My music taste is maddeningly diverse, but most of my favorite artists have something in common: they were either popular before I came of age or deceased before I was born.
In short, I may be listening to the Ella Fitzgerald or the Sex Pistols, but it’s highly unlikely that I’ll be listening to someone currently occupying a position on the itunes Top 10.
Trust me, this isn’t some exercise in hipster posturing; it’s just the natural result of spending a lot of time around your dad’s extensive CD collection.
Indeed, that CD collection is where I’m pretty sure I first encountered two of America’s greatest works of rhythm and sound.
These two musical creations are as sublimely original as our nation’s best literature, and they tell us as much about the American experience as our most thorough biographeres and visionary historians.
The first is a George Gershwin concerto, “Rhapsody In Blue”; the second is a Bruce Springsteen album, “Born in the U.S.A.”
As both of these works celebrate significant anniversaries this year, now seems as good a time as any to talk about why they matter—and why they move us, make us feel like laughing, weeping and dancing, make us feel a little more alive inside.
We’ll start with “Rhapsody In Blue,” which turns 90 this year. You’ve probably heard the famous glissando clarinet intro, but if you hadn’t listened beyond that, prepare to do so now.
And prepare to feel a lot of things. Not only does it touch every possible emotion, it does so while being musically inventive enough to bowl over even the snobbiest of concertgoers.
You see, part of what’s remarkable about “Rhapsody” is how George Gershwin keeps bringing back the same musical patterns, but makes you react to them differently by plunking them out at different tempos or having them played by different instruments.
The most obvious example of this technique is how the fast little clarinet riff at the beginning eventually gets sounded off loudly and grandly by the brass, but there are plenty of other instances as well, so look for them. But before you do this, listen to it once without looking for anything, and just let Gershwin’s genius wash over you.
“Rhapsody,” by the way, is more than a great piece of music; this so called “jazz concerto” is a musical reflection of America. By combining centuries-old classical styles with the jazzy trends of 1920s popular music, Gershwin attempted to create a sonic portrait of this country’s diverse heritage. Needless to say, I think he succeeded.
Oh, and here’s a note to the film buffs among you; because of its creative evocation of the different colors of American experience, “Rhapsody” is featured in some of our nation’s most prominent motion pictures. Whether its accompanying the glorious black-and-white opening of Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” or forming the basis for an animated sequence in one of Disney’s “Fantasia” films, Gershwin’s masterpiece glimmers just as brilliantly on the screen as it does in a concert hall.
Now, onward to the Boss. Springsteen shifts styles every couple of years or so, and “Born in the U.S.A.” which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, is the best exemplar of a specific kind of Springsteen sound: the kind with big, ringing electric guitar chords, deafening, primal drum-beats, and just a hint of the occasional ‘80s synthesizer.For the most part, this album’s sound is like a great beer: bracing, tasty and well-crafted.
Thematically, the album is an example of patriotic anger, a uniquely American virtue. On this album, Springsteen both revels in and rages at his native country. He castigates labor policies and the Vietnam war in “Born in the U.S.A.,” but praises baseball and a steady job in “Glory Days.” He burns with anger at intolerance in “My Hometown,” but burns with love for rock ‘n’ roll and the open road on “Darlington County.”
By the end of all this, one remembers that, although America has created many great things (including the Twinkie), one of our greatest achievements is the concept that one can hate all that’s wrong with one’s country while still loving it overall.
“Rhapsody In Blue.” “Born in the U.S.A.”
Whenever you’re down about how America is responsible for Taylor Swift and an awful Congress, just remember that it also gave birth to works of genius like these.