Culture

Back to civilization

Culture | The rise of neo-swing and other cultural buzz

Issue: "Life is not a party," Oct. 3, 1998

The pendulum swings
Everything old is new again, again. Swing is back. It isn't just Grandma's style of music anymore. A group called Squirrel Nut Zippers has put the Ellington sound back on the Billboard charts, complete with string bass, trumpet, and banjo. Their latest album, Perennial Favorites, has gone gold; a Christmas album is coming in October. Even the Hard Rock Café is booking swing. Squirrel Nut Zippers takes more cues from Cab Calloway and Fats Waller than John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Their music exudes the echoes of a smoky jazz club, circa 1933. The sound is unexpected in the rock era, since such music has been unfairly sandwiched in our cultural memory somewhere between Lawrence Welk and Liberace. For decades, hip jazz has been the domain of a dedicated elite. So why is swing making a comeback? For one thing, rock 'n' roll is at low ebb. The old musical mainstream, like every other vital center, has cratered. Look at the FM dial: Top-40 radio no longer exists. For most hard rock radio stations, time stopped in 1979, and the same Eagles, Styx, and Supertramp repeat endlessly. New music has devolved into the depressing whine that calls itself alternative. Rock's revolution is over and the troops are going home. In the 1990s, more people are looking for something different, often opting out of the rock genre entirely. Thus has risen the postmodern medley on display at any Tower Records or Virgin Megastore. Enter world music, ska, Gregorian chant, The Three Tenors, Riverdance, or whatever else moves your feet to the cash register. Squirrel Nut Zippers is important because it represents a rare instance when American commercial culture recognizes that pop music existed before Buddy Holly. Although their music sometimes sounds like old 78s filtered through the lens of the Talking Heads, the group shows that nostalgia can look back at a time beyond last year's fashions and the last decade's TV reruns. The taste for neo-swing goes back before the '60s, before the '50s, to a culture before rock 'n' roll. This is a healthy development, considering that the World War II generation had virtues in addition to good music. Snapshots of a civilization's decline
The West did not decline in a single moment, but in a succession of moments, stretched out over a series of years. Catholic historian John Lukacs takes apart the years 1901-1969 in his book A Thread of Years. For each year, he presents a vignette representing the state of society at that point in time. He then spends a few pages arguing with himself about what it means, merging narrative, dialogue, and history. Two young Hungarians engage in deep intellectual conversation in 1904. Tourists visit a Swiss hotel on the eve of World War I. A husband and wife go to New York in 1909 to join the ranks of the Liberal Snobs. Another couple flees the city in 1968 for fear of violence. Each point is a weathervane, showing the direction of the century. Mr. Lukacs sees subtle hints in each snapshot, which go unnoticed to the people pictured, but are of great significance to the author and to the civilization he is analyzing. In 1957, for example, a Catholic religious medal blessed by a priest is inserted in the nose cone of an American rocket. Mr. Lukacs sees a social schizophrenia at the dawn of the space race, a "peculiar coexistence of fideism and materialism in the modern American mind." Twenty years ago a similar combination of technology and religiosity appeared in the movie Star Wars. Mr. Lukacs is not concerned with culture as much as civilization, meaning those things that hold us back from barbarism and ugliness. He calls himself a "reactionary impressionist" and is upset with both liberals and conservatives. Liberals lost their faith in Progress, then passed around opinions to please their peers. Conservatives saw the threat from abroad (Communism), but missed the countless little threats back at home. Mr. Lukacs takes the reader through Thread of Years like the ghosts escorting Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Yet there is one difference: The decades in his book have come and gone; we cannot recreate them. We can only search for clues and hope for rebirth. God hates divorce
The nuclear family may be in trouble, but divorce is in great shape. Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, who wrote the landmark "Dan Quayle Was Right" cover story for Atlantic Monthly, details the rise and effects of untying the knot in her book, The Divorce Culture, now in paperback from Vintage. Where divorce was once unthinkable-at least not for the sake of the children-it is now common and institutionalized. In our culture, the individual trumps the family and the child is the biggest casualty. Against fashionable opinion, Ms. Whitehead says that divorce is a disaster for children. No matter how the "Mommy and Daddy can't live together anymore, but of course we still love you, dear" speech is presented, a child's moorings are ripped asunder. The Divorce Culture stacks up evidence that families of divorce have less money and more problems than intact ones; the children of divorce are more likely to commit self-destructive acts. Naturally, we know what side our leaders are on. "Caught between defending the freedom of women to divorce and protecting the interests of the family," the author writes, "liberals choose to defend divorce as a freedom for women." The horror stories would be scary if only the subject weren't so commonplace. Good Housekeeping proposes that a single mom with two kids spending weekends with her boyfriend and his four offspring is "the new traditionalist family." Feminist divorcees write children's books about divorce to explain to their daughters why they left Dad (and lick their own wounds). Counselors don't try to help repair the marriages of their clients; instead, they offer a neutral arena for the pair to thrash each other. In short, society has gone mad: Ms. Whitehead uses the term "Love Family" to refer to the new ideas and their reign over family relationships. Under these new family values, it doesn't matter if the child is bonded to a father, stepfather, or casual boyfriend. What matters is the emotions that pass back and forth. What to do? Ms. Whitehead says we must return to the idea of the "obligated self, voluntarily bound to a set of roles, duties, and responsibilities." Thus we must live our family lives trying to do more than salve our own felt needs.

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