Monday, October 30, 2006

Can Accordions Be Cool?

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Dave "loud-time" Zimmerman sent me this story: The Associated Press wants to know what kind of aliens are still playing accordions. In a profile of a school in remote Wishek, North Dakota (map above), we meet several high school students learning traditional German oompah music, accordions and all.

The tone of the article is sort of ethnographic – like “check out these hillbillies”. Their out-of-date-ness can make the rest of us feel better. We aren’t cool, and we wish we were cooler than we are, but at least we’re not playing accordions.

Unfortunately, cool is harder to master than a simple squeezebox.

I know I’m not the only one who tried to be cool in middle school. I remember trying to increase my hipness by wearing cool shoes. At another time it was denim jackets, or earrings, or whatnot. But I remember discovering, about five minutes into the school day, that my new Converses (I’m dating myself, I know) weren’t going to help me.

The cool kids still didn’t let me have whatever it was that I wanted. And total brownnosers were wearing the same shoes as me.

Here’s the secret the retail world doesn’t want you to know: Cool doesn’t reside in objects – be they shoes or accordions. Cool is an attitude. It’s how you wear the shoes, or play the accordion that makes the difference.

Perhaps the AP hasn’t noticed, but accordions were present at the birth of Rock and Roll (as part of Bill Haley’s rhythm section).

More significantly, accordions are a mainstay of Norteño music, the very-cool Mexican pop music (pictured - and video below: Refugio Norteño). You can indeed be very cool while playing an accordion.

But there is another layer here, a deeper problem: we presume that it’s a good thing to be a hip rebel. Reporter Blake Nicholson repeatedly lands on the town’s German heritage, either as he sets the stage, or as he quotes the students themselves. These kids are learning the accordion because it’s a thing of heritage, not because it’s cool. Cool is what Nicholson has projected onto teenage trendiness.

Are these kids cool for learning Polka? Not at all. They are doing something much better. They are living without shame, celebrating their parents and grandparents, and they are making music in the process. That is authenticity worth living.

Here's Bill Haley, by the way. The accordion is second from the left.


At 11:00 AM, October 31, 2006, Blogger David A. Zimmerman said...

Great post. Love Bill Haley. It's my contention that music snobs (whose place in the cool heirarchy is secure), particularly those of us who fancy ourselves champions of American music, always come inevitably to appreciate the accordian. Toad the Wet Sprocket, Counting Crows, The Hooters, The Decemberists: all respect the accordian. I thought it was the silliest thing in the world when my aunts and mother would drag them out at family reunions, until I got to college, where I wanted to own one really bad.


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