Tales of a Gen X Swinger

A music critic's juvenile cultural politics

If It Ain't Got That Swing: The Rebirth of Grown-Up Culture, by Mark Gauvreau Judge, Dallas: Spence Publishing, 122 pages, $22.95

If adolescence is the discovery that every tradition, every habit, every quirk of your upbringing is arbitrary, absurd, and quite possibly dispensable, then adulthood is the recognition that the same is true of every alternative you've tried since adolescence. There may be a time, early in your life, when it feels right to adopt wholesale the likes and dislikes of a narrow cultural movement. But it's hard--for some of us, anyway--to let some dogma about what you "should" like stand in the way of your actual tastes. And so, eventually, you move on--perhaps to another semi-cult, and perhaps, eventually, to a more mature eclecticism: the kind that isn't so uptight about arbitrariness, absurdity, and dispensability.

In this way, the swing revival of the '90s--like the roughly simultaneous revivals of rockabilly, traditional country-western, and martini-flavored lounge music--emerged from the world of punk. If you're suspicious of the mass media and devoted to do-it-yourself culture, there are few better ways to express this than to ignore the officially designated alternatives to the mainstream and instead fashion your own subculture out of whatever pop detritus you can lay your hands on. If you like Benny Goodman, then dammit, you listen to Benny Goodman, even if you also like Husker Du. The affection comes first; the category comes second.

Today, of course, the swing revival (which actually owes more to jump blues, a '40s genre that emerged in part from swing) includes thousands of people with no interest at all in punk rock or the punk subculture. People listen or dance to the music for hundreds of not-always-consistent reasons, just as other people--sometimes the same people--have hundreds of reasons for listening to rap, listening to bluegrass, or playing football. To explain a subculture, one must do more than trace its genealogy.

But it's worth noting that the conservative critic Mark Gauvreau Judge, author of If It Ain't Got That Swing: The Rebirth of Grown-Up Culture, gets the genealogy of neo-swing wrong, and that he does so precisely because he's trying to reduce a complex phenomenon to a simple explanation. The swing revival, he tells us, began on April 21, 1998, with a Gap ad filled with young men and women dancing the Lindy Hop. He then allows that, "In a way, the swing tsunami wasn't completely unexpected," citing the 1996 film Swingers as a precursor. (In fact, the swing content in Swingers was close to zero, even if it did depict in passing some swing dancing--which, Judge tells us, "was enjoying a small underground rebirth in Los Angeles at the time.") And "there were a few people who had been swinging before Swingers"—including, as it happens, Mark Gauvreau Judge, who took up the pastime in the D.C. area in 1995 (if you believe this book) or 1993 (if you believe a piece he wrote for Jitterbuzz.com).

Why the different years? I suspect it's because, when he wrote the Jitterbuzz piece, Judge's most recent book was his memoir of youthful alcoholism, Wasted: Tales of a Gen X Drunk. It thus made narrative sense to make his first dance a step on his ascent to sobriety. ("When I arrived for the dance, I was terrified. For the past ten years alcohol had been my crutch in social situations.") But in the new version of the story, Judge is making a political argument, not offering a personal confession. It's therefore more convenient to have the dance take place "not long after I discovered Christopher Lasch," the social critic who prompted Judge's disillusionment with the left.

Either way, the "small underground rebirth" of swing obviously predated both the Gap ad and Swingers, and it clearly cast its net far beyond L.A. I can assure Judge that it was also present in Seattle in the mid-'90s, and anecdotal evidence--i.e., the testimony of far-flung friends--reveals that it existed in several other cities as well. The Gap ad brought the swing scene to the attention of the mass media, and the subsequent press attention (and the ad itself) helped spread it. But the revival was both underway and widespread long before Entertainment Weekly took notice of it, and it continues now, even though its moment in the media eye seems to have passed.

