Y.M.C.A.

Rebecca invited me to a Father/Daughter Valentines Dance last weekend, put on by her Girl Scout group. It was nice to get out with her, even if she wasn’t feeling very well, but I have to say that I found the event disturbing in some ways. Like a lot of recent experiences, I found in it more signs that our civilization’s erosion. Not a news flash, I suppose, and open to accusations of overzealous alarmism, but I just can’t shake the sense that things are unraveling quickly. Part of it is the economic meltdown, but the pieces have been in place for quite some time, and have even contributed to the ridiculous credit situation that has the world of money staggering. If American culture can be seen as a living plant, I’m not at all convinced it has the roots to survive a significant storm.

This particular Girl Scout group is a Brownies troop consisting of girls from St Paul School, so all the people there had at least the school in common, although I’m sure there were any number of non-Catholics, as the school is hardly religiously homogeneous. A couple families, perhaps, were immigrants, but most everyone there were well-settled Americans, with what one could expect to be a common cultural bond. And there certainly was present, ultimately, that unifying glue we call culture, but it was epitomized in the insipid disco party anthem, YMCA. That song is what brought fathers and daughters together out onto the dance floor, and created a unified gathering out of the disjointed pockets of interest that had defined the event to that point. There they were, grown men waving their arms around in the air in conformance with the prescribed movements of this ironic gay anthem become staple of social gatherings of all sorts.

What really troubled me about this was the realization that there really weren’t any alternatives available. It’s one thing to despise the ubiquity of such moronic kitsch, but it’s something else altogether to realize that there really isn’t any other common cultural currency to call upon. We have no folk music. We have no shared dance. Once we get past nursery rhymes, we imprison our aesthetic sensibilities in the generationally isolating fashions of pop music and the rest of pop culture, where most of what passes for art is targeted by profit motive at specific “markets” of audiences, being often incomprehensible to those outside the “in-crowd,” and leaving the kind of shared experience crucial to community either out of reach, or attainable only through a lowest common denominator of aesthetic infantilism.

And so what cultural treasure is it we possess that transcends the segregationism of pop culture chronology? A sly, winking invitation from a gang of gay cartoon characters to the pleasures of pederasty?

It’s fun to stay at the Y.M.C.A.

It’s fun to stay at the Y.M.C.A.

They have everything for you men to enjoy,

You can hang out with all the boys …

God help us.

  • Dan

    Oh my God..

    Sad.

    do you really hate people that much?

    very…very.. sad.

    By the way.. Helen and I go to many festivals each year that highlight new and established folk bands and we dance, dance dance.. we even have our own dance boots for it.. so don’t give me that crap about our country in your words “We have no folk music. We have no shared dance.” That’s just ignorant. Come on John… if you’re going to preach from your high horse.. at least know what you’re talking about.

    PS… you cant catch gay.. so don’t worry….

    Dan

  • John W Gillis

    Hate people? What in creation are you talking about, Dan? That’s a gratuitous insult I can do without. Why the hyperventilation? This was just a rueful rumination on the sorry and inadequate state of popular culture.

    I’m glad you and Helen enjoy so many folk festivals, but that has nothing to do with the point I was making. These folk bands you see would probably not have been recognized by any of the people in that room. They simply fill a niche in a consumer potpourri – one that happens to appeal to you, making you part of their market demographic – and the fact that their musical style is called “folk” does not mean that they provide the community something that an anthropologist would recognize as folk music.

    I was not referring to “folk music” as a style of music, but as a function of music – a function that provides an entire community, across generations, common ground for sharing in an aesthetic experience: a way to sing together, a way to dance together. It’s a form of communal memory. Folk music as the shared music of a people has a quasi-religious, if not outright religious, character to it. Nobody in our culture sings songs they learned from their grandmother – or even from their mother – and if they do, their neighbors have never heard them. This reflects a cultural fragmentation that leaves people clinging to any kind of crap that can offer to fill the void – even puerile crap.

    And, for what it’s worth, I disagree with your assertion that gay can’t be caught. In reality, it’s like any belief system, and is more caught than taught.

    John

  • Dan

    I truly apologize for insulting you. My dismay after reading your post obviously got the better of me, and I should have paused and taken a deep breath before pressing the “send” button. Unfortunately, I posted in haste, and made waste.

