Beating The Man/Being The Man

I’m still sick, goddammit. Something different, now. Some weird flu thing with a raging sore throat and truly bizarre half-waking dreams that prevent me from getting any real sleep. The other day someone sent me a link to a Weird Al Yankovic video.  I spent most of the night with this feverish conviction that Weird Al Yankovic had made a scientific discovery, related somehow to a limestone-encrusted sea shell, and this had possible worldwide significance, but it had fallen to me to explain this discovery and the clock was ticking. True story. Tonight I was watching Penn and Teller’s Bullshit! and got embroiled in an incredibly complicated fever-dream that had something to do with me having to run the parking garage for an in-store Penn and Teller appearance at Kepler’s books in Menlo Park. This enrages me, inasmuch as (a) these notions are so obviously ridiculous, yet (b) I can’t shake the conviction of their dream logic, but (c) I’m not really dreaming, because (d) I’m not really sleeping. And I can’t sleep because I’m too busy trying to explain Weird Al Yankovic’s scientific breakthrough. This sucks.

So, anyway, here I am, posting at 2:00 a.m. I liked Jonathan’s thing on musical personalities yesterday. It gives me the opportunity to bring up one of my  all-time favorite music stories. Mitch Miller was an A & R man at Columbia, where in the early 1950s the first stage of Frank Sinatra’s career was coming to an inglorious end. By 1951 Miller was making Sinatra sing horrible undignified novelty songs, including a duet with a pinup girl named Dagmar that obliged the “Fischer-Dieskau of American popular song” to bark and howl like a dog.* (A couple of years later Sinatra re-invented himself as the personification of American masculinity and started recording at Capitol.) Anyway, suffice it to say, this was a low point in Sinatra’s life, and Sinatra blamed Miller and carried a grudge. Years later, Miller saw Sinatra in a Vegas lobby and walked over, hand extended in greeting. Sinatra only growled, “fuck you, keep walking.”

That’s being the man, not beating the man. I think a lot about hip personae (I’m writing a book about hipness in postwar American intellectual history), and one of the reasons hipness is so hard to define is that you have to account for the enormous variation within the family tree of hip types. Allen Ginsberg represents a canonic hip persona, but then again so does Sinatra, and what do they have in common? If you love Ginsberg you’ll probably look at Sinatra as a vulgar co-optation of a more authentic hipness; if you love Sinatra you’ll probably think Ginsberg is a goddam hippy.

But what Ginsberg and Sinatra have in common is a hip persona marked by a relationship to power. Ginsberg’s whole stance as a person and an artist grows out of a certain relationship to power, always an attitude in the face of power, in spite of it, in observation of it, in resistance to it. Sinatra embodies power. Ginsberg is all about beating The Man; Sinatra is all about being The Man. Sinatra’s “rat pack” ethos didn’t conceive of squares as the whirring automata of mass culture critique, which is how the Beats saw them. To Sinatra and the Rat Pack, squares were dumb sweaty proles in the audience with bad jobs and bad haircuts and off-the-rack suits and loud clinging families. Ginsberg and Sinatra share a certain notion of superiority to squares, but Sinatra’s notion of superiority has to do with wealth and splendor — pretty much the opposite of Ginsberg but a lot like what you hear in mainstream hiphop. (For example, Ludacris’s verse from Outkast’s SpeakerboxXX album: “y’all driving Subarus, stuck in your cubicles/I’m stuck in the air with weed crumbs under my cuticles.” Hey, I drive a Subaru . . . oh.)  Sinatra and the Rat Pack structured their stage shows in such a way as to congratulate the audience on the inestimable privilege bestowed upon it – the privilege to overhear the table talk of the funniest, most talented, most glamorous entertainers in the world. (Listen to The Rat Pack Live at the Sands and you’ll see what I mean.) SCTV, the Canadian comedy revue, perfectly nailed this dynamic in their Sammy Maudlin Show parody.**

* I think this is Terry Teachout’s phrase. The song was called “Mama Will Bark.”

** SCTV is the official TV sketch comedy show of Dial M.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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3 Responses to Beating The Man/Being The Man

  1. Jonathan says:

    What both kinds of hipness share, in my ungenerous estimation, is narcissism. I’m no authority (God knows) on hipness, but the Ratpack was about the alpha-male strut, no? Playing the Lounge Lizard and having bimbos all over you–basically, it shares a lot with the Diva’s posture. With the Beats, either you were cool enough to strike the countercultural pose, or…you weren’t. It always seems to me like the principals of any hip movement have a desperate need to be envied, to be perceived as hip. And *that* has always struck me as the very antithesis of hip, the most pathetic, unenviable state on earth. How insecure do you have to be, really, to stake out that turf?
    Get well, Phil!

  2. M.A. Peel says:

    Love the Sinatra/Mitch Miller story. I’m a Crosby fan myself (and it is a lonely profession). He made at least one “Sing Along with Mitch” album, I believe in the fifties. John Scott Trotter had long before made Crosby square, but he didn’t start that way.
    An old friend of mine wrote a book on “Hip:the History.” He doesn’t address Sinatra, but there’s lots on Ginsberg.

  3. Phil Ford says:

    Emma Peel! I love your show! You’re the foxiest lady in television history!
    Seriously, “The Avengers” is one of the best shows ever. It loomed large in my slacker years. Everybody go look at M.A. Peel’s blog right now.
    I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a blog created as an homage to a single TV character, but it’s a cool idea. Of course it would be lame if the show was, I dunno, “Coach” or something.
    I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting John Leland, but his book is very good and I plan on assigning a couple of chapters of it in my “intellectual history of hipness” graduate seminar next year. My own book is shaping up to be something quite different, but given the fundamentally uncontainable, illimitable scope of the topic, that’s not surprising.
    I love how Leland is the only person who ever noticed that Bugs Bunny is actually a kind of hipster superhero.

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