Saturday, January 24, 2015

Self Reflection: Back Door Man, Mannish Boy

Purchase: Howlin' Wolf--Back Door Man

Purchase: Muddy Waters--Mannish Boy

I read an interesting article that talked about how it was possible to trace the rise in narcissism over the generations through popular music.

It actually works, especially when you use love songs as your filter.

In the 1950s, pop songs were all about how much the singer loved the subject. Lots of adoration and pleading. The 60s--all about loving everybody, as was the fashion. “Come on people now, smile on your brother…” and such…

The 70s brought on a bit of a change, and love songs took on a bit more strut, a little look at me kind of vibe.  Disco will do that for you—not much more to say than “Boogie Oogie Oogie” and the less said about the 70s, the better, at least when it comes to Disco.

The 80s and the 90s-- a pretty soft decade, but pop songs saw a turn toward the more sensually charged and carried an overt sense of sexuality--what I'm gonna’ to do, and you to me. But, still, there was more adore you rather than look at me happening in the music. Whitney Houston taught us a lot, especially about always loving...someone.

Get to the 2000s, if you can still stand to listen to pop music, and it gets pretty ugly. Pop music is a preponderance of bragging rights, showing off, getting off on the image of the self, and love songs are pretty much,I'ma know....'cause nothing looks as good as this (self-referential expletive deleted...In an age where Paris Hilton can release an album, and Rhianna can get on stage, bend over and become a multi-billionaire, and there’s an industry dedicated to solely to making it easier to take a selfie with your camera, one should be surprised that we haven’t all fallen into the water and drowned while loving ourselves.

This is by no means a scientific observation--I can't stand to do the research, ie: listening. But, if you listen closely to pop music across a spectrum of the decades, I promise, you will find a disturbing trend toward the very narcissistic and decidedly self-aggrandizing, be it about wealth, swagger, street-cred or carnal prowess. Elvis once pleaded 'let me be your teddy bear', but I think he'd be laughed off the American Idol set nowadays with that kind of sentiment.

Pop music is pretty much a celebration of the booty and the bling, and I guess Niki Minaj is now President? Maybe I'm wrong--I saw her video for "Anaconda" the other day and I realized: Jesus, we're all in big trouble...

So, yeah, I am making a half-hearted attempt at trashing what passes for popular music these days, but, does the argument really deserve that much merit? Most of what 'the kids' listen to these days is so bad, it's kind of a strange exhaustion in itself to even bother talking about it. So...let's move on. And talk about the kind of music that has always been a little narcissistic, and done by guys who make a living off bragging and strutting. The Blues has always been self-referential. The original players were more bad ass than anyone since, but, that's because the Blues was born of circumstance and sociology, or place and economy more than glittery fantasy or poppy imagination.

Promoters didn't need to dress up the blues, or invent the back-story--it was music born of hardship and reflective of the daily lives of the men and ladies who sang it. I can't give the history of the Blues its proper due here--I'm not a scholar, nor am nuanced enough in the research of it to give the history its proper due.

But, I do know what the blues is, and that is....? . I can't define the Blues. It's all in the guts, how you feel and react. One doesn’t need to define the Blues to do what is really needed to love the Blues, or have the Blues—feel it. That’s all. Just feel it…

There are multiple genres within the blues, and lots of ways that it is delivered, making it as nuanced and multi-layered as any other genre of music, But one of my favorite aspects of the blues is the sense of bragging and calling out the bonafides that comes with being a blues man...Being tough, bragging on prowess in all matters--drinking, swinging, picking and....other stuff--that's the DNA of the blues. And calling out rivals, swearing on your toughness and singing proud--that's what the blues is for. If there's a ratio of what kind of brio a blues song calls for to be a real blues song, I'd say it's 1 part badass to 3 parts bragging, mixed in with a whole of lot of strut and swagger and good old fashion shit talking...

The original blues singers were all about survival. Cutting heads is a term that describes the original Delta player’s method of stealing a crowd from a rival. Cutting heads was as bold as one could get, and players engaged in it would set up on an opposite street corner from another player and try to steal their crowd and tips. The Blues was a cutthroat way to make a living in the Jim Crow South, so it only seems fitting that the players would use their music to further their reps and their credibility that had already established scrapping together a living traveling from town to town, playing street corners, juke joints and house parties. If you weren't tough, you weren't going to make it.

So, by definition or by necessity, the Blues is self-referential. And it is populated by some of the most colorful first-person narrators in any kind of music. The personal feel of the Blues comes from the honesty in the voices--or the exact opposite, the lying and the bragging--of the players, and a good blues song, then, is one that...well, it can do whatever it wants. The blues is multifaceted, but it's always at its best when one man (or woman) gets on the mic and howls a little bit of their story at you and makes you feel glad you're not him, or kind of wish you were...

 So, this month, I have chosen two tracks, both of which I think embody the best in Blues strut and bluster, and after I say these are two songs that ought to make the rest of the pretenders shut up and take notice, I'll get out of the way and let the men talk for themselves--because neither one of 'em needs me to do any of the talking--they do just fine on their own.
For your listening pleasure, and a possible path to getting your mojo workin’, I present Howlin Wolf's Back Door Man and Muddy Water's Mannish Boy

 I'll shut up and get out of the way now...

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