Here’s one of the 20th century’s most influential interpreters of popular song, Frank Sinatra, glamorizing smoking, drinking, and leaving a bar drunk right after last call. So much of what I hate most about midcentury popular culture is wrapped up in this piece, yet I love this song. Why? Because it brings together three legendary musical talents in one perfect moment to tell a familiar story in a style so compelling that you have to lean in and pay attention.
Composer Harold Arlen wrote many of the greatest tunes of the last century, from “Over the Rainbow” to “Blues in the Night” to “The Man that Got Away,” and, of course, “Lydia the Tattooed Lady.” Lyricist Johnny Mercer wrote 1500 pop tunes from “Laura” to “Moon River,” and was nominated for 19 Academy Awards for his songs, winning four of those Oscars. Some of the duo’s finest compositions were the songs they wrote together during the 1940s. Arlen wrote several of Judy Garland’s greatest hits, and Mercer, though married to someone else, was Garland’s lover for a time in the early 1940s, and he considered her the love of his life. His beautiful song “Skylark,” written with Hoagy Carmichael and brimming with unfulfilled longing, was written for her.
Garland’s great friend Frank Sinatra was one of the key interpreters of both Arlen and Mercer, and when Frank gets a slow, melancholy song about lost love, he’s hard to beat. His styling here is impeccable: pained and haunted, dreamy and hopeless. The song seems simple and straightforward, but it’s full of surprising intervals and clever internal rhymes—it’s one of those sophisticated compositions that begs for a clean, spare performance, and that’s exactly what Frank gives here.
In 1965 Americans Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork and Englishman Davy Jones were chosen to star in a TV show about an imaginary rock band inspired by the Beatles: they became The Monkees. Micky Dolenz came from a show-biz family, Mike Nesmith’s mother invented Liquid Paper (no kidding) and Davy Jones had earned a Tony nomination for his role as the Artful Dodger in the original Broadway cast of the musical “Oliver!” (He originated the role in the London cast.) Talented musician Stephen Stills (who later earned fame with Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills and Nash) had auditioned for the show but was turned down because his hair and teeth were deemed unsuitable during his screen test. When asked if he knew of another musician with a good “open, Nordic look,” he recommended his friend Peter Tork. From 1966 to 1968 the popular show featured the four young men in endless ridiculous scenarios and scores of musical performances. While considered by many to be a lightweight, manufactured ripoff of actual rock groups, the Monkees’ were actually talented musicians with real charm and their music was hugely popular: they sold more than 75 million records worldwide. After their show was canceled in 1968 they went on to release music for two more years and they had numerous successful reunion tours. At their peak in 1967, the band outsold the Beatles and the Rolling Stones combined. This compilation of their screen tests shows how fresh and young, boyish and goofy they were, but also shows the confidence and charisma each one displayed well before becoming big TV stars.
Seattle singer and poet Mary Lambert is best known for writing and singing the musical element of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s gay rights anthem “Same Love,” a beautiful paean to marriage equality overlaid with Macklemore’s spoken word performance. She performed the song alongside Madonna at this year’s Grammy awards ceremony while Queen Latifah presided over a mass gay wedding. Lambert has also recorded an expanded version of the song without Macklemore’s spoken voiceover called “She Keeps Me Warm.”
Before becoming a singer, Lambert had some success as a spoken-word artist and poetry-slam regular in the late 2000s, and much of her music has that same sort of coiled, hurting, on-the-verge-of-tears feeling to it that is an important element of the poetry slam tradition. Her latest hit song, “Secrets,” is significantly more bouncy than “Same Love,” but no less heartfelt. She begins by listing personal traits that others might be ashamed to own, including her bipolar disorder, her emotionalism, her weight and her lesbianism. But she then embraces these labels, refuses to hide who she is anymore and says she doesn’t care if the world knows what her secrets are. “So what?” she asks with repeated, cheerful defiance. It’s such a positive, openhearted celebration of self-acceptance and tolerance. Shame? Self-loathing? Denial? We’re so over it.
Meghan Trainor has been making a lot of money lately, but she’s also been getting flack for her big hit “All About that Bass,” with some reason. The ultra-catchy song and its cute, candy-colored video celebrate women with curves and encourage women to appreciate whatever bodies they have, saying “Every inch of you is perfect from the bottom to the top.” So far, so good. But the song also puts down “skinny bitches” and tells women and girls with a more prominent bass line to feel good about themselves because “boys like a little more booty,” as if their value comes from being ogled by men. So, sadly, the supposed song of empowerment still encourages feelings of competition between women and buys into finding one’s value in another’s gaze. I like it when pop culture moves in the direction of acknowledging beauty in all its forms, and I think it’s great that we’re gaining a greater diversity of cultures under one national roof with the rise of populations of people who don’t value bony booties as much as white folks have tended to do over the past fifty years. It’s great when standards of beauty rise beyond size 2 booty shorts. Songs of praise for bountiful bums are all over the radio right now, and more power to the big-bootied among us. But let’s not turn right around and shame slimmer folks or boil it all down to women’s value coming from body parts and man-pleasing. It’s great to want to please others, but your worth doesn’t derive from the size of your thighs.
Nina Simone’s dark, rich, beautifully bluesy version of the song “Feeling Good” is a classic, and with good reason. The version I grew up listening to is also extraordinary, but quite different. The song was written by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse for the musical “The Roar of the Greasepaint—The Smell of the Crowd” and was sung on the original 1965 Broadway cast album by baritone Gilbert Price. His delivery is nothing like Nina Simone’s, yet I find it just as beautiful and arresting as her cover of the song. Few people nowadays know Price’s warm and powerful voice; give it a listen and hear what you’ve been missing.
In 2013, the most popular video on French TV and the number one song in France and Belgium was “Papaoutai” by Belgian singer Stromae. The tune and rhythms are appealing and unusual; the video is compelling and, ultimately, moving. Though the title sounds like it could be a word in an African language, it is actually meant to be understood by French speakers as meaning “Papa, où t’es?” which translates as “Dad, where are you?” The song and the story of the video refer to the absence of Stromae’s father, who was killed in the Rwandan genocide in 1994. The plaintive cry of the singer who feels the absence of his father is also expressed in the child in the video who begs his mannequin-like father to come to life.