Tuesday 2 March 2021

"The way you look tonight" - Great song (and nihilistic philosophy)

Some day, when I'm awfully low 
When the world is cold 
I will feel a glow just thinking of you 
And the way you look tonight 

Yes, you're lovely, with your smile so warm 
And your cheeks so soft 
There is nothing for me but to love you 
And the way you look tonight 

With each word your tenderness grows 
Tearin' my fear apart 
And that laugh wrinkles your nose 
Touches my foolish heart 

Lovely, never, never change 
Keep that breathless charm 
Won't you please arrange it? 
'Cause I love you 
Just the way you look tonight

By Dorothy Fields (words) and Jerome Kern - 1936

What makes a song great? Well, music and words, obviously: here Kern's lovely tune came first, and Fields fitted those beautiful lyrics to it. 

When you hear the words sung, it sounds as if they could stand alone - but that is not really the case. These lyrics are not a poem - they are fitted to the melodic shape. 

Taken together, the song expresses expresses a single idea, a situation typical of youth and the early infatuation of a relationship: a brief perfect moment of total happiness (maybe just having dressed for a dinner dance with a new girlfriend, and with the whole evening stretching ahead, when you first see your date); when you take a step back mentally and acknowledge the fact - and you respond by wishing that somehow you could hold-onto this moment (in all its fullness) forever.  

That first verse has the (singable) round, open-vowel assonance-rhymes of some, awfullylow and cold, which are then lifted and warmed by the inner glow from thinking of her. 

Lovely, warm, and There is nothing for me but to love you (nothing, for and love continuing these and other assonances) describes how this reaction feels compelled, involuntary; it seems we are just swept-up by the feeling, irresistibly. And, once established, the feeling 'grows' with everything little she does; like the way she wrinkles her nose when laughing. 

Yet the song also contains that panicky feeling which follows-on from the above recognitions, as we realize with dismay that this is 'just' a moment, and our memories of this moment will not, in fact, console us for that imagined future miserable aloneness. 

And then we 'plead' (in what we already realize is a futile, ineffectual manner) that somehow it might be kept, caught, preserved; if only she could 'never, never change' and 'keep that breathless charm'. Which we also, simultaneously know, is wholly of her youth and of this exact moment in our two lives in the stream of time... 

So, here is a totally happy moment - that almost instantly transforms into the anticipated regret which we know will come because moments cannot be held. 

In describing the moment, the moment is itself framed within a projected future in which this perfect moment, and presumably the girl herself, has been lost; and we ourselves are alone, miserable and have lost optimism - and the hope that the memory of this moment will console us. 

While, unspoken, at the back of it - is the unspoken realization that this will not be 'enough', will not suffice to compensate for the loss; and that we too will change - her breathless charm will go, but so will our own innocent capacity to appreciate such incidents in the exact same way as this perfect moment. 

Thus the greatness of this song - words, music and the way they capture a real feeling; are also the expression of a kind of nihilistic despair that desires such a moment (and such moments) above all; yet knows they cannot last - and would not satisfy if merely sustained or repeated. 

Habituation, tolerance, loss of effect with repetition, ageing... these are as inevitable with love affairs as with drugs...

The date 1936 is significant; the cynical end of the 'between-the-wars' era of rebellious, self-indulgent and publicly-flaunted hedonism; when it became clear that not only was it unviable and unsatisfying, but actively harmful to the individual and society. 

And/because world war was looming. 

The cynic learns nothing - except negatively; which is why I describe this song as nihilistic. Of course it is nihilistic! How could it not be nihilistic; given the people who made it, and the showbiz circumstances it was made-for. 

What we have here is a genuinely great song, perfectly describing what is probably an eternal human situation; and with an honest, sophisticated - but nihilistic - acknowledgment of the limitations of its own perspective.  

Yes! the moment is perfect; yes, it will pass; yes, people-like-us have only a future of despair to look-forward to... 

The song provides no answers, nor even suggestions of where one could look for answers. The assumption is that there are no answers... 

Yet there are answers; and the fact that they are imperceptible to the world of this song, shows the self-destructive assumptions upon-which that world was, and is, built. 



a_probst said...

And it's made more haunting by Skellern's decision to arrange and perform it in the style of the time allowing us to hear it without the hiss and truncated frequency reproduction of the old records. Another reminder that the past was once the present.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ap - Well, sort of - I don't think Kern envisaged the Grimethorpe Colliery Brass Band from the Yorkshire coalfield!... But, yes; Skellern was very much in the spirit of the original.

His was an unique talent; perhaps because he seems to have projected an innocent sweetness of nature rare in showbiz, and partly because he was clearly not chosen for his looks. He ploughed his own furrow.

KCFleming said...

Love the insights about the song.