20 January 2009

In this week's Chronicle of Higher Education Review


From the issue dated January 23, 2009

Ol' Blue Eyes, in Focus

Cultural studies considers Sinatra

Scholarly books with "identity" and "culture" in the title have loomed large on academic publishing lists for quite a few years. Scholarly books with "Sinatra" in the title are a more recent phenomenon. Despite his six-decade career as the Voice (the 1940s), the Chairman of the Board (the 50s and 60s), and Ol' Blue Eyes (the 70s through his death, in 1998), academic interest in Sinatra long lagged behind the fascination with, say, Elvis or Madonna.

It's a matter of no small interest, then, to come upon an efflorescence of works like Karen McNally's When Frankie Went to Hollywood: Frank Sinatra and American Male Identity (University of Illinois Press, 2008) and two edited volumes, Stanislao G. Pugliese's Frank Sinatra: History, Identity, and Italian American Culture (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Leonard Mustazza's Frank Sinatra and Popular Culture: Essays on an American Icon (Praeger, 1998).

Three other recent books are more plainly titled but belong on the list anyway: Jeanne Fuchs and Ruth Prigozy's anthology Frank Sinatra: the Man, the Music, the Legend (University of Rochester Press, 2007), because it includes essays like "Singing in the Moment: Sinatra and the Culture of the Fifties" and "Sinatra in (Lyrical) Drag"; Chris Rojek's Frank Sinatra (Polity, 2004), because Rojek, a sociologist at Nottingham Trent University's Theory, Culture & Society Center, is fascinated by celebrity; and Gilbert L. Gigliotti's A Storied Singer: Frank Sinatra as Literary Conceit (Greenwood Press, 2002), because it assesses the various ways that writers "have created and employed the several personas of Frank Sinatra as a literary construct in their texts."

Almost all of these authors like Frank Sinatra — that's text, not subtext. "I remain a true fan," writes McNally, who teaches film studies at London Metropolitan University. Fuchs and Prigozy anoint Sinatra "our champion." Mustazza, who teaches English and American studies at Penn State's Abington College, declares his "affection and gratitude toward the greatest popular performer that this century has produced." Pugliese, a historian at Hofstra, brags that his two small children "have become Sinatra aficionados."

Most of the authors and editors seem to have been fans forever. (I'm one of those, with a chapter in Pugliese's book on Sinatra and presidential politics.) But others have conversion stories to tell.

Rojek recalls that when he was young, in the 1970s and 80s, he thought Sinatra was "a passé superstar who uncomfortably tried to remain hip and relevant when the times had transparently left him." He was converted by his students. When Rojek announced in class that he'd been asked to write a book about Sinatra for Polity's Celebrities series, they surprised him by saying that Sinatra's "music is classy, his films are often cool, ... and, above all, he is a powerful symbol of masculine authority [and] ... uncompromising individualism." After listening to all the records and watching all the movies, Rojek decided that Sinatra was more than just a celebrity "constructed for us" by "a long chain of cultural intermediaries." He was "a great artist."

Students' growing attraction to Sinatra (more on this later) is one part of why scholars in a variety of disciplines — film studies, literature, history, sociology, ethnic studies, political science — have taken an interest in him. The expansion of ethnic studies to include white ethnics is another; a remarkable number of the scholars with essays about Sinatra in these volumes are Italian-Americans. And then there's the simple venting of long pent-up fascination with Sinatra among scholars when studying him as an academic subject became even a little bit respectable.

When Paula Marantz Cohen, a humanities professor at Drexel University, issued a call for papers for a panel on "the semiotics of Sinatra" at the Modern Language Association's annual meeting in 1996, she expected a handful of proposals from scholars wanting to write about him harshly, as "a symptom of our culture." Instead she received 15 adoring proposals, including one from a professor who said he'd waited all his life for an MLA panel on Sinatra. Two years later, Hofstra held a conference called "Frank Sinatra: the Man, the Music, the Legend" that attracted 120 scholarly papers and widespread media coverage. The Pugliese and Fuchs-Prigozy books came directly out of that conference.

For the most part, scholars have avoided writing about Sinatra the performer, as distinct from Sinatra the icon. Legions of musicians, filmmakers, and critics have appraised Sinatra's artistry on stage, screen, and in recordings for nearly three-quarters of a century. Instead the most interesting contributors to the recently published Sinatra books have worked hard and, often, successfully to explain how Sinatra managed to evoke what Rojek describes as "emotions that were otherwise passionately mute or inchoate in the hearts of his audience."

