Sunday, April 22, 2018

You're Mickey Mouse!

The Greatest Songs of the 20th Century, Part I:
"You're the Top" (Cole Porter, 1934)

Cole Porter wrote “You’re the Top” in 1934, for his new musical Anything Goes, and in some senses it’s just a list of the best things that were around in 1934. It’s a testament to Porter’s genius that things he credited with being paragons of greatness in 1934 remain, almost without exception, paragons of greatness today.

Many of those paragons were fairly new in their day: Mickey Mouse had made his first film merely six years earlier, while Mahatma Gandhi had been named Time's Man of the Year in 1930. Garbo and the nimble tread of the feet of Fred Astaire had been making movies for less than ten years. I don’t understand what a Bendel bonnet is, but that’s about the only thing that Porter noticed in 1934 that has completely fallen out of favor by 2018. Unless you count Ovaltine, which I wouldn't.

If that dazzling list of exemplars were the only clever thing about this song, it would be delightful, but it’s more than a delight; it’s a classic. It would have been very easy for Porter to maintain the same rhythm for each member of his list of paragons, but he varies them in consistently refreshing ways:

You're sublime
You're a turkey dinner

You're the time
Of the Derby winner
How simple it would have been to make that last couplet something like “You’re ‘Swing Time’/You’re the Derby winner,” but how much more fun it is stretched out like that. The recharged rhythm keeps you paying attention. And it lends the comparison more texture for the person being celebrated to be analogized to time, rather than another corporeal entity.

What makes it even more fun is the chorus, where the singer returns to describe himself in withering terms: “a worthless check, a total wreck, a flop.” It’s not just a simple paean to one’s inamorata, but a gleeful blast of self-loathing that lends the emotion of the song far greater depth. The fact that the singer is a balloon about to pop makes the list of praises more understandable, or more psychologically tortured, or maybe both.

After the relaxed cadence of the verses, Porter raises the melody of the chorus ever higher, urging the singer to raise the volume ever higher as well. And by the time you get to the virtually one-note line “But if baby, I’m the bottom, you’re the top!” it’s hard not to scream it out.

An early example of the list song, and probably the best one, Anything Goes audiences began demanding encores. Cole Porter began tossing off more verses to fill the encores for Ethel Merman, who introduced the song in the show,  to perform. At one point, Ethel had to wave her hands and tell the audience to stop asking her to go on. She screamed out, "There are no more lyrics!"

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