Swing Nation RIP

Rat Pack Sinatra, khaki pants and frosty martinis may have been vapid, but just wait for the next horror on the cultural horizon

Published March 31, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

Last week I listened to "The Summit in Concert," the new CD memorial to Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack days, with Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. The "comedy" isn't amusing but puerile, and musically it's inferior to a second-rate Dino CD, not to mention a third-rate Sinatra -- but none of this really accounts for why I hate it, which is more complicated. In and of itself, "The Summit in Concert"
doesn't really warrant any sort of emotional response other than sour irony. But in a culture of sour irony the Rat Pack is hot right now, from an HBO movie to "Ocean's Eleven" on cable, complete with all the boys' booze-and-broads wit
plus a few darkie jokes here and there just so Sammy doesn't feel left out.

The current Rat Pack rage coincides with the new swing phenomenon, and both
remind you how little is personal about our culture anymore, how little
personally the culture demands of us. A year or so back, at the
beginning of what was to be a particularly misbegotten assignment for a
national magazine, my editor complained that an early draft of a piece "didn't
swing," and at first I thought he must have said "sing," or maybe "ring," as
in "ring true." He couldn't have really said "swing," unless he was in his
60s, or maybe his teens or early 20s like Alicia Silverstone's gay heartthrob
in "Clueless." But in fact this editor wasn't 20 or 60, he was my age, in his
40s, for whom over the years things have variously rocked or grooved or gotten
down, but never, absolutely positively never, swung.

This was around the time of Gap khaki TV ads with jitterbugging models. The New Swing is our culture at its most bankrupt and ersatz and manufactured; I assume middle-aged editors in Manhattan started talking about whether a piece "swings" when Esquire started running cover stories on the new lounge movement with frosty martinis hovering before red-smoking-jacket backgrounds, and when the Vince Vaughn movie "Swingers" became to a still-amorphous Swing Nation what "Easy Rider" was to Woodstock Nation. Truth be told, I think "Swingers" is better than "Easy Rider," though it's possible Heather Graham could convince me of any old crazy idea. It's worth noting, however, that the swinger in "Swingers" who is clearly Our Guy (played by Jon Favreau) is also the unswingingest, in part because he can't keep his own emotions at arm's length, which is what the New Swing is all about. The Sinatra CD in his collection is likelier to be the melancholy "Where Are You" than "A Swingin' Affair" or "The Summit in Concert," which the Vince Vaughn character would no doubt think is so totally money. Their big dance number at the end notwithstanding, Our Swinger gets Heather only when he stops trying to be a swinger.

The New Swing, or lounge culture, or whatever you want to call it, was
fortuitous in its timing. It swooped over Sinatra just as his mortal coil
was beginning to rot in a very obvious way, the carrion of his legend ripe for
lunch. The Rat Pack Sinatra was the Sinatra the world mourned, if that's
really the right word; it was the Sinatra of surly bombast. "What made him
great was his sense of style and grace," some actress who wouldn't know a Sinatra song from Jack Jones burbled on a local PBS station during a fund drive that was cashing in on his death by showing old Sinatra specials. In fact,
Sinatra was, as both a personality and a man, distinctly graceless. If
anything, he cultivated an attitude that said he didn't give a fuck about
grace; grace, you can practically hear him snarling over a highball during one
of the Rat Pack shows, is something you say over lasagna. It's hard to say
whether the Rat Pack-era of the early '60s was Sinatra at his nadir -- the
quasi-fascist spectacles at Madison Square Garden were still
in the future -- but it certainly had nothing to do with what made Sinatra a
great artist, which was a poetry devoid of ring-a-ding shtick.

The appropriation of Sinatra for all the wrong reasons was Swing Nation's
biggest victory. It was the final blow for posture over essence, attitude
over vision, swagger over feeling. It's hard to pinpoint exactly when in the
past 10 years Swing Nation was born; in some ways Madonna may have been the
proto-swinger, raising soullessness and narcissism to an aesthetic statement
for which she was duly anointed artist of the '80s by otherwise intelligent
music critics. Over the last three decades of his life Sinatra and his public
conspired together in a great mutual misunderstanding of his art until the
misunderstanding almost seemed to swallow up the art altogether, until the
epic self-adoration of "My Way" took over everything we had come to think or
feel or know about the man. On National Public Radio a few years back,
anticipating the news coverage of his approaching demise, Sarah Vowell, reprising a piece in Salon,
beseeched the networks of the land, "Ix-nay on the 'My Way.'" Instead of the
dreaded "And now the end is near ..." rolling over the footage at the end of
Peter's and Tom's and Dan's inevitably elegiac broadcasts, Vowell proposed
"What Is This Thing Called Love," from the 1955 album "In the Wee Small

