The other day I walked into our office and heard “Roxanne” by The Police playing on the stereo in our lobby. It was turned down low, but Andy Summer’s dry guitar pattern and Sting’s distinct voice are hard to miss. This wasn’t an arrangement of “Roxanne” scored for the 101 Strings or some such nonsense. This was the original 1978 recording. Apparently it was also being fed into our intercom system, because I heard it softly playing as I walked down the hall.
Normally I don’t pay attention to the office music. As usual the system was tuned to an easy-listening radio station that’s just one tick above Muzak. However, this song struck me as odd. Was it really appropriate to have a song about dating a prostitute playing in a school district office?
When this song premiered 30 years ago it was quite radical. The sparse, dry instrumentation with a simple quasi-Reggae beat was a departure from either the disco dance beats or heavily orchestrated progressive rock of the era. While double-entendre was common in lyrics, this one was fairly straight-forward – “Roxanne, you don’t have to put on the red light, walk the streets for money, you don’t have to sell your body to the night…” The lyrics could be heard clearly, and it was far below the acceptable norm for the time.
But, even the radical eventually becomes commonplace. Most people walking into our office would have completely tuned it out. Now punk rockers such as the Ramones don’t sound as radical as they once did. Songs from even further back, such as the Who, Rolling Stones, and The Beatles are hardly given a thought if encountered in the background, and they were just as radical for their time. Heck, back in medieval times a major third interval was radical. Things change.
Even if the radical does become more widely accepted, I’m still a firm believer in the appropriateness of certain songs and types of music for certain settings. I’m not a prude – I don’t believe in a wholesale banning of certain types of music, such as what Bob Jones University does with its students. I like loud raucous music, and even some that’s fairly radical even by today’s standards. However, I don’t think it belongs everywhere. For example, I’m very much a traditionalist when it comes to church music, and have never really cared for contemporary Christian.
That being said, the purpose of the radical is to shake things up, especially with traditionalists such as myself. When done with purpose, it can be very effective – either for good or for bad. (Notice I said “effective” and not “appropriate.”) Its power lies in the unexpected, and the departure from the norm. When I hear a great ground-breaking song like “Roxanne” casually mixed into a school setting, it strikes me as being worse than inappropriate. I get the feeling that the song has lost something. It’s been tossed onto the scrap heap of most popular music, and can now be ignored as background white noise. And that is unfortunate.