I’ve Heard That Sound Before: the 1950s Sound in Modern Music

Note:  I write about 1950s music on the “Fifties Culture” page of my book web site The Longest Night, but those posts can be hard to find. So here are my most recent thoughts on fifties music, and I’ll put them up on The Longest Night in a few days. – Andria

Sometimes, when performing her 2011 hit “Rolling in the Deep,” British singer Adele opens with her own rich, glossy vocals: “There’s a fire burning in my heart…”

But other times, the stage stays darker a little longer, and the voices of her backup singers lead in, with a crisp,  haunting a capella–“Rolling in the deep… tears are gonna fall…,” sounding for all the world like a Top 40 hit from 1959 or the early sixties, and you’re tricked into listening for the voice of, say, Martha Reeves or Diana Ross to come in and join them.

It’s a one-two punch that works: “Rolling in the Deep” was Billboard’s top single of 2011, and, receiving my much-smaller-scale personal nod of approval, is one of the few Adele songs I listen to voluntarily. You’ve got the distantly familiar, strong-but-feminine backup sound combined with the steamrolling vocals of Adele busting in on top, fully intent on beating your poor heart like a pinata. (“You had my heart inside of your hand,” she sings, “and you played it to the beat.” Ouch!)

Simon Reynolds, writing for the New York Times the year of the song’s release, notes

The song is basically 1960s rhythm-and-blues tightened up with modern production. Everything about “Rolling” — its melody and lyrics, Adele’s delivery and timbre, the role played by the backing vocalists — gestures back to a lost golden age of soul singers like Etta James and Dusty Springfield.

And he’s right; this is where I think the song gets its power. Reynolds, however, is not a fan of this development. “Once pop music was something by which you could tell the decade, or even the year,” he complains, “but listening to the radio nowadays is disorienting, if you’re searching for a sound that screams, ‘It’s 2011!'” This sounds a little funny now that it is 2017, of course (although people like me may still be behind the times enough to be searching for a song that screams that it’s 2011), but Reynolds (author of the interestingly-titled Shock and Awe, which is not about Bush-era military decisions but rather about the rise of glam rock) is serious about his concern with the “atemporality” of today’s pop music, a lack of a clear and definable 2000’s sound, which he sees as stemming from both the staggering backcatalog of music available on iTunes, You Tube, and so forth, as well as our Spotified ability to tailor our listening to sounds and singers we already know we like. (Intelligently, he links this to our fondness for instant-nostalgia apps like Hipstamatic, which grant us a shallow ability to artistically channel the past, perhaps without understanding it.) All the musical epochs are getting jumbled up, he seems to say, and it’s diluting whatever could have been a clear and distinguishable 2000’s music.

Reynolds could not have predicted the rather ominous cast his concern with dilution would take in today’s neo-fascist political environment. And, as a music geek/snob, it’s practically Reynolds’ job to disparage the listening public for their broad tastes and to lament something about modern music; I almost appreciate him for it. But from the production end, I think most modern bands worth their salt still know their influences.  The Bleachers sound like the late seventies and early eighties to me, The Weeknd often channels Michael Jackson, Carly Rae Jepsen sounds like Debbie Gibson. One smart blog I found by pure coincidence– the humorously-titled “Trip to the Outhouse,” whose Texas-based writer seems to be former Air Force, for what it’s worth!– caught the similarity, intentional or not, between Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” and the heavy, pounding beat of Hank Williams Sr.’s “Kaw-Liga” (a connection the blogger made, Mr. Reynolds should note, by listening to Sirius Radio). Now that’s a throwback influence! Perhaps there are just more influences than ever before.

Nice connection, “Trip to the Outhouse,” whoever you are!

In any case, I’m not wandering this world searching for the song that screams that it’s 2011 or even 2017; for the purposes of this blog I’m interested in 1950s music, which has, happily for me, already happened. And it’s music that continues to reverberate through what we hear today, in ways that may be “throwback” but which I’d argue are also innovative. Such nods to the past can be campy, like Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats; mass-market-calculated for an emotional teenage audience, as with Taylor Swift; or an intelligent and moving homage, in the case of Leon Bridges.

