The Crooner

13 05 2010

I know a man on the wrong side (as they say) of his sixties. He has many charming qualities, one being the fact that he’s something of a crooner. It takes little to set him off – from the turn of the shower taps to a soft romantic smile from his wife.

Crooning as a form of communication is of linguistic interest to me, perhaps because it’s as alien and un-me as life-on-Mars. This is advantageous, enabling me to approach it anthropologically.  As such, a ready platter of questions materialize –  like, what is the pattern of this behavior: when, where, how and under what circumstances does it occur? What social purpose does it fulfill? What conditions need to be in place for it to function successfully?

One day I asked this fellow about his crooning and discovered what in fact was self-evident. The fact that the lyrics he always turns to are those he associates with his teenage and young-adult years. Much the way others of us turn to Leonard Cohen or Rod Stewart or Bob Dylan or Cat Stevens or James Taylor (or insert your own preferences, here).  So, in the case of our crooner, Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Cole Porter and a bevy of popular stage musicals feature prominently.

And as anyone will know who has a passing familiarity with the music of the fifties, sixties and seventies, these decades in part distinguish themselves from each other by the orientation of their lyrics. Can anyone ever imagine the wide-eyed, naïve, romantic lyrics of Doris Day’s Que Sera Sera being sung post-9/11?  Or in the  hardened 80s/90s, or in the socially conscious 60s/70s?

Two things emerge from my initial inquiry. One is that popular culture lyrics say something about the socio-cultural context that spawns them. Second, the music  one associates with one’s own reaching of adulthood, infused as it is with the context of its times, has the strongest tug on one’s nostalgia strings. This accounts for why our crooner is locked onto his decade.

Quite scarily, research reported in a current issue of The American Journal of Preventive Medicine (mentioned in the online ScienceDaily), links teenagers who prefer popular songs containing degrading sexual references with a high incidence of early sexual activity.

This is congruent with something else the crooner told me. That the popular lyrics of his times provided the informal means by which he as a young man (and supposedly, his generation) learned how to treat the opposite sex. When extrapolated to the present, that’s a pretty scary thought.