October 4, 2010


Belied With False Compare

Dave Hogan
Dave Hogan

Bruno Mars' megahit "Just the Way You Are" restates a problem that was already solved 400 years ago. "Her eyes/Make the stars look like they're not shining," the singer/producer purrs at the beginning of the song. That's actually an ancient bit of hyperbole — the 14th century poet Francesco Petrarca, a.k.a. Petrarch, had a habit of going on about how his beloved Laura's eyes were "bright stars... wherein Love nestled," or that she was "a sun amid her fellow fair,/Shedding the rays of her bright eyes on me." Petrarch, like Mars, tended to catalogue and extol the virtues of his loved one's body parts, and the sun and stars were among his favorite reference points.

Then, a few hundred years later, William Shakespeare came along and tore Petrarch a new one. "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun," begins his "Sonnet 130" (from which Sting got an album title 23 years ago); he goes on to point out that, actually, her cheeks are not particularly like roses, that her breath is kind of stinky, that she's not really a goddess at all, and that she's as amazing (just the way she is!) as any woman who has to put up with drippy wordsmiths throwing hyperbolic comparisons at her.

Mars, of course, seems to be resorting to his grand talk because the woman he's singing to (or about; he keeps shifting between referring to her in the second and third person) is plagued by low self-esteem. You can almost hear her asking "does my ass look big in this song?" Dude: if she doesn't believe you when you tell her that her hair "falls beautifully without her trying," that might be because she just spent two hours getting it to look like that. Also, she is probably getting bored with you kissing her nails for a little too long.

The Shakespeare to Mars' Petrarch actually came along more than half a century earlier: Lorenz Hart, whose lyrics to his and Richard Rodgers' 1937 standard "My Funny Valentine" similarly upended the persistent love-song tradition of blatantly fake comparisons of the beloved's body parts to universal ideals. (In Babes in Arms, the Broadway show in which it first appeared, it's sung by a woman to a man named Valentine, but every time any man or woman has performed it since then, it's been understood as being addressed to a lowercase-v valentine.) "Is your figure less than Greek? Is your mouth a little weak?" the singer asks: he (or she) isn't going to lie about it, but also doesn't care. Mars tells his beloved that she doesn't have to do anything special to her hair for him; Hart tells his valentine not to change a hair for him, which is a truer sign of love.

There are thousands of versions of "My Funny Valentine," but maybe the most moving ones were by the late singer/trumpeter Chet Baker, who played the song regularly from 1952 (when he was playing with the Gerry Mulligan Quartet) until his death in 1988. (Try this gorgeous live performance from 1987.) His finest performances, near the end of his life, are also his most pockmarked, playing up the idiosyncrasies of his voice and instrumental tone. By then, Baker was "unphotographable" himself — well, intensely photographable, actually, but not so much for his physical beauty as for its absence: decades of hard living had wrecked his matinée-idol looks. You can hear the lesson the ravages of time might have taught him: that there wasn't a thing that he could change back, once it had already changed, and that there was a far more pleasing sound that could come from observing and celebrating the flaws in his "favorite work of art" — as well as his own art.