Cop Show!

Phil Ford

We who till the fields of music scholarship — music theorists, musicologists, and ethnomusicologists, to name the three main tribes — are used to a certain degree of obscurity. AMS, SMT, and SEM added together do not even come close to making one MLA. We find ourselves mocked by our eye doctors and hair stylists when we try to describe what we do for a living. So it’s kind of surprising that my ethnomusicological brothers and sisters have managed to insinuate themselves into the national political discourse and become the butt of a certain strain of leaden political “humor.”

A few days ago, Andrew Sullivan posted a link to the Society for Ethnomusicology’s statement against torture. Sullivan, one of the most influential political bloggers in the U.S., is also one of the loudest voices raised against the Bush administration’s torture policy. His single post has therefore created its own meme. As Sullivan predicted, the bloggers at the National Review Corner have started cracking wise. Cuz there’s nothing funnier than torture. Torture plus ethnomusicology? Laff riot.

You know, musicologists and ethnomusicologists have had their differences over the years — this is why they have separate scholarly societies and hiring lines and academic journals. And the quarrel between the disciplines has sometimes been acrimonious, not least because their differences have often been framed in moral terms. Like, if historical musicology focuses on western art music at the expense of other musical traditions, it’s imperialism. Or, if ethnomusicologists focus on the social rather than aesthetic dimensions of music, it’s because they’re a bunch of philistines.

But all that is forgotten. C’mere and let Phil give you a big ol’hug. You guys are awesome. I’m just proud to see some music scholars telling it like it is — torture is wrong — and getting noticed for it. And if you annoy a few torture-hungry freaks in the process, then that is totally COP SHOW.

Yes, cop show. That’s my new slang term for “awesome.” I’ve been worried about “awesome.” It’s getting clapped out, and I don’t want to be the last guy to use an outmoded piece of slang, like some loser wearing a leisure suit in 1982 and saying “groovy.” (Of course, “groovy” is now OK.) Now, it’s not easy to make a plausible bit of new slang. And whatever is going to take the place of “awesome” has some pretty big shoes to fill. But cop shows embody a certain all-American swaggering cool that anyone who has been the Beastie Boys video for “Sabotage” will immediately recognize. Cop show cops have savoir-faire, derring-do, and telegenic brutality. Yes, I’m contradicting my own anti-torture flexing in the previous paragraph, but consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, etc., and anyway, it’s just a show.

Do you not see now why “cop show” is the perfect new word for “awesome”? No? Then allow me to acquiant you with The Taking of Pelham One Two Three:

Now, this is cop show: a 1974 thriller about terrorism in the New York subways, with a soundtrack by David Shire. Like earlier film composers (Elmer Bernstein in The Sweet Smell of Success, for instance) Shire wanted to use the jazz idiom to suggest the “organized chaos” of New York City. But he found that what worked best was not jazz as such, but twelve-tone music based on a row whose intervals suggest jazz. Shire said that “it was the knowledge of progressive jazz, in which I had had a lot of immersion in college, that showed me that certain intervals are generally the ones that give modern jazz harmonies their characteristic flavor: the major seventh, the minor third, and their inversions: the minor second and major sixth.” Shire created a row in which every note is related to its neighbor by these intervals: A, C, B, Bb, C#, D, Eb, F#, G, E, F, G#. The main title opens with the prime form of this row, laid down over a monster two-note funk groove. Twelve! Tone! Funk!

And if any doubt remains that “cop show!” is what you will henceforth be shouting at sweet touchdown passes, small victories at work, and your friends’ weddings, then the main title sequence of Steve McQueen’s 1968 thriller Bullitt will surely close the deal.

Music by Lalo Schifrin of Mission Impossible fame. The groove; the guitar; the mysterious black-and-white faces dissolving into shadowed transparent shifting title cue letters — I don’t know what it means, and it won’t get any clearer by the end of the movie, but I know it’s cop show.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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4 Responses to Cop Show!

  1. Michael M. says:

    I’m afraid it will never catch on with today’s arbiters of hip. The aesthetic you’re describing is as distant as Vaudeville to a generation for whom “cop shows” have been replaced by “police procedurals” dominated by languid Imogen Heap-ish songs of “loss” over slow motion montages of people looking…
    and sloooowly walking…
    …somewhere else.
    I suppose we have Michael Mann or Jan Hammer to thank for this, or at least for pushing us away from “free” [sounding] (though tightly composed as you’ve shown) jazz and toward minimalism…from which the inevitable destination is pop.
    Gil Melle at least was practicing musical “Cop show” in the wild right up to “Sabotage” and, thanks to Steve Jobs, et al., his television work still makes up much of my ideal daily soundtrack. There can be no better train/subway/”L”/BART music, particularly given the tendency of old cop shows to begin with a sweeping helicopter shot over a blighted city landscape before moving in closer to gutter level. Again, today’s “procedurals” tend to remain focused on gleaming skyscrapers and indifferent skylines for their openings rather than the details of concrete and curb, bumper and footstep.
    Though I have to admit that, being a fan of 80s Hong Kong cop movies as well, that Jan Hammer sound produces fond enough memories of Jackie Chan careening through Tsim Sha Tsui on top of a bus, or Chow Yun Fat lighting a cigar with a counterfeit hundred dollar bill as spools of “super modern” computer tape whir in the background. “Cop Show” may translate differently for different times and places, and it may always reflect some sense of “American-ness” but it also seems like it doesn’t actually become “cop show” until it is distant enough to become a nostalgic image of the modern.

  2. Kip W says:

    “Lawyer Show” doesn’t have the same cachet, but the Perry Mason theme still does it for me. I understand the Blues Brothers covered it, but I never heard theirs. Very satisfying to play on the piano.

  3. DJA says:

    “Sullivan, one of the most influential political bloggers in the U.S.”
    Please. This is the guy who called me and everyone else who stood up against the Iraq war a traitor and fifth columnist. I’m glad that unlike most on the right, he draws the line at actual torture, but that didn’t used to be anything deserving of special mention — remember when we ALL agreed torture was self-evidently bad? Sully still hasn’t owned up to his own culpability for advocating for the election of the torturer-in-chief in the first place, and cheerleading for his pet war, so spare me the pieties about Andrew Fucking Sullivan being some kind of courageous and principled voice against atrocity. At least until such time as he has the decency to admit “I was wrong, I fucked up, big time, and I’m sorry” to all the people he regularly and vigorously condemned as unAmerican — you know, the people who have been against this shit from the very beginning.

  4. Phil Ford says:

    Welcome to the comments section of our blog, DJA.
    All I said was that Sullivan is influential, which I think is unquestionable. He gets something like 70,000 hits a day — roughly 350 times the traffic we get at Dial M. Which means that, when he writes a post on the SEM statement against torture, it immediately gets picked up in the political blogosphere. Do a Google search with the keywords “torture” and “ethnomusicology.” Most of the hits on the first pages are right-wing political sites like Townhall and Hugh Hewitt, mocking the SEM and Sullivan. This is how a meme spreads, is what I’m saying.
    I’m back now, BTW.

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