by carl wilson

It's Their Party (Gore v. Phair)

Nice catchup with Lesley Gore - feminist, lesbian, Democratic activist and singer of bubblegum hit It's My Party in 1963 - in The New York Times today. Whodathunk? And on that note ...

I sympathize with those who find the current incarnation of Liz Phair unconvincing, but I think the hoax "Liz Phair Week" over at The Mystical Beast is excessively meanspirited - implying not only disrespect for Phair's choices (as is Dana's right) but contempt for anyone who does like the last two albums, with an adopted voice that strongly implies "stupid young girl naif," a repugnant level of snobbery. (Edit: Okay, on second glance I'm not sure what made me think it was meant to be a girl's voice, except that it would be typical-rockist-etc.)

That said, it was a clever move, applying the mock-blog technique (a la Harriet Miers) to music criticism. [... continues, with Liz Phair's take on The Star-Spangled Banner ...]

I haven't really read the Beast much before, so it took me a day to clue in (see my overcredulous comment on the first post linked above). The best element is the running commentary formed by the accompanying MP3's, with the likes of Kicking Giant, Barbara Manning etc. as counterexamples to what Dana obvs considers Phair's crass turn.

S/he makes a more judicious case in an earlier post: "I know that there are any number of 'betrayal' issues relating to the Liz Phair backlash, but what always strikes me is that she seems like a 'small' artist (small voice, small stature, poor live performance, songs about little things) who looks slightly ridiculous trying to play a rock star." There's some truth to that - but there would also be some truth in saying Phair has also always had the magnetism on record of a rock star, and to some degree seemed awkwardly crammed into her own "smallness."

In any case the sourness of the blog prank seems much more the work of someone who does feel personally betrayed, which is a more childish reaction than thinking (as her blog persona is made to) that wearing a CBGBs t-shirt is significant one way or another.

I won't be at Phair's show tonight in Toronto but if you do I bet you'll enjoy it - her live performance skills are so much better than in the old days, and she always plays a spectrum of material to please "the bride's side and the groom's side," as she's described her divided audiences. Anyone got video of her baseball-game God Bless America rendition yesterday? Going by this Believer interview, too bad she wasn't asked instead to perform The Star Spangled Banner. I don't yearn to hear her straining for the high note ("freeeee!") but I like her take:

"I think the National Anthem is a really genius song. It's so radical if you think about it. It's about war; it's truly, authetically about people who are in the midst of a very scary situation. It's really inspiring. It's got an intense melody; it's not structured. Think about it: [Sings] Oh say can you see, by the... They probably lost half of the men they knew yesterday in that battle. What so proudly we hail'd at the twilight's last gleaming. It was beautiful. It's so moving if you think of it as real. If you don't just take it as what you hear at sports games, but rather think about who's involved in singing it. Is that flag still there, and all that it means? And that's that moment. They're not saying, 'What a great flag we have. In battle we follow it.' They're actually bringing you into it. Cut into the middle of the movie after the big-ass battle. Imagine Hollywood doing it: it's their big last brawl and people have lost their brothers and they're weary and in the trenches and it has symbolism and the flag is a symbol for it. It's just such a moving, brilliant song. It kind of awes me because I don't think anything I ever write has that kind of intensity to it. Okay, so I had a bad night with a guy. It's different than fighting for your life next to your brothers for a symbol, for an America that doesn't even exist yet. It's just a dream, and it's embodied in a piece of cloth. It's so intense that you come up after this battle in the morning, just at the crack of dawn, where you're sort of gathering the losses and trying to figure out what really happened and how you feel about that. Is it worth your life, or your brother's life, or these peoples' bloodshed for this thing that's just a symbol? And then the melody goes soaring up to a point you can barely even reach and I appreciate that because I think the song itself should be a struggle to make you realize what you're singing about. It shouldn't be an easy toss-off song, and it does that without seeming to. I think it's a brilliant song.

Not someone to dismiss as a bimbo, even if you dislike her tactics.

Read More | News | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, October 23 at 5:24 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (11)

 

COMMENTS

Just, wow.

Posted by zoilus on October 25, 2005 12:10 PM

 

 

Thanks, John. Love the Sandburg poem. Change a a name and it applies today.

