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More Musings on ‘Old Barbershop’

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When I last reflected on the category of ‘old barbershop’ eight years ago, I finished up by wondering what sounded normal then that would sound dated 20 years on. Well, it’s only eight years on, and I found myself thinking about perceptible cultural shifts again at the BABS Convention back in May.

My musings last time were mostly about musical things like approaches to voice-leading and embellishment and performance things like styles of body language in the context of continuous performance traditions. I did mention subject matter in passing, but only mentioned the most ostentatiously outmoded lyrics in defining the category of ‘old’.

Now, by contrast, I found myself observing a clear division in song storyline and lyric between those that evoked social relations that we would wish to promote these days in an organisation that celebrates diversity, equity and inclusion, and those in which the social relations feel uncomfortably old-school.

Interestingly, not all of the latter were necessarily old arrangements; indeed, I saw very little if anything in of the performance style and arranging techniques I described in my posts from 8 years ago. But there are quite a few songs being brought freshly to the barbershop stage that come over as rather stalkerish or possessive, which I’ve always clocked but possibly have less patience for now that BABS no longer sees itself as a male-only organisation. I am also much readier these days to look beyond the surface nostalgia for an exotic lost love to the colonialist sexpolitation behind it.

In particular the classification of women into Madonna or whore seems to be alive and kicking in a lot of the older-feeling repertoire. You might not notice it when the love object present in the song is being complimented on her virtues, but the terms typically used for this idealisation do not exist in a vacuum. Rather, they exist in a polarised dichotomy that contrasts ‘good’ women with ‘bad’ women who are cast as powerfully sexually attractive, but also evil, for reasons that mostly boil down to being unavailable to, or at least not controllable by, the man describing them.

The misogyny in songs about vamps and seductresses is usually pretty obvious, which is maybe why we only heard a few over the convention, but when they come in between a bunch of ‘angel divine’ songs, it becomes clear how the latter share the same set of values. I’ve grumbled about the objectifying nature of a couple of classic examples over the years, but perhaps we need to be a bit clearer to our barbershop brothers that defining women in terms primarily of beauty beyond compare isn’t necessarily the compliment it might seem to be. After all, when a man tells you you’re not like other women, that tells you that he basically doesn’t like women very much and will turn on you if at any point you show signs of being perfectly normal.

Fortunately, we also heard a good lot of songs that felt like they came from healthy relationships, based on mutual respect and affection. Some of which were newer songs, but others were old classics. If you’re unsure about whether a song is going to sound sexist, a useful thought experiment is to consider whether the gender of either its singers or its intended recipient matters. If it needs a man to sing it and a woman to listen to it, you might need to stop and think about whether that implies definitions of men and women that all your audience will be comfortable to identify with.

Thankfully, I didn’t hear any Dixie songs, though interestingly I did feel a bit worried during a medley of two songs that have previously appeared in a three-song medley with a very problematic song. This left me with mixed feelings: on one hand I was glad the other two perfectly nice songs have been rescued to live another day, while on the other it was hard to enjoy them properly while distracted by the company they used to hang out with. I was constantly thinking, ‘Surely this group isn’t going to sing the 3rd one? I’m sure they know better!’.

Turns out they do (phew!), so maybe all that’s needed is for the new medley to get established to stop us worrying, but it’s a pity that we need to live anxiously through those performances to get there. But it does illustrate the point about why bowdlerising problematic lyrics doesn’t solve the problem when there’s an established performance history of a song whose values we no longer share.

Though sometimes a little light bowdlerising is all you need, particularly in the context of songs that that mostly pass the gender-substitution test I posited above. I enjoyed hearing my chart of ‘Give Me the Simple Life’ twice this year (after not hearing it for maybe 13 year – like buses only more so!), and both groups had changed the song-writer’s lyric ‘I like my scrambled egg and bacon served by someone that I love’ to ‘shared with’, which makes a difference to the song’s social world that is both subtle and profound.

Anyway, it appears to me that the cultural shift we’re experiencing at the moment is moving quite quickly. When you think of how long some of the songs we no longer sing stayed in the barbershop repertoire, it is quite striking how relatively little time it has taken to put them in the past once the project got institutional backing.

On the face of it, the Barbershop Harmony Society’s Everyone in Harmony initiative looks like a prime instigator of change, and has certainly been significant for agenda-setting in all kinds of ways in international barbershop. But you’d have to say that Sweet Adelines are leading the way more on actually engaging with the content of repertoire, with their well-developed song-assessment tool. It’s nearly four years since I wrote to the BHS’s inclusion team about Darkness on the Delta, and was told encouragingly that they were looking at ways review their publications, so it is disappointing that they’re still selling that one; long enough indeed that I have no compunction on calling them out on it.

But let’s also give kudos to BABS for nurturing this cultural change amongst their own constituents. As I remarked in my post about their 50th anniversary Convention, there is a strong cohort of younger leaders, both musical and administrative, at both club and association level, and I am sure they have been instrumental in guiding the organisation towards a place that will feel more comfortable for tomorrow’s barbershoppers.

It has been one of clichés of barbershop that it needs more newer songs if it is to stay relevant to the current and coming generations, and whilst I have been very happy as both arranger and listener to be part of that project, I’ve often thought that the problem wasn’t the age of the songs per se. After all, I spent 15 years working with young people dedicating themselves to getting degrees in a musical genre that had much older music than barbershop does.

Reflecting on the repertoire from this year’s Convention has clarified for me that the issue is not how old the songs are, but to what extent they reflect the values of the people you wish to attract.

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