Why make a big deal about Judge's distorted chronology? Because Judge is not merely celebrating swing for its own sake; he's trying to make a larger point about the state of society. America, he complains, has been losing its "third places"--sociologist Ray Oldenburg's term for pubs, barber shops, and other spots outside both home and work where members of the community can informally gather. In the original swing age, Judge notes, such places were common; in particular, they dominated the Shaw neighborhood of Washington, D.C., a once-thriving black district that was gradually eviscerated (and is now, though Judge doesn't mention it, enjoying something of a comeback). Today's swing clubs, he argues, mark the return of such places. Before they came along, it looked like "suburban kids would be trapped in a world without community, fun, adventure, romance. Stuck in a placeless place, they would be left to soak up the sewage coming through cable, on records, and in video games." The Gap ad rescued us: "There would have been no hope at all if a cultural counterrevolution hadn't taken place in April 1998."

But Judge has simply made a fetish of one kind of third place (and one cultural style) and ignored or attacked the other ways and places in which people choose to interact. The devotees of punk, hip hop, and folk, among other kinds of music, have also been meeting in such informal gathering-spots. It was from one of those little subcultures, after all, that the swing revival emerged.

So Judge prefers swing to rock. Indeed, he's a convert to the former from the latter--"a radical leftist, steeped in...the rock'n'roll nihilism of the 1990s," who became a jitterbugging neocon. But many people enjoy both forms of music, and even both forms of social interaction. Judge likes the communitarian values he associates with the '40s and dislikes the antinomianism he associates with the '60s. But others might actually admire elements of both periods, even when they contradict each other, and adopt one style or the other according to mood--or even casually fuse them, leaving it to others to work out the paradoxes.

Judge's critique, by contrast, has no room for paradox, and that is why it replaces actual history with a Hollywood Minute account centered around Swingers and the Gap. His political comments are similarly averse to nuance. For instance, he faults Marion Barry (in his pre-mayoral incarnation as a civil rights leader in D.C.) for being soft on the violent wing of the movement, blaming him indirectly for riots that contributed to the decay of Shaw. But even if one buys that rather dubious charge, the story isn't so tidy. Barry was also active in the fight that kept the feds from shoving a freeway through Washington, saving some of the city's most vibrant third places from a plan that would have wiped them out. That doesn't make the man a hero, but it does add a few new wrinkles to Judge's simple tale of a city's fall from grace.

Enough about the cultural context of swing. What does Judge have to say about the music? Surprisingly, very little: He mentions only a few neo-swing bands, and offers little critical commentary about their work, probably because it would be difficult to force such a discussion into an ideological straightjacket.

To my ears, most neo-swing music, while enjoyable on its own terms, is vastly inferior to the original hot jazz, swing, and jump blues that it emulates. Few of the new musicians offer either the innovation or the craft of their forebears, and the most notable exceptions aren't mentioned in the book: If Judge has a taste for the Hot Club of Cowtown's fusion of folk, hot jazz, and western swing, or the Squirrel Nut Zippers' clever forays into '20s Americana, or Andrew Bird's dark lyrics, brilliant fiddling, and eclectic musical styles, he fails to mention it. He does make a few exaggerated swipes at rock, allowing that the Beatles were "brilliant musicians" but attacking the Velvet Underground as "insipid" and the early Rolling Stones as "a third-rate blues cover band." But Judge's chief complaints about rock are not musical but cultural: He targets the rock age for its embrace of transgression and irony (a word he consistently misuses--he seems to think it's a synonym for "smug aloofness").

I have no interest in standing up for transgression-by-numbers, nor for the self-satisfaction often found in the rock establishment. But Judge's critique seems aimed less at the typical rocker than at his younger self, a soi-disant rebel who "believed that America was a country club filled with bigoted neanderthals pushing an atavistic cultural agenda." Those days are behind him, he tells us--but I'm not so sure. This is the man, after all, who writes that America has a "toxic culture," that it is riven by "the alienation of neighbors and generations," that its children are so stupefied that their lives would be hopeless were it not for the divine intervention of a Gap ad. This seems no less categorical and elitist than the views Judge attributes to his younger incarnation.

And that brings us back to adolescence and adulthood. In Wasted, Judge tells us that he was, in his boozy days, a devoted fan of punk rock. Now he's shifted his loyalties with the fervor of a man born again--and, narcissistically, he expects all right-thinking readers to do the same. His new book's subtitle may invoke "grown-up culture," but his prose betrays him: He writes like he's going through a stage.

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