On the eve of the Obama Era, with The One merely days from ascendancy to the Mandate of Heaven, as the political and cultural generational torch passes, it is worth recalling an earlier generational changeover, a political and cultural one not for the better: the torch that passed from the Greatest Generation to the Baby Boomer cohort (alas, mine). For Barack Obama to make a change for the better, he could do worse than take cultural and performing tips from the Greatest Generation’s premier Voice, Francis Albert Sinatra, the 20th century’s most iconic popular music artist. Just as Boomer rock degraded music, Boomer politics degraded Washington. The stylistic changes were remarkably similar.
Writing in TAS, City Journal‘s Paul Beston, who grew up weaned on rock music, paid tribute to Frank Sinatra as exemplar of music superior in quality to that of the rock music Beston worshiped. Beston’s short essay evinces a fine grasp of Sinatra’s greatness, particularly in showing how a member of the post-Sinatra generation came to appreciate real art-music quality. He includes Sinatra’s own pithy, deadly accurate assessment of rock ‘n’ roll — one no doubt far less harsh than anything The Voice said, if ever, about hard rock, hip-hop, rap and the like:
Sinatra expressed his own views about rock early on. Speaking in 1957, he made himself infamous among the younger crowd by declaring that “Rock ‘n’ roll smells phony and false. It is sung, played and written for the most part by cretinous goons and by means of its almost imbecilic reiteration, and sly, lewd, in plain fact, dirty lyrics…it manages to be the martial music of every sideburned delinquent on the face of the earth.”
Verily. Beston’s piece also includes some remarkably revealing tributes from rock icons to Ol’ Blue Eyes — amazing for their puerile content (to be expected, as their music, too, is puerile). Put simply, Sinatra leavened swagger — his in-your-face superstar persona — with classy style, in his magical music artistry. What followed Sinatra’s musical era was swagger unleavened by style: raw lower-class teen lyrics rather than elegant adult use of the language; banal, basic chords rather than richly-textured jazz chords melding aural consonance and dissonance; plodding drum beats rather than subtle, varied rhythms; melodic monotony rather than intonation and phrasing that melded instrumental melody with crisp story-line lyric.
“The Voice” will live on, especially for those of my generation who came to appreciate Sinatra’s music in time to see him perform live during his prime, as I did in winter 1966 during my freshman year at the University of Miami. After hearing Sinatra sing with Count Basie’s band at La Ronde, the nightclub in Miami Beach’s fabled Fountainbleau Hotel, how could I deeply care about rock (excepting a few songs, like Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday,” which Sinatra praised and recorded)?
All Sinatra’s great work was done before his 1971 retirement, which he ended in 1974. His work after his return was mostly his timeless standards. His new work was mostly subpar (especially, the ghastly Duets), excepting only “Send in the Clowns” and “New York, New York,” the former a haunting Stephen Sondheim song whose bitter lyrics were the last cry of a legendary swinger sliding into senescence, the latter an urban anthem saluting a great city then in seemingly irreversible decline.
IN POPULAR MUSIC the exemplar of Baby Boomer solipsism is Barbra Streisand. A promising huge talent in the 1960s, blessed with the most spectacular vocal instrument of her popular music peers, Streisand failed to realize her full potential as an artist, despite celebrity worship, superstar sales and financial gold. Her vast self-regard led her to lavish tons of sappy sentimentality on virtually everything she sang after the 1960s. Great artists like Sinatra make the audience feel that performance is not about the artist, but about you. Streisand drenches her songs in her own emotional excess; Sinatra infused his songs with authentic emotional sensitivity, but disciplined so as to give full artistic life to both melody and lyric.
Similarly, most Greatest Generation politicians exuded a public dignity missing from the likes of posturing weasels like Barney Frank. They restrained displays of vulgar egotism common to the likes of Al Gore, who compared himself, testifying to the Senate in 2007 during his global warming jihad, as akin to one of Sparta’s fabled 300 super-warriors who heroically fought a vastly larger Persian host. And whereas Ronald Reagan would never walk into the Oval Office without wearing coat and tie, Bill Clinton took a less formal view of the premises.
The Streisand of her political generation is Hillary Clinton, who tried to take over one-seventh of America’s economy as First Lady, brooking no opposition or modification to her health-care plan. Yet even Hillary has in recent years disciplined herself enough to curb public displays of Streisand-like diva riffs.
Barack Obama’s presidency will usher in cultural change as well as political shifts. The One shows signs of Boomer self-esteem — his rock-star gigs before a Prussian militarist victory column and a temple backdrop in accepting his party’s nomination. Yet he also shows signs of Greatest Generation discipline — his celebrated “cool.”
The Big Apple Sinatra serenaded was rescued, improbably, by Emperor Rudy the Great, a pre-Boomer who embraced Greatest Generation stoicism. Perhaps an artist will emerge to rescue popular music from its seemingly irreversible decline. And perhaps The One can rescue politics from Boomer self-absorption, driven by the grave challenges and dangers awaiting his final ascent.
In the era of The One, can we dare harbor the audacity of hoping for The Voice II?