#420: Buddy Holly and the Crickets, "The 'Chirping' Crickets" (1957)

I like Buddy Holly and the Crickets, but I am constantly worried I'm not having the right response when I listen. This is in part because my response is, almost every time I hear The "Chirping" Crickets, that all of the songs sound very much the same. It's a comment I mean descriptively, not evaluatively, but which I associate with my pre-teen years, when my dad would make fun of the music I was getting into by saying that all the songs sounded the same. I didn't have the wherewithal or the cultural capital to respond with "So what? Isn't that why we like them?" back then, and even now that I know I can say that it still makes me feel a little silly. But there you have it: I like Buddy Holly and the Crickets because their music is incredibly formulaic and "samey" at the end of the day.

There is, in addition to my own reticence, a more general resistance to describing things in terms of the formulae they operate with, or the continuities between them. To celebrate a cultural production, we highlight its daring newness, the ways it breaks the mold—one need only read any given think piece on any given movie to see what I mean. But I find that sort of analysis exhausting, in part because it makes me feel cheated of some marvelous experience, and, more seriously, because it makes "novelty" feel like a genre or a trope all its own, thus depriving the word of any substance (if, of course, it has any substance in the first place). Instead of this approach, I would offer one that looks to the continuities that attend The "Chirping" Crickets, the ways in which Buddy Holly and his band link up with, rather than deviate from, other kinds of cultural productions.

This is to say that a song like "Not Fade Away" is great, not so much because it does something new, but because it brings together a lot of old things. It delights in the music that came before it; it excitedly asks that things influence it. Thus we hear Elvis Presley and Hank Williams in Holly's hiccupping vocals, the shifting between falsetto and regular singing voice; we hear the greats of the Delta blues (John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson, and on and on) in the guitar; we hear, in the drums and bass, rhythms right out of Bo Diddley; and we hear harmonies in the backing that would fit in the music of any act invited to the Grand Ole Opry. So when I say that Holly and the Crickets made "formulaic" music, I mean that they took a bunch of existing musical tropes and smashed them together. And that—more than some isolated encounter with the sublime—is what's so great about their music. We can, perhaps remarkably, see the active attempt to synthesize a bunch of disparate elements into the coherent unity of a single song.

In all this I don't want to reduce Buddy Holly and the Crickets to aesthetics alone; in their short existence the band lived in the same peculiar interstices their music formalizes and indexes. They were, after all, a white band who performed at the Apollo, and whose songs made significant headway on R&B charts. It's not that they were crusaders against racism or anything, but they reflected how complex the cultural interactions were along the lines of race. By sitting on the very vexed and contentious fault line between white cultural production and black cultural production, they laid bare the degree to which the former owed—and still owes—an unspeakable formal (and monetary, given the predatory practices of record labels!) debt to the latter.

These observations are easy to make from the present, and risk occluding the experience of listening to "That'll be the Day" or "Tell Me How" that is not simply meditating on our own guilt and complicity in ongoing racial exploitation and violence. The really difficult thing that Buddy Holly and the Crickets point up on The "Chirping" Crickets is precisely that our pleasures have been organized around this fundamental appropriation. It makes the quotations marks around the "chirping" take on a sinister valence. These aren't crickets, sprung fully formed out of nature; they are artificial crickets, and they are stealing everything they can get their hands on to hide the care with which their image and sound is manufactured.

My aim is neither to condemn nor redeem Buddy Holly. That seems pointless. What I do want to suggest is that we can't just ignore the peculiar position he occupies—the complexity of his own music's impulse toward cross-pollination and the ways in which he has been received by his audiences—to make ourselves feel morally pure in some way. We can listen and enjoy, and we do, or I do, and hope you will too; and we can recognize the contingency of our pleasure, the degree to which we have the privilege of taking pleasure in this, or anything at all. And that's not to say that some pop is less degraded than other pop. All pop is pop, it is all a cultural production. But the history of such a pronouncement brings to light the uneven contours of how it took shape as an apparatus that extends our exploitation into every facet of our lives. If this is the necessary consequence of a line of thought that begins with continuity and similitude, so be it. I like to think the other side of all of this "chirping" is the acknowledgment of its contingency—crickets don't sing all year round—and thus the very real recognition that, whatever degradations we face and deal with and live through now, they are ultimately historical, which means, if nothing else, that they will not last forever. Things can change! And Buddy Holly's music in some way reminds us of this. It's a small comfort, but if it jangles like "I'm Looking for Someone to Love," I'll happily take it.

—David W. Pritchard