    I understand, and understood at the time of reading your article, what you meant by folk music, and I still disagree with your premise. I just don’t think it’s accurate to say that our culture is devoid of the shared music of of a people (as you put it) beyond songs written by the Village People and other “puerile crap”. You are correct that nursery rhymes and songs like “happy birthday to you”, or “ring around the rosie” are folk songs. Many folk songs are nursery rhymes..that’s because that’s when you sing them to your children.. and that’s how they learn them. Don’t leave out songs like “This Land is Your Land”, “America The Beautiful” , “Oh Suzanna”, “She’ll be Comin’ Round the Mountain”, “You are my Sunshine” and many others that Anthropologists would consider Folk Songs (also usually learned at an early age). My guess is that our mothers and grandmothers actually knew and could sing those songs, and we learned many of them from friends and family in a community setting. Maybe we can include Christmas Carols and Negro Spirituals being sung in the south as examples.

    The festivals that I go to are indeed geared toward specific local fans, but that’s only because the performers are playing 2,000 miles from their home base. Many of the Creole and Cajun performers that I see are the children, grandchildren, and even sometimes the great grandchildren of the original composers and performers who made Cajun and zydeco music the folk music of the Bayou. I would never really expect my neighbor here in Massachusetts to know any of these performers, but if you were to stop into a neighborhood in Breaux Bridge Louisiana, I guarantee you that most of the people there would know the name of guys like Dewy Balfa and Clifton Chenier (both of whom died quite some time ago). I don’t think that our country and the culture of our country has necessarily ever had one specific musical folk tradition that everyone embraces equally (beyond “happy birthday to you” and the like). The balance of folk music has always tilted towards being regional, and to paint our culture as a whole with such a broad stroke and to say that all we are left with is puerile crap by groups like the Village People is doing a great disservice to people keeping their musical folk traditions alive. It also includes dance.. we may not have a specific folk dance here in Massachusetts, but stray from confines of your home and you’ll see Contra dancing in the countryside, Polka down in PA, Zydeco in LA, Two Steppin’ in Texas. Just because you don’t hear it coming from a neighbors house in Metro Boston doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. And understand that I’m using this term in the least offensive way possible… it is simply ignorant to think otherwise.

    But all of that is kind of beside the point. The reason I was so upset at your post wasn’t necessarily your apparent dismissal of the current state of folk music in America, so much as it was why you used that platform as a vehicle for other purposes. My guess is that your initial reaction to hearing YMCA wasn’t that you were concerned about the fact that kids don’t sing songs learned from their grandparents … but that you heard a song that you personally associate with homosexuality and that drove you nuts. The reason I say this is because you call it a “gay anthem” and you finish by posting lyrics to the song that, I’m assuming, you think imply homosexual behavior.. followed by “God Help Us”. So I think the point of your article was, in reality, more of a homophobic statement than anything having to do with the state of folk music in America. Instead of coming out (no pun intended) and saying that you disapprove of gays in our culture, and that you disapprove of the playing of that song, you wove a tale about folk music. Maybe I’m dead wrong, and it wouldn’t be the first time or last time that I’m absolutely wrong about something, but if they were playing the “Macarena” or the “Electric Slide”, or Otis Redding’s “Shout” as part of the fun time they were trying to provide kids at the party, you probably wouldn’t have written this article. You picked out YMCA for a reason… and I just think you were being somewhat intellectually dishonest with your readers about why it upset you so much. And that is what got my goat.

    Sorry for the lengthy response, and please accept my apology for ranting at you before. We’ll have to agree to disagree on “catching” gay. But I still think you should feel pretty safe about not catching it.

    Dan

  • John W Gillis

    Apology accepted. No need to apologize for long replies – they’re often the best kind.

    You make a good point about Christmas Carols (as specialized as they may be), and maybe even a small number of patriotic songs, but I think you’re living in the past with the others. We may have learned them as common folk songs, but that was 40 years ago (to split the difference), and there’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then. The replacement of local (folk) culture by mass media driven pop culture has been a progressive erosion, and I seriously doubt any of the grade schoolers at that event would have known any of the songs you mentioned – which frankly refer back to a very thin culture, anyway. The Red Sox and Bruins were far stronger cultural touchstones. You are correct to recognize pockets of surviving folk culture, but I fear they are colorful enemy pushpins on a strategic map of aesthetic banality and conformity being systematically advanced by Madison Avenue and Hollywood ideologues and profit seekers.

