It’s Just Too Much!
By Patrick F. Cannon
I would never claim that our times are more vulgar than any in the past, but our claims would surely be at least competitive.
The word itself has many meanings and uses, which to me boil down to this – that which is more than it needs to be is vulgar. Let me give you an example. In a movie whose title I can’t remember, and whose plot escapes me, Bing Crosby is auditioning a girl singer, whose identity is lost in the mists of time (it was probably in late 1940s). As she sings her song, she does dance moves and gesticulates (love that word) in time with the song. Bing stops her, and asks her what is more important, her or the song. Then he sings the same song, standing quietly and enunciating every word of the lyric clearly. As I recall, she gets the message and goes on to be a great star! Of course. But would she now?
Tony Bennett, now in his 90s, still just stands there and delivers the song. Others who do the same are mostly jazz or folk singers, not exactly performers at the top of the charts. Live pop performers now rarely appear without a troupe of barely-clothed hard bodies, of both sexes, writhing behind them; and behind them, a band which seems to mostly consist of over-amplified guitars and an electronic keyboard, which makes a variety of strange sounds. At the front, of course, we find the Beyonce’s and Lady Gaga’s of the world, both of whom have actual talent, but have concluded that vulgarity sells better than the song itself. Can we blame Cher for starting this? Or maybe it was Liberace?
Having written five books on Chicago architecture, I see a good deal of vulgarity in the built environment. It’s interesting to me that similar ornament can be coherent on one building and vulgar on another. For one of our books, my partner Jim Caulfield went to Buffalo to photograph Louis Sullivan’s Guaranty Building. Built in 1895, there is scarcely any of the façade that isn’t covered with ornament – but somehow Sullivan’s genius makes it work. In contrast, for an otherwise nondescript condo building in Oak Park, the architect chose to apply panels of Louis Sullivan-inspired ornament to the façade. there it looks ridiculous and, yes, vulgar.
Vulgarity in architecture was raised to its absolute peak in Las Vegas, where it’s not unexpected, but even great architects are not immune to artistic overreach. The great Frank Lloyd Wright’s occasional flights of fancy sometimes miscarried, but most fortunately remain unbuilt. Current superstar Frank Gehry has designed some truly wonderful buildings, but several real stinkers too. His “Fred and Ginger” apartment building in Prague still bemuses the locals; and what was he thinking when he designed 8 Spruce Street in Manhattan, whose façade seems to be melting? Another stinker – and I realize my opinion may not be widely shared – is the Hotel Marques de Riscal in Spain. I’d rather stay at the Holiday Inn.
Let me end with a tribute to comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Jim Gaffigan, who work “clean.” Let me admit here that when I was in the Army, my utterances often included the classic profanities: f_ _ _, m_ _ _ _ _f_ _ _ _ _, and c_ _ _s_ _ _ _ _. I’m being delicate here, but you know what I mean.
After I left the Army, I largely abandoned their use, other than occasionally muttering them to myself on the golf course or in traffic. I also stopped eating ham for several years, after having to eat too much of it in Army mess halls. Eating ham isn’t vulgar, but profanity as a verbal crutch most certainly is. And when did comics of both sexes decide that their sex lives were endlessly fascinating? And when did we start agreeing with them?
Copyright 2019, Patrick F. Cannon