Lighten Up Already

A few weeks ago I was watching MTV, and Kurt Loder was interviewing Marilyn Manson on the subject of Hanson. The esteemed Mr. Manson, unbloodied for the moment but still sporting that corpse-white glow, had this to say: "Those little boys scare me.... I think they're instruments of the devil."

Loder asked him why he thought so many people seemed to like their music. "I suppose they think it's fun," Marilyn said, no hint of irony glinting in his brown eye or his blue one. "I don't like fun. Fun upsets me." I am disturbed to report that I have listened to Marilyn Manson. The occasion was a trip to the airport. I teach college, and a few of my students were giving me a lift. The driver plugged in a Marilyn Manson tape. I found the experience scary.

Equally scary, if somewhat less cacophonous, was the story my students told me. It seems this one guy they knew had tried to commit suicide by throwing himself from his dorm window and this had upset his manic depressive girlfriend so much that she'd gone on a cocaine and alcohol binge until her roommate persuaded her to check into rehab, after which the roommate had become so upset that she had to up her dosage of Prozac to the point that it interfered with the Ritalin she was taking, so she had to drop out of school and return to her hometown where she suffered date rape at the hands of a former boyfriend who'd gotten ahold of some Rohypnol. She, the roommate, was now distraught because he was in jail.

All my students agreed that this sucked, and they took out Marilyn Manson and put in Fiona Apple, to help them deal with their pain. These kids' problem is obvious, I thought to myself. They do not like fun. This is reflected in their music. My friend Bob had come to the same conclusion some weeks earlier. I walked over to his house, and when I got there he was washing his Volvo. He was at the rinse stage, moving around the car with the garden hose, and I noticed him kind of bobbing and weaving and directing the spray with a specific rhythm that told me he might have a tune in his head. At about 30 feet away, I heard him singing (fearlessly, lustily, with no regard for his neighbors) an old Neil Diamond song: "Brother Love, say, Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show/Pack up the babies and grab the old ladies and everyone goes/'Cause everyone knows/Brother Love's shows -- Hallelujah!" on and on until he'd exhausted every verse.

He released the spray nozzle and all was quiet. He shook his head. "I feel sorry for kids these days," he said to me, "with the shit they have to listen to."

I've gone on a couple of road trips with Bob, and he has a favorite driving tape. It's a mix he recorded himself, and it has songs on it like "Be My Baby" by the Ronettes and "Chug-a-Lug" by Roger Miller and "King of the Road" also by Roger Miller and "Catch a Wave" by the Beach Boys and "Knock Three Times" by Tony Orlando and Dawn. We sing these songs, really loud. We never talk about problems we have or problems our friends have. We have fun.

OK, you get my point.
I'm not advocating a return to the Andrews Sisters. Some bands, like Son Volt, I would excuse from having fun at all, simply because they're damn good like they are. But I am saying there's not enough pure fun in music these days, and not enough respect accorded to artists who dare to have a good time.

The problem started with the Beatles. I love the lads to death, don't get me wrong. (My favorite song in the world is "Strawberry Fields Forever.") But they went from "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" to "A Day in the Life," and everybody got the idea that pop music, rock music, had to be serious to be worthwhile.

Just look at poor Neil Diamond. He started off as a fairly respectable folksinger, even had a gig on the Band's The Last Waltz, preserved for posterity on video at a Blockbuster near you. Then, at a time when the Carpenters ruled the AM airwaves, he apparently decided he wanted to sell more records, and he recorded fun songs such as the aforementioned "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show" and "Cracklin' Rosie" and "Sweet Caroline." Then, according to my theory, he realized that nobody took him "seriously" any more; the unfortunate upshot of this lack of respect included the Jonathon Livingston Seagull soundtrack and that duet thing he did later with Barbara Streisand. All of us alive at the time must share the blame for this, because we elevated the likes of Pink Floyd's maudlin The Wall album over Alicia Bridges's "I Love the Nightlife." Now we have to pay.

There are indications, though, that fun is on the rebound. Hanson, Squirrel Nut Zippers, the Cardigans, the Presidents of the United States of America, Smash Mouth, U2, Beck, BR-549, Jamiroquai, and Cake are just a few of the folks out there enjoying themselves these days. We should encourage them. But we are bound to meet with stern opposition from snooty folks who don't understand that if they really want to be serious, they should be spending their time thumbing through CDs in the classical or jazz sections. You want to get serious, check out Beethoven or Charlie Parker.

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