    Do you know how many people are trying to unload old family pianos these days? They’ve become useless junk, replaced by Hannah Montana CDs – while the parents too often listen (assuming the TV occasionally goes off at all) to music with lyrics they hope their kids don’t hear. Joyce tells me there’s a radio station in Boston touting itself as “playing songs you won’t be embarrassed to play in front of your kids or customers”!

    The pop music scene is not only artistically banal (by which I mean debased, not just lowbrow – which is what “folk” music also is by definition), it is morally and spiritually toxic, and it seems more and more to be designed to drive wedges between generations (an anti-folk culture), or to stake out common ground in the gutter. Our generation was raised by a generation that adopted pop culture, but had been born into the last gasps of the culture of the pre-World War I world. Today’s kids are being raised by parents, like me, who have been steeped in pop culture from the cradle. Tradition, to the extent it exists, has a brand name now.

    Regarding the Village People, you raise an interesting and complex point. My initial reaction was, in fact, to be painfully aware, and deeply dismayed, that these fathers and their children had no common musical language to speak, apart from the most aesthetically insipid of the pop crap (and there are certainly many levels of musicality within the pop scope). I would have had the identical reaction to the “Macarena” had it been played before the other, but it wasn’t (it was played shortly thereafter, and only confirmed my despair – but YMCA is even worse, anyway). Music has long been an important part of my life, and I have a deep interest in how it (among other things) fits into the human environment that provides the ground for our social and personal lives.

    From here on out, I will presumably strongly associate this song/band with the gay movement, but I must confess that it was not until later on, when I did some background reading before blogging the above, that I realized exactly what the piece embodied. It was only then I learned that it is widely hailed as a “gay anthem.” Now, I’ve long known that this outfit was light in the loafers, but I think I came to understand that (many years ago) by seeing SNL parodies of the act. My aesthetic snobbery extends well back into my teens, and I’ve always despised this stuff just because it’s kitsch. Other than suffering through it at weddings and such, I had never subjected myself to it. I certainly had no clue what the lyrics were (I rarely learn song lyrics – I tend to listen to the musical structure, and frankly prefer instrumentals, or even lyrics in languages I can’t understand, as they can’t annoy me that way).

    The lyrics, of course, especially taken as part of the whole act, reveal more than what I might “think imply homosexual behavior.” As I explicitly stated, they appear to be an invitation to pederasty. Had I known that while I was sitting in that parish hall, I don’t know what I would have done, but I would have done something. Since that time, this song has gone from the level of trash, in my view, to despicable trash. So, while your judgment on my motivations is mistaken, I would have no problem agreeing with the assertion that I now find the song as morally outrageous as I did (and have always) found it aesthetically outrageous. No surprise there, really.

    None of this, though, should be construed as me in any way backing away from what you call a “homophobic statement.” I appreciate that you were taking pains to be irenic and reasonable in your reply, and the “homophobe” term is such an ubiquitous part of the leftist vernacular that you’ve probably never stopped to consider the implications of using it, but it’s really nothing more than an empty political smear term that’s intended to imply at least irrationality, if not evil intent. If it were to avoid being defamatory, one would think such an accusation would be supportable by the evidence of sound argumentation, as opposed to being glibly and routinely tossed over the fence as a verbal h-bomb, but it’s not been my experience that anyone has ever even been interested in defending the use of the term, never mind capable of it.

    Still, you seem to be saying that you think I “disapprove of gays in our culture,” or something along those lines, and that I should be more upfront about it. To say that I disapprove of any people in our culture would seem to suggest that I think they should be killed, or exiled, or imprisoned, or somehow removed from our culture. This is patently false. I do not disapprove of people. I disapprove of immoral behaviors, I disapprove of dangerous and immoral ideologies, and I disapprove of deceptions and untruths. All of these pernicious things are present in the ideology and beliefs of the gay movement, and as such I thoroughly disapprove of the gay movement. I don’t think I’m anything less than upfront about that in my writing, though it hasn’t really been a central concern of anything I’ve published, as far as I can remember. Likewise, this article was not primarily about gay ideology or homosexuality, and it seems sufficient to me to leave implicit the immorality of the homosexual behavior (pederasty in this case) being championed.

    As for “catching gay,” it’s not me I’m concerned about –I’m pretty thoroughly Catholic at this point – but the movement continues to sweep people in, including young victims at YMCAs. God help us.

    John