Thursday, June 17, 2010

6/17/10 - Songs of the Summer, #7-8: "The Gypsy", "Smoke Smoke Smoke (The Cigarette)"

The Master List:

Top Song of 1946: "The Gypsy" by the Ink Spots

I know the Ink Spots only from their presence over the opening credits of Fallout, a post-apocalyptic role-playing game for PC that came out in 1997. Their "Maybe" is used for haunting effect, playing over a closeup of an old black-and-white TV giving exposition of a worldwisde nuclear conflict before the camera pans back to reveal the TV is sitting in the midst of a whole destroyed cityscape. As on opening shot, it's amazingly evocative, and one of the primary pieces of evidence I would cite in the whole video games as art debate (I'm on the "for" side).

I note that because when I heard the tinny opening guitar chords of "The Gypsy", I felt the eerie reminders of journeying through the desert of California shooting radscorpions. In music, context is everything. The way the song is recorded is almost stereotypically "old-timey"; its sonic qualities are now almost exclusively used as signifiers: of irony, in Fallout, often of nostalgia, or some other wistful emotion. What's interesting about "The Gypsy", and songs like it, is that its sonic qualities are now more striking than its effectiveness as a song. Like when "Mr. Sandman" is used in Back to the Future to signify "The '50s", the trappings have become the meaning.

Top Song of 1947: "Smoke Smoke Smoke (The Cigarette)" by Tex Ritter

This is the first song that seems unambiguously dated lyrically as well as musically, mostly for the lines in the opening verse that go: "...I don't reckon it'll harm your health/smoked all my life and I ain't dead yet", before going on to observe that no matter what situation the narrator finds himself in, if he's around smokers everything grinds to a halt while they have their next cigarette. It could be easily updated for the smartphone era to apply to the compulsive checking of one's iPhone, or of any other low-level social faux pas. Philosophically, this kind of song pops up every so often - the one that came to mind for me was "Bad Habit", by the Offspring, which is all about the frustrations caused by bad drivers.

The changing social attitudes toward tobacco mean that listening to this song creates a tension between what Williams is singing about and the knowledge of the weight of historical and political forces that are shaping his unquestioned acceptance of the practice of smoking. It goes to show how our cultural understanding shapes the art we produce. A lot of enduring art questions the culture it springs from, but very few pieces of art, and pop art in particular, don't bear the marks of the cultural modes from which they spring. And when culture turns on a dime, the prior pop art can seem dated and laughable.

I do love the rockabilly instrumental, and Tex Williams accent. And the phrase "smooching party".

1 comment:

ariyele said...

wanna have a smooching party with me?