I’ve gone through many different music phases, but one that stands out in particular would have to be my slightly hipster Swing Music phase about 20 years ago (and yes, it’s weird that when I say “20 years ago” I’m referring to the 1990s, which seems like just yesterday). And I say “hipster” because at the time no one my age (14) was listening to swing. At a time when kids were listening to Pearl Jam and Nirvana, I was listening to Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller.
So, what was with the sudden interest in swing music? Well, I blame that entirely on the movie Swing Kids, which came out in theaters in March of 1993. I went and saw the movie mainly because of Christian Bale (and a little bit because of Robert Sean Leonard), not really knowing what the hell swing music was, and came out thinking that swing music was the greatest genre of all time.
The movie takes place in 1939 Nazi Germany and centers around three teenage boys forced to join the Hitler Youth (HJ), as all boys were doing at that time. But they loved swing music and dubbed themselves “Swing Kids by day, HJ’s by night”. It featured music from Benny Goodman and Django Reinhardt, among other, and included several scenes of them swing dancing at nightclubs (which was, of course, VERBOTEN among Nazis, as many swing and jazz musicians were “Jews” and “negros”).
And like those Swing Kids, I was hooked.
I thought the music was awesome. The dancing was even awesomer (yep, it’s a word). And it wasn’t just because it was Christian Bale and Robert Sean Leonard. I felt this music. It became a part of me. It made me happy. And it made me discover new things about music that I had ever thought about before. And yes, it probably turned me into a bit of a 14-year-old hipster, especially when swing music suddenly took off a few years later. I’ll get to that in a bit.
In 1993, swing music was still unknown to a lot of people, even after the movie came out, probably due to the fact that not very many people saw it. And because iTunes didn’t exist 20 years ago, I couldn’t just go and download swing songs I wanted. All I had was the Swing Kids soundtrack (which to this day is still awesome), along with the extremely random AM radio station 1400 which sometimes played really old jazz music at different times of the day. There was also a TV show on some cable channel that was called “The Big Bands” that was on at 10:00 on Saturday nights that I would watch (and yes, I would make sure I was home) which showed 30 minutes of old big band performances.
Okay, so I was a little different from most 14-year-olds. But whatever.
You could, however, see a small 1940s influence on other things at the time. Dresses I liked to call “Swing Kids Dresses) began appearing in Seventeen magazine, knee-length, short-sleeved dresses that usually had some kind of floral pattern that looked similar to the dresses the girls were wearing in 1940s swing clubs. My friend and I even got ones to wear to our 8th grade graduation at the time (even though she had way more cool “swing kids shoes” than I did). And then there was the short-lived but oh-so-good TV show Homefront, which took place during WWII and featured big band music and gorgeous clothes and Kyle Chandler. So it seemed my love for swing and all things 40s was also affecting other people, even if it hadn’t reached the people of my small Midwestern high school.
Fast forward five years. By this time I’ve sort of gotten over the swing obsession, even though it was still something I loved. I just wasn’t actively seeking it like I used to. But then people began to take notice of Ska music (which, I’m sorry, I HATE, but it does have ties to swing music), and from there grew an appreciation for big band and swing.
And then came the Gap commercial.
In 1998 The Gap released a commercial to promote their new khakis which featured a bunch of people swing dancing to “Jump, Jive ‘n’ Wail” while wearing khaki pants. And OH MY GOD swing music just exploded. Suddenly everyone thought this music was amazing and fun and awesome and the people who used to listen to Pearl Jam and Nirvana were now buying CDs of new bands like Squirrel Nut Zippers and The Brian Setzer Orchestra (formally of Stray Cats) and Cherry Poppin’ Daddies. My college (and I’m sure many others) were suddenly having Swing Music Dance Nights. Suddenly swing music was the cool thing to listen to, and of course the hipster in me was all, “Um, whatever, I listened to swing music before khakis made it cool.”
But I was more happy than jaded, because I had that much more access to music that I still really loved. And of course it was only a matter of time before people stopped listening to swing music and started listening to Ricky Martin and ‘NSYNC, and swing just became another forgotten genre to many but still special to some. Swing music was a big part of my teenage years, even if it came in spurts. And it’s still fun to listen to today, whether you’re stuck in traffic and need something fun and relaxing, or having a dance party at home with your four-year-old.
And who knows…another khaki and swing invasion may once again be on the horizon. And then Glee will do swing music and everyone will hate it.
It all goes full circle, doesn’t it?
If you’re interested in becoming obsessed with swing music, here are some good songs to start with:
“Sing, Sing, Sing” – Benny Goodman
“One O’Clock Jump” – Count Basie
“In the Mood” – Glenn Miller
“Bugle Call Rag” – Glenn Miller or Benny Goodman (they both did it)
“Jumpin’ at the Woodside” – Count Basie