The Blog


Why Conservatives Should Celebrate the Return of Swing

12:00 AM, Jun 8, 1998 • By MARK GAUVREAU JUDGE
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

As a leading cultural indicator, it doesn't rank up there with the national drop in crime. But it's close.

For the last few years, America has experienced a revival in swing dancing. Big bands and young neo-swing "jump and jive" groups like the Cherry Poppin' Daddies -- who are currently receiving airplay on rock radio and selling ten thousand copies a week of their Zoot Suit Riot album -- are once again playing the music of Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Louis Jordan, and Cab Calloway in clubs and ballrooms jammed to the walls with jitterbuggers, most of them in their teens, twenties, and thirties. Indeed, the phenomenon has gotten so big that the Gap clothing store is running an ad featuring jitterbuggers lindy-hopping to Louis Prima's 1956 "Jump, Jive, and Wail."

This is good news for conservatives. If swing takes over pop culture the way rock-and-roll did in the early 1950s, it could do more to repair the cultural damage of the last thirty years than the war on drugs, the Republican Congress, and the Christian Coalition combined. To understand why, one has only to step inside the Derby in Los Angeles, the Spanish Ballroom outside Washington, D.C., or any of the other swing clubs that have popped up across the country. When one sees the fedoras, saddle shoes, well-mannered patrons, and general air of civility, it becomes apparent that swing has resurrected the night spot as an adult playground where anything less than strict decency is forbidden and shabby manners and dress are frowned upon.

At a restaurant called America in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, the Friday night big-band dance draws two to three hundred people, an interesting throng of teenagers and twenty-somethings mixed with senior citizens as well as Gen-X'ers (the baby-boomers, the generation of rock-and-roll, are conspicuously missing), and in over a year there has not been a single report of drunkenness, sexual assault, or even a fight. Unlike the rock-and-rollers who display the civil and sartorial nightmare that is one of the worst legacies of the 1960s, swing dancers like to look and act better than anyone in the room.

If, as some conservatives believe, manners and morals are as important as rights, this is no small thing. In The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1995) the social critic Christopher Lasch noted that one of the worst changes to occur in America since the 1950s is the loss of what the sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined in 1989 the term "third place" to describe. Third places are those casual spots outside both work and home: city taverns, tea gardens, post offices, beauty parlors, and dance halls where citizens can meet, talk, and have fun. Third places foster conversation with strangers and allow mingling between the generations, something now almost completely lost. "Young people used to be more actively involved in the adult world," Lasch wrote. "They had more opportunities to observe adults in unguarded moments. Today it is the young who are professionally observed by an army of well-meaning adults, in settings deliberately set aside for pedagogical purposes."

What is remarkable about a good third place -- which the new swing clubs have the chance to become -- is the way they encourage our better natures without the intervention of government, academics, or the helping professions. Oldenburg argues that in third places a kind of natural restraint holds sway and "whatever hint of hierarchy exists is predicated upon human decency" rather than wealth or fame.

Oldenburg goes on to note that 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. Many items of proper and improper behavior are reviewed in the countless hours and open agenda of rambling third place conversations. A dim view is taken of people who let their property become an eyesore, of the less-than-human breed who would litter a parking lot with a used paper diaper, of the ethical moron who would look for a pretext to sue somebody in pursuit of unearned or undeserved money, or of someone guilty of not meeting parental duties or responsibilities.