I’ll start with Bridges–a staggeringly talented 26-year-old (!) singer/songwriter from Ft. Worth, Texas — because his sound and style unabashedly, and most consistently, channel the 1950’s and ’60s:

Interestingly, he’s the same age as Taylor Swift (also born in 1989, a year she must find significant in, hopefully, some way other than her own birth, for she titled an album after it).  While Swift crisscrosses genres and musical epochs like Spotify on fast-forward, perhaps exemplifying the Hipstamatic syndrome Reynolds laments, one thing is consistent to my ear: her yearning, egocentric, emotionally overblown lyrics. Sometimes they focus so intently on her own reflection-in-the-mirror regarding a relationship (multiple songs reference her “cherry lips”…she’s “standing in a nice dress” — the English teacher in me wants to write, “Be more specific, please!”) that they feel quite genuinely like the thoughts of someone who was born in 1989.

But other times, her pure, almost senseless longing, and vague but affectionate descriptions of her young-man-of-the-moment, feel quite directly channeled out of 1950s music.

“He’s so tall, and handsome as hell,” she sings, in “Wildest Dreams. “He’s so bad, but he does it so well.”

Where have I heard that before?

Try the Shangri-Las, “Give Him a Great Big Kiss”:

Well what color are his eyes?

I don’t know, he’s always wearing shades.

Is he tall?

Well, I’ve got to look up.

Yeah, well I’ve heard he’s bad.

Mmm, he’s good-bad, but he’s not evil.

Or try “He’s So Fine,” by The Chiffons:

He’s so fine
(Do-lang, do-lang, do-lang)
Wish he were mine
That handsome boy over there
The one with the wavy hair

He’s a “soft-spoken guy, also seems kinda shy.” (Well, that’s refreshing! At least he is not just the bad boy. And though he goes unnamed, it’s better than just calling him “Mr. Lee,” which, now that I am a parent, creeps me out to no end.)  But in any case, the young man’s vague description, coupled with the singer’s intense desire, is a recipe for mass-market dollar signs that perhaps no one has used as successfully as Swift. She’s so bad, but she does it so well.

***

How about some fifties-inspired camp?

There are several influences at play here in the video for Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats’s “S.O.B” (though the lyrics would never have made it on the 1950s airwaves), but the idea of rockin’ in a jailhouse was perhaps done most popularly by Elvis Presley in 1957.

Rateliff also riffs on Johnny Cash’s famous Folsom Prison and San Quentin performances, but the addition of self-deprecating humor shows he doesn’t think he is the Man in Black, nor is he trying to be. He and the band perform with a sort of blank absurdity–the group-therapist drummer in an utterly depressed blue sweatshirt amuses me in particular– that feels modern and very funny, while also hearkening obviously back to musical predecessors.

***

Last of all: This is not a 1950s reference, but I’m adding it in from a storytelling perspective:

“Cleopatra,” by the Lumineers, uses an older mode of storytelling that I enjoy very much. I have to credit my 11-year-old daughter with pointing the song out to me, because in general I find the Lumineers a little saccharine. “Mom,” she said, “this song is interesting, because it’s a man singing like he is this lady Cleopatra. I mean, he’s singing the words the way Cleopatra would tell the story.”

The poor child probably regretted this observation instantly because I launched into an excited, annoying, possibly pretentious monologue: “Well, Nora! That’s from a folk singing tradition! Men and women often sang from the point of view of one another. And you know what? I bet we can trace that to the Bible. Like the Psalsms: people basically stand together in church and recite each other’s confessions and stories. They know that they are not King David, of course, and yet men and women alike recite his words from his point of view. Or like Paul: ‘When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.’ Men and women both say that. Right?”

And she was probably like, “Fine, Mom. Can we listen to some Taylor Swift?,” once again proving that she is probably smarter than me, and that Taylor Swift may be smarter than us all.

I don’t think this video really adds much to The Lumineers’ “Cleopatra,” other than a typical high-def commercial-type tearjerker thingy-ding . But the song itself is quite lovely.

I was Cleopatra, I was young and an actress
When you knelt by my mattress, and asked for my hand
I was sad you asked it, as I laid in a black dress
With my father in a casket, I had no plans

And I left the footprints, the mud stained on the carpet
And it hardened like my heart did when you left town
But I must admit it, that I would marry you in an instant
Damn your wife, I’d be your mistress just to have you around

But I was late for this, late for that, late for the love of my life
And when I die alone, when I die alone, when I die I’ll be on time

There’s a storytelling, even tonal similarity, I think, between, say, some of the best Joan Baez and this particular Lumineers song. Sometimes the feel is what matters, and you don’t need a fancy music video to get to it. Sometimes, like my daughter Nora, I just hear something and think to myself, I like that.

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