An Italian-American restaurant I count on features sound reasons for my presence there, and that of others.  I like the tone in that environment.  There is an aspect of 1950’s atmosphere—the place is quiet, the lighting subdued, and the manners polite.  The menu is gratifying when the garlic is held in control, and the service is excellent.  Indeed, a certain waitress named Jessica is sparked with such intelligence and graciousness that her presence alone is superior even to the decor, the retro aspect of the place.

I have never sat in the bar of the joint.  I was always in the dining room with a dear friend of 50 years’ standing, and we always had plenty to talk about, and good food to deal with.  A good time was had by all, even after I noticed that there was an incongruous aspect to the music that was piped in.  Though this music was not loud, even so it clashed with the virtues of the place, and that set me to thinking a bit about certain conflicts within the attitude of this civilized refuge.

The qualities of a certain gentility have to do with the style, the quality of the place.  Let us say that it was an adult, middle-class, or bourgeois experience that was achieved, and achieved successfully—until one considered the music that had sneaked invisibly into the scene.  At the bar, there were men who were enjoying what was purveyed, and modestly at that.  There was nothing raucous.  In the dining room, where there were both tables and banquettes, there were some tables occupied by ladies, and others by couples.  And they all were, needless to say, effortlessly restrained in their behavior.  There was no fault to find, except in the aural hypocrisy that swept by as the background music for the white-collar experience.  But before we identify this music, if we can, let’s look and listen to another food emporium with a different clientele.  Perhaps we could call that one a blue-collar experience, but I want to show that such distinctions are less meaningful than we might suppose.

Leaving the precincts of good taste behind, come with me (if only in imagination) to the zone where food is dispensed standing up—I mean at a fast-food hamburger joint that has good french fries and not much more to offer.  That was the product for sale, but what about the decor?  Now you are in for a surprise!  I do not know the basis of the cultural statement that is insisted on in such an enterprise, but I do “know” what is presented.  I don’t know whom they expect to understand it, except for septuagenarians.  And a crazy part of this is that septuagenarians are indeed a large part of their clientele.

As soon as you enter the utilitarian grossness of this particular fast-food emporium, you see to the left a wall of images presented as the “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.”  These colorized pictures are of Hollywood stars of the old days, and popular singers as well: James Dean, Marlon Brando, and Marilyn Monroe repeatedly, both by herself and with Elvis Presley—as she was in real life only for a few minutes.

But then to the right, another room stretches out to contain the customers, and that room is presented as “Hollywood and Vine.”  And on the wall are more varied images from the same old days: more Marilyns, another Elvis, another James Dean, Natalie Wood, Chuck Berry, and so on.  We interrupt this message to point out that some of these images refer to specific movies, such as Rebel Without a Cause, The Wild One, and The Seven Year Itch, and others do not.  Then the banquettes march past the windows, as they present images from ancient television shows: Gunsmoke, Father Knows Best, I Love Lucy, The Lone Ranger, Dennis the Menace, My Three Sons, The Donna Reed Show, The Gale Storm Show, Ozzie and Harriet, Howdy Doody, Our Miss Brooks, and so on.  The old Gunsmoke show was very popular when it was cancelled for demographic reasons: Its many viewers were too old to be the audience that was particularly desired by the advertisers.  We might also recall that although “Miss Kitty” (played by Amanda Blake) never did go upstairs with Marshall Dillon, the actress herself died of AIDS, or so it was claimed.

Otherwise, we also recognize that at least some of these celebrities stood for questionable values.  This was true of Marlon Brando for decades; true of James Dean in the short time he was alive; and true of Marilyn Monroe in various ways.  It was true about Chuck Berry in certain legal problems, and true about Elvis in his self-imprisonment and self-destruction.  The two singers were genuine talents, of course, as was Brando within the sphere of acting, if not in any other.  Today, even Natalie Wood’s strange death is still a matter of suspicion and legal inquiry.  So we can say that certain celebs of the 1950’s represented a repudiation of the Eisenhower era, or that the 50’s anticipated the 60’s—if you know what to look for.

