Reviews > Culture

Beyond rock 'n' roll

Culture | Pop-rocker Phil Collins does the swing thing, NPR hangs onto its influence, and Sony unveils a new online narcotic

Issue: "Panic at PBS?," Aug. 14, 1999

Boot-scootin' Phil Collins
Can the swing revival survive Phil Collins? The former Genesis drummer just came out with a big-band album called A Hot Night In Paris that features jazzy renditions of songs like "Sussudio," "Hold on My Heart," and "Invisible Touch." That's not bad, but it throws a commercialized blanket over the rising subculture of lindy-hoppers that has grown out of the slow demise of rock 'n' roll. A flock of bands like Squirrel Nut Zippers, Royal Crown Revue, and the Cherry Poppin' Daddies are playing what's been called retro-swing, a mix of numerous styles: big band, New Orleans jazz, R&B, rockabilly, and even ska. The combination is a postmodern tour de force that embraces everybody from Cotton Club jitterbuggers to Las Vegas lounge lizards. Today's lindy-hoppers leave the ripped and messy rock clothes in the closet, dress up like characters from an old movie, and start dancing. As a creative force, this deserves respect. Retro-swing has taken decades of great music (Glenn Miller, Frank Sinatra, and even Bing Crosby) and rediscovered them as more than nostalgia entertainment. The bands that make this music approach their subject with varying degrees of respect and irony (curiously, many of them are ex-punk rockers who jumped to a completely different look). In its heyday (between about Benny Goodman's rise in 1935 and Glenn Miller's death in 1944), swing did things that rock 'n' rollers have dreamed of for years. It jumped color barriers, crossed generation gaps, and blurred the line between high and low culture. The original music lives on in countless inexpensive reissues of "In The Mood," "Stardust," and "Moonlight Serenade." Too bad some retro-swingers seem obsessed with obnoxious parts of the period: gangsterism, sleazy nightclubs, and gauche fashions, as if everybody was wearing zoot suits, fedoras, and drinking martinis during the Great Depression. They play up the ridiculous, as when Brian Setzer sings, "This cat's on a hot tin roof/drinkin that whisky/96 proof." Yet as an alternative to the so-called alternative music that dominates FM radio, retro-swing may develop into a major force. NPR: The last gatekeeper?
Through the 1990s numerous mass-media megapowers from TV networks to record companies were turned upside down by the Internet boom and other cultural shifts, but one gatekeeper is still standing tall: National Public Radio. Competitors in the cable box like A&E, The Discovery Channel, and the up-and-coming BBC America are nailing PBS, but NPR has an advantage. While a huge amount of entertainment can hit people in their living rooms, precious little can access the hallowed car stereo or clock radio. So for those among the elite who want something besides pop music and spot news, public radio is about the only option. In many cities, NPR is the only way to hear jazz, classical, bluegrass, or just about anything that isn't rock, rap, or country. Until digital radio comes to the car, its role as cultural gatekeeper is safe. And NPR, unlike the scrappier stations around the dial, sees itself above the rest of the world. NPR blurs its ever-Green political and cultural sides, leaving the implication that the two are one. We the privileged control Mozart and Shakespeare, NPR seems to say, and the unwashed can stick to NASCAR and Tanya Tucker. Notoriously, public-broadcasting execs think they should be untainted by advertising. What NPR can't get from the government, it must shake from corporate donors and private individuals. That has gotten public broadcasting in trouble since several major-market stations were caught swapping mailing lists with the Democratic Party (see cover story). But public broadcasting is a dinosaur, and getting its hand caught in the ideological cookie jar may have only sped up what was coming anyway. Someone who knows the difference between high culture and elitist propaganda stands to make a killing in the radio world of the future. New identity for 10 bucks
The latest online narcotic is a game from Sony called EverQuest that charges players $9.89 to live in a 3D fantasy world. Users can control eight characters in the Dungeons & Dragons-esque alternate universe: dwarves, elves, paladins, wizards, and the like. EverQuest boasts 150,000 players who interact, trade, fight, marry, and coexist with one another in this descendant of role-playing games. Sony's developers blew out the doors on graphics and created a less-combative framework that rewards characters for cooperating with instead of hacking and slashing one another. In EverQuest, death isn't forever; it's just a temporary setback. EverQuest follows in the footsteps of MUDs, or multi-user dungeons, which were an Internet craze in the days before the Web got cooking. Instead of 3D-graphics, users wandered around in a text-based adventure that was harder to play and required more imagination. MUDs became notorious with social scientists and a few enterprising journalists because players can take up alter egos and live like them as if characters' relationships were real life. This led some to speculate that the Internet would become a tool for people to use any race, sex, or personality interchangeably. Netizens would live in "virtual community," following their bliss with any identity they wanted. Most people decided that they liked their birth characteristics, and the masquerade only appears in places like games and chat rooms. Yet developers know there is money to be made serving those who do want an escape, especially if they are willing to pay. EverQuest is a hit; since it launched last March, it has become an addiction for some players, as is often the case with this genre. Some players are even making a few extra bucks, auctioning off their characters or play money for real-world cash. Others are logging hundreds upon hundreds of hours on the game, putting jobs and grade-point averages at risk. Games like this can be harmless fun, but those who disappear into the fantasy can lose a lot more than $9.89 a month.

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