Waltzing to Victory
by David Trumbull
November 1, 2000
Forget about big money, big business, and big labor in the presidential election. What matters is the role of the big band sound. That's the premise of a new book If It Ain't Got That Swing: The Rebirth of Grown-Up Culture, by Mark Gauvreau Judge (122 pages, Spence Publishing Company, Dallas). Judge doesn't go so far as to say that kids wearing fedoras and lindy hopping will swing the election to George W. Bush. But he does see larger significance in the current revival, among young people, of swing dance, tailored clothing, and other adult behaviors.
Judge is not the only writer to comment on the infantilism of contemporary America culture. A recent column in the British journal The Spectator derided the typical American male, dressed in over-sized T-shirt with a childish slogan and shapeless trousers that look like swaddling cloths. Into this America of perpetual adolescence, step men and women in their 20s and 30s, looking sharp, like they just jitter-bugged right out of the 1940s. Now that is radical!
America's cities are ugly, dirty, and unsafe. For this decline Judge indicts several of the usual suspects--federal policies that greatly favor automobiles over other transportation; state and local zoning regulation that force people to live isolated from each other, their work, and shopping districts; and the narcissism of the 1960s radicals who are now our elite. Slovenly dressing--at root a statement that other people are of little worth--comes in for particular blame. Sounding like an Old Testament judge, he describes the downfall of American cities: "Filthy, disheveled drug addicts and winos slept on sidewalks, hostile panhandlers harassed pedestrians, and people no longer bothered to get dressed up when they left the house." And there are no grown-ups around keeping an eye on the kids. Indeed, there are few grown-ups at all, merely superannuated adolescents--with the juvenile delinquent-in-chief in the White House.
If It Ain't Got That Swing finds a promising cultural indicator in the revival of swing dancing. After years of domination by undanceable rock music with grim, frequently anti-social, lyrics, something wonderful happened. "On April 21, 1998, forty million Americans tuned in for the season finale of ER [and saw] a commercial for Gap clothing. To the sound of Louis Prima's 1956 swing song 'Jump, Jive and Wail,' a group of young people danced the lindy hop." Suddenly fun, sociable (and socializing) dance music was the rage.
Actually the swing revival was well underway by 1998. Cocktail lounges such as Boston's Good Life had, for more than a year, featured the music of Frank Sinatra and such "grown-up" drinks as martinis and manhattans. Boston Ballet got on the big bandwagon in October 1996 with "Boogie, Brass and Blue", a dance tribute to the songs of the Andrews Sisters. If It Ain't Got That Swing does acknowledge the 1996 film Swingers, which introduced many of us to the neo-swing band Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. Still the Gap advert probably did mark swing's transition from cult to mainstream.
But doesn't Judge, after all, overstate his brief. Granted, swing is more popular than in decades, nevertheless it is still vastly dwarfed by the rock music industry. I doubt we shall see a mass conversion of Americans to wearing saddle shoes and dancing to Duke Ellington. I suspect that Judge knows that. If It Ain't Got That Swing reads a bit like an evangelical tract, and--as any effective street corner evangelist can tell you--conversions happen one by one. And it is one by one that a society begins to be transformed, not en masse.
A few young men (Judge is 35) rejecting the nihilism and brutality of pop culture in favor of cultivation, class, and courtesy, may be just what is needed to transform society. As Judge concludes, "We can go home again. It starts with a nice suit and a steady beat."
[David Trumbull is Chairman of the Cambridge Republican City Committee.]