IASPM-US Interview Series: Murray Forman, One Night on TV is Worth Weeks at the Paramount

by justindburton on April 8, 2013

MURRAY

Copious research of television station corporate documents, close readings of television programming, and nuanced theorization about the development of music performance during the era of television’s ascendance into mass popularity has resulted in Murray Forman’s One Night on TV Is Worth Weeks at the Paramount: Popular Music on Early Television (Duke University Press, 2012).  As he explains in the monograph’s introduction, unlike many previous readings of television and musical performance, Forman does not focus solely on Elvis Presley, but rather examines earlier programs, some of which Presley likely watched.  Besides delineating the television industry’s development and relationship with live musical performers prior to Presley’s famous performances, Forman analyzes the meaning of the visual and aural depictions of African American, Latino, and regional musicians.

Forman Cover Small

Daniel Simmons:  Your monograph convincingly argues that in terms of performance and industry, as early as the 1940s, music and television were evolving alongside each other.  To expand upon your arguments and conclusion, how useful is this framework to scholars examining the relationship between music and television in other eras?

Murray Forman:  My project looks at the co-evolution of TV and music over a rather longer period, spanning roughly 1930-1956.  I was initially interested in the immediate postwar period encompassing television’s rapid expansion and commercial success but what I soon discovered was that even the earliest broadcast industry discussions – they weren’t quite plans yet —included music as a content and presentation issue. What spurred my interest in the topic was the fact that I kept running into gaps in the existing research, lapses that seemed to miss the fuller sense of the ways in which TV and music were entwined.

For television scholars (whose interests are outside of music), how useful is your study as a means of understanding, say, the historical development between television and sports?

Murray:  I think that my project might be relevant to anyone who is interested in examining how music in a broad context (addressing matters of culture, aesthetics, performance, industry, image, persona and celebrity, etc.) is both influenced by new creative forms and technological configurations and, in turn, influences them.  I would hope that my book could be useful for thinking about how music can be critically examined in relation to any emergent screen technology by asking questions like who is impacted and how or what are the stakes accompanying the cultural transitions.  My approach was to be expansive, letting the archival documents from the period tell me what was important then and to try to put it into a contemporary perspective.  One relatively recent book that I think captures some of these contemporary issues is Kiri Miller’s Playing Along: Digital Games, YouTube and Virtual Performance (2012).

I’m not particularly well equipped to comment on the TV/sports dynamic but I’m sure there is a rich historical study to be done there as well.  Those in the TV and sports sectors also had to learn how to collaborate or navigate their differences.  Pertaining to some of the themes in my book, one could certainly examine innovations in TV sports broadcasting, the emergence of sports-specific discourses as announcers learned new performance techniques, the changes in the construction of sports celebrities, influences on domestic and public audience practices, and the impact on various sports themselves.  We know, for example, that television broadcast rights are now inextricably tied to the fortunes of major league team owners and to college sports programs; looking at this in relation to business profits, union activity, or athlete salaries, among other aspects, would be consistent with my analysis of music and early television.  Also there is a whole lot of music connected to the broadcast of major sporting events and that could provide the basis for a fascinating historical study.

You’ve just stated: “I would hope that my book could be useful for thinking about how music can be critically examined in relation to any emergent screen technology by asking questions like who is impacted and how or what are the stakes accompanying the cultural transitions.”  It seems to me that most popular music genres today, especially hip hop, have close connections to the screen and visual media.  Do you see any intersection between this study and your previous work on hip hop?

In television’s earliest phase, songs written in the Tin Pan Alley form and that were often associated with dance halls, Broadway theater, and early film musicals were especially adaptable to the new medium.  They told stories (of, for example, love, love lost, unrequited love, and various strands of yearning and nostalgia) with lyrics that included distinct imagery that seemed almost ready made for visual presentation.  Part of what I wanted to do with the book was analyze in close detail how television’s emergent visual regime was employed to do things similarly and differently from these other performance contexts and industrial sectors.  How did TV producers think about the music and work with the songs to make something engaging and, conversely, how did musicians transfer their talents (or develop new performance skills) to the nascent medium.  These are issues that can be broached in relation to any historical era and any musical genre since at least the late 1800s I think.

You are entirely correct that hip-hop has long had this visual component, something that is entirely self-aware.  For instance, in the current issue of Rolling Stone, Chuck D says of N.W.A.’s 1990 release (and their first music video) “100 Miles and Runnin,’” “it’s almost like you watch the song” (Dec. 20, 2012: 51). Right now I’m listening to – and enjoying very much – Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City: a short film by Kendrick Lamar (Aftermath/Interscope, 2012).  The title sums it up.