Yet having come so far in enumerating the images and names and even disasters that are arranged or evoked, we also must consider that the luster of these references dwindles as the years go by.  Again the demographics come to mind.  Did you suppose that much of the clientele of a fast-food joint would be youthful?  But I have often noticed that the people in the booths were of advanced age.  There was a lot of gray hair and corrected vision and even canes on display—indeed, if there were any people who actually remembered the celebs of the 1950’s, they were seated in the right place to appreciate the decor.

I got the impression that many septuagenarians were gathered at the fast-food joint not because it was fast, but because it was cheap.  There was a substantial meal to be found—one that you could definitely afford, especially when compared with certain others, such as the pancake house that charges for confections of a little flour and syrup a price that is to be expected at the steakhouse, and no, I do not exaggerate.

So we have looked at manners and decor, and the presentation of icons and cultural exploitation, but music itself is never to be forgotten, for it always tells a story, either inherently, or in the terms of its abuse.  For the connection between the white-collar restaurant and the blue-collar one was not only the vending of differentiated foodstuffs in dissimilar environments, but also what revealingly united these opposites: namely, the identical music that was piped into both as a control of the background noise and as an assurance to whichever audience that their bad taste was never to be challenged, and that their destructively obsessive sentimental memories were exploited as they were evoked.

And so now we come to the most unwelcome part of the revelations—the part that’s grim because of its ubiquitous, even unquestionable reality.  The music of the smug and well-heeled is identical to the music of the struggling and the aged; it is the same music from the same contemporary streaming source and from the same historical provenance.  And it is, therefore, this music that is our “classical music”—the music everyone knows and acknowledges and expects to hear.  This music is demanded because it is always expected, and if those expectations were not met, there would be a price to pay, in the form of empty seats, or possibly even damaged properties.

To document this music—to name all the old popular hits of the early and even later days of rock ’n’ roll—would be a tedious matter, and worse, it would be as pointless as trying to imagine what would happen if real classical music were actually heard.  Such would be easy to arrange, but hard to manage as far as results are concerned.  But please, let’s not get into any unnecessarily violent conjectures.

Now I must also assert that music, because it is a gestalt, leaves an imprint on the mind.  Music is the invisible art, but it is also arguably the most unforgettable one.  So we must acknowledge that some oldies but goodies are actually memorable and even good music in their own right.  We must also admit that the old hit “Those Oldies but Goodies” continued with a verb and an object, “reminds me of you.”  I do treasure failures of subject-verb agreement—doesn’t everyone?

So yes, there is some merit to be found in popular music.  A favorite of mine is “Little Darlin’” by the Diamonds, in part because it was written and performed as an ugly travesty of rock in its early days, but one which could not be interpreted by the rapacious and indiscriminate fans.  Otherwise, take your pick of hundreds of examples.  I remember hearing, the last time I was exposed to such, “Ruby Tuesday” (the song, not the joint), “Johnny B. Goode” by C.B. himself, “Tell It Like It Is,” “Travellin’ Man,” “What the World Needs Now,” “Come Back When You Grow Up, Girl,” and scores of others in the usual agglomeration.  You pays your money and you takes your choice in the creative confusion that forgets the earlier film career of Petula Clark, the skills of Dickey Betts and Duane Allman, and all the rest of it.

So from the days of Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, and Elvis Presley, not to mention Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, and so many others, our country did establish its own classical music: a repertory that it insists on repeating forever.  The best thing about this repertory is that it is much better than contemporary pop music.  Perhaps the worst thing about it is that it eclipses not only earlier eras of popular music in which singing was actually heard, but it also prevents the nation’s youth, with few exceptions, from ever hearing (or even being willing to hear) real classical music at all.  Thus, high-tech availability and an illusion of personal choice have managed to promote a virtual elimination of the best of musical achievement, whether for upscale or downscale markets and consumers, of whatever demographic.