Sunday, February 7

Sometimes all you can do is get up and dance

A few minutes ago I read Carlotta Gall's Feb 6 op-ed for the New York Times, Pakistan's Hand in the Rise of International Jihad, which ends with the true and completely useless observation, "No one has held Pakistan to account for this behavior. Why would Pakistan give it up now?"

After muttering, "I knew it!" I decided to jump out a window but then I thought, 'Nah, listen to Jade instead.'  After dancing to Don't Walk Away for ten minutes, I'll go on living.

There's a story about the song, and it has to do with New Jack Swing and the controversies that raged about it and were rekindled about three years ago when Majic 102.3 here in the DMV -- that being the Greater Washington, DC area to you -- found the 1992 song in the archives and played it one evening, perhaps in an attempt to prevent the station from sliding completely into the abyss of Black Bubble Gum Muzak.

So then everybody was jumping up and dancing and calling the station and yelping, 'Who's that?' and the D.J. was shouting in triumph into the mike, "That's Jade! I met those ladies once!" And then the song took the clubs here by storm, and Wikipedia cops had a lock on the article about New Jack Swing to prevent music buffs from threatening on the pages of Wikipedia to kill each other.

The lock is now off, and sadly, the fireworks are gone from the article. No more quoting Ice Cube snapping that New Jack Swing could swing from his balls. In fact, a newcomer to the genre wouldn't know there was controversy from reading the article but there was a big one, and in its day, in the 1980s, it was at the heart of conflicts between music artists and commercialization, between singers with street creds and poseurs in the pop music world, between fair use and theft of an artist's work.

The basic idea behind NJS was that you took the energy and improvisation of street music and brought it into the recording studio, and tweaked it with electronic stuff to make it sound like the real deal out on the streets. Then you put the professional singers on the streets lip-syncing the music package you put together, and posted the video to MTV. Then you waited for the sound of Ca-Ching! that being the sound old-fashioned cash registers make when ringing up a sale.

Don't Walk Away came in at the end of New Jack Swing's popularity but it was a big hit, maybe the last or one of the last big hits of the genre. The controversies didn't end when the genre was shoved aside by hip-hop, they were just drowned out by the sound of Ca-Ching! and the argument that black recording entrepreneurs had as much right to screw over music as white entrepreneurs, an argument that carried over into hip-hop and then the Bubblegumizaton of R&B.

What's left? I wouldn't know. Black Bubble Gum Muzak did it for me. I went back to Bach and Coltrane and today I listen to Irish music, Bluegrass, and Ammaji's bhajan singing. But when I wanted a dance beat that wouldn't let me sit down and weep, I turned to Don't Walk Away, which may or may not be a tiebreaker in the controversies.

One of the greatest jazz riffs ever recorded was John Coltrane's improvisation on a Rodgers and Hammerstein show tune, My Favorite Things. Yet the tune is treacle; I'm sorry but it's a sappy song and a nondescript melody. So I don't know what possessed Coltrane to start playing around with it, but he transformed it into art.

Not that I'm putting Don't Walk Away on the same level, but just because a piece of music isn't an authentic rendition of another work doesn't mean it can't be good music.

As to the theft angle -- there was a lot of copying done in Bach's day and there were no copyright laws. What settled it was the passage of time; if it kept sounding good to subsequent generations, well, that's the one that got called great music.

Don't Walk Away has proven that it was able to appeal to a great many people who hadn't been born by 1992.  So its recent second run of popularity wasn't due to nostalgia.  Will it still be a great example of funky music in another quarter century? I suspect any music that can get all kinds of people off their behinds and dancing no matter how bad their mood has a chance to go quite a distance.

All right Pundita that's enough fun; back to the salt mines.  


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