Monday, June 17, 2024

Sweet Jesus, not Sweet Caroline again ...

Originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, June 1, 2024

First let’s get a couple of things straight. I have no issue with Neil Diamond per se. Far from it. I like his stuff more than most people do. I like it to an extent that some might even consider uncool. 

I don’t even dislike the song “Sweet Caroline.” Or rather, I didn’t dislike it before. My beef – and it’s a very intense beef – has to do with the grotesque overplaying of “Sweet Caroline” in public places.

You can’t get away from it. When you go to the football, they play it at half time, so loud that you can’t conduct a conversation with the person beside you. During the chorus, the DJ (and who decided we need DJs at football games?) whips down the volume after Neil sings the titular phrase, so that assorted enthusiasts in the crowd (who are these people?) can sing the missing horn part (bom, bom, bom).

Then the volume goes back up, so Neil can sing the next bit: “Good times never seemed so good.” Then the volume goes down again, so the people who are still enjoying themselves (again, who are these people?) can interpolate the words “So good, so good!”

Nor can you evade the song by staying home and watching the match on TV. You’ll still hear it in the background, blaring impertinently over the PA. If you switch channels, you’ll probably find yourself watching an ad for a certain brand of bourbon, in which “Sweet Caroline” starts playing in a pub. A boisterous singalong ensues, complete with many an excruciating “so good” and “bom”.

The ad’s point seems to be that if you drink enough hard liquor, you might find that you quite enjoy being made to yell “bom bom bom” in a social setting. But I’m not looking for ways to enjoy saying “bom bom bom.” I simply don’t want to say it at all, under any circumstances whatsoever. 

Besides, there’s no time between the opening bars of the song and the chorus to get drunk from scratch. So what’s the suggestion? That we should all walk around with a permanent skinful just in case a Sweet Caroline situation should arise?

How did this idiotic tradition begin? Apparently it started in Boston, in 1997. At Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox, the music director knew someone who’d just named their baby Caroline. The song was played as a tribute. The crowd seemed to like it. That crowd has a lot to answer for. 

If that kid in Boston had been named Jolene, presumably Dolly Parton would now be driving us up the wall on a weekly basis. If the kid’s name was Bruce, it would be ELO.  

But the kid’s name was Caroline. The rest is history, except that it isn’t yet over. It’s globalisation at its worst. Some kid named Caroline gets born in Boston, and 27 years later I can’t have a civilised halftime conversation with my footy pals without being forcibly drafted into a mass Neil Diamond singalong. 

Good times never seemed so good? Actually, Neil, they seemed way better just a moment ago, before some unseen twerp started blasting out “Sweet Caroline.” They will seem good again in thirty seconds, when the singing stops. But for the moment, I’m suddenly having an infinitely worse time than I was before. 

Even in America, the home of questionable taste, Red Sox fans found that Diamond’s song began to pale after several million iterations. A backlash set in. “Sweet Caroline sucks,” wrote one Boston journalist. 

I see what he meant, but I think his verdict needs some tweaking. “Sweet Caroline” didn’t always suck. It doesn’t suck inherently. It only started sucking because certain entertainment officers, who do suck, started playing it with ungodly frequency so that certain other people, who arguably suck too, can convince themselves they’re having fun. 

One Bostonian wag, when asked what song should replace “Sweet Caroline” at Fenway Park, said: “Anything.” I disagree. What should replace “Sweet Caroline” isn’t anything, but nothing. Sporting contests don’t need a musical score. If the ball goes over the sideline, let’s see if we can all cope with ten seconds of silent reflection before play resumes. At halftime, let the dying art of conversation rebloom.

Good times, by definition, are already good. They don’t need to be artificially improved. That’s what sucks: the very American idea that if you’re consuming one form of entertainment, other forms of entertainment must be inserted into every spare cranny of the action, lest people with very short attention spans start dying of boredom or demanding refunds. 

Am I saying we’ve reached Peak Caroline? Dear God, let’s hope so. Imagine if we haven’t. Imagine a future with yet more unasked-for renditions of “Sweet Caroline” coming at us from even more angles. 

Together, we can prevent that future. Next time some grinning DJ invites us to sing “bom, bom, bom” in a public place, let’s not do it. Let’s yell out something else instead, like “Enough!” or “Shut it off!” or “If you can’t begin to know when it began, why do you keep telling me about it?” Or even, as Neil himself cried in another context, “Good Lord!”