I went to a family bar mitzvah in Phoenix a month or so ago. Though it would be easy, this is not a post about the dessicated exurban hellscape that is Phoenix in the last days of its pre-Thunderdome epoch.
This is about the music at the reception. Specifically, Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll.” A song that was already a cliche when I was on the bar mitzvah circuit in 1986-88. Yet here we are in 2013 – a glorious era of self parking cars, Google Glass, bagels with the apple-cinnamon cream cheese already inside, and basically unlimited musical horizons available on the intertubes. Worse than even hearing the song was having burned in my ocular nerves the image of my 15 year old cousin sitting across the room pumping her fist while in the foreground, my dad bopped his head to the same song. This brings me to a simple test I’ve devised for teenage girls to evaluate their musical choices:
A. Do you currently find yourself rocking out to the same song as your 67 year old great-uncle?
B. The last time you heard said song on the radio, did it fade out into a commercial for Flomax?
C. Are you currently listening to, or soon to be in danger of listening to, Pink Floyd?
If the answer to any of the above is yes, you are making terrible choices.
I can understand why my dad likes “Old Time Rock and Roll”. It expresses the confusion and frustration of the late 70s, punk, disco, and the custard fluck that was the Carter administration. The song was released as a single in 1979, when Baby Boomers were on the cusp of a decade that would find them permed, fat, divorced, living in the suburbs and voting for Reagan – all things they’d never thought would happen a decade earlier, and they’ve been besotted by nostalgia ever since. But the song is now 35 years old! Listening to it isn’t sharing in Seger’s nostalgia – it’s engaging in nostalgia for the nostalgia of the late 70s! “Old Time Rock and Roll” is now ACTUALLY old time rock and roll and nostalgia, after all, is never as good as it used to be.
What I can’t understand is why my teen-aged cousin – with neither primary or secondary nostalgia -would like it. Does she know that by dancing to OTR&R, she’s participating in the Boomer delusion that subsequent generations will recognize their music as the pinnacle of the form? I’m speaking, of course, of Risky Business, a film made by Baby Boomers indulging a fantasy about how their children – Tom Cruise and the guy from Perfect Strangers – could still have lives of sex and exhilarating danger in the northern suburbs of Chicago. Ironically, actual Boomers moved to the suburbs specifically to get away from sex, danger, or anything remotely exhilarating, but this was lost on audiences of the time. Early in the film, the most rebellious thing a home-alone teenage Tom Cruise can come up with is cranking his dad’s stereo and famously dancing to “Old Time Rock and Roll.” There Cruise is, pre-Operating Thetan, pantslessly sliding across the floor into cinematic history, wiggling his tighty-whitied ass on the couch three whole years before it was lovingly fondled by Val Kilmer in that deleted scene from Top Gun (available on the extended cut in my mind).
Following some careful Wikipedia-based research, I stumbled upon an alarming fact: when Bob Seger recorded OTR&R in 1978, he was 33. Six years younger than I am now. At 33, he was giving up. What kind of sad sack would accept being called old fashioned or over the hill at 33? Since he didn’t have the good sense to take the Joplin/Hendrix Early Death Express, Seger is now in his late 60s, and he must be absolutely miserable to be around. “Hey Dad, you wanna go out?” “No way! I’m not going to no disco!” “Dad, no one goes to a disco anymore.” “You’ll never even get me out on the floor!” “Not an issue, Dad. We’re going to Olive Garden, ok?” “Fine. But their meatballs taste like a rock. Like a rock. We’ve got tonight, son, why don’t we stay…in?”
Given some of the music Baby Boomers inflicted on civilization, Seger’s hatred of disco surprises me. Oh, but it’s the Boomer delusion again: “the only good rock and roll is our rock and roll, the stuff we listened to when we changed the world by stopping Vietnam after seven years and letting Nixon get elected twice!” So let us engage in a brief comparison of the Boomer icon “Light My Fire,” (which came out when Seger was a presumably less cranky 21) and a hated disco song which presumably motivated Bob to record the song: Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” which came out the year before OTR&R:
“Light My Fire” is an alleged poet moaning in his crank caller voice through four stanzas of terrible sixth grade rhymes begging someone to engage in intercourse with him. After this lowlight of the Western poetic tradition finally runs out of words that rhyme with “fire,” another guy jumps in with four excruciating minutes of senseless diddling on a keyboard. Ugh. In “I Feel Love,” someone has clearly already lit Donna Summer’s fire, possibly multiple times. She might even be having her fire lit while she’s singing, as she seems a little short of breath and at a loss for words. There’s not much poetry, but there’s also no GODDAMNED FOUR MINUTE KEYBOARD SOLO. Plus – you can sort of dance to it, and not the twirling Tyrannosaur arm dance that trustafarian hippies have been doing for 40 years. As a musician or a sexual partner, I would take Donna Summer over Jim Morrison any day – without even accounting for having to clean up my tub after he dies in it.
After Seger knocks on disco, he calls out the tango – of all things – for special opprobrium. You won’t go to hear ’em play a tango? Oh really, Bob Seger? Good thing you stood your ground there. God knows it was better to be safe than sorry what with all the tango-based assaults that were taking place in the US in the late 70s. Lanky Latino men grabbing you tightly and spitting roses into your mouth. Or maybe there was really some risk that you would find yourself in Buenos Aires in 1978? Were you and the Silver Bullet Band going to go down and sample some delicious asado with los gauchos? Because if not, while we all appreciate your bold ultimatum in objection to Latin-infused ballroom dance, I think you’re just creating a straw man so you can keep your pervert-bearded self home in the Detroit suburbs.
Also, Bob Seger, If you’d rather hear some blues or funky old soul, then WHY THE HELL AREN’T YOU PLAYING ANY? You have a band! They play instruments! They’re standing right there behind you, playing 124 metronomic beats per minute of four on the floor Rust Belt Rock!
OTR&R has mysteriously survived where similar songs have faded. I’m thinking of former hits like “Summer of ’69” or “R.O.C.K. in the USA,” the latter by John Mellencamp, who tore off one of Bob Seger’s muttonchops during the Rust Belt Rock Riots in Indianapolis in 1986. I was going to lump in “Glory Days” or “Born in the USA” with those, but both of those songs are overtly darker and sadder – even if no one bothered to tell the Reagan Campaign. Maybe this is why Springsteen is still a major touring act – he can live off his previous reputation for authenticity even as he records dreck like “Queen of the Supermarket,” where the multi-zillionaire falls in love with a grocery worker stocking shelves in aisle two. Never mind the fact that Springsteen hasn’t had to shop for his own food since the time his butler went on strike after Bruce made him put on a flight suit so they could play “Maverick & Iceman” in his bedroom.
Look, it’s not just me that doesn’t want to hear “OTR&R” anymore. BOB SEGER doesn’t want to hear it, either. He cashed out with those Chevy commercials years ago and now lives in retired Baby Boomer bliss outside of Detroit, enjoying his money and, like all members of his generation, trying to figure out how to turn on his iPad.