Rat Pack, Shmat Pack: Lounge ‘Movement’ Just Won’t Die

On Oct. 22, Joey Altruda, the Los Angeles-based bass player and composer, brought his band east to play a night at the Strato-Lounge, a weekly happening at Windows on the World. Mr. Altruda’s band plays, for lack of a better term, lounge music: They have horns, they dress well; it is, to paraphrase a Frank Sinatra LP, a swingin’ affair. But they can improvise, and do so with more wit than sarcasm. They riffed off a clever ska-inflected cover of Fela’s “No Agreement,” for example, and ska guitar legend Ernest Ranglin flew in for the gig. Mr. Altruda considers his music jazz, actually, and in a way it is, but not for many of the ears at the top of the World Trade Center. It’s hard to be heard as anything but lounge at the Strato-Lounge, which, though less decadently pretentious than the press has inferred, is still a bunch of youngish, well-off people drinking and dancing with ambivalent pleasure to desperately nutty arrangements of Henry Mancini and Antonio Carlos Jobim melodies.

Mr. Altruda loves Mancini (in fact, he’s composed for film himself), but wasn’t this scene a bit too tony for the hipster of 1997? When did opulence become fashionable among Generation X? Mr. Altruda had a thought on the subject. He recalled something the Blasters’ Phil Alvin once said to him. “Whether it’s Delta blues or jazz records or Jamaican music, for a long time the coolest kinds of music always seemed to be from the low-income places in the world,” he said. “The music of suffering people was brilliant music.”

Well, the Strato-Lounge isn’t the Cotton Club, and the poor don’t drink at the World Trade Center, they try to blow it up. The appeal of the cultural artifacts of poverty (i.e., hot records) fades a bit with each passing year, and nowhere is this more evident than in the current lounge “movement.” According to the pop-cultural ebb and flow, lounge would seem to have peaked years ago in terms of hipness. Yet the replacement of Robert Johnson with Dean Martin in the hearts of the au courant continues apace.

Looking at the CD racks, you’d never know that the past was passé: Capitol’s Ultra Lounge series, Rhino’s Crime Jazz series, new compilations of Burt Bacharach, Xavier Cugat and Ferrante & Teicher. Even Pottery Barn is selling its own Martini Lounge CD. To top it all off, Bar/None recently reissued three CDs’ worth of Juan Garcia Esquivel’s seemingly limitless repertoire (three more CDs are coming early next year), only three years after they jump-started the space age bachelor pad craze by releasing the first compilation of the Latin lover and arranger of TV incidental music. That first Esquivel compilation sold 70,000 copies, which is remarkable considering that Bar/None never attempted to market it to the Jackie Gleason and Lester Lanin fans it was originally intended for.

Of course, it’s been about 15 years since punk and industrial wise guys first started snatching up Esquivel LPs from thrift stores (along with Bettie Page porn and used syringes). Yet in just a couple of years, the urge to mock the past and escape the present has grown so severe that the major labels can no longer hide behind their repackaged Eagles tours, and have bundled together compilations of everyone from Hugo Montenegro to Mickey Katz. We’ve been hit with Rat Pack nostalgia harder than the force with which Frank Sinatra once threw a cocktail waitress through a plate-glass window. Collections of program music and sounds so anonymous as to strike the modern ear as eccentric now abound, despite the fact that the revival is well past its sell-by date. Some lounge aficionados have given up living in the present altogether. Yes, they prefer flush toilets and electricity, but they drink their whisky neat , swing-dance to WQEW-AM and immerse themselves in the iconography of black-and-white movies.

This did not come out of the blue: The urge to dress up and role-play has been stirring in the aging adolescent for several years, club culture being a fundamental example. A vintage porkpie hat on a ska-free head remains a potent thing, charged as it is with the past and one’s hatred of it. (Irony rarely starts as an act of love.) But that old new-wave idea of theater-in-life has lost its sting. Starting in the early 1990’s, baby-doll dresses were drained of their social critique of sexist culture, and became, well, dresses to make women look like sexier infants. And thrift-store culture has morphed into its mirror image; where once we attacked the perceived emptiness of the past, or re-evaluated our misunderstanding of it, now we pine for the emptiness.

Seven years on, it’s become an epidemic: a music-style-nostalgia infestation, mingling the indulgence of hippie culture with the surliness of Frank Sinatra’s egoism. The clothes are spiffy enough, and the music worth re-evaluating, but at what price? Where did irony flee to? Dean Martin sings “Love Is Just a Kick in the Head,” and we tie our cleats on. Lounge culture is no longer the alternative poverty of the indie-rock scenester, but a nostalgia for the times of the Red Scare. It’s a rebirth of the 50’s potentially worse than the 50’s.

Listening to recent attempts by 30-ish Los Angeleno alternative types to cover lounge standards on the recent Lounge-a-palooza (Hollywood) compilation can be nauseating. To hear Michelle Shocked and her guest from the past, Glen Campbell, unintentionally deconstruct “Wichita Lineman” is excruciating. Why is a trend only validated in the minds of record company execs when Flea-who helped put the project together-picks up on it? No doubt there are Red Hot Chili Pepper revivalists coming in the next half-decade, and then perhaps Flea and his compatriots will have to suffer through a jackboot in the face by a younger generation.

Make no mistake, though: Esthetically, the interest in such eclectic trailblazers as Mr. Esquivel is important, and I am not being perverse when I suggest that in the long run his music will have a greater influence than either Pearl Jam or Bruce Springsteen. Shifting the role of the Latin band leader from gyrating performer to meticulous arranger, Mr. Esquivel performs a function similar to the more self-conscious Andy Warhol. He was not an “artist” in the high modernist sense, but a creator of brilliant product. Certainly he had no idea that the inappropriate “zum-zum-zums” of his backing singers would sound half-baked to future generations, that this ridiculousness would bring pleasure, and that that pleasure would validate the art as art.

Is music an object created or perceived? Must the artist grunt for his work to be “felt”? The facelessness of much lounge music allows the listener to value his reactions to the music over the coifed angst of the performer’s personae. The painfully false self-revelation of a Morrissey, for instance, is no longer enough (and we should be thankful). After 40 years, rock is slowly shifting back toward the margins from which it arose, and the sheer quantity of product out there is allowing a musical diversity for even the most intemperate minds. I welcome a few dinner jackets into the Loser’s Lounge, but what I find particularly frustrating about the lounge movement is that a potential alliance for the expanding of musical possibilities risks becoming a stylish straitjacket for well-dressed, empty minds.

Every decade seems to contain the history of 10 decades, and the lounge movement has opened our eyes to a lot of work falsely perceived as ephemera. But I hope that when we travel back to the 1940’s, it isn’t the storm troopers that get into our heads, no matter how sharply they dress.