There’s a game we play in my house called “If a Modern Songwriter Wrote”, and it goes like this:
If a modern songwriter wrote “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, it would be called “I Hate Kansas and I Can’t Wait to Get Out”.
If a modern songwriter wrote “Old Man River”, it would be called “It Sucks Being a Black Slave, But I Seem To Have Perspective On Life”.
You get the drift. There are some exceptions – I like 10CC’s “Im Not In Love” for not betraying its subtext – but one of the least useful legacies of the 1960s and 1970s is that, now that songwriters can say anything they like, they don’t say much. Worst example I can think of is in Boyz II Men’s I’ll Make Love To You, although the title is bad enough:
Throw your clothes on the floor
I’m gonna take my clothes off too
Mmm, beautiful words, guys. Beautiful.
Which is why I like Dorothy Fields. Dorothy Fields wrote about sex before you were allowed to. Dorothy Fields wrote about female lust. Yes, female lust. And she did it with style and wit, and her lyrics were just plain sexy. Her name ought to be known to more than just the Astaire/Rogers fans and showqueen tragics.
This is from A Fine Romance, music by Jerome Kern:
A fine romance, you won’t nestle
A fine romance, you won’t wrestle
I might as well play bridge
With my old maid aunts
I haven’t got a chance
This is a fine romance
And, later …
A fine romance with no quarrels
With no insults and all morals
I’ve never mussed the crease
In your blue serge pants
I never get the chance
This is a fine romance
Ginger Rogers, in the snow, singing that to me? I’d dance like Astaire too. Judi Dench singing that to me? I’d stay in a hokey British sitcom too.
There are plenty of other examples (Big Spender, Remind Me, He Had Refinement), but there’s one very telling example of how good Fields was. When Stephen Sondheim was writing the pastiche numbers in Follies, he adopted the styles of different composers and lyricists from the 1930s and ’40s. For Losing My Mind, he imagined a Gershwin tune with a Dorothy Fields lyric, a collaboration that never occurred in the real world. So, to this day, when Follies fans sing …
I dim the lights
And think about you,
Spend sleepless nights
To think about you.
You said you loved me,
Or were you just being kind?
Or am I losing my mind?
… they’re singing Sondheim doing an imitation of Fields. Hell of a compliment, that.