• I know a not-inconsiderable number of people—most of them well on the far side of fifty—who sincerely believe that nothing good has happened to American popular music since Elvis Presley first swiveled his hips on The Ed Sullivan Show. Such frustrated folk will find much solace in The Voodoo That They Did So Well: The Wizards Who Invented the New York Stage (Ivan R. Dee, 230 pp., $24.95), a collection of the essays about American popular song and its makers that Stefan Kanfer has been publishing in City Journal for the past few years.
In addition to fervent appreciations of Irving Berlin, the Gershwin brothers, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, and Stephen Sondheim, The Voodoo That They Did So Well contains a profile of Lorenzo da Ponte (about whom I recently wrote in this space) and a pair of affectionate essays about vaudeville and Yiddish theater. All eight pieces proceed from the dolorous assumptions that (1) things ain’t what they used to be and (2) we shall never be again as we were:
Professional mourners constantly bemoan the unintelligence of the young. As a guest professor at various universities in and around the city I have not found this lament valid: the current generation of college students is as bright as my own or any other. But I have found a surprising incuriosity about popular history—just the sort of subject youth ought to find compelling. The reasons are manifest. The internet, video games, DVD’s, iPods, and all the rest have pushed literature from center stage; the cacophony of rock, hip-hop, and grunge has obscured, and sometimes buried, some of the greatest popular melodies and lyrics ever written.
I yield to no one in my disdain for the spoiled fruits of modernity, but I’ve been listening to rock for 40 years without any obvious ill effects—and with no diminishment of my appreciation for what Alec Wilder referred to as “the professional tradition” in American songwriting. As I explained in COMMENTARY a couple of years ago, the fact that they no longer write ’em like they used to doesn’t necessarily mean that what they write now isn’t worth hearing.
Stefan Kanfer isn’t having any of it. So far as I can tell from the pages of The Voodoo That They Did So Well, rock is a closed book to him. Indeed, he doesn’t even seem to like most of Sondheim’s work, though he clearly respects it and has warm words for A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd:
Save for a handful of numbers, it is unlikely that fifty years from now popular entertainers will sing his songs and that the general public—those uncelebrated people who finally determine what Broadway and Tin Pan Alley figures enter the pantheon—will cherish them.
As for what Kanfer likes . . . well, the table of contents will tell you that, and I’m not so sure that there’s much point in reading further. If you already know and like the songs of Messrs. Berlin, Gershwin, Gershwin, Porter, and Rodgers, I doubt you’ll find that The Voodoo That They Did So Well sheds very much light on what makes them tick. Kanfer is an asserter, not an explainer, and unless you agree with him up front about the greatness of Messrs. Berlin, Gershwin, Gershwin, Porter, and Rodgers, you’re not likely to come away persuaded that they’re better than the music with which you grew up, or that you need to run right out and buy a stack of original-cast albums.
Don’t get me wrong: I love the great pre-rock songwriters with all my heart, and I’ve never had much use for hip-hop or grunge, either. But their work, wonderful though it was, is neither the beginning nor the end of American popular music, and to suppose otherwise is to sentence yourself to the same aesthetic prison that Evelyn Waugh inhabited. “His strongest tastes were negative,” Waugh wrote of himself (more or less) in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. “He abhorred plastics, Picasso, sunbathing, and jazz—everything in fact that had happened in his own lifetime. The tiny kindling of charity which came to him through his religion sufficed only to temper his disgust and change it to boredom.” To be disgusted and bored with the world as it is may be an appropriate response to things as they are, but it isn’t much fun, nor is it a good way to get anything done.