He's so unusual

One of the things we here at Cladrite Radio find most intriguing about pop culture from past decades, from movies to literature to music, are the clues it offers to life as it was once lived. For example, it’s easy to assume, when considering the first half of the 20th century, that societal attitudes were more conservative and old-fashioned.

But were they, always?

Imagine that, say, a contemporary male star like Justin Timberlake decided to record a cover of Fergy’s 2008 hit, Clumsy, and opted not to change the following lyrics:

You know, this isn’t the first time this has happened to me
This lovesick thing
I like serious relationships and
A girl like me dont stay single for long
‘Cause every time a boyfriend and I break up
My world is crushed, and I’m all alone
The love bug crawls right back up and bites me, and I’m back

What kind of furor would that cause? Would the tabloid press rush to print stories questioning Timberlake’s sexual preferences and leanings?

We live in a relatively non-judgmental age, regarding issues of gender and sexuality, and I’m not suggesting it would end Timberlake’s career if he were, in fact, to come out as gay. But assuming he’s not gay (or that he prefers no one know that he is), I can’t really imagine him not switching around the gender-specific references in the lyrics of that Fergy song.

But often, in the 1920s and ’30s, vocalists didn’t bother to make sure the lyrics they sang lined up with a mainstream heterosexual image, and I can’t help but wonder if that was intentional — if they were, like earlier-day Madonnas, winking at the public, intentionally creating controversy.

Or did those unaltered lyrics even create any controversy? Perhaps not, I really have no idea. But it’s hard for me to imagine a female singer of the past forty or fifty years (with a few key exceptions) singing, as Ruth Etting did in The Ziegfeld Follies of 1927 and in a Columbia recording of that same year, the following lyrics from the Irving Berlin song It All Belongs to Me:

It All Belongs to Me

Rosy cheeks
Red hot lips
A million dollars worth of flying hips
And it all belongs to me

Those lips that I desire
Are like electric wire
She kissed a tree last summer
She started a forest fire

I’m in love
With what she’s got
And what she’s got, she’s got an awful lot
And it all belongs to me

(By the way, we feature that Etting record here on Cladrite Radio, so if you haven’t heard it yet, keep listening.)

Was the song given a Sapphic slant in the Flo Zeigfeld-produced stage review? Was it delivered with a wink and grin from Etting?

I have no idea, but this particular example is hardly the only one.

Another such recording on the Cladrite Radio playlist is Moon at Sea, as performed by Shep Fields and His Rippling Rhythms Orchestra (the song was cowritten, as best as I can determine, by Harry Pease, Vincent Rose, and Larry Stock). The male vocalist on the track (I’m not sure who it is, I’m sorry to say) croons the following lyrics:

Moon at Sea

Moon at sea
Keep on shining so bright
Guide my loved one tonight
Moon at sea

You can see
From your watch upon high
As he goes sailing by
Moon at sea

Tell him that my love’s a true love
Though we’re miles apart
Tell him there can be no new love For he sailed away with my heart

Can you imagine anyone short of George Michael or Lance Bass recording that song without changing the lyrics to reflect a heterosexual viewpoint? I can’t, but I’ve heard any number of recordings from roughly 80 years ago in which such lyrics were recorded as written.

Perhaps it was just that the artists of the time were showing respect for the composer in not altering the lyrics, but I’m still surprised that the practice raised no eyebrows on the part of those who strove in those days to control the content of popular culture (and there were easily as many self-appointed censors back then who viewed themselves as guardians of the public good as today).

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