The World Has Gone Mad Today

Many of Cole Porter's lyrics are incredibly -- even savagely -- topical. The songs of Anything Goes reference the latest news, gossip, pop culture, and celebrity sightings of 1934, and yet in a way that's fully organic to the characters and story. There's no question Reno Sweeney and Billy Crocker would be making jokes about this stuff.

From our vantage point today, close to a century later, we're apt to miss some of that wicked social satire, because so many of the original references are now obscure to us. So subsequent revivals have tinkered a lot with the lyrics to "You're the Top" and "Anything Goes," in particular, worried that contemporary audiences won't get all the original references (they won't), and as a result, exploring these lyrics sometimes requires a lot of digging.

But this kind of research is so much fun.

This show brilliantly captures some of America's craziest cultural impulses, most of which are very little different today from what they were in 1934. Anything Goes wasn't really telling a love story; it was telling the story of America awkwardly struggling with the huge social and technological changes that were transforming our nation from a rural culture to an urban one, and consequently a more diverse and socially liberal one; and from a social-status culture to one based on economic status.

Though it was surely unintentional, I could argue that [Spoiler Alert] Reno marrying Evelyn is a clear metaphor for the way, for the first time in the 20s and 30s, Americans routinely combined "low culture" and "high culture." In fact that mashup essentially defines American musical comedy.

Today, some frightened conservatives long to return to a mythical, nonexistent 1950s that's whiter, more Christian, and less complicated; and so too did folks in the 1930s fear the massive changes reshaping America. This show, its title, and its title song are all about that.

Every version of the show starts the title song the same way.
Times have changed,
And we've often rewound the clock,
Since the Puritans got a shock,
When they landed on Plymouth