Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Literary Revolution


TO BETTER UNDERSTAND what I mean by literary revolution, look again at what happened with the music industry in the 1950's. At the very moment Elvis Presley was exploding onto the scene, Frank Sinatra, a starkly different kind of singer, was at his artistic peak, his recordings winning critical awards and universal accolades. 99 out of 100 musical experts then, and possibly today, would say that Sinatra was the more important singer musically. It would've been considered ludicrous at the time to put the two men in the same league.

Sinatra, despite his tough background, was a product of institutional music, in the same way Mary Gaitskill is the captive of institutional lit. He performed with orchestras consisting of the "best," most skilled musicians in the country; well-screened and highly paid. Recordings were well-controlled, expensive happenings. Sinatra's smooth, perfectly controlled voice manifested the smooth and sophisticated polish of the industry. Though Sinatra was to be given his own label, Reprise, he was connected to-- remained part of his entire career-- the giant record labels. He was DIY only in the sense that Dave Eggers, through his intertwining relationships with both the conglomerates and with status quo lit-talent of today, is DIY. Or, not hardly.

Unlike Sinatra, rock n' rollers weren't produced by the music industry already in place, but came from hundreds of fly-by-night new outfits, most producing a hit or two, spots of color in the overall rock mosaic, before vanishing. A high school student, Phil Spector, recruited a few coeds at his school, called them "The Teddy Bears," and recorded them-- and had a surprise hit. The industry giants were like slowly turning battleships attacked by scores of low-budget patrol boats. They didn't know how to compete.

Ironically, rock's biggest name, Elvis, was immediately co-opted by RCA, one of the giants, who quickly sought to polish him and tame him in the smooth Sinatra way.

That the established music industry demonstrably had commercial and artistic success at the time roots music, so long dormant, was bursting into public awareness, as if overnight (though the gestation period lasted decades) is no argument against the fact and power of change.

To see which was more important not musically, but culturally, one can look at cities like Detroit today, where exist hundreds of rock bands who all look and sound much like the garage bands of the early 1960's; all hoping to be the next Jack White. (Who played Elvis in a recent movie!) Hopelessly retrograde, they are, but that's a different story. Meanwhile, there is nowhere to be found, on any stage in the area, a singer publicly modeling himself after Hoboken Frank.
What meaning does this history hold for lit people today?

It tells me that literary renewal will come not from on high, but from below; that it may be extremely crude, carried by "cretinous goons" (see Sinatra on early rock), but it will definitely be populist. The simultaneous presence of smooth machine artists good and bad, Gaitskill to Franzen to Lethem, will be no argument against it.


Anonymous said...

This all might be true, although

1. Elvis didn't defeat Sinatra. Both artists are listened to and appreciated today. You'd be better off with Elvis vs. Pat Boone.

2. A novel about a screenwriter in New York, using the kind of language you quote in your review, is not revolutionary, even if it's self-published or the author doesn't have an MFA.

Anonymous said...

If you read Peter Guralnick's two-volume Elvis bio, you'll see that the "industry" did not seek to tame Elvis, but rather Elvis's manager, Colonel Tom, did that for them. Elvis was approached to do and was asked to do all manner of exciting, innovative things, often by his label. Elvis always deferred to Colonel Tom, and Colonel Tom, always sensitive to damaging what he (mis)understood as Elvis's core, always said no. Elvis's story is one of self-destruction, not one of destruction from without. The "corporation" is in this example, at least, wholly incapable of capturing what happened to Elvis.

K.I.N.G. Wenclas said...

??? I'm using Richette's novel as an example of what's wrong with publishing today. Richette is not a zeenster and not from the underground, really, but has made common cause with what we're doing.
AT THE TIME, Elvis and other rockers most defintely wiped out Sinatra in terms of public attention, market share, and almost every measurable statistic.
Rock was a tidal wave. It's not that Sinatra's sales lessened-- the new music represented now market growth-- which I'd think literary people would be aiming for today.
Pat Boone was a crooner/rock hybrid. He shows the dangers of trying to straddle two different happenings. Can a writer have it both ways-- be in the system and not in it at the same time?

Anonymous said...

Also, rock and literature have, to say the least, rather different audiences with utterly different expectations. To put one up against the other as an augury or comparison is kind of, well, crazy.

K.I.N.G. Wenclas said...

I think you'd be better off, in understanding what RCA wanted and didn't want-- Parker astutely reading them-- to look at the behavior of the other Big Three record companies. Most infamously, Mitch Miller. Hollywood certainly had a role to play.
Parker's takeover of Elvis was simultaneous with his signing with RCA.
The first real attempt to bring back the original Elvis came from very young Mike Binder in 1968; not RCA in 1960.
There's also the role of Hal Wallis and the movie studios, which share much of the blame-- HE knew the Elvis he wanted to present.
(Note also the vocal lessons which came for Elvis from RCA, and resulted in recordings like "It's Now or Never"-- great stuff, but not in the rock vein.)

K.I.N.G. Wenclas said...

Re lit's audience. Don't forget that I've seen how zeens can reach new readers. See my latest Detroit blog post for what I seek doing. Crazy? Certainly. If it can be done, the payoff will be enormous. I like the risk/reward ratio.
(That everyone thinks the idea "crazy" is great, because it leaves the field open for me.)

K.I.N.G. Wenclas said...

p.s. You can actually see the change in the handling of Elvis by RCA almost immediately, moving him to Nashville; gradually having him play with a higher caliber of musician, like Chet Atkins and Boots Randolph; more polished recordings compared to the unbelievably great raw sound of the Sun days.

Anonymous said...

Actually the best comparison of something revolutionary coming from underground would be bebop, which never was successfully co-opted (i.e., until relatively recently) and which Sinatra admired. Rock and roll was just another form of commercial music, wildly popular on both a regional (i.e., the south) and racially-segregated (i.e., black) basis.

I don't see how getting to play with a great guitarist like Chet Atkins could possibly be considered selling out, but OK.

Anonymous said...

(1) Parker took Elvis while Elvis was working on the Hank Snow tours in 1955.

(2) Steve Binder, you mean, of NBC?

(3) Elvis thought of rock as a stepping stone to movie stardom, which he was much more interested in. Wallis thought Elvis was passing strange and produced schlock for him, although part of the schlock factor had to do with Elvis' monumental salary (of which 25% came right off the top for the Colonel), which comprised the bulk of each film's budget.