I’ve been reading an awful lot of Milton Babbitt lately (part of a project I am, of course, way behind on—this week for sure), and, given that arch-modernist’s not-so-secret fondness for American popular song, it’s surprising just how little he’s written on it. His Collected Essays only includes one such effort, a 1985 essay on Jerome Kern written as liner notes to a Joan Morris/William Bolcom album. What’s interesting is his disdain for many of Kern’s lyricists.
One need not be concerned, perhaps, for the fate of songs that have survived “I chaffed them” (“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” [lyrics by Otto Harbach]) or “sequester’d days” (“Yesterdays” [also Harbach]) by virtue of their musical strength. But such awareness does not lessen the discomfort of hearing Ira Gershwin’s “Life’s a four-leaf clover. Sessions of depressions are through,” in “Long Ago [(and Far Away)].”… [R]arely is there reflected, even in a clever Dorothy Fields lyric, the general care and craft, and the specific subtleties of variation and reference, so often displayed in the music.
Now, I’m a big Ira Gershwin fan, but I admit that it took me a while, and for the reason that I think Babbitt is hinting at here: Ira Gershwin’s lyrics deliberately and consistently call attention to themselves.
Let’s compare one of the Kern lyrics Babbitt commends, Leo Robin’s for “In Love In Vain”—
It’s only human for anyone to want to be in love,
But who wants to be in love in vain?
At night you hang around the house and eat your heart out,
And cry your eyes out
And wrack your brain.
You sit and wonder why anyone as wonderful as he
Should cause you such misery and pain.
I thought that I would be in heaven,
But I’m only up a tree,
‘Cause it’s just my luck to be
In love in vain.
—with the aforementiond “Long Ago (and Far Away)”:
Long ago and far away,
I dreamed a dream one day,
And now that dream is here beside me;
Long the skies were overcast
But now the clouds have passed;
You’re here at last!
Chills run up and down my spine;
Aladdin’s lamp is mine;
The dream I dreamed was not denied me.
Just one look and then I knew
That all I longed for long ago was you.
Gershwin’s lyric is, indeed, much more self-consciously written than Robin’s, reveling in wordplay (note the extravagant conduplicatio on long and dream), various types of rhyme, and allusions far removed from everyday conversation (that whole “Aladdin’s lamp” thing).
Babbitt places partial blame for this on Kern’s habit of writing the music prior to any lyric, sending a dummy lyric off to the lyricist, one that indicated rhythm and possible rhyme, but no real dramatic sense. (The story goes that Kern’s dummy lyric for “Long Ago” started off, “Watching little Alice pee.”) But that wasn’t terribly uncommon practice in Kern’s time. I think that there was a certain expectation that lyrics would be self-evidently clever and playful. And no one could go over the top in that regard quite like Ira Gershwin. Here’s a lyric he won the Pulitzer Prize in part for, from Of Thee I Sing:
Love is sweeping the country;
Waves are hugging the shore.
All the sexes
From Maine to Texas
Have never known such love before.
See them billing and cooing
Like the birdies above—
Each girl and boy alike,
Feeling joy alike,
Feels that passion’ll
Soon be national.
Love is weeping the country;
There never was so much love.
The song is not much more than an excuse for some fairly outrageous rhymes. It works because Ira is in on the joke, and brings you with—at a certain point, the cleverness becomes so extroverted that the listener begins to share in the delight of anticipation, not just presentation. The Gershwins occasionally would even self-referentially mock that penchant. “Beginner’s Luck,” a song from the 1937 Astaire-Rogers musical Shall We Dance, starts off:
I’ve got beginner’s luck:
The first time that I’m in love, I’m in love with you.
Gosh, I’m lucky!
The last line is set to a jazzy little punctuating riff. The next stanza:
I’ve got beginner’s luck;
They told me beginners win, now I know it’s true.
Gosh, I’m fortunate!
That last line is awkwardly shoehorned into the same riff as before, a slapstick rhythmic speed bump.
Nobody writes lyrics like this anymore, except as a throwback. (There’s some nice examples in The Producers, for example, but they don’t really approach Ira Gershwin’s exuberance/shamelessness.) Even a songwriter like Tom Lehrer gets laughs primarily because of the outrageousness of his content, not his language. I suspect this is a common stylistic evolution—early hip-hop, for example, was pixilated on language in a way that current hip-hop is not. From a classic, Eric B. and Rakim’s “Microphone Fiend”:
The invincible microphone fiend Rakim—
Spread the word, ’cause I’m in
A smooth operator operating correctly.
But back to the problem, I gotta habit,
You can’t solve it, silly rabbit;
The prescription is a hypertone that’s thorough when
I fiend for a microphone like heroin
“Thorough when” rhymed with “heroin”? Even Ira might have smiled at that one—or maybe the self-referentiality of Run DMC:
This beat is my recital;
I think it’s very vital.
To rock a rhyme that’s right on time?
It’s tricky—it’s the title
Inevitably, I guess, such virtuosity begins to seem raw and unsophisticated to people. One-time Babbitt student Stephen Sondheim, a fair candidate for the greatest lyricist alive, has spent his career precisely navigating the fine line between naturalism and stylization, specializing in lyrics that are just polished enough to parse as poetry, but flow like conversational prose. That’s an ideal that really only came to the fore in the 1950s, as the variety-show-like musicals of the pre-WWII era gave way to more dramatically-conceived shows, led by the work of RIchard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein—not coincidentally, another Sondheim mentor. The sort of cleverness that the Gershwins’ audience took as a given is now a seasoning to be judiciously doled out.
One of Sondheim’s most seemingly effortless songs comes from his first big hit as a composer, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Hero is in love with Philia, but Philia has been promised in marriage to a soldier who is coming to take her away. Philia reassures Hero that their love will triumph by force of imagination, in a way that Hero finds not very reassuring at all:
When I kiss him, I’ll be kissing you,
So I’ll kiss him morning and night;
That’ll show him!
When I hold him, I’ll be holding you,
So I’ll hold him ten times as tight;
That’ll show him, too!
I will coo and tenderly stroke his hair;
Wish that you were there—
You’d enjoy it!
When it’s evening, and we’re in his tent for two,
I’ll sit on his knee,
Get to know him intimately;
That’ll show him how much I really love you!
“That’ll Show Him” is still musically and structurally in an older style, but the rhymes, for all their intricacy, are not calling attention to themselves; the effect of the song is instead to tell us something about Philia’s earnest, bubbly, but slightly dim character.
In one of Sondheim’s later shows, the often underrated Merrily We Roll Along, he pushes that intricacy just over the line. Here’s the bridge to the song “Good Thing Going”:
And if I wanted too much,
Was that such
A mistake at the time?
You never wanted enough;
All right, tough—
I won’t make that a crime.
It’s a song that reflects the dramatic tension of the plot, but it’s also serving to portray two of the main characters as songwriters, hence the slightly more deliberate construction. It’s still dazzlingly polished—the density of internal rhyme is uncanny—but in a way you’re supposed to notice more than Forum. (And polish itself is not the difference between Sondheim and Gershwin—the Library of Congress holds 17 pages of drafts for the lyrics to “Long Ago.”) Sondheim has the skill to calibrate precisely along that scale, but it’s the dramatic need that determines how far he goes. Gone are the days of stylization for the sake of stylization.
It says something about Babbitt’s own aesthetic and historical outlook that he would see that as an ideal. Calling attention to surface ingenuity is a feature of young styles, of the brand-new; the subjugation of that ingenuity to the overall artistic intent is a feature of mature styles—the possibilities have been explored, now it’s time to think about why more than how. Babbitt, writing in 1985, is also looking back on the journey of his own style of music, from scattershot experimentation to more systematic collation of technical knowledge to application of that technical experience to artistic vision. It might seem contradictory for Milton Babbitt, the poster- and/or whipping-boy for a style of music often perceived as nothing more than mathematical permutation, to be chastising Jerome Kern’s lyricists for being too stylized. But Babbitt isn’t writing as the brash polemicist we think of, but as a representative of tradition that had moved past the sort of try-anything facility he saw reflected in Ira Gershwin’s freewheeling slang and sleight-of-hand rhymes.
Babbitt was also writing from the perspective of a music-theater aficionado (and occasional practitioner) who had lived through the revolution wrought by shows like Oklahoma and South Pacific, singular dramatic conceptions that were a far cry from the sorts of grab-bag plots that dominated in the 1920s and 30s. (One of the few exceptions being, of course, Show Boat, with a score by Jerome Kern.) It’s not that there was any great clamoring for such musicals from the audience; musicals simply evolved in that direction, and audiences came along. Babbitt regards that evolution as natural, necessary, and salutary. It’s an evolution you could find in almost any musical style or period in Western history. (Compare Buxtehude with J.S. Bach; C.P.E. Bach with Mozart; early Liszt with late Liszt, &c.) And, all his wry bemoaning of his minority status notwithstanding, it’s an evolution Babbitt expected to apply to the path of atonal modernism. No wonder he likes Leo Robin better than Ira Gershwin.
It’s fashionable to think that such an expectation has been proven to be fruitless. But before you go gumming up the comments with triumphalist obituaries to serialism (that this confirmed eclecticist only leaves undeleted out of a combination of courtesy and laziness), it’s worth considering Sondheim’s career, one that never strayed from the ambitious path that Babbitt hints at. Sondheim’s elder-statesman, frequently-revived status today is a far cry from even a quarter-century ago, when he was still regarded by many in the community as a pretentious avant-gardist who refused to write crowd-pleasers. (I still remember a gleeful Jerry Herman implicitly insulting Sunday in the Park With George when La Cage aux Folles beat it for the Tony.) Times change.
“I keep in my bathroom a book by Nicolas Slonimsky called Lexicon of Musical Invective,” says Sondheim. “It’s a compendium of all these terrible reviews throughout musical history, from Beethoven to Shostakovich. The reviews are all about one thing: How dare they? How dare they? How dare they? Anything that’s new is dismissed. Guess what, though? Progress is made anyway. Look at my career. Suddenly when I was 40 years old, some people began to say, hey, this is pretty good. And now I’m considered an icon. And old-fashioned!”
(Via.) Progress isn’t one style superseding another style—it’s a given style finding its audience. That’s one reason defining musical styles in terms of what they’re not, either from inside or outside, is never as inspiring as defining them as what they are. Music is not technology—it may become old-fashioned, or even temporarily out-of-fashion, but it never becomes obsolete. That’s why the combative Babbitt, on behalf of the style he champions, and to the eternal frustration of his detractors, always gets to quote Sondheim: I’m still here.