Living legend Natalie Cole wouldn’t really reach her true peak until she stepped into her father’s world and found her place singing the Great American Songbook, but she did have a fairly major career and a handful of big hits as an Aretha Franklin-style R&B singer in the Seventies and Eighties. Granted, she never quite made it into the top tier of R&B singers the way she would as a standards singer, but her talent was definitely apparent even at this early stage. This was the very first single of her career, and like most of her early singles, it was produced by her then-husband Marvin Yancy, an exceptionally talented R&B producer who came from a Gospel background, something that is definitely audible in the song. Of course, popular R&B of the day often resembled secular Gospel, but the resemblance is especially pronounced here, particularly on the extremely memorable chorus. Admittedly, a large part of this song’s appeal comes from Yancy’s superb production, but Natalie’s famous way of joyously throwing herself into everything she sings with all her energy was already more than apparent.
This song was originally from the Stephen Schwartz-Bob Fosse musical Pippin, and was later recorded by Michael Jackson during his Motown days. Like most of the songs in Pippin, it was presented ironically in the context of the musical’s plot, but detached from the musical, it comes off as simply a soaring, upbeat pop anthem. And while it failed to do much on the charts, I suspect it forms the model for several later Jackson songs with very similar musical sounds and subject matter…namely, his famous series of so-called ‘Save the World songs’. This means “We Are the World”, “Man In the Mirror” and “Heal the World” all probably owe their existence to a show tune…a reminder that the various fields of music are more interconnected than their devotees often realize, and that you can’t completely separate Broadway’s influence even from Rock-era popular music.
The Lonely Island are one of the most successful novelty musics acts that aren’t named “Weird Al Yankovich”, but the quality of their actual output kind of comes and goes. The reason this song is funny while the group’s others songs in this vein like “Jizz In My Pants” or “I Just Had Sex” are mostly just groanworthy is that this song actually tells a joke beyond the repetition of a dirty word. The song is a spot-on and surprisingly sophisticated satire of the kind of arrogant, overconfident, socially oblivious men who think sex in an acceptable way to fulfill a gift-giving obligation to their significant other. Just how prevalent the mindset it’s satirizing really is can be seen in the fact that, three years after this song was released, “Birthday Sex” by Jeremih was a Top Ten hit. This legendarily bad song has basically the exact same concept as “Dick In a Box”, but with one important difference: it’s not intended as a joke. If that song can be a hit three years after “Dick In a Box” became a near-universal meme parodying that mindset, I’d say this song has lost none of its relevance today.
This song is a special case…it’s the only Christmas hymn that routinely gets included on non-Christmas albums, to the point where Barbra Streisand’s A Happening In Central Park live album, which was recorded in June, contains a rendition of it. This is particular impressive given how massively overexposed all the famous Christmas songs are…it’s basically people saying “Not only didn’t we get sick of this song at Christmas, we’re so not sick of it we’re going to trot it out in Midsummer”. It’s hard to say why this song has such special status, but it might be because it offers such a great opportunity to the performer. When warbled out by a generic band of carolers, it’s actually not nearly as effective a showcase for that kind of singing as “Oh Holy Night” or “Angels We Have Heard On High”, but give it to a talented solo singer or an extremely well-trained choir who can really create a mood of hushed peace, and you’ve got magic on your hands.
Judy Garland wanted this song cut from Meet Me In St. Louis, on the grounds that it was too ‘lugubrious’, a position that I don’t really agree with, given that it proceeded to become an immortal holiday classic; that said, she also contributed to several songwriting changes that did genuinely improve the song, and, of course, contributed its definitive rendition. The melody strikes a perfect note of bittersweetness, but the original lyrics were plot-specific and much more overt in their depressing content than the current ones. The version heard today is mournfully optimistic, and you have to pay fairly close attention to realize just how depressing the sentiments being expressed really are. This sets it apart from both the holiday standards of its time, which tended to be idyllic and joyful, and from most of the later downbeat Holiday-themed standards like “Blue Christmas” that generally display their sadder elements much more openly. In fact, in all the length and breadth of the Christmas music genre, there’s really no other song like it, which is something to treasure in what is otherwise one of the most generic fields of music in existence.
This most morbid of Great American Songbook standards has received many famous interpretations over the years, but I consider the Ella Fitzgerald version from her Cole Porter Songbook album to be the definitive version. Why? Well, apart from the obvious fact that Fitzgerald has the greatest singing voice in all of jazz, there’s the fact that, while she was perfectly capable of some rather powerful emoting, Fitzgerald generally sang in a cool, detached manner that emphasized musicality over drama. This happens to be absolutely perfect for this particular song, which is all about ironic detachment, framing a story of adultery, murder and lynching with the blase chorus of “Miss Otis regrets she’s unable to lunch today” (to quote the musical Nine: “An appointment for lunch? That’s absurd!”). Most other versions of the song go more directly for poignancy and treat it more like a conventional tragic story ballad (the Ethel Waters version in particular is downright tearful), but Fitzgerald’s deadpan lack of emotion seems much more suited to the song’s central conceit, and that’s why I’d argue this song has never been done better.
Oddly enough, when Dave Barry published his famous compendium of bad songs, he equated Julie London with people like William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy as actors who dabbled disastrously in singing, apparently completely unaware of her large and distinguished body of work as a singer. Granted, a work like Barry’s can’t be expected to entail large amounts of research (he’s a comedian, not a critic, after all), but I’m genuinely surprised he didn’t already know about her singing career on the basis of this song alone. This is the prototypical ‘kiss-off single’, and forms the basis for every angry breakup song that came after it, from “I Will Survive” to “You Oughta Know” to “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)”; some of the most popular acts in modern music, including Beyonce, Pink and Kelly Clarkson, owe their careers to the trail this song blazed. And London’s very background as an actress is why this still remains arguably the definitive rendition of this song in spite of all the interpretations it’s received, a potent combination of withering sarcasm and deep-seated anger.
Michael Jackson’s fourth mature album, Dangerous, isn’t a masterpiece on the level of his previous ‘big three’ (Off the Wall, Thriller and Bad), but it still features a significant amount of wonderful material, and this song is among the best of it. Granted, Jackson’s excesses were starting to catch up with him at this point, and the song is sentimental, bombastic and more than a little pretentious (especially in its opening section, which consists of a fragment of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and not the part everyone knows, either). But it also has one of the greatest melodies in all of pop music history, and that, combined with the fact that it is, after all, being sung by Michael Jackson, more than counterbalances its flaws. It also seems to have launched a mediocre movie with no other particular distinctions into blockbuster status simply through its existence, which illustrates just how useful a good Award Bait song can really be.