The Way You Look Tonight
By Patrick F. Cannon
I was reading the Chicago Tribune the other day and – don’t ask me why – I started reading an interview with a singer/songwriter of apparent fame. I got as far as his contention that the times were too serious for romantic ballads before I moved on to the cartoons. Somehow, Mr. Boffo always restores my temper.
As even a cursory examination of the works and opinions of contemporary American artists and critics should tell you, Donald Trump has cast a pall over the country, or at least those parts of it left of center in politics and the arts. Even works created long before President Trump was even born seem somehow to comment on his curious methods of governance. I recall one denizen of the Hollywood intelligentsia who immediately increased her visits to her therapist when he was elected. By the way, I also think he’s a disaster, but one that we’ll survive much as we survived James Buchanan, Warren Harding and Bill Clinton.
Back to ballads. Recently, I was watching Swing Time, a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie of 1936. All of their movies had similar plots, designed to make it possible for them to sing and dance with some plausible excuse. Here are some of the lyrics of one of the songs:
Some day, when I’m awfully low
When the wind is cold
I will feel aglow just thinking of you
And the way you look tonight
The music here was by Jerome Kern, with lyrics by Dorothy Field (extra credit for you if you started humming the melody). When this romantic ballad was popular in 1936, Hitler had remilitarized the Rhineland; Japan was waging an undeclared war in China; Italy had conquered Abyssinia; the Spanish Civil War was beginning; and unemployment here was 17 percent (it’s about four percent now). Oh, and the safety net of Social Security would not begin paying any benefits until 1940.
Yet, somehow, the spark of romance hadn’t died. Here are lyrics from an earlier year (1923) by America’s greatest songwriter, Irving Berlin, who, like Cole Porter, wrote both music and lyrics:
What’ll I do when you are far away
And I am blue
What’ll I do…
When I’m alone with only dreams of you
That can’t come true
What’ll I do
Again, extra marks for humming along. By the way, a Google search for these songs will let you listen to versions by people like Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Willie Nelson, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett (hale and hearty now in his 90s), Linda Ronstadt and even Rod Stewart. Good old You Tube!
By contrast, here are some of the lyrics from Ms. Taylor Swift’s little ditty, “Look What You Made Me Do”:
I don’t like your little games, don’t like your tilted stage
The role you made me play of the fool, no, I don’t like you
I don’t like your perfect crime, how you laugh when you lie
You said the gun was mine, isn’t cool, no, I don’t like you (Oh!)
But I got smarter, I got harder in the nick of time
Honey, I rose up from the dead, I do it all the time
I’ve got a list of names, and yours is in red, underlined
I check it once, then I check it twice, oh!
Ms. Swift, who is now 28 and thus full of wisdom and experience, despite her only advanced education being a wish to be famous, also penned these unforgettable lines:
She’s not a saint and she’s not what you think
She’s an actress, She’s better known
For the things she does on the mattress
Soon she’s gonna find stealing other people’s toys
On the playground won’t make you many friends
She should keep in mind, She should keep in mind
There is nothing I do better than revenge
These lines are from her song “Better than Revenge.” Far from longing for her lost love, as in the Berlin song, she is looking to get even. One wonders why she continues to seek relationships with men who seem bound to betray her. Is she a glutton for punishment, or simply an artist looking for inspiration? Of course, she’s by no means alone in her self-involved rants. The current pantheon of popular artists of both sexes has created a new culture of complaint. A good example of how far away we’ve gotten from any kind of romantic impulse is a recent survey that reported that 25 percent of women think a man complimenting them on their looks is committing sexual harassment, as does a single man offering to take an unmarried woman out for a drink.
I must say that I’m in complete agreement with the Lerner and Lowe song that declares “I’m glad I’m not young anymore.”
Finally, I don’t mean to suggest that no good songs are being composed. Broadway is still producing new musicals, although original movie musicals are rare. Many of them have good and even great songs, but they have a limited audience and rarely appear at the top of any charts. Before the rock and roll era, many of the hit songs came from Broadway and Hollywood. No more.
I often wish that young people would broaden their tastes to include the great American music of the past, but I increasingly think this is a vain hope for a generation a majority of which can’t even name the three branches of government. In this, they are more like President Trump than they think.
Copyright 2018, Patrick F. Cannon