Sinatra's audience, these books reveal, has varied over the years. When he hit it big, in the 1940s, his main appeal was to the teenage daughters of white working-class families — the "bobby soxers." (Their older brothers, cousins, and boyfriends, off fighting in World War II and resentful of all the swooning over Frankie that was going on back home, were another story.) The New Republic and The New Yorker sent correspondents to try to figure out what caused 30,000 girls to line up to see Sinatra at New York's Paramount Theater on October 12, 1944, and then riot when nearly 90 percent of them found out they weren't going to get in.

The theory that emerges most persuasively from the recent books is that the girls liked Sinatra because when he sang he seemed so much like them. The few who did get into the Paramount may not have been able to hear Sinatra over one another's screams, but they knew the songs already from records and, especially, the radio. Philip Furia, a professor of creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, with chapters in both the Mustazza and Fuchs-Prigozy volumes, points out that Sinatra built his reputation by reviving many forgotten songs from old Broadway musicals: the Gershwins' "Someone to Watch Over Me" and "But Not for Me," and Rodgers and Hart's "My Funny Valentine" and "Bewitched," to name just a few. Know who sang those songs in the original shows? Women. Know why? Because, Furia writes, such "ballads of longing or lament were assigned to female characters on the conventional assumption that women were more given to wistful or melancholy effusions."

Sinatra's early singing underscored his 1940s persona: sweet, shy, slight, light-voiced, and — to use a favored word of the scholars represented in these books — androgynous. The attorney and TV writer Patric M. Verrone, in a chapter in the Fuchs-Prigozy collection, notes that of the seven Sinatra-inspired characters that appeared in big-screen animated cartoons of the period, four were cute animals. In movies, McNally writes, Sinatra usually played "physically and emotionally vulnerable characters." As Rob Jacklosky, an English professor at the College of Mount Saint Vincent, points out in Pugliese's volume, in The Kissing Bandit Sinatra is the "bandit who won't kiss," and in Anchors Aweigh he's "the sailor who can't score." Francis Davis, writing in the September 1998 Atlantic Monthly, observed: "Often what young girls want in a boy is another girl, and the girls who swooned over Sinatra pressed him to their hearts as a young man who was as sensitive and, on some level, as self-conscious as they were." Think of the early Leonardo DiCaprio, before he buffed up.

Sinatra's early appeal wasn't confined to teenage girls. Musicians dug his extended, almost conversational phrasing (the product of extraordinary breath control harnessed to deep lyrical intelligence) and his in-the-pocket sense of rhythm. By 1941 the 25-year-old Sinatra had already bumped Bing Crosby out of first place as the jazz magazine Down Beat's best male singer.

Left-wingers were drawn to Sinatra's ardent public passion, unprecedented in a mainstream entertainer, for civil rights and various Popular Front causes, such as Henry Wallace's 1948 Progressive Party campaign for president. As Gerald Meyer, a historian at Hostos Community College, shows in a 2002 article in Science & Society, nearly all the people involved in making Sinatra's 1945 pro-tolerance movie short, The House I Live In, were "committed leftists." The song of the same title that he sang, which declares that America is not "a name, a map, a flag I see" but rather "the worker by my side" and "all races and religions," is a "veritable hymn to the Popular Front." Even Sinatra's politics, though, were sometimes perceived in halfway feminine terms. Pellegrino A. D'Acierno, a comp-lit and Italian professor at Hofstra, notes in the Pugliese volume that some critics of Sinatra's political activism called him "Mrs. Roosevelt in pants." Sinatra even added the line, "And Franklin Roosevelt's looks give me a thrill" to his 1941 recording of "How About You?"

The post-World War II, early-cold-war backlash against all things leftist helps to explain the tailspin that Sinatra's singing and acting career experienced in the late 1940s and early 1950s. His political involvement had attracted the attention of the FBI, which fed rumors and innuendo about his associations with mobsters to the ultraconservative Hearst newspapers so that the chain's columnists could discredit him as a hood. Jon Weiner, in a 1986 New Republic article called "When Old Blue Eyes Was 'Red,'" uncovered this jarring entry in The New York Times Index for 1949: "Sinatra, Frank: See US — Espionage." Sinatra didn't help his own cause by abandoning his wife in public pursuit of the actress Ava Gardner. Even his continuing commitment to perform and record emotionally and musically rich songs hurt him when the public taste turned to novelty numbers like "Woody Woodpecker" and "Too Fat Polka."

Sinatra's comeback — his Academy Award in 1954 for From Here to Eternity and his series of stunningly successful Capitol records with the arrangers Nelson Riddle, Billy May, and Gordon Jenkins — is an ofttold tale. What several scholars in these books add is a keen sensitivity to Sinatra's changed persona in the 1950s and how it helped to broaden his audience by replacing girls with grown-ups, including men. The Sinatra who climbed out of the hole into which he had both stumbled and been pushed was tough and rakish — a 50s-style swinger, not the frail girlie-man of the 40s. But, as was the case with many men in this period, unsettled as they were by their new lives as suburb-dwelling organization men with mortgages, Sinatra's toughness and rakishness barely masked a bundle of doubts and insecurities. In music and on film, Sinatra bared his vulnerabilities. And men, reluctant to do so themselves, appreciated his doing it for them.

The Cornell English professor Roger Gilbert, in an essay in the Mustazza volume, observes that both Maggio in From Here to Eternity and the heroin-addicted drummer Frankie Machine in The Man With the Golden Arm, "who start out as cocky, street-smart toughs, are eventually emasculated and made to undergo unspeakable torments." Gilbert also marvels at Sinatra's ability to simultaneously express "contrasting registers of desire and fear, outward bravado and inner doubt" in songs like his 1956 recording of Cole Porter's once-chirpy "I've Got You Under My Skin." In nearly all his music, Gilbert argues in a separate essay in the Fuchs-Prigozy book, "Sinatra enormously expanded the emotional palette of his art, incorporating shades of self-pity, longing, rage, bitterness, panic, and despair that no popular singer had previously touched." And he continued to mine the musical past for excellent material. The average age of the songs on Sinatra's superb 1956 album Songs for Swingin' Lovers is almost 20 years.

The 1950s also witnessed a deepening of Sinatra's appeal to Italian-Americans, who felt as slandered as he by the wider culture's broad, facile assumptions about ethnicity and organized crime. It meant a lot to them, McNally points out, that Sinatra didn't change his name the way Anthony Benedetto (Tony Bennett), Dino Crocetti (Dean Martin), and other Italian-American performers did. At the start of Sinatra's career, when the bandleader Harry James suggested that a name like "Frankie Satin" or "Frankie Trent" might broaden his appeal, Sinatra famously replied, "No way, baby. The name is Sinatra. Frank F — king Sinatra."

McNally and several other scholars cite The Urban Villagers (Free Press of Glencoe, 1962), Herbert Gans's classic sociological study of working-class Italian-Americans in Boston's West End in the late 1950s. Sinatra "was almost worshiped" in this neighborhood, Gans found, partly for his "rebellious roles" in movies but mostly for two qualities that were tied more squarely to their shared ethnicity. One was that Sinatra had not abandoned his "early supporters even though some may be racket figures and though the association may hurt his career." The other was that his rise, fall, and rebirth as a star "prove that downward mobility is not inevitable, that the 'bum' can return to even greater heights than he achieved before" even though "he has not given up the old values."

Sinatra remained active in politics as well as music and movies in the 1950s and 60s, moving rightward across the spectrum from left to liberal to conservative. Craving respect commensurate with his wealth and fame, he did everything in his power to help elect John F. Kennedy president in 1960. (Everything in his power ranged from singing at fund raisers to persuading the organized-crime leader Sam Giancana to rally Teamsters' union support in the crucial West Virginia primary.) In 1968, Sinatra worked almost as hard for the Democratic presidential candidate, Hubert H. Humphrey.

Sinatra's hope was that political involvement at the presidential level would cause people to associate him with statesmen rather than mobsters. Instead the opposite occurred. Both Kennedy, after he became president, and Humphrey, after he was nominated, heeded warnings from their advisers to avoid potential controversy by distancing themselves from Sinatra. In each case, the news media explained his exile by rehashing every ugly incident, association, and allegation — real and imagined — in their Sinatra clip files.

In the early 1970s, Sinatra marched right into the welcoming arms of the Republican Party. Unlike the Democrats whom Sinatra had supported, Richard Nixon in the 1970s and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s seemed to understand loyalty the same way he did: Nixon invited Sinatra to sing at a state dinner for the Italian prime minister, and Reagan helped him get back his casino license in Nevada.

Sinatra's move to the right reduced his appeal among the rapidly growing ranks of college students, many of whom were moving left. Indeed, everything about Sinatra seemed wildly out of step with the 60s: Vegas instead of Woodstock; booze instead of weed; tuxedos instead of jeans; "broads" and "chicks" instead of "women"; strings, winds, and brass instead of electric guitars, and so on. More than anything else, Sinatra music was "parents' music" at a time when everything about parents seemed annoying to their college-age children. And when Sinatra did try to appeal to the young — recording a swing version of Simon and Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson" or wearing a Nehru jacket on a television special called "Francis Albert Sinatra Does His Own Thing" — he seemed just as clueless as their dads did when they put on bell-bottoms and grew sideburns under their comb-overs.

Sinatra retired in 1971, at age 55, and when he came back, a couple of years later, he recorded much less, made hardly any movies, and went out on the road: hundreds of live performances, every year until 1995, in stadiums and sports arenas, around the country and the world. His target audience was the people who had loved him in the 1940s and 1950s — but a strange thing happened. Young people began showing up at the concerts, buying his records (Nothing but the Best, a just-OK compilation of old Sinatra hits, peaked last spring at No. 2 on the Billboard chart, replicating the success of his Duets album in 1993), and watching the original Sinatra versions of remade movies like Ocean's Eleven and The Manchurian Candidate.

Joe Piscopo and Phil Hartman made Sinatra a regular character on Saturday Night Live, and in 1991, David Letterman offered a not-bad-for-a-75-year-old-man list of "Top 10 Signs Your Wife Is Seeing Frank Sinatra." (No. 1: "She comes home smelling like a sweaty tuxedo.") Gilbert Gigliotti, who teaches English at Central Connecticut State University, found that exactly half of the 50 songs written from 1945 to 2001 that mentioned Sinatra came out in the final 10 years of that period, including songs by Bon Jovi, Smash Mouth, and DJ Eddie Def. In his essay in the Pugliese volume, John Gennari, an English and ethnic-studies professor at the University of Vermont, quotes Bonz Malone's identification of Sinatra in the rap/hip-hop magazine Vibe as the original gangsta. Malone marveled that Sinatra "used his voice, not a gun."

How to explain the recent appearance of young people in Sinatra's fan base? (Don't believe it? Go to your college's Facebook site, type "Sinatra" into the search box, and see how many students include him in their list of "Favorite music.") "Old school" is a phrase that one hears constantly from college students today, almost always as a term of high praise. It seems to encompass some mix of longevity and authenticity — the way things were back when life was, if not better, then definitely cooler. Sinatra passes muster on both counts. Longevity? Here's a measure of how long Sinatra's career lasted: When he started singing "The House I Live In," it had a line describing America as "a dream that's been a-growing for 150 years." When he sang it for the Duets II album in 1994, he had to update the line to say: "more than 200 years."

As for authenticity, one of Sinatra's gifts was to let us see him age. He didn't die young, like Kurt Cobain and Jim Morrison, and he didn't keep trying to look young, like the aging Elvis. Instead his voice got deeper and grittier, with all the cracks showing; his hair faded from piled up and brown, to flat and steely, to wispy and white; and his manner evolved from winsome to brash to sweetly doddery.

Another manifestation of his authenticity was what the Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley, writing in Pugliese's book, describes as Sinatra's "fusion of perfect style and imperfect behavior." During his long career, writers wondered how the same man could sing like an angel and act like a devil. Young people, inured by all they have seen and heard about the private shenanigans of JFK, FDR, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King, and Bill Clinton, don't see the problem. They seem totally comfortable with the idea that, as the jazz pianist Marian McPartland once said admiringly of Sinatra, "It all melts together, his experiences. I can't imagine a guy singing like that who's going to be a quiet, well-behaved, normal guy." Urbandictionary .com, the netroots-based dictionary of modern slang founded in 1999 by Cal Poly student Aaron Peckham, lists seven definitions for "Frank Sinatra," ranging from "n. God" to "v. To do a particular activity however you damn well please, your way."

And now academics — some of them from the generation that once rejected Sinatra but that, like Chris Rojek, has caught up with their students and embraced him — are weighing in. In the aftermath of Hofstra's Sinatra conference, the Manhattan College English professor Rocco Marinaccio worried about "what will happen to Frank Sinatra as he becomes academia's pop text of the moment." He especially fretted that, caught in the clutches of cultural studies, Sinatra would "be assimilated into academic discourse ... parallel[ing] the practice of 'the melting pot' by undermining the very identity it wishes to explore and delegitimizing the interpretive authority of the popular audience." Judging by the recent flurry of scholarly books on Sinatra — serious, respectful, and insightful to a one — Marinaccio can safely put his worries aside. n

Michael Nelson is a professor of political science at Rhodes College. His essay "Frank Sinatra: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Singer" ran in Virginia Quarterly Review in 1999, and his "New Sinatras: Swing, Swagger, and Sadness" appeared in Popular Music and Society in 2004.

Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 55, Issue 20, Page B13

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