Popular music is often popular because it puts our feelings into words and music. It is very good at dealing with that powerful, bitter-sweet, universal feeling of love. Mention love and memories pour out – teenage turmoil, that sultry beach encounter, the ups and downs of marriage, the break-ups and breakdowns, the grinding loneliness of bereavement.
We can't live with it, we can't live without it: love is in the air – the awakening attraction, the hint of scent on the pillow, the old photograph, the child's trusting hug, the memory of what we once had before it went away, the unexpected promise of hope. Jane Austen with sweet music and a kiss at the end of the film.
Love is in the air and has been a long time. Charles Aznavour and Jacques Brel, Nina Simone and Andy Williams, Neil Diamond and Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Vera Lynn have all told us so. Carly Simon, Johnny Mercer, Billy Joel, Barbra Streisand, Michael Bublé, and Elton John join in the chorus. Award-winners have titles like I'd Do Anything for Love
, We Belong Together
, and Need You Now
. Without the ups and downs of love, the music business would fall apart. Without love, so would we.
The great songsters and lyricists of yesteryear are still with us, masters of their craft. Take Johnny Mercer for instance. In a collection suitably called Too Marvellous for Words
, we find songs like You Were Never Lovelier
, Something's Gotta Give
and How Little We Know
. They say that we're always looking for the words to say things with, above all at weddings and funerals.
For love, Mercer's the man. You were never lovelier, he says, 'dreams were never lovelier, never so fair, pardon me if I stare, down the sky the moon-beams fly to light your face, I can only say they chose the proper place'. Okay, cheesy and corny, cliché and sentimental. But, let's be honest, love contains lashings of all that. Let's put on a CD of his Moon River
Then there's that irresistible force such as you meeting an old immoveable object like me in Something's Gotta Give
; 'my implacable heart facing off your irrepressible smile: don't say no because I insist – somewhere, somehow, someone's gonna be kissed'. And love itself can turn up or not – How Little We Know
, as he steps back wryly and wonders whether love will come his way: 'love comes along casting a spell, will it sing you a song, will it say farewell?'
In love, as we all are some of the time, think we are or hope to be, part of the business is to wonder what 'love' actually is. A lot of love is just hoping for it, hoping we'll find it or get it back, reflecting on just what a lot of trouble it can be and how glorious it is when it comes along. Hoagy Carmichael – another of those musical greats – reflects on this in Kinda Lonesome
: 'I keep sittin' by the window in the twilights, starin' at the cold grey skies… longin' for the soft warm sunlight I used to see within your eyes'.
And the refrain: 'Feelin' kinda low and kinda lonesome, dream, that's all I do'. Carmichael knows how love feels – look at titles like Georgia on my Mind
, Heart and Soul
and My Resistance is Low
. Not cheesy or corny but world-weary, sardonic, knowing, authentically human. So give the man space. He tilts his famous trilby back on his head and sings about love, giving us a wry smile, capturing the mood, saying 'watch out – this love thing can get under your skin'.
Cole Porter was the boy for this: composer, lyricist, wounded playboy, in his musical Born to Dance
in 1936, I've Got You Under my Skin
admitted that singer had his lover under his skin and deep 'in the heart of me' (so deep that you're a part of me). He had tried not to give in, told himself 'this affair will not go well', but it was hopeless. He would sacrifice anything to be near her, in spite of the warning voice telling him: 'Don't you know, little fool, you never can win, use your mentality, wake up to reality'. You must surely know how the story ends. If not, take a quick bath in country and western love-logic where all oranges are lemons.
Porter was a genius at putting the ambivalences of love into words and music. In Kiss Me Kate
(1953), we find being Always True to You in My Fashion
. In Anything Goes
(1934), I Get a Kick out of You
, yet he had tried champagne and well knows that she (rarely are lovers same-sex in such songs of the period) has no time at all for him. Even in I Love You, Samantha
(from High Society
, 1950), the blue note in the harmony (that haunting F sharp and the clash of notes C and D, resolving into other modulations which promise no final resolution) makes us doubt such love.
The master of masters, however, must surely be that Gershwin duo, George (the composer, genius on the keyboard) and his lyricist brother Ira. There's a lotta love here: along with Sigmund Romberg, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Rodgers & Hammerstein, and many others like Burton Lane, Harry Warren, Kurt Weill, and Harold Arlen (who wrote the music to Somewhere Over the Rainbow
as sung by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz
Many of these guys collaborated – Mercer with Mancini (on Days of Wine and Roses
), Berlin with Porter (and even P G Wodehouse), and the Gershwins with the Astaires. Compound interest as it were with musical talent and big bucks for the high-rollers, as Ira must have wondered when he got an Academic Award for They Can't Take That Away from Me
Love is a major theme in Gershwin songs. Think of 'S Wonderful
and The Man I Love
, That Certain Feeling
and Why Do I Love You?
, The Woman's Touch
and Love Is Here to Stay
. Before we presume that all this is sentimental tosh, Tin Pan Alley basking in cloying self-indulgent emotionalism (mind you, a lot of musicals in the 1930s and 1940s were deliberately escapism), let's look more closely at what George and Ira also did. They knew about lovers and knew how stupid lovers could be.
In the song Some Rain Must Fall
, we hear that, now the narrator is older and wiser, he can see that that rain drives the dreams away, when skies are grey, even though we try to smile, and all this is fate. From the musical Girl Crazy
(1930), in Bidin' My Time
, some fellers like to tiptoe through the tulips or tell it to the daisies, climb the highest mountain or paint the sky with sunshine, but, as for him – he is biding his time 'cause that's the kind guy I am'. No regrets.
No sure thing either: you might work hard and get rich, but you have to get lucky to get the girl – Nice Work If You Can Get It
– 'loving one who loves you, and then taking that vow, nice work if you can get it, and if you get it, won't you tell me how?' Leaving love with a question mark! And then it all might end with a bang and a whimper: Let's Call the Whole Thing Off
– when the romance is growing flat, 'you like this and the other, while I go for this and that'. We even differ on how to pronounce the word 'tomato'. It will break my heart but, really dear, 'better call the whole thing off'.
Wonderful while it lasts, love can go sour. With witty lyrics and inventive harmonies, the Gershwin brothers have left us a unique legacy of music. In that legacy – and this can be said of most of those old guys and gals of the musical era 1920 to 1960 – there are piles of what we today might cynically dismiss as old-fashioned clichés about love. Yet, reflect for a moment on how and why they became clichés: because they were and are used a lot (perhaps too much and often out of context or without sincerity) and have become dull through overuse.
And yet again – we all fall in love, or need to, or think we should, or wonder why we can't. Today love is bursting out all over – different lifestyles, singles r' us, we're only friends, the oxymoron of serial monogamy. Bing Crosby's search for True Love
, doing it My Way
and having No Regrets
are what we do and what we are – if I said 'existential', you'd think me pretentious. As for all that fuss about love, as the Gershwins say, It Ain't Necessarily So
. Love and life can suck but both can be great – nice work if you can get it.
Dr Stuart Hannabuss is an honorary chaplain at the University of Aberdeen and an accompanist at the North East Scotland Music School