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.