Thanks also for the "Home Sweet Home" link. Berlin himself called "God Bless America" a "home song" on more than one occasion, linking it to that whole 19th century pastoral-sentimental ballad tradition, and especially to Stephen Foster ("The Old Folks At Home," "My Old Kentucky Home"), Berlin's songwriting godhead.

Posted by jody on October 25, 2005 11:28 AM

 

 

Thanks, Jody -- wow, great stuff.

"My home sweet home," quoting a hugely popular 19th century sentimental poem, written by a wandering American emigre, set to music by somebody and a huge hit.

Here's a link to it:
http://www.seiyaku.com/hymns/en/148.html

Miss Dorothy Gale quoted the 19th century song too, when she wanted to leave the Emerald City.

Guthrie's song is so great, embraced by rightwingers as well as lefties. Late '60s country music star Bill Anderson closed his concerts with Guthrie's song and then Berlin's hymn, to give heart to his pro-Vietnam-War audience.

Carl Sandburg wrote a parody of Berlin's song, very caustic and mean, but well scanned:

Goddamn Republicans
Scum of the earth
We will meet them
And beat them
And show them just what we're worth
Out of Wall Street
Comes a Wilkie
He's a silky
S. O. B.
Goddamn Republicans
The G. O. P.!

Posted by john on October 25, 2005 10:49 AM

 

 

I agree that "America the Beautiful" is far and away the most beautiful of the American anthems. (Certainly, Ray Charles' version is one of the all-time great records.) I find "The Star-Spangled Banner" turgid, though the lyric is interesting.

I've done a lot of writing and thinking about Irving Berlin, so I thought I'd add a couple of words about "God Bless America." Personally, I can't stand the song. I find the lyrics and melody insipid -- far, far below the standard of Berlin's best stuff -- and the sentiments trite. But it helps to think a bit about the context in which it was written.

Berlin began writing "God Bless America" in 1917 for a World War I-era musical. He abandoned it then, but dragged it out again while traveling on a passenger ship to New York from London in September 1938. A couple of days earlier, the Munich Pact had been signed, authorizing Germany's partition of the Sudetenland (Neville Chamberlain, "Peace for our time," and all that). War was in the air, and Berlin decided to write a song to bolster Americans' spirits in treacherous times; the song's little-known verse begins "While storm clouds gather/Far across the sea." In other words, "God Bless America" began its life as a topical song, not a would-be national anthem. And John is right in calling the song "a prayer for guidance." The verse ends: "As we raise our verses/In a solemn prayer."

What's more, the song had a subtle -- but at the time, unmistakable -- political subtext. In 1938, the vast majority of Americans were isolationist regarding the Nazi menace, arguing that Europe should take care of its own problems. Berlin, a Jewish refugee from Tsarist pogroms, was firmly in the interventionist camp, which at the time was a left-of-center position. And his song carried a clear "buck up and get ready" message. So while the song might strike us today as the height of right-wing jingoism, it meant something else entirely when it was introduced by Kate Smith on Armistice Day in November 1938. In fact, Berlin changed his original 1917 lyric "Stand beside her/And guide her/To the right with a light from above" to "Through the night with a light..." to avoid any confusion about right-leaning politics.

The song's religio-nationalist lyrics are definitely creepy. But here again, a little context is instructive. It's worth noting, for instance, that while the song became an instant and ubiquitous hit, Berlin was furiously denounced in many quarters as a Jewish immigrant who had no right to invoke God or compose a patriotic tune. (I've read dozens of newspaper editorials from the time to this effect.) People often forget that the Tin Pan Alley-Broadway music of the first half of the 20th century was the result of a social struggle as significant as those that have inflected rock-era pop: it was music by assimilating immigrants and their children, many of them, like Berlin, bootstrapping Lower East Side Jews.

Viewed in this light, "God Bless America" looks pretty ballsy: the immigrant from a Siberian shtetl saying, "This is my country." And that's why, despite everything, I have a soft-spot for the song. The key lines are "My home sweet home" -- a very touching expression of gratitude from a guy who at age 4 watched pogromniks burn his village, arrived in New York in steerage class a year later, grew up dirt poor in a two room tenement apartment with his parents and eight siblings, dropped out of school at 12, and ran away from home after his bar mitzvah, essentially living on the street for several years until he wrote his first hit song. By far the most moving version of the song I've heard is a solo Berlin performance, recorded in 1939, with the great man himself plinking at the piano and croaking away in his charming, squeaky, New York-accented singing voice. I've posted the mp3 here (hope this link works):

http://theanachronist.com/berlinsingsgodblessamerica.mp3

It's great: "God Bless America" as a singer-songwriter's confession, not some bloated anthem. See if you don't get a lump in the ol' throat after all.

