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Catholic Book Review: If It Ain't Got That Swing

Updated on September 9, 2014

If it Ain't Got That Swing by Mark Gauvreau Judge

Mark Gauvreau Judge offers a lively social analysis of modern culture, making us aware that we are missing something when our communities lack public forums for adult conversation and socialization. He uses his own experience with swing dancing as an illustration of his point. This is a thoughtful, fun read.

While his thesis is not blatant, Judge offers an incredibly insightful sociological analysis to explain why teenagers today are having so much trouble socializing. Why are drugs, gangs, and premarital sex so rampant? For Judge, the answer lies in the loss of a "sense of place" - a loss of community.

If It Ain't Got That Swing: The Rebirth of Grown-Up Culture
If It Ain't Got That Swing: The Rebirth of Grown-Up Culture

In a world dominated by teenagers, it is easy to forget that popular culture once catered to adults. A countercultural "Gen-X" writer shows in his new book that the rise of rock and roll and the suburbanization of America have produced a narcissistic society drained of joy and hope. Yet in the spreading revival of swing dancing-an artifact of a more sophisticated and convivial way of life-he detects a harbinger of cultural renewal. Mr. Judge recalls the Washington neighborhood of Shaw, birthplac...


Why is Society So Neurotic?

In order to help us understand his thesis, Judge begins with the psychological theory of Christopher Lasch. According to his theory, children have trouble differentiating between themselves and the world around them. This lack of discernment leads to a sense of omnipotence and a sense of egocentrism - "the world exists to serve me and I control the world."

While Lasch's neo-Freudian bent includes an infant world full of rage and fear towards parents, his theory makes some sense. He stresses the need for institutions of transition that help children move from dependence to independence. Judge uses this theory to show how our culture has vacated such institutions and left our children without the ability to transition into adulthood.

How Are We Neurotic?

Wary of intimate, permanent relationships
dependence and thus may trigger infantile rage
Feelings of inner emptiness and unease
Ravenous for admiration and emotional and sexual conquest
Preoccupied with personal "growth" and the consumption of novel sensations
Increased risk-taking behavior and dissatisfaction with experience
Prone to alternating self-images of grandiosity and abjection
Identity crisis, loss of self-worth, loss of self-confidence
Prolonged childhood
Liable to feel toward everyone in authority the same combination of rage and terror that the infant feels for those it depends on
Unable to identify emotionally with past and future generations
Unable to accept the prospect of aging, decay, and death
Adapted from page 21 of If It Ain't Got That Swing
What Does Dancing Have to Do With It?
What Does Dancing Have to Do With It?

The Power of "Third Places"

How do transitional institutions help children become adults? Transitional communities are social situations that require an individual to conform to certain expectations and roles in order for the community to function in a healthy way.

Historically, the most important transitional communities have been what Judge calls "Third Places." In places such as caf├ęs, dance halls and theaters, children and adults mixed, socialized, and entertained together. However, the places belonged to adults, and adults wrote the rules. On page 41 of If it Ain't Got That Swing, Judge says,

"Perhaps the third place's greatest attribute is its ability to foster basic human decency. According to Oldenburg, in third places 'whatever hint of hierarchy exists is predicated upon human decency' rather wealth or fame, and a kind of natural restraint holds sway. Boisterous or political talk is welcome, but not someone who brags or hogs the floor. Young and old interact, making it difficult for the young to speak and act the way they might at a keg party or in a rock club. As Oldenburg notes, this decency often spills into the larger community: 'Promotion of decency in the third place is not limited to it. The regulars are not likely to do any of those things roundly disapproved at the coffee counter.'"

Third places offered a training ground for teenagers to learn what it means to be an adult. Children learned to socialize by socializing with adults in adult environments under adult supervision and regulated by adult rules of conduct. Furthermore, teenagers experienced adults having fun, engaging in meaningful social interaction, and treating each other with respect and dignity. Teenagers looked forward to becoming adults, not just because of the pipe dream of adult freedom, but because they realized that becoming an adult meant maturing toward full human life. Being an adult was a good thing!

I love this theory! It seems obvious to me that cultural entertainment has shifted from adult-centered to child-centered and that our culture is not better for the change.

True Socialization

Third places offered a training ground for teenagers to learn what it means to be an adult. Children learned to socialize by socializing with adults in adult environments under adult supervision and regulated by adult rules of conduct.

Swing Dancing - A Fun, Powerful Social Influence

Why Was Swing Dancing So Great?  n the Swing era, the main social function of music was to get people to dance.
Why Was Swing Dancing So Great? n the Swing era, the main social function of music was to get people to dance.

  • Swing dancers followed social etiquette that respected the rights of everyone to have a good dancing experience.
  • Swing dancing allowed males and females to touch each other frequently in non-sexual ways.
  • Swing dancing created a healthy atmosphere of adult interaction and fun.
  • Swing dancing gave children the opportunity to see adults in healthy, fun social interaction.

How Did Culture Change?

Judge illustrates the change in society by showing the changes in music. Culture, like music, became less social and more individual. It became less adult and more adolescent.

  1. Be-Bop did not have the dancer as its main consideration but rather the egocentric desire of the artist to show off his skill. It is fun music but you can't dance to it!
  2. Be-Bop gave way to rock, which began (with Elvis, at least) as a return to dancing but still had a narcissistic bent to it, mixed with the sense of social rebellion of the 1960s.
  3. Narcissism eventually won out as the rock of Elvis Presley was transformed by Punk and then by Grunge. These dance forms are rebellious, obnoxious, and shocking. Furthermore, you can't dance to them (unless you really call mosh pits dancing). Punk and Grunge are not meant to be social forms of music. In contrast to Swing's culture of social etiquette, rock's culture is one of social rebellion and freedom.

Where Does That Leave Our Culture?

Some concluding thoughts

"Today, the 'revolutionary' changes wrought in the 1960s have become the status quo, the rituals of rock boring and predictable. When a young misanthrope smashes his guitar on stage at a punk show, it's about as shocking as a saxophone solo during the big band era. Rebellion and alienation are the common stances - so common they have all but run out of targets for their rage (90)."

Judge's social analysis is not couched in dry polemics. While he does pull some harsh jabs at political liberals, most of his analysis is embedded in a delightful collection of reminiscences about the "good old days" in Shaw, a neighborhood of Washington, D.C., and descriptions of dance events. The book offers a fun look at history, a fresh perspective on the Civil Rights years, and a thought provoking sociological theory.

What is true socialization for teenagers? Is it really healthy for teenagers to get their social and cultural cues from each other? Would it not be better for them to learn from those who have reached maturity, and who truly know how to enjoy life's goodness? Perhaps the student's recommendation in the Log to have "something for teenagers" at Alpine Holiday should be answered with a concerted effort to involve them in the adult activity. Not only should teenagers not be isolated from the music, they should not be isolated from the community either.

Do You Agree?

Do the ideas in this book describe modern culture accurately?

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