Ron Rosenbaum (whom I admire) wrote a column for Slate yesterday in which he called for the retirement of worn-out catchphrases. A warm, gratifying feeling of validation coursed through my veins when I got to this paragraph:
And how about spot on? I’d thought this Anglicism, this purported, imported faux sophistication—a sophistication as authentic as Madonna’s British accent—would have died the death of the terminally pretentious. But along with the apparently ineradicableat the end of the day, it’s still with us. It’s the end of the day for you, spot on. Or as the lower orders used to say over there: Sod off, spot on.
Hey, Ron, I beat you to it by three months! (September 21 to be exact.) On both phrases! Woo hoo!
I remember exactly when I first heard a Britishism that began creeping its way into American business. That one was “at the end of the day.” The year was 1984. A couple of British clients dropped the phrase repeatedly into their conversation with me to mean, in our American equivalent, “when all is said and done…at the conclusion of the process…when all factors have been considered,” and like that.
Believe it or not, no one in America up to that point ever said “at the end of the day” to mean this. If you said “at the end of the day,” it was because you meant nighttime. But this new, British meaning spread throughout the American business vocabulary like a cancer. Within a year or two, everyone in business was saying it here.
Now there’s another one. “Spot on.” Like “at the end of the day,” it comes from the United Kingdom. You’ve been able to see it in British newspapers and magazines for years now, and it means the same thing that we used to mean when we said, “exactly right…just perfect…right on,” and like that. You hear it everywhere now. Foodies on a message board I frequent say it to describe the flavor of a particularly successful dish. The other night I overheard a table of young people at a restaurant using it to describe someone’s critique of a movie.
I suppose we adopt these Britishisms because we think the Brits are so much smarter than we are. Or because by dropping them into conversation, we can demonstrate that we are cosmopolitan, and have been exposed to people from other lands. There’s really no need for these Britishisms other than for sheer pretense, because we already had perfectly fine American ways to say the same things.
So just stop it.
The songwriter Jimmy Webb was on the Steve Dahl radio show in Chicago earlier this week (via telephone), and he spoke of a new live recording. This was good news, but the more significant news confirms what I wrote about in this earlier post and in this one. Namely, that there is no record industry any more. Jimmy Webb—our greatest songwriter linking the tradition of Gershwin, Arlen and Kern with folk, folk-rock and modern-day pop; the writer of “Wichita Lineman,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress,” and so many more modern-day standards–has to put out his music himself, on his own label, or not see it put out at all.
He said that it will also be for sale at his upcoming gigs. He spoke of this deprecatingly, saying, “I’ll be selling it out of the trunk of my car, just like we all used to do in the old days.” It was a funny remark, but it couldn’t conceal the bitter truth that our advanced technology ironically has returned us to a primitive state. It is not only that a mass, national, taste-shaping and needs-catering record business has ceased to exist; it is as if it never existed.
If you ever collected music (in other words, if you not only enjoyed recorded music but felt a need to possess it), you’ll find The Label, a history of Columbia Records by Gary Marmorstein, a great read. It reminds us that once there was a time when record companies had individual identities.
But maybe the most profound statement the book has to make is one that it makes before you even open it. The title of the book, and the cover design, make you realize—it’s kind of a head-slapping, “duh” moment—that one reason record companies had identities was that they literally had labels. You know, the round, paper pieces of signage glued to the centers of recordings. We took that for granted. But in this day of downloaded music, there is no physical object to own, and therefore no label. We used to, and still do, refer to record companies as “record labels,” but in a world in which there are no labels in the literal sense of the word—no pieces of graphical signage to distinguish one piece of music from another—it can’t be long before record labels, in the sense of record companies, cease to exist as well.
People who bought any appreciable number of LPs or CDs in a year, or derived pleasure from browsing in record stores, knew—even if they could not define why—that a Columbia issue was different, somehow, from a Capitol or from a Warner/Reprise, and vice versa. Partly it had to do with engineering and manufacturing choices; partly it had to do with artist & repertoire choices; partly it had to do with graphic design choices. Each company had its own culture, and the people who came to work for that company both defined and were absorbed within that culture. And these differences from one record label to another were crucial to their branding efforts. Why Columbia was a big label had a lot to do with the fact that consumers saw physical, visual evidence of Columbia branding over and over, and began to associate that physical evidence with a level of technical and musical excellence.
The erosion of record company identity began in the CD era, when smaller packaging, and the fact that nothing was glued onto a CD (merely imprinted on it), meant that a consumer could no longer see much of anything to distinguish a Columbia from a Capitol from a Warner/Reprise. In the download era, that erosion is complete. Which is why I predict that the download era will bring, eventually, the end of the meaningful place recorded music once had in people’s lives. (It maintains a place in people’s lives now only because the consumers who are alive now still carry vestiges in their brains of the record-label era.)
I don’t know if Marmorstein deals with this issue (I’m about halfway through the book), but everytime I look at the book to begin reading it again, that cover makes me realize just how important labels, literally and figuratively, were. And how one could only exist because the other did.
Thanks to Bill Reed for tipping me off to the book’s existence. I think it would have flown right under my radar otherwise.
6/5/07 P.S.: Bill informs me that Thunder’s Mouth Press, the book’s publisher, has gone under. (And this item from the L.A. Times confirms it.) I don’t know whether the book will see circulation under another imprint, but if you’re interested, I’d advise you to acquire the book now. Amazon still has copies, priced attractively at 34% off. Bill also recommends another book by Marmorstein, Hollywood Rhapsody: Movie Music and Its Makers 1900-1975, and that’s enough to make me want to check it out.