The music in Hairspray tended to be inspired by previously written songs, mostly coming from the 1960’s, as the show takes place in this decade.  However, some songs were taken from other time periods, but the writers somehow made it fit into the context of the show., whether the styles were somewhat altered in order to fit more in the time period, or they just hoped that a different style would flow with the show.   In 2002, the most popular songs came from several genres, as they do in Hairspray, ranging from Pop to Country to Rap.  Whatever the style happens to be in this show, it makes a statement about the characters singing it and the social context surrounding them.

The opening song “Good Morning, Baltimore” was meant to be a John Waters version of  “Oh What A Beautiful Morning” from the musical Oklahoma!, a 1940’s show.  Adapting a 1960’s doo wop style to accompany the lyrics, this piece sets the tone of the lively, colorful, and fun show Hairspray is.  The Dynamites, the three African American doo wop singers, were meant to symbolize The Supremes, a very famous group in the ’60s.  Other songs such as the show stopping (and closing) number “You Can’t Stop the Beat” were inspired by other famous  ’60s songs like “River Deep, Mountain High” and “The Beat Goes On.”

Among all of these famous songs written in the time Hairspray takes place, a genre that would not be seen until the late ’60s makes an appearance on the Broadway stage–Motown.  Songs such as “Run and Tell That” or “Without Love” are the essence of this funky groove that is Motown.  However, it is not just a coincidence that the two major Motown songs are sung by the main kids of the show.  What Tracy, Link, Penny, and Seaweed all have in common is that they are “forward thinkers”, just like in this time period, Motown was a forward genre.  These four characters all believe in integration and an end to racism (although Link takes a little while longer than everyone else.) Another interesting musical push forward is that Motormouth Maybelle sings “I Know Where I’ve Been”, a song originally meant for Tracy to sing as the ‘eleven o’clock number.’  However, in an effort to prevent the black community from staying in the background, like most other shows with a white abolitionist, they were given a voice, and what a voice she had. Velma’s number, “Miss Baltimore Crabs” had a Latin sound–a completely different genre from any other song in the show, really setting her apart from the other characters.  This piece, interestingly enough, was also the only song in the whole show written in a minor key, giving Velma a more villainous feel.

The Nicest Kids in Town is the hottest group in early 1960’s Baltimore.  They perform every day after school on The Corny Collin’s Show, and every kid dreams of singing and dancing with them or being their friends.  They are thought to be poised, proper, and prudent, with exception to Brenda who will be leaving the show for nine months.  What these excited fans fail to realize is that their idols are mentally impaired racists, which is portrayed in their opening number “Nicest Kids in Town.”  Their stupidity is implied when they tell their audience to blow off their homework and come hang out with them.  Their racism is more than implied when they refer to themselves as “nice, white kids” and advertise the monthly “Negro day” on the show.  Despite this, everyone counts on this group to show them the latest dance craze and be their models for life.  This same type of thing carried on to 2002, where every teenager glued their eyes to MTV (when it still actually played music), and waited for their favorite artist to come on and show their new music video.  Like Tracy drooling over Link, thousands of girls melted any time they saw their favorite boy from The Backstreet Boys or N*Sync.  Just like Tracy and Penny tried to dance along to the Mashed Potato, girls were trying to figure out Britney Spears’ dance moves to “Oops, I Did It Again.”  Although musical styles are constantly evolving, artists will always have the same impact on society, and they will always be idolized.  In the 1960’s, it was The Nicest Kids in Town.  In 2002, it was Britney Spears.  Today, it’s Justin Beiber, and once his voice changes, it will be someone else. This can be very dangerous in society, because whether it was intended or not, fans will model themselves after their idols.  If an artist is a stupid racist, their fans will become stupid racists.  If an artist dresses and dances inappropriately, thousands of little girls will follow suit.

We always hear songs from different time periods, whether it be because we choose to listen to an old album, or an artist puts a modern twist on an old song.  Whatever the reason be, we hear these songs because they still mean something to us today.  In Hairspray, the kids sang Motown songs when that style had yet to be created during that time period because it meant something, and the creators could not pass the opportunity up.  The parallelism between a working progress in music and a working progress in the civil rights movement gives the show deeper meaning.  Along with this aspect of the music, the large effect that a famous musical group has on society plays a huge role in Hairspray.  This especially relates to the year Hairspray was written, along with today and future decades.

 

Works Cited

O’Donnell, Meehan, Shaiman, Wittman. Hairspray: The Roots. New York : Faber and Faber, 2003.