Saturday, March 25, 2006

The Songs of Cole Porter

The 20th century having ended a few years ago, it is difficult to say which of its composers will be remembered. With over 1000 songs to his name, not to mention the most recorded song in American history ("White Christmas"), I think it is safe to say that Irving Berlin will be remembered. Having written many standards, among them "Rhapsody in Blue," I think that Ira and George Gershwin will also be remembered. As the leaders of The Beatles and the most successful songwriters in rock history, I don't think John Lennon and Paul McCartney (whether writing together or separately) will ever be forgotten. Among the composers of the 20th century whom I think will be remembered I can also number Cole Porter.

Cole Porter was born to a wealthy family in Indiana and proved to be a child prodigy. He learned to play the violin at age 6 and the piano at age 8. By age 10 he had already written an operetta. By the time he died in 1964, Porter had written literally hundreds of songs, many of them having become standards. As with many great talents, Porter was also a very complex individual. He displayed an open attraction to other men at a time when homosexuality was considered anathema, yet at the same time he was very happily married to his wife Linda for 35 years. Some psychologists have even theorised that Porter suffered from manic depression. Not only was Porter one of the most talented composers of the 20th century, he could also be described as one of the most unusual.

Indeed, if there is one thing (besides his complex sex life and his mood swings) that separates Porter from Berlin and the Gershwins, it is that he was never afraid to address taboo subjects in his songs. There are times when I swear that the number one topic of Porter's songs is, quite simply, sex--this at a time when the subject was pretty much verboten. On even a little examination it is apparent that his first big hit, "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)," isn't about falling in love; instead it portrays a world where every animal is intent on mating. "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)" isn't Porter's only song in which he compares the human sex drive to that of animals. "Let's Misbehave" justifies a rendevous with the line, "We're men and mammals..." In both "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)" and "Let's Misbehave," Porter treats sex with a light, humourous touch, but he could be more serious. "Love for Sale" is quite obviously about prostitution. While it was a hit in 1930, it was banned on radio for many, many years for precisely that reason.

As I pointed out above, "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)" and "Let's Misbehave" were both pretty much humourous songs. And humour is pretty much a hallmark of Porter's works. A perfect example of this is "Anything Goes," which celebrates a world in which nearly anything is permissable. "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" has always sounded to me like a rather cynical celebration of the Electra complex. "Well, Did You Evah!" is another one of Porter's list songs, in this case a list of unlikely (and often funny events) which are simply too hard to believe.

It would be a mistake to think that Porter was capable of only sex and humour songs. He also wrote some of the most passionate love songs of all time. In fact, if I were to make a list of the most romantic songs of all time, both "So In Love" and "Everytime We Say Goodbye" might well rank near the top. In my mind both songs potray a love so strong that the thought of separation is nearly unbearable. "Night and Day" has become a standard, one of the most performed songs in American history.

Of course, it must be kept in mind that like the Gershwins and Berlin, Porter wrote primarily for Broadway. He was behind some of the best known and most successful musicals of all time: Anything Goes, DuBarry Was a Lady, and Mexican Hayride. In my humble opinion, perhaps his greatest work was the musical (and later movie) Kiss Me Kate. This was Porter at his best--"So In Love," "Brush Up on Your Shakespeare," "I Hate Men." Of course, Porter worked in Hollywood as well as on stage. Perhaps his greatest achievement on film was the Gene Kelly/Judy Garland movie The Pirate. Aside from stellar performances from Judy Garland and Gene Kelly (not to mention Kelly's amazing dance routines), the movie features some of Porter's best songs, among them "Be a Clown."

I don't think I need to say that Cole Porter was one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. He was also among the most prolific. Of the early to mid-20th century he was certainly among the most daring. Regardless, he will always remain among my list of favourite songwriters.

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