While I worked on One Night on TV, I continued my research and writing on hip-hop culture and rap music and while it often seemed like a real disconnect to be toggling between, say, Tupac and Perry Como, there were, in fact, some overlaps that occasionally surprised me.  I saw how, despite the visual potentials of a 1982 track like “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, the lyrical artistry of late 1980s rap was marked by change and diversity and, frankly, a new kind of sophistication with its more complex narrative structure.  It is significant that these aesthetic and formal changes (and greater industrial clout) converged with MTV’s Yo! MTV Raps just as MTV was really hitting its stride.  Rap music immediately provided the network with a hit program and offered a host of artists and directors new opportunities to explore a wider range of visual and performance styles.  Obviously it was a launch pad for many new acts and was essential to their celebrity status and enhanced industry profile much as early TV was for artists of that time.  Rap videos also evolved within the contexts of the rise of “new jack cinema” and the hood film genre that relied on rap music in their soundtracks (the soundtrack recordings were often very successful) and that frequently cast MCs in acting roles. The various sectors of the entertainment industry, including television, adjusted to hip-hop as it “bum rushed the show” and I recognized some patterns that were reminiscent of popular music and early television roughly thirty-five or forty years earlier.

 

In regard to your choice and analysis of primary sources, your study provides close readings of both internal television network documents and actual performances.  If copyright procurement or reproduction costs would not deter such an endeavor, would you consider including with your book a DVD of certain performances? If so, which performances or shows and why? 

The primary sources were essential to getting at the character of discussions and the emotions that prevailed in different sectors of the entertainment industries as television evolved in the 1940s and 50s. I tried to zero in on specific emergent threads.  This is evident, for instance, in Chapter 2 where I weigh discourses of fear and anxiety against those of optimism and opportunity.  But I also obviously wanted to see what the individuals were talking about, what they were reacting to in order to understand the aesthetic distinctions, working across internal industry memos about specific programs or performances as well as encompassing critics’ reviews or audience letters.  Hence, my turn to the archives to access the visual material.

But your question poses a pretty important “if.”  Copyright was a major factor in my use – and not – of lyrics and I was frankly worn down by the process of trying to secure permissions.  I suspect like many others in my position, I eventually just surrendered and cut most of the lyrical passages.  Copyright does create serious barriers and since the costs and effort were mine to bear, I wouldn’t wish to take on the work of assembling a DVD.

That said, however, as I note in the conclusion some of the performances that I screened at various archives – mainly the UCLA collection and that of the Paley Center – or that I purchased on VHS tapes from Shokus video (www.shokus.com) are now emerging on various online sites like Hulu or YouTube. This has important implications both for the research itself (it is simply easier to screen examples from home or office now than it was just a few years ago) and for the capacity to direct readers to the examples I’m analyzing.

For instance, the full May 23, 1954 broadcast of the Colgate Comedy Hour that I analyze in Chapter 4 is now available online.

(http://www.bing.com/videos/watch/video/may-23-1954/17w4j5vp9?cpkey=3c5008ce-aa87-4d03-bb56-7d06db356dd7||||)

The program presents an example of some of the best and worst of early TV production and stagecraft, featuring performances by Hoagy Carmichael, Peggy Lee’s wonderful renditions of “Johnny Guitar” and “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” and the Sauter-Finegan Band’s debacle performance of “Midnight Sleighride.” A 1951 broadcast of The Frank Sinatra Show (featuring guests Perry Como and Frankie Laine) that I cite in Chapter 3 is available on YouTube, allowing for the analysis of television’s ubiquitous ersatz nightclubs as well as presenting interesting meta-commentary on audience perspective and viewing pleasures. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TD2vDkqXW8Q).

If I were to play with the wording of your monograph’s title (One Night on T.V. Is Worth Weeks at the Paramount: Popular Music on Early Television) and in reference to that title, ask whether “One Night on T.V. [was better than weeks] at the Paramount,” then historically speaking, which artists between the 1930s and the 1950s saw their careers permanently suffer due to television?  Your book makes clear that some performers like Desi Arnaz clearly benefitted from the exposure it provided.

I don’t think it is accurate to shift the book title’s wording from “is worth” to “better.”  The title, taken from a quote by Kirby Stone, addresses the implications of his bourgeoning TV career, describing the amplification and extended reach facilitated by television and, perhaps, the additional revenue.  But Stone and others who made similar comments (including western swing artist Spade Cooley) also maintained a lively profile in live venues, capitalizing on their newfound status as TV celebrities.  While they surely enjoyed various professional benefits from their access to television, TV performance and production came with their own headaches or complications that were usually significant enough to temper enthusiasm for the new screen medium.  So the evidence doesn’t warrant the term “better,” at least not in the medium’s earliest phase.

It’s not so clear that artists “permanently” suffered as a direct result of television’s ascendance even though some, in contrast, did benefit in rather explicit ways. To place all of the impact on television would be to perhaps step toward a technological determinist stance.  What I explain in the book is that television was a significant game changer and that many of the established rules, routines, and avenues to success in the commercial entertainment sectors were disrupted.  But they were not necessarily disrupted in any standard manner.  This is why I tried to come at the issue of industry convergence from so many angles.

