Song composed by Cole Porter
Is the best art indeterminate? Does it leave itself open to infinite reasonable interpretations? For that matter, is a work of art truly open to multitudinous dissections even when such appears to be the case on the surface? What is the case with abstract art? Is it really open to only one interpretation, that it is a commentary on the concrete? Is it truly possible that the loosest seeming art winds up being the most straightforward? Does structure add complication- something of an unexpected twist when the structure, in the first place, was there to aid understanding?
I know, I know. I started out to write about Cole Porter and my favorite of his songs, a song which defies misunderstanding. The poor woman is unable to appear today due to being lynched. Singers often bring fresh emotions to songs, shining lights on essences which even the songwriter may not have noticed. Many works from the era of great American songwriting hide melancholy and more inside themselves. But this song… from Ethel Waters onwards, is freighted with the same powerful emotions. This is not a complaint. Consider the Beatles’ Yesterday as another song that would seem uninterpretable as anything but reverie and loss.
The apotheosis of abstract in the popular song arena appears to be the myriad psychedelic songs that began pouring into the common consciousness in the Sixties. Humorous nonsense songs have always featured, but these songs looked like they were meant to be taken seriously. They had structure, but they definitely left their meaning open to interpretation.
Kieron Gillen riffs on this question of interpretation in the second volume of his Phonogram series. Nowadays, at a certain age, we become certain that a certain pop song reveals its true meaning just to us as we are the real owners of the work. The artist served merely as conduit as the art passed from the nonexistent to the ultimate recipient. For this reason, we define the real experience of art as perception, not creation.
Is that so far afield? Isn’t that why we like giving gifts- for the experience of seeing the end result in the recipient? Perhaps it is a power thing as when the comedian skillfully controls the waves of laughter passing over an audience. On the other hand, it is unquestionably the artist who is drained and the audience who are reinvigorated.
I haven’t forgotten Cole Porter… his best songs spark off the detonation of wit amid the sadness. He wrote a lot, but that was his job, as the excuse goes, (I blog a lot…) but then he goes and writes this little miracle about abuse, revenge, and more death. It could be an opera (and it has been). Instead, it is this tale of a wronged woman that successfully skirts all sentimentality.
That’s the trick with interpreting Miss Otis Regrets… It demands dignity. You can’t sing it as a wronged woman. All debts have been paid. The wrong is addressed. This is goodbye.
You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 266 more to go.
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