A fine and insightful alternative, even if I would have picked the next track on that album, "Last Night When We Were Young," or the obscure, autumnal "When the Wind Was Green," not to be confused, of course, with Frank's immortal
version of the Kermit the Frog theme, "Bein' Green." Of course the networks
played "My Way." This is when they weren't playing the even more odious "New
York, New York." "My Way" and "New York, New York" were only the ultimate
expressions of Sinatra the Rat Packer grown arrogant and monstrous. While the swinging Sinatra surely made timeless music, lost in the culture's eulogy to Vince Vaughn's Frank was Sarah's Frank, and mine -- the Frank of "There's No You" and "It's a Lonesome Old Town" and "I'm a Fool to Want You" and "My Funny Valentine" and "Angel Eyes" and the shattering 1957 version of "Autumn Leaves" and the almost unbearable 1960 version of Irving Berlin's "How Deep Is the Ocean," a hack piece of songwriting made otherworldly by a singer who invested it with an integrity occasionally equaled in popular music, but never surpassed.

A couple of weeks ago I got an e-mail from Salon inviting me to put my dibs on future famous dead people. I assume this was precipitated partly by my frantic but cruelly thwarted desire to write the Dusty Springfield obit; Dusty was my all-time favorite female singer in the sense that a singer can be an all-time favorite even when you understand perfectly well she isn't in the class of Aretha or Billie. No singer was ever more unabashed or exposed than Dusty, and it's partly for that reason she wasn't cool even in the '60s; and later when she did become cool, sort of, it was for the same cheap camp value that finally made Sinatra cool. Dusty wasn't the doll of Woodstock Nation.
You loved Dusty in secret, hiding "Dusty in Memphis" behind the Crosby, Stills
and Nash album that, a couple of years later, you would never listen to again
because you had finally come to your senses. Receiving this e-mail, thinking
about whose celebrated carcass I really cared about eulogizing in the months
or years to come, what obits I could still write out of real passion rather
than some journalistic obligation, I realized that with the passage of time
most of the artists who really meant something to me had slipped away -- those
who spoke to me through and over and around the slick New York media blather
about what swings and what doesn't. There's still Van Morrison, of course,
and Ray Charles. But hey, I'm not hurrying anyone along.

If there are still examples of true oddball genius out there -- and if you've heard the 21st century blues of PJ Harvey's "The Wind" or Björk's "Hunter" from a few years back, or the new Sparklehorse CD, then you know that there are -- they don't exist as part of the mass culture anymore, at the
intersection of vision and Zeitgeist. They struggle for oxygen somewhere off
to the side, because more and more a '90s media-culture that "swings" has no
room for such visions; both the culture and the media are now almost
completely about affect. The most remarkable thing about the New Swing is how
untransformed it is by contemporary experience, how unreflective it is of
anyone's real life. Those who have adopted it have done so wholesale,
resolutely determined not to make it their own; the New Swing's allure is how
it never threatens to reveal the feelings or values of the times. The New
Swing doesn't have even the honesty of vulgar nostalgia. If people were
actually sitting around playing Duke Ellington's Blanton-Webster records, that
would be one thing. But they're not, they're playing Brian Setzer, whose last
manifestation of cultural authenticity was as a rockabilly hepcat from Long

Advertising agents and media mavens and magazine editors to the contrary, this millennium is not going to swing its way out of our lives nine months from
now. It's going to lurch, slouch, crash or slither, but it's not going to
swing, and the next time someone comes up and tells you something swings or
doesn't, you're under a moral obligation to hit him. And while I can report
to you the good news that the New Swing now seems to be dead or dying, given
the evidence of the newest Gap khaki TV ads, unfortunately the new ads feature
models line-dancing to country music. If you haven't seen them yet, you can take my word for it: They're an apocalyptic horror practically out of the Book of Revelation, and even Heather Graham wouldn't convince you otherwise.

By Steve Erickson

Steve Erickson's new novel, "The Sea Came in at Midnight," will be published next spring by Bard/Avon.

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