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User Name Thread Name Subject Posted
Charlie Baum Disappearance of communal singing in US (59* d) RE: Disappearance of communal singing in US 01 Apr 12

Here is a relevant essay by Russell Baker from back in 1991(!), which still stays with me after a couple of decades. Context: The duo Milli Vanilli won a Grammy Award for singing, which had turned out to be merely lip-synching to a sound-track recorded by others.
(More at

Observer; Hear America Listening
Published: November 02, 1991 (The New York Times)

My mother used to sing to herself while she ironed. "Redwing" was a favorite, and there was another that must have dated from 1905, 1910, which went, "I wish Mama'd hold her tongue, she had beaus when she was young." Unaware that I was listening, she sang only for herself, sliding the iron back and forth and lost in good memories, I suppose, to which these old tunes transported her, far from the ironing board.

Well, everybody used to sing. Not like nowadays. Nowadays everybody listens. Nowadays we let the technology do the singing for us. It's so nearly perfect, the technology. We couldn't hope to sound a tenth as good if we were bold enough to open the throat and assail the air.

Nowadays Whitman would not hear America singing. He would hear Japanese technology singing almost perfectly. He would write, "I see America listening to nearly perfect Japanese technological reproduction of singing."

Why have we become a nation of listeners? Why do we make no music for ourselves anymore? Are we afraid of coming off badly in competition with the superb technology of Japan? Once we used to sing shamelessly aloud for the pure pleasure of it, and not so long ago either.

We used to sing on long car rides. Lacking the amazingly pure sound of FM car radios, audio cassette machinery and CD players built into the dashboard, we entertained ourselves singing hits of the day and old-timers from the Bronze Age: "The Isle of Capri," and the one about the old spinning wheel in the parlor spinning dreams of long, long ago. Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hammerstein. Songs with tunes.

Well, of course most popular songs nowadays don't have tunes. Tunes are old hat, tunes are for gummy-eyed Grandpa, tunes are for people so out of it they don't feel the beat or even begin to grasp the complex subtlety of today's popular music, and so forth, all of which is true.

But it is also true that the wonderful songs of today can only be listened to, since it's almost impossible for 3, or 10, or 30 people to sing a song that has no tune unless they are professional singers. Even professional singers can't always manage it.

Recently two successful singers who go by the improbable name Milli Vanilli lost a prize for great recorded singing when it was discovered that they hadn't done the prize-winning singing. All they'd done was move their lips and pretend to be lost in transports of song while parties unseen were doing the actual singing, just as Cyrano de Bergerac hid in the shadows speaking seductive poetry to Roxanne on behalf of that beautiful dunce, Christian.

What this showed was that modern songs are so hard to sing that even professionals don't always trust themselves to try it. The songs America sang before it started to rock were doubtless simple-minded and certainly not worthy of an age as sophisticated as ours today, but because they were accessible to everybody they contributed to a sense of community that comes from group singing.

Nowadays the nation's only exercise in group singing comes when a sports crowd is urged to stand and join in singing "The Star-Spangled Banner," which is almost as hard to sing as the typical rock 'n' roll chart topper. Everybody stands, of course, but most of the crowd takes the Milli Vanilli way out: lots of lip movement, let the public-address system make the sound.

Observing this pathetic weaseling at stadiums and ball parks, I often think of the unbridled pleasure with which massed audiences used to sing in huge movie houses, following the bouncing ball to simple tunes thundered out by an organist spotlighted in the pit.

Americans sang, too, all the way through World War II. The songs may have been silly, melancholy, propagandistic and sentimental, but singing them helped Americans define a communal identity for themselves. Nowadays the absence of singing defines our lack of communal identity, our national apartness, our aloneness.

It speaks too of our submissive relationship with machines, a relationship in which the machines do all the talking and all the singing and we do all the listening. To be sure, the typical rock concert generates an intense sense of community. It is the community of people overpowered by amplifying machinery, which is the destiny of a nation of listeners.

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