My Back Pages: Swingers

Author: Liam Farrell '04

Recently, while procrastinating on packing for my now completed move from Indiana to Maryland, I caught part of the 1996 movie Swingers on television, an occasion that recalled one of the stranger cultural zeitgeists of my lifetime.

For those of you who aren’t males whose adolescence/college years corresponded with that movie’s release, it concerns the misadventures of a few entertaining knuckleheads trying to get acting careers off the ground in Los Angeles. That gives it too much plot credit, though, as it is more just a window into a certain brand of male bonding through a road trip to Las Vegas, bad bars and parties, and competitive video gaming. A launch pad for Vince Vaughn’s career, the movie also generalized slang terms (like “money”) and social rules (wait at least one day, preferably two, to call a girl if you get her number) amongst my peers.

As its title suggests, however, the movie was also a window into the curious swing revival of the 1990s, when musicians ditched flannel and guitars for zoot suits and horns. I say “curious” because, in retrospect, there really isn’t a great reason why young people decided to delve into derivations of big band (although, maybe looking for a reason is beyond the point with such things).

Unlike soul music or early rock, there wasn’t even a good way to accidentally hear the forebears of those new tunes, unless 16-year-olds across the country suddenly became public radio aficionados. In terms of popularity, the swing revival was helped by the near-simultaneous burgeoning of ska, which was generally more punk inflected and had rougher edges, but shared some of the instruments and grooves.

But in a particular corner of the universe, there was a decent jumping off point: high school jazz band. If you had to be band geek, you may as well have been a jazz band one; after all, there were guitars and electric basses in the room. For a trumpet player like myself, playing Count Basie tunes in class and listening to Big Bad Voodoo Daddy (who make an appearance in Swingers) at night had a pleasant old-and-new symmetry — plus, it was a way to help keep former horn players in a job.

Trumpet players were only off the unemployment line for so long, however. I think the ubiquitous awfulness of Lou Bega’s “Mambo No. 5” in 1999 was probably the swing revival’s canary in the coal mine. On a recent commute, I spun some of my old CDs. There are still some good songs, even if none are tremendously memorable.

It reminded me, though, that many times what you discover working back from a current song or album can often turn into what stays for years on your playlist — you can follow the lines from the Strokes to the Replacements to the Velvet Underground and keep going until you dig into Alan Lomax’s field recordings.

Along its short way, the swing revival introduced a lot of teenagers to music without an expiration date, from Frank Sinatra to Clifford Brown. No matter how silly a zoot suit looked during the Clinton Administration, that’s an admirable reverberation from a moment in time.

Liam Farrell, former alumni editor of this magazine, is now a senior writer and editor at the University of Maryland.