For instance, the visual portrayal of black musicians was a serious factor to negotiate in the face of resistance from Southern TV affiliate stations; their access to the TV airwaves was seriously constrained and this occasionally stalled careers.  Some younger artists seeking access to television were thwarted as the networks and advertising agencies went with established “name” artists so age, career longevity, and celebrity are factors.  Artists deemed by the networks to be insufficiently telegenic or whose performance skills failed to translate to the small screen were similarly passed by, at least on the networks; regional stations offered different opportunities. The talent agencies were also implicated, as the larger established agencies could leverage their artists among the networks but lower-tier managers and agents were commonly left on the sidelines along with the artists they represented.  This isn’t to suggest that musical careers “permanently suffered,” but it does throw light on the different ways they were negatively affected.

I cite artists such as Stan Freeman (a talented musical satirist or comedic musician . . . he was billed as both) who seemed to be caught in the midst of the transition, lamenting television’s hard turn to frivolity and hijinks, which he was not necessarily above participating in, at the expense of the music.  His career seemed not to suffer over the long term yet he articulated a personal dilemma that implied some serious self-reflection and guilt in relation to what he was asked to do for TV. You can see Freeman on the 1954 ABC-TV show Melody Tour, a rather standard program for the time: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=66i4te17IVU.

A really interesting aspect for me in all of this was to learn in greater detail about how some of the top artists, such as Frank Sinatra, Vaughn Monroe, or Fred Waring struggled with television. While it didn’t permanently compromise their careers, it was in some sense a low point for them, indicating their vulnerabilities and revealing their limitations in full view of a large and quickly growing TV audience.  In this regard, Waring was the most interesting as he took charge of his show’s production and rebuilt it into a much more cohesive and entertaining program.  By his account, taking on the production duties along with all the other musical and business elements almost killed him, but he did create a better program that attained critical and viewer acclaim.

What are your forthcoming projects; and do they build from this book?

Completing a book is daunting; there is the work of it, seeing the project through its final phase, and there is also the haunting sense of “what next.”  But my evolving projects are definitely influenced by my work on One Night on TV. One immediate outcome is that, drawn by our mutual interests, Matt Delmont (whose book The Nicest Kids in Town: American Bandstand, Rock’n’Roll, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in 1950s Philadelphia is great) and I are currently collaborating as guest editors for a special issue of the Journal of Popular Music Studies on the theme of “Sonic Visions: Popular Music on and After Television.”

Over the past several years I have also been thinking a great deal about age and aging in relation to culture generally and popular music specifically.  While engaging with the archival material from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s for One Night on TV, I discussed the music of that era with folks who experienced it firsthand, whether as musicians, dancers, or fans.  A lot of people really remember the early TV shows where their favorite musicians appeared and they often speak expansively about the programs from that period, which was helpful to me as I tried to get a sense of what it meant to settle in for the evening to watch these broadcasts.

I also realized that while there is a general abundance of research about baby boomers coming of age with popular music (rock, punk, soul, etc.) there is a bit of a gap in our field concerning the very old, those currently in their late seventies or older, the ones who would have been, say, fifteen or older in 1953.  After discussions with colleagues about our own parents and the music they grew up with and that they still listen to in their later years, I’ve been thinking in a more focused way about how to approach this theme of age and aging with music. Though not much of it explicitly addresses popular music, I’ve found interesting work in the area of critical gerontology or the emerging field of critical age studies; Stephen Katz and Margaret Morganroth Gullette come to mind here.  Line Grenier and the late Jan Fairley have each been helpful and encouraging in this line of research pertaining to popular music.

I’m still committed to hip-hop studies in all kinds of ways and the work I’m pursuing with the most energy at the moment is a mash-up of hip-hop and age studies, looking at age and aging in hip-hop.  I’m trying to veer away from the surprisingly prevalent notion that hip-hop is youth music by asking what various age-based designations mean (founding father, pioneer, veteran, elder statesman, O.G., etc.) and how they help to define something about when an artist entered the game and their ongoing status or reputations.  I guess my self-deprecating admission here would be that I’m embarking on age appropriate popular music research.

Daniel Simmons recently completed his Ph.D. in Modern American History at the University of Connecticut.  His dissertation was titled “‘Must Be the Season of the Witch’: Repression and Harassment of Rock and Folk Music during the Long Sixties.”

Murray Forman is Associate Professor of Media and Screen Studies at Northeastern University.  He is author of The ‘Hood Comes First: Race, Space and Place in Rap and Hip-Hop (Wesleyan University Press, 2002) and One Night on TV is Worth Weeks at the Paramount: Popular Music on Early Television (Duke University Press, 2012).  He is also Co-editor (with Mark Anthony Neal) of That’s the Joint!: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader (Routledge, 1st edition 2004; 2nd edition, 2011).

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: