November 22, 2006

Why Modernity Stinks, Volume MDCCLXVIII

On my way to lunch today, I tuned to my favorite radio station, the Music for Old People channel. The first song I heard was this old Bing Crosby tune:

When Madam Pompadour was on a ballroom floor
Said all the gentlemen "Obviously,"
"The madam has the cutest personality"

And think of all the books about Du Barry's looks
What was it made her the toast of Paree?
She had a well-developed personality

(What did Romeo see in Juliet?)
(Or Figaro in Figarette?)
(Or Jupiter in Juno?)
You know!

And when Salome danced and had the boys entranced
No doubt it must have been easy to see
That she knew how to use her personality

(A girl can learn to spell and take dictation well)
(And never sit on the boss's left knee)
(Unless she's got a perfect personality)

(A girl can get somewhere in spite of stringy hair)
(Or even just a bit bowed at the knee)
(If she can show a faultless personality)

Why are certain girls offered certain things
Like sable coats and wedding rings?
By men who wear their spats right?
(That's right!)

(So don'tcha say "I'm smart and have the kindest heart"
(Or "what a wonderful sister I'd be")
Just tell me how you like my

Baby, you've got the cutest

Ostensibly, this song is about the virtues of a sweet and caring disposition for women seeking to succeed at the game of life. Upon closer examination, though, it's pretty clear that "personality," in this context, means "bazongas." (Go ahead, substitute "bazongas" for "personality" in the lyrics above and see what I mean.) The whole song is a double-entendre of sorts, which it had to be, since there was still such a thing as "polite society" in America in the '40s, and you couldn't sing a song of praise to bazongas in public then. (Also, "personality" is easier to rhyme than "bazongas.")

In today's society, of course, subtlety is the refuge of the weak. If this song were written today, it would be called something like "Boobs Are Great," and the references to Madam Pompadour, Du Barry, Figaro and Figarette, Jupiter and Juno, and Salome would all be deleted, since no one knows who they are. (Yes, our pop culture was literate once, too. Look it up!) In a world of "I Like Big Butts" and "My Humps," the sly winks in "Personality" would fly over the heads of its audience. I'm not sure what's more disheartening about modern culture: the fact that our children are growing up in a shockingly obscene and indecent environment, or the fact that it caters to people who are too stupid to understand anything other than explicit vulgarity.

Seriously, except for civil rights and the '67 Corvette, the last 50 years have been one long march straight down the commode.

(NOTE: I have turned off comments for this post, because a particularly obnoxious comment spammer was bombarding this post with literally hundreds of comments a day. If you want to comment on this post, feel free to e-mail me.

Posted by Mediocre Fred at November 22, 2006 11:14 AM | TrackBack

Glad to hear that there is another KIXI listener under the age of 80 out there.

Posted by: Ira Sacharoff at November 22, 2006 12:40 PM

In defense of Sir Mix-a-Lot, let it be noted that the video for "Baby Got Back" included a play on the word "callypigian," which word I didn't even know at the time the song came out. And while Bing is reaffirming the same old beauty image, Sir Mix declared that Cosmo didn't know what made a girl hot, and praised athletes like Flo-Jo instead of actresses like Jane Fonda.

Also, to be honest, I read those lyrics and at first assumed it was just being sarcastic about the worth of personality, which didn't endear the song to me. And why do you assume he's talking about tits instead of ass?

Posted by: PG at November 25, 2006 11:27 AM

Fair enough. All due appreciation to Sir Mix-A-Lot for whipping out the old thesaurus and finding a ten-dollar word meaning "Nice butt."

As far as my assertion that he's singing about breasts, it was at least partly tongue-in-cheek. I would suggest, though, that extolling the wonders of women's rear ends in song, directly or indirectly, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Thus, my assumption. Perhaps old Bing was a rump man at heart.

Posted by: Mediocre Fred at November 27, 2006 08:09 AM

Well, specifically he parodies Cosmopolitan magazine and creates his own version (Cosmopygian) that celebrates women who aren't the standard beauty image: "I'm tired of magazines/ Sayin' flat butts are the thing... I ain't talkin' bout Playboy/ 'Cause silicone parts are made for toys... So Cosmo says you're fat/ Well I ain't down with that."

Eh, maybe it's a feminist thing to appreciate a rapper who can talk about women in a celebratory way, more than an old crooner who implies that the idea a woman's personality could be important is obviously silly.

Posted by: PG at November 27, 2006 08:19 PM

See, and I'd argue that both Der Bingle and Sir Mix are objectifying women in their songs, and you happen to prefer Sir Mix's objectification because it doesn't conform to the "standard beauty image." Maybe that's progress, but in the end, I think it's a matter of taste. And in that matter, give me the old crooner every day and twice on Sunday. Rap music upsets my digestion.

Posted by: Mediocre Fred at November 28, 2006 06:20 AM

I don't see Sir Mix-a-Lot's objectification of women as any more objectionable than looking at female political candidates and joking that they should have won based on how attractive they would make the delegation. In some respects the latter could be seen as worse, because it brings appearance into an arena where ideally it should be irrelevant (competence to govern). Even I'm not such an idealist as to think that physical appearance ever will be irrelevant to people's decisions on whom they'd like to date or have sex with, and I'm resigned to beauty's being part of the relationship sphere (as Walzer might put it).

Given that both Bing and Mix are talking about what makes women attractive, yes, I like that the song incorporates rebuttal to a uniform idea of what's beautiful and states its own preference for athletes over pinups, and doesn't have an implied disbelief that women's personalities are relevant to their overall attractiveness.

Posted by: PG at November 29, 2006 01:42 PM

Re: your first point, I never said that my fawning over attractive female political candidates wasn't objectionable. It surely is. I'm a political junkie who likes to look at attractive women; I can only be who I am.

Re: your second point, I refer to your previous comment: "Eh, maybe it's a feminist thing to appreciate a rapper who can talk about women in a celebratory way, more than an old crooner who implies that the idea a woman's personality could be important is obviously silly." I may quarrel with your terms, but I think perhaps it's a feminist thing to value songs by their attitude toward women as opposed to, say, their musical merit. And perhaps it's a crabby-old-codger thing to think veiled references to anatomy are preferable to the crude straightforward reference. (shrug) We can only be who we are.

Posted by: Mediocre Fred at November 30, 2006 11:15 AM

"a feminist thing to value songs by their attitude toward women"

Certainly, just as it's a Marxist thing to view everything in terms of class struggle, or a classical liberal thing to view everything in terms of the maximization of human freedom.

Your original post prizes the old song for its literate references; I pointed out that Sir Mix made literate references as well. You disparaged Sir Mix's as "ten dollar word," albeit deployed more accurately than some of Bing's references. (Jupiter is with his sister Juno to centralize power -- c.f. sibling incest among Egyptian royalty -- not for her "bazongas" or else he'd be with Venus; there is no such couple as Figaro and "Figarette," and if he means Mozart's or Beaumarchais's Figaro, his lover was Susanna).

Nor do I find Bing's song particularly subtle or inoffensive, given its cheery references to workplace harassment and keeping a mistress. I suppose it's easier to play such music around, say, an incurious child who never asks "why would somebody sit on her boss's knee?" than it would be to play a song that begins with someone actually saying the word "prostitute."

Posted by: PG at December 1, 2006 11:00 AM

I stumbled onto this old discussion via a google search for "Cosmopygian" and, boy, you were both wrong.

The song was written for the movie The Road to Utopia, which I happened to watch for the first time a week ago. In the movie, the song is sung by Dorothy Lamour's character when she tries to seduce the characters played by Bing Crosby and Bob Hope.

In this context, the song is considerably more cynical and satirical than either of you realized, especially if you 'see the video'.

Posted by: njim at May 11, 2007 02:37 AM