There are many genres that are generally reviled by critics and ‘serious’ music fans (and in some cases even by the general listening public), from Easy Listening and Soft Rock to Nu-Metal and Post-Grunge. Many of these genres are not entirely deserving of this treatment, and nearly all of them have at least a few good artists working in them, but of all the typical music critic’s favorite targets, none is so inexplicable or so unjustified as the hatred received by a genre commonly known as ‘Lounge Music’.
Now the thing is, you could make a case that this is a real and accurately-defined genre that happens to have been named by its detractors. At any rate, it’s certainly a category that it would be useful to have a catch-all term for, which is why some compilations of music from the era have latched onto it out of a kind of desperation, as it is the only universally recognizable term for the genre. But if you look past the negative associations that the name has picked up thanks to those detractors and take a look at what it actually describes, I think you’ll see that all this disrespect is completely unwarranted, and that the derogatory name should be retired in favor of one worthy of a genre like this one.
For those unfamiliar with the term or (more likely) its actual meaning, ‘Lounge Music’ is generally applied to the era of Great American Songbook Jazz-Pop that started in the late Forties and early Fifties and remained a reasonably strong commercial force until about the end of the Sixties, after which it trailed off into a niche genre that would occasionally produce a hit here or there as late as the late Seventies. This category includes the Capitol- and Reprise-era work by Frank Sinatra, as well as the work of Nat ‘King’ Cole, Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin, Bobby Darin, Tony Bennett and Perry Como, plus female singers like Peggy Lee, Doris Day and early Barbra Streisand (Louis Armstrong, Judy Garland, and Ella Fitzgerald, like Sinatra, predated the era in question, but their later work as pop singers has been lumped into the category too). The term also encompasses the compositions of Burt Bacharach and Hal David and most of the stable of singers who perform them, as well as the less experimental and more accessible Jazz acts of the era, such as Stan Getz, Louis Prima or Herb Alpert, and a few true Easy Listening acts like Liberace, Percy Faith, or Mantovani. It is clear, then, that this is essentially a general term for the ‘traditional’ (read: non-Rock) music that was popular with the older and more traditional crowd before and during the early days of Rock’n’Roll.
Of course, any rational person would look at the preceding list of artists in this ‘genre’ and ask why anyone would ever hold it in contempt or give it a derogatory nickname in the first place. It’s especially odd given that the era immediately preceding this one (generally referred to as the ‘Swing’ era) is something most of the smarter Rock critics don’t feel qualified to complain about. You know the era I’m talking about…the one marked not only by the great Jazz and Swing bandleaders like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, and Glenn Miller, but also by several equally legendary singers (particularly Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald) who were associated with them. And while this era was admittedly a bit harder-edged and less self-indulgent that the one that came after it, the two periods have an enormous amount in common and were based on essentially the same musical influences. If you applied the modern manner of labeling genres to the music of the period, you could very well term the era of Jazz-Pop commonly labelled as ‘Lounge Music’ ‘post-Swing’.
The initial explanation for this comes when you remember that Rock as a genre was founded by young, rebellious counterculturalists who needed for emotional reasons to believe that everything their parents liked was automatically worthless. They can perhaps be forgiven in their youth and ignorance, especially since many of them did in fact create some wonderful music and break new ground that honestly needed to be broken. Less understandable is the completely irrational need of many Rock critics and fans today to convince themselves that their idols of that era were right, and that Rock somehow ‘saved’ music. In reality, it did no such thing; music was just as good and arguably better immediately before the Rock era began, especially in the period between 1958 and 1963 when close to the only good music on the charts was coming from these ‘Lounge’ acts. Even Rock’s own supposed experts often fail to see how much the genres owes to earlier musical innovations, including some from the very genre it thought it was rebelling against.
The musical Memphis tried to make this argument, too, portraying ‘White music’ as stuffy Easy Listening and ‘Black music’ (that is, R&B and early Rock) as some kind of revitalizing subversive force, but the truth is that those genres were based on the same basic influences as the Jazz that had provisioned the popular music of the previous two generations. Granted, the majority of ‘Lounge Singers’ were White, but so were Elvis, Buddy Holly, and the Beatles, so the race card Memphis tries to draw is irrelevant here since both genres were essentially the same thing…Black musical influences that would be largely co-opted by Whites; just because one was in an earlier stage in that process at that point doesn’t really make them any different.
The fact that the term ‘Lounge Music’ still proliferates, and in fact has become so ubiquitous than even fans of the style have started using it to describe the genre, tells you how deeply rooted the pet myths of Rock really are, and I await they day when Rock music finally grows up and realizes how much its parents really knew back when it took them for nothing but old fools.