smoothed-out sound was deep into the '60s. I would have to think about this more, but maybe this is the last stand of the popular crooner, at least as a standard pop music figure.

Just to put my cards out on the table, with certain exceptions (Little Stevie Wonder!) this is not really anything I would actually, you know, listen to. I am not going to invest the $7,430.99 + $299.99 shipping and handling to purchase the full box set. But it's an interesting document all the same for anyone like me who is interested in the counter-narratives that are woven into popular culture. Your parents might have loved the Rolling Stones, but at the same time there were millions of American households who much preferred to spin some Roger Whittaker, thank you, and that is a true fact about that decade, too.

P.S. ... You know what else? This makes me view the Trololo guy as a little bit less weird. His manner and presentation are definitely run through a ridiculous Baltic-Lawrence-Welk filter. But he's not really so far away from a Glen Campbell or a Wayne Newton or somebody who would have been roughly his contemporaries.


Michael said...

This has all the greatest hits with the cheapest licensing agreements and most exploitive record contracts of the 60s!

It's also really interesting as a piece of marketing to people who are technologically backward--470 compact discs! TV infomercial! Just use your corded phone and land line to dial now. Perfect for your 500 disc carousel player.

Rob said...

It is true -- this is surely one of the last opportunities for a Time-Life to wring money out of aging boomers in quite this way...