Perhaps the most static conversation in American culture is the one about its constant decline. Today's music, today's actors, today's movies, today's media, today's food, today's habits, today's language — it's all going to hell, all of it, and it's taking us with it, no matter when today is.
Well, not us. We know better. But it's taking kids with it if we don't watch out.
Meredith Willson's The Music Man opened in 1957, under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a few years after the Korean War. It was the year of "Jailhouse Rock" and "Great Balls Of Fire" on the singles charts, when John Lennon was still in a band called the Quarrymen. Five years later, it would become a film starring Shirley Jones and (as in the original stage production) Robert Preston.
The story is set in 1912, such that looking back on it means looking back more than 50 years at a show that was already looking back almost 50 years when it was made. It concerns Harold Hill, a con man who travels from small town to small town presenting himself as a music professor, persuading the locals to spend all their money on uniforms and instruments for a marching band for boys he's going to establish and lead. Once they buy the instruments and the uniforms, he leaves town.
His first task, therefore, is convincing people that they desperately need this boys' band he's offering. And the way he does that brings us to "Ya Got Trouble," a wicked satire of youth-culture panic hiding in plain sight inside a classic piece of upbeat Americana.
A lot of folks are familiar with the "trouble right here in River City" refrain of the song, but when you look at this double echo of cultural fretting — 50 years plus 50 years on — it serves as an impressive reminder that nothing, nothing, is new about the raising of alarms about the decline and fall of culture.
Hill has noticed that people are peeking into the billiard parlor, and he learns that it's because they've got a new pool table in there. And these folks haven't had a pool table in town before — "Just billiards." And he instantly knows that just this, just change, change itself, is enough to plant the seeds of panic, no matter how little sense it makes to suggest that pool is wicked but billiards is noble.
He approaches the grocer and announces that it's time to come to terms with "the caliber of disaster indicated by the presence of a pool table in your community." And that's where the hustle begins.
Well, sure, I'm a billiard player, certainly mighty proud to say, I'm always mighty proud to say it
He reminisces about the things he presumes he has in common with this man. He assures him that they share an appreciation for what's decent and good, what helps a guy "cultivate horse sense, and a cool head, and a keen eye." This is how you always sell the idea of decline — by saying that you and I, we know what's good. But then the turn:
Any boob can take and shove a ball in a pocket.
He hasn't even said anything about pool; it's pure flattery. You appreciate billiards because you're smart. Pool is for any boob. It's not the thing itself, in other words, but the kind of people who like it.
The first big step on the road to degrada — I say, first medicinal wine from a teaspoon, then beer from a bottle!
Now we're not even talking about pool. We're talking about drinking. We've gone from the difference between pool and billiards to the inevitability of substance abuse, and he's just getting started. There's no necessity of drawing an actual line between these things; that's part of the function of the way he cuts off the word "degradation." You can just move on, push on, and nobody will really care.
Then the kids get into it, and we hear about the son who will soon be "listening to some big out-of-town jasper" — cultural decline often comes from outsiders, you see — who will be discussing yet another of the horribles bringing down society: the shift from harness racing to, as Hill puts it with horror:
Not a wholesome trottin' race, no, but a race where you sit down right on the horse!
Exactly like pool and billiards, this is a distinction without a difference that now, decades later, it's impossible to imagine anyone assigning a moral dimension.
And yet, there is increasing concern, because it is enough to suggest that this is vulgar, that sitting directly on a horse is something only an unsophisticated person would either do or appreciate. And who will be sitting on that horse? "Some stuck-up jockey boy." Cultural decline comes from the influence of the "stuck-up," you see. The fancy.
In perhaps the clearest and most nonsensical moment in the number, he draws the line for good.
You got one, two, three, four, five, six pockets in a table — pockets that mark the difference between a gentleman and a bum.
He's not holding back here; he is telling these people, now that he's poked their fear of booze, elites, outsiders, slippery slopes, and those who would interfere with authentic and worthy pursuits they perhaps love like harness racing, that the difference between pool and billards, those six pockets, mark a person as decent or not.
And now: the children.
All week long, your River City youth will be fritterin' away, I say your young men'll be fritterin'! Fritterin' away their noontime, suppertime, chore time too.
So far, he's only claiming that smartphones — sorry, sorry, I meant pool tables — will distract your children from all the things they're supposed to be doing to help around the house. They won't help with dinner. They won't fetch water. And, as he says, "that's trouble."
Now, I know all you folks are the right kind of parents.
More flattery, which is always, always a part of cultural panic, although sometimes you have to dig deeper than this to see it. His goal is to keep whatever is not the "right kind" of culture from infecting the "right kind" of people. It's not you, ever. It's them. Moreover, as much as flattery, it's guilt: if you want to continue to be the right kind of parents, you must appropriately freak out over this, because that's what good and decent people who care about their children would do.
Tryin' out Bevo, tryin' out Cubebs, tryin' out tailor-mades
But now we've moved past distraction to other problems. Namely, a near-beer and two kinds of cigarettes. Panic over kids drinking and smoking, in a story written in 1957 about 1912.
One fine night, they leave the pool hall, headin' for the dance at the Armory
Libertine men and scarlet women
Inevitably, once the kids are induced to leave town, we reach the fear of sex.
And ragtime! Shameless music that will grab your son, your daughter in the arms of a jungle animal instinct
Well, it wouldn't be a classic cultural panic without a little appeal to racism about a genre of music that originated in black communities and how it's going to bring out the out-of-control, sex-having jungle animal in your nice little kids (including daughters, mentioned here for the first and only time during a rant that's been mostly about boys).
And then he yells:
He just told them he's inducing mass hysteria, but that's okay — they're not listening.
At this point, he's pretty much got the crowd on his side. He goes on to list the "telltale signs of corruption," which include rebuckling knickerbockers below the knee (How Kids Wear Pants: A Cultural Nightmare), dime novels (The Trash Kids Read: A Cultural Swamp), and the use of words like "swell" (The Way Kids Talk: A Cultural Disaster).
But perhaps my favorite moment in the entire piece is when Hill stands before the town's statute and throws in, for absolutely no particular reason, "Remember the Maine, Plymouth Rock, and the Golden Rule!" Because it's important to back up any good cultural panic with references to the founders, the dangers of foreign countries and your own love of the military, and assorted snippets of general advice on decency. This is where you get the strongest sense of Willson's sharp bite — his mockery of the empty way people can be whipped up over imaginary threats to all that they hold dear.
It's just worth taking a moment now and then to remember that people have long believed the culture was collapsing, the world was going dark, the music was all junk, the books were all corrupting, and the new thing replacing the old thing meant the new people were going to be worse. And that panic has always been built in the same ways, and always used to motivate people to do things and spend money and join causes. These were old tricks when Willson wrote about them before the '60s counterculture even happened. They would have been old tricks in 1912.