The other thing worth mentioning is that "God Bless America" inspired history's most famous pissed-off answer song -- yep, even bigger than "The Real Roxanne" -- Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land." (Original title: "God Blessed America"; original refrain: "God Blessed America for me"). Quite a heady showdown: Guthrie v. Berlin; folk god v. pop god; native born lefty populist v. immigrant flag-waver populist. Also noteworthy: Zappa's "God Bless America," on the Uncle Meat album (1969), a vicious deconstruction on par with Hendrix's "Star-Spangled Banner."

Posted by jody on October 25, 2005 10:29 AM

 

 

I went to the Liz Phair show at the Phoenix yesterday. She's confident onstage now and it was very enjoyable to watch. She did rely heavily on her back catalogue(with a disproportionate number of songs from Exile). I'm not so much complaining but I was a little disappointed that she didn't play some of her new material like her single "Everything To Me" or "Stars and Planets" which I was hoping to hear how they'd come across live.

BTW, it hadn't even occurred to me that those Mystical Beast posts may have been a joke. I just thought The Mystical Beast was making absurd statements

Posted by mike on October 24, 2005 10:43 PM

 

 

I never liked "God Bless etc." until its ubiquity after the atrocity of September 11 made me listen: It's a prayer for guidance. Never sung with that emotional push, but those are the words, if people would only sing them that way.

And I like mountains, prairies, & oceans white with foam.

America the Beautiful -- that's lovely.

O Canada has a nice tune, but I don't know the words. Joni Mitchell's Case of You is nice too.

Posted by John on October 24, 2005 9:19 PM

 

 

But if I don't think she's sold out, exploited her sexuality and made bad dance-rock records ... perhaps I'll find her non-singing not so bad. Since I never find either of these songs especially pleasurable (other people's national anthems often aren't) I'm not sure it would cause me significantly more pain than those songs done "well." Which is not an anti-American sentiment. You know what song I really like? "America, the Beautiful." But "Star-Spangled Banner" and "God Bless..." (especially the latter) have always seemed ugly to me.

Posted by zoilus on October 24, 2005 2:51 PM

 

 

Liz Phair sang God Bless America at the Sox game. It was horrible. She literally can't sing. Regardless of how you feel about her selling out, exploiting her sexuality, or making band dance-rock records, that performance was clearly painfull to watch.

Posted by craig on October 24, 2005 2:24 PM

 

 

I wish these damned things would be consistent regarding links. Tris McCall's comments on "The Star-Spangled Banner" are at http://www.trismccall.net/lyrics_check_0700.html. His comments on "God Bless America" are at http://www.trismccall.net/lyrics_check_godbless.html

Posted by 2fs on October 24, 2005 2:17 PM

 

 

I agree that sometimes Dana gets a bit snarky - but he's also pretty damned funny - and he does write about a lot of good, interesting music (even when he's toned down the snark. And he is a "he" by the way.) Liz Phair's problem is that it's not her fault that she got so very much hype, which made it inevitable that every album subsequent to Exile would be regarded as a letdown. Probably, if even the self-titled album had been released by some new artist, I'd think, okay, pretty good songs, interesting lyrics, sometimes questionable arrangements - someone to watch, though. She's not the voice of a goddamned generation - but she probably didn't want to be. (I heard about half of the new one in a record store: it was okay.)

Uh-anyway: if you like Phair's comments on the "Star-Spangled Banner," you should read these comments. The same guy also addresses "God Bless America" here.

Posted by 2fs on October 24, 2005 2:16 PM

 

 

Ms. Phair is right. Gorgeous melody. Intense, questioning, insecure words -- it's all a string of questions! And -- bonus -- it's in 3/4 time! Not what one thinks of as a martial rhythm.

One quibble: Francis Scott Key wrote it during the War of 1812. The nation was fighting for its continued existence, not its not-yet-achieved existence.

Posted by John on October 24, 2005 1:14 AM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson