#308: Frank Sinatra, "Songs for Swingin' Lovers" (1956)

I used to tell you, when you asked me what I listened to, that I hated music.

Of course, what I really hated, and still hate, is the posturing about the music you listen to, about your superior tastes, your enlightenment. As if the length of your fandom, the level of obscurity in your collection, correlates to the substance of your character, the goodness of your soul.

You have an archive of 30,000 mp3s. You own rare records, talk about LPs, your bootlegs, what machines and conditions you need for ideal sound quality. You used to make CDs with songs you’d found on the weird parts of the internet that you would put in our CD players, actually snapping in half and throwing out whatever you were “saving us from.” If we had been ten years older, you would have spent hours telling us about the art of the mixed tape. You lose interest in bands once they’ve done this thing that they call “making it,” and you call “selling out,” because you’re angry that you’ve lost them, that you have to share them with others.

Sometimes, I try to talk to you about Frank. You don’t have as many strong opinions about himhe’s earned the kind of old-school chops that get him a passing nod, but maybe not all of your attention: you don’t know his songs, know vaguely that he was maybe in the mafia, cool with Louis Armstrong. You give me the benefit of the doubt, like it is some ironic thing, like wearing your D.A.R.E. T-shirt while you smoke pot. You let it slide.

But the truth is that I love pop musicOld Standards especially, that glorious weird cornball stuff about grand romantic gestures set to a full orchestra. And Frank, Frank was the King, the original pop star, full of sentimental phrasings that put Hallmark to shame, a person who felt comfortable describing what he did for a living with the verb “to croon.”

Songs for Swingin’ Lovers wouldn’t make it past whatever Cool Kids Test you have for albums you own, because it opens with “You Make Me Feel So Young,” a song that gives “overplayed” new meaning. You’ve heard it ballooning over thousands of romantic comedy montages of when-things-first-look-good-between-the-love-interests-before-the-main-conflict-drops. The lyrics liken the couple to an archaic synonym for children that your grandmother doesn’t even use: “You and I are just like a couple of tots / running across the meadow picking up lots of forget-me nots.” When he belts how “you make me feel there are bells to be rung,” the orchestra rings out some actual bells. It ends with a horn sigh that is the transitional sound for every upbeat 60s television program. It is the final word in Cheese.

“I’ve Got You Under My Skin” features a classic storyline for the films Sinatra starred in for most of his careeran extended meet-cute where the couple starts off by hating each other, and then, like Eliza Doolittle and Professor Higgins, find that they are accustomed to one another in a way that necessitates their first face-smashing smooch (hashtag TrueLove). This theme is so popular in the films and musicals where many of these songs originated that it is revisited in the Most Romantically Titled Song “You’re Getting to Be A Habit With Me,” which features the line: “I can’t break away / I’ve got to have you every day / as regularly as coffee or tea.” Then there is a big orchestral interlude for the couple in question to get to dance their feelings out in a swaying, furniture-leaping waltz.

And I love it.

You might again mistake all of this as irony, but it’s really closer to the same impulse that makes me love Twizzlers, a candy that is both candle-wax and medicine-flavored: deep-rooted, hardcore nostalgia. Because this album is not the album that showcases Sinatra at his most powerfulnowhere do we get to hear the instrument of his incredible voice give way to the pervasive sadness that haunted his efforts in music that even you might find moving. This album is the cheeriest of Christmas elves, whatever nod the songs make to longing or lost love belied with the buoyant orchestral promise that all will be well in the end.

What’s interesting about Songs for Swingin’ Lovers is the significance in its part in the Great Divide, or the battle against the new animal that was rock ‘n’ roll. This album, a breakout for Sinatra at a time when his career had taken a hit, paired him for the first time with Nelson Riddle, a collaboration that resulted in a Hit Factory Machine for the next three decades. But what was so interesting about Songs for Swingin’ Lovers is that they didn’t make an album of new songs to defend the honor of pop music; instead, they revived old favorites from as far back as 30 years, using the sheer genius of Riddle’s arranging prowess with Sinatra’s killer vocals to carry the genre to greatness. And it was a swing and a hit. (badum-BUM!)

I don’t think a revived Cole Porter jam is a cop-out. I don’t think lyrics that contain every cliche in the book (nightingales, love by bewitchment, stars in your eyes) are even damning here. Because it is this absolute commitment to moonlit love swoons that has me on board. There is a necessary suspension of disbelief here, a full-throated allegiance to all the trappings of the earliest, dumbest, and most desperate symptoms of Love Potion #9. What is the experience of falling in love, if not a series of familiar desires? It is madness, but it is genuine madness, carried out by arguably the inventor of pop icon swag. “And holding hands in the movie show / when all the lights are low, may not be new / but I like it,” Frank sings in How About You. This is a man who makes “lover” sound upbeat and not just the grossest bummer ever, whose conversational lines about “makin’ whoopie” and “swingin’ down the lane” have me, even at my most cynical moments, singing along. Even if I can’t ever imagine tattooing the lyrics along my rib cage the way you have with your ride or die anthems.

It’s partly the weirdness that makes me love it, the affected romance, the performative nature inherent to proclamations of love. Sinatra called Elvis’s music “a rancid-smelling aphrodisiac,” saying, “It fosters almost totally negative and destructive reactions in young people.” For someone notorious for his moods and violence, not to mention for saying things like “you’re much too much / and just too very ‘very’,” that’s a fairly rich accusation. And maybe here is where I’m wandering into the stuff that might help you find your Sinatra lovehis wild persona, the skinny street kid with the chip on his shoulder, the classic anti-hero. And maybe even, you might be swayed by his civil rights work, the industry feathers he ruffled insisting on his integrated band at a time when venues were barring people of color, when hotels would burn the sheets after the musicians had left the building. But what I’m telling you is that these are songs that don’t need footnotes for methis is the stuff that I can sing in my sleep, where the crescendo of Frank’s voice is a swooping breath in my diaphragm, adare I say it?tug on my heartstrings. And I’m done trying to make sure you think it’s cool.

—S.H. Lohmann