Deconstructing and Decomposing: The Politically Correct Songbook

The recent furore surrounding the lyrics of Baby, It’s Cold Outside caused me to revisit some classics from the Great American Songbook and I realised just how offensive and traumatising they might be to sensitive and coddled millennials … and that was before I even got to the lyrics.

Concern over Irving Berlin’s White Christmas needs no explaining. So too, George and Ira Gershwin’s Someone to Watch Over Me and the Rodgers and Hammerstein favourite You’ll Never Walk Alone  have ‘stalker!’ written all over them. Cole Porter’s I Get a Kick Out of You surely evokes domestic violence while Rodgers and Hart contributed disturbing titles like The Lady Is a Tramp (slut shaming) and Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (gun violence). Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s  Ol’ Man River smacks of cultural appropriation , while Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg were clearly insulting the intelligence-challenged with If I Only Had a Brain. Perhaps most distressing of all is the gender-enforcing I Enjoy Being a Girl – Rodgers and Hammerstein again!

But, as in the case of Baby, It’s Cold Outside, it’s the lyrics that will have some listeners retreating to their nearest safe space. Who knew that what has long been revered as the canon of influential popular American songs of the first half of the 20th century is nothing more than sexist, racist, patriarchal propaganda? Consider these shocking sexist examples: 

  • A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody by Irving Berlin

I have an ear for music, and I have an eye for a maid
I like a pretty girlie, with each pretty tune that’s played

  • My Funny Valentine – lyrics by Lorenz Hart

Is your figure less than Greek?
Is your mouth a little weak?
When you open it to speak
Are you smart?

  • The Man that Got Away – lyrics by Ira Gershwin

Ever since this world began
There is nothing sadder than
A one-man woman
Looking for the man
That got away

But it was You’re the Top by Cole Porter that really opened my eyes. Introduced in the 1934 musical Anything Goes its obvious cultural irrelevance in 2018 and the staggering number of potential triggers that lurk menacingly in its verses made me reassess my opinion that it was at the least amusingly innocuous, and at its very best a triumph of wordplay. What was I thinking?

How can you come to terms with lines like these that reinforce cruelty to animals?:

  • You’re sublime,
    You’re a turkey dinner
    You’re the time of The Derby winner
  • Or not be offended by the environmental vandalism inherent in

You’re a boom,
You’re the dam at Boulder

  • And what about

You’re the top
You’re the Colosseum
You’re the top,
You’re the Louvre museum
You’re a melody from a symphony by Strauss

which holds up the superiority of Western civilisation and classical music and winks at cultural theft in only five telling lines.

And then there’s the probability that listeners may have to hit the history books to even understand what some of the lyrics mean. Students of modern art and literature may be unfamiliar with the works of cultural imperialists like Botticelli, Keats and Shelley. And who knows what an “Arrow collar” or a “Coolidge dollar” is?

Surely it’s only right that millennials shouldn’t have to be content with just the clever lyrics of best-selling contemporary R&B songs. It’s time they had their very own entry in the Great American Songbook, one that reinforces their prime place in history. I’m sure they won’t really mind that I’ve engaged in a little cultural appropriation of my own by re-writing the lyrics of that unwoke hack, Cole Porter.

Here’s a 21st century version of You’re The Top (with heartfelt apologies to Cole Porter).

You’re the Top

You don’t just chatter, your thoughts all matter,
And will not be oppressed,
Your postmodernism knows what’s best,
Not just for you, but for all the rest.

You’re morally superior, no motives ulterior,
A social justice tsar.
So words satiric suffuse these lyrics
’cause you don’t need telling how great you are. 

You’re the top, you’re a #MeToo hashtag.
You’re the top, a reusable shopping bag,
The feminist humour of Amy Schumer – no joke.

Your diet’s Keto, you worship Beto,
You’re really woke.
You’re a divine dystopian drama.
You’re a shrine to Michelle Obama.

I’m a racial supremacist, a white male polemicist, a flop,
But if, baby, I’m the bottom,
You’re the top.

You’re the top, you’re a wellness junkie.
You’re the top, you’re a Get Up! flunky.
You’re the thoughts so sweet in the tweets of Clementine.
You’re a tattooed hipster, soy latte sipster,
You’re low-carb wine.

You’re a dean at a safe-space uni.
You’re the sheen of Amal and George Clooney.

I’m a victim-blamer, a vile slut-shamer, the GOP.
But if, baby, I’m the bottom,
You’re the top. 

You’re the top, a gender-neutral bathroom.
You’re the top, an eco-conscious classroom.
You’re the lycra fit of an inner city Green.
You’re a Google algorithm, George Soros altruism,
Vegan cuisine.

You’re Netflix, a dose of Tom Ballard,
A daily fix of kimchi kale salad.
I’m a dinosaur with no hip, and worse, no hop,
But if, baby, I’m the bottom,
You’re the top. 

You’re the top, a trans rights campaigner,
You’re the top, you’re a Brexit remainer.
You buy ethical products and all your eggs are free range.
You’re a trigger warning, you’re global warming
… oops! Climate change.

You’re aware, an episode of Q&A,
Without compare, the anthems of Tay Tay.
I’m Trump and Bannon, the Western Canon, full stop.

But if, baby, I’m the bottom,
You’re the top.

Geraldine Massey, who can hold a tune, lives and writes in Brisbane

2 thoughts on “Deconstructing and Decomposing: The Politically Correct Songbook

  • rodcoles says:

    All good stuff, but nothing that even approaches the monstrous vileness of this gem from South Pacific:
    “So suppose a dame ain’t bright,
    Or completely free from flaws,
    Or as faithful as a bird dog,
    Or as kind as Santa Claus”

  • IainC says:

    Heh, very good. I’m surprised you missed “Thank Heaven for little girls”, an obvious reference to sex with children, most famously sung by Maurice Chevalier. I dare not replicate the lyrics (look them up if you dare) as the stream of double entendres would probably get me banned from the internet. But as he’s French, maybe he can get away with it.

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