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Lorenz Hart’s Street Talk and Usher’s Post-Verbal Pop

The late musical wizard-for-hire Luther Henderson, who helped would-be singers develop nightclub acts between his arranging assignments for Duke Ellington, once explained in an interview that there used to be an unpublicized policy in effect at the Bonsoir, the Greenwich Village spot where Barbra Streisand got her start in the early 1960s. The club owners had a prohibition against performances of “My Funny Valentine”—written into the contracts, according to Henderson. (I have no documentary evidence of any such contracts, though I’ve been trying to find one.) The song, written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart in 1937, had by the ’60s become a cliché of cafe society—a gorgeous, exquisitely made, but overly man-handled specimen of sophistication in popular music. Some fifty years later, the very title of “My Funny Valentine” is shorthand for the cheeky elegance that its admirers equate with the Great American Songbook.

A fine new biography of Lorenz Hart by Gary Marmorstein, A Ship Without a Sail, makes clear that Hart, over the years since his early death at age 48 in 1943, has been taken up the very society he set out, in his lyrics, to unsettle. His whole mission as a songwriter was to upend the genteel tradition by writing the way people talked—at least the way street-smart, fatalistic, gay Columbia drop-outs talked in the first half of the 20th century. “Larry Hart never had much use for Cafe Society, High Society, or the so-called Four Hundred, except as a dartboard, its members largely figures of fun,” Marmorstein writes. “As a lyricist, he was determined to leave Victorian clichés behind and instead exploit the crackling American idiom. As Yeats had directed while sitting in the Algonquin back in 1914, why not be natural with everyday speech?”

As early as the 1920s, astoundingly, Hart was writing devastating works of vernacular mordancy, like “This Funny World.” Set to a perfectly bittersweet, declarative melody by Richard Rodgers, the song is painted in blunt strokes of black: “This funny world makes fun of the things you strive for/This funny world can laugh at the dreams you’re alive for...If you are broke, you shouldn’t mind/It’s all a joke, for you will find this funny world is making fun of you.” (The clip below shows the song performed by the late Mary Cleere Haran, who re-established the song in the 1990s with a dark, wry show and CD of the music of Rodgers and Hart. Haran, at 58, died in a bicycle accident last year.)

Today, it seems a given that the lyrics of pop songs ought to have the naturalness of street talk, that the patterns of verbal language should inform musical expression. At the same time, though, verbal language has been drifting further and further from the center of social discourse for the young people for whom most pop music has always been made. (Richard Rodgers was 17 years old, Hart 24, when they started writing together in 1919.) It follows that pop songs of our time should rightfully not emulate street talk, but ought to mirror the discontinuity, the fragmentariness, and the ephemerality of text messaging—and they do. Without going quite so far as to declare him the Lorenz Hart of our time, I’ll point out that Usher, whose song “Climax” is the number-one hit on the hip-hop charts this week, writes not like we speak, but how we text in this funny, post-verbal world.