Thursday, May 13, 2004

Un-PC Lyrics

Speaking of Fiorello (see previous post), that show contains two lyrics that tend to make audiences uncomfortable nowadays. The first is the ending to the wonderful comedy song (for one half of a "comic" subplot that ends rather sadly) "I Love a Cop":

Little did I know when Floyd first kissed me
And I whispered "Stop,"
You can't stop a cop.

The other, from the eleven o'clock number "(I'll Marry) The Very Next Man," where Fiorello's secretary Marie (who has spent the whole evening in love with her boss) makes it clear just how determined she is to marry the very next man who asks her:

And if he likes me,
What does it matter if he strikes me?
I'll fetch his slippers with my arm in a sling
Just for the privilege of wearing his ring.

This last one was changed by Sheldon Harnick when it started to become a liability to revivals of the show (I think the version used now is "If he respects me / What do I care if he neglects me"). It's necessary to point out that audiences in 1959 did not, as a rule, think wife-beating was funny; Marie is exaggerating to prove a point (that she's desperate to get married), not literally saying that she's willing to subject to beatings. But while my instinct as a fan of old musicals is to bemoan any cave-ins to the PC Police (tm), I can't really say that I object to changes like this. I think audiences today are more literal-minded than they used to be, at least when it comes to something written in the past; audiences in 1945 understood that Carousel wasn't advocating wife-beating, but today's audiences are just going to assume that wife-beating was acceptable in 1945 and Carousel proves it.

Ours isn't really the age of political correctness; new works so routinely get away with political incorrectness that you could say that un-PC is the new PC. But when it comes to reviving old musicals, we are prisoners of our view that they belong to an age that's less enlightened than ours. We assume, when we hear something like that line in "The Very Next Man," that it's an expression of the views of the age, and we are offended on that basis. But a lot of the things that offend us today were meant the same way today's un-PC humor is meant to function -- to amuse by its un-PCness. We don't always realize that now, because we think sensibilities have changed much more than they actually have.

Not that there aren't some lines from older entertainment that aren't just plain sexist. (I think of the line from the movie The Courtship of Eddie's Father, on feminism: "You'll have to be satisfied with the vote; I don't think it'll ever be a national movement." This line is played absolutely straight in the movie, and seems to be meant quite literally; hence it does come off as sexist, albeit of tremendous camp value for its failed attempt to predict the future.) But a lot of what we now consider offensive to our sensibilities was a deliberate attempt to twit the sensibilities of the '40s or '50s or whatever. It's just harder to see that now.

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