Perhaps only The American Culture (TAC) can talk intelligently about Frank Sinatra and simultaneously leave a reader wondering about the limits of personal responsibility.
But that’s exactly what an article by Mike D’Virgilio has done—at least in my tiny little brain—for several weeks now. Perhaps I should start at the beginning.
In 2009 TAC ran a brief article on Sinatra’s famous song “My Way” and its narcissistic lyrics. As most will recall, this song celebrates the premise that throughout the singer’s life he did things his way and was proud of that fact as he reflected on it in his later years. Like Mike D’Virgilio, I’ve long disliked this song for sending such a message.
However, D’Virgilio indicated in his article (quoting from a Wall Street Journal column), that since Sinatra “utterly hated” this song—and only sang it because his audience wanted to hear it—that this revelation redeemed Sinatra in his eyes.
I’ll grant you that I feel better about Sinatra now that I’ve learned this. But should that be the end of our analysis?
I recently read a fascinating news article which discussed what’s called the “My Way” killings in the Philippines. The article was widely disseminated in the media, and an extended version can be found here .
In short, it appears that singing “My Way” in karaoke bars in the Philippines has spawned at least six unrelated fatal fights. In fact, the authorities now have a subcategory of crime dubbed “My Way Killings” to reflect these murders.
There are many suggested explanations for this phenomenon, but perhaps the chief theory is that “the song’s ‘triumphalist’ nature might contribute to the violence.” Or, as the owner of a Manila-based singing school put it:
“‘I did it my way’—it’s so arrogant. The lyrics evoke feelings of pride and arrogance in the singer, as if you’re somebody when you’re really nobody.… That’s why it leads to fights.”
Whatever the cause or causes of the violent reactions to the performances, many Filipino karaoke bars now omit this song from their playbooks.
As far as I know, the Chairman of the Board never performed in the Philippines, and I’m sure he’d be the first to condemn these killings if he were alive.
But does that mean “My Way” can be sung with impunity in other locales?
Let’s assume–as a purely theoretical exercise–that a singer knows that if he sang “My Way” in Madison Square Garden that it would cause absolutely no violence. Would it still be proper to sing that song if the crowd demanded it?
Phrased another way, does a singer have an obligation to edify his audience, or merely to sate them?
Before someone responds that the “My Way Killings” are isolated instances, I would argue that history and culture disagree.
In fact, music can foster wars, if you use the latter term loosely. For example, “ narco ballads ” glorify the exploits of narcotics traffickers in drug wars, and “ gangsta rap ” spawned the deaths of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. in an East Coast-West Coast music battle.
And music can also stop wars, albeit briefly. In the famous Christmas Truce of 1914 during World War I, British, French, and German troops laid down their weapons, exchanged gifts, and played soccer after one side heard the other singing Christmas carols.
On a smaller scale, music can calm a tense crowd. In January of this year, when a security breach “forced Newark’s Liberty Airport to shut down an entire terminal and re-screen travelers,” one man decided to cheer people up. What did this lone individual do?
He picked up his guitar and led everyone in a sing-along of “Hey, Jude.” This inspired—and inspiring—action demonstrated the power of music. The video of this singalong has gone viral across the web.
In short, words are powerful. Music is powerful. And combining words with music can be very powerful indeed.
Knowing that as he surely did, Sinatra could easily have changed the lyrics to “My Way.” They were composed for him by his friend Paul Anka, and I’m sure Anka would have permitted a few tweaks, particularly since Anka didn’t even write the song. He merely penned the lyrics to an earlier French tune.
But Sinatra chose not to change the words. Instead, he chose to play to the image he had in popular culture—whether deserved or not—rather than, as we are now told he would have preferred, sing a song “in which one human being expresses romantic love for another.”
In fact, all he would have had to do was change “my” to “her,” and the song might have become a staple about how to achieve a happy marriage.
Well, and perhaps an additional tweak or two to prevent him sounding like a milquetoast.
But he didn’t.
So, should a singer edify an audience, or pander to them? Calm an airport, or foster narcissism for decades?
Or, for those of us who will never achieve anything like the fame of a Frank Sinatra, should we conduct our daily walk “our way” …
… or put aside what we’d like to do and, like the Newark airport balladeer, put a smile on other people’s faces?