- Mondo Exotica: Sounds, Visions, Obsessions of the Cocktail Generation
The return of “lounge music” in the 1990s revived a whole series of sounds, practices, styles, and attitudes that had been forgotten by all except fans of 1960s B movies. Although James Bond—still very much with us today—is a product of the type of masculine world that generated the adventurously escapist pleasures of the early Cold War years, only those in the know would associate John Barry’s celebrated theme tune (in fact composed, as several court cases established, by Monty Norman), Bond’s love of martinis (“shaken not stirred”), indulgence in sophisticated travel, and taste for disposable fantasy women with a particular configuration of Western popular culture. Francesco Adinolfi’s delightfully off-beat exploration of the peculiar mixture of sounds and sound effects that provided the aural backdrop to the affirmation of the postwar [End Page 139] consumer society in the West gets to the heart of that very mix of fantasies, dreams, and yearnings. His book, the result of years of painstaking research that included interviews with several composers and performers of jazz and musical exotica (many of them now deceased), is encyclopedic in mapping the way orientalist and colonialist motifs dating back to the nineteenth century informed musical currents in the early twentieth century before blossoming as a full-blown exotic genre after World War II. Adinolfi gives much attention to semi-forgotten maestros such as Martin Denny and Les Baxter, as well as to television shows, films, nightclubs, and performers who were identified with the idiom.
Adinolfi, who was not yet born when most of the music and customs he examines flourished, accurately records the revival in the 1990s of interest in lounge music. He even contributed to this renewed interest in his capacity as a radio host and print journalist in Italy. But his book is no superficial revel in past ephemera, even though his love of the music he discusses is obvious. On the contrary, he provides a sophisticated analysis of a diverse international phenomenon that has not previously, to my knowledge, received any serious attention. Expertly translated from the original Italian by Karen Pinkus with Jason Vivrette, and informatively introduced by Pinkus (a professor of French, Italian, and comparative literature at the University of Southern California), the book offers a penetrating but accessible treatment of a musical genre as well as of a peculiarly masculine set of pleasures and practices, of which exotic music was but one element.
The social figure at the heart of Adinolfi’s book is the swinging bachelor. Most histories of postwar consumerism highlight the leading role of the housewife and relegate men to a supporting role. Postwar masculinity has repeatedly been depicted as being in crisis, with actors including Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and James Dean acting out on the silver screen the torments of a generation. Adinolfi takes us into areas in which unmarried men were ostensibly at ease with themselves, even if they required fantasies to construct their self-images. The celebrated Rat Pack, founded by Humphrey Bogart but more famously associated with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, was a high-profile example of the stylish, suave, and cynical world of the swinging bachelor. A habitué of nightclubs and hotel bars, the cool bachelor transformed his domestic milieu or pad into a theater of seduction, to which the enchanting sounds of the recordings of Denny, Baxter, and company provided a necessary soundtrack. Adinolfi finds in feline female figures (singer Eartha Kitt, model Bettie Page, and others) the bachelor’s ideal imaginary counterpart.
The book looks in depth at the connections between sounds and places. The former are strikingly varied. Adinolfi identifies a long series of subgenres of exotica that include space-age jazz and crime jazz, as well as Hawaiian motifs and African rhythms (sometimes researched by their composers, at other times simply imagined). He also dwells on some important performers, such as the sexy and sophisticated Yma Sumac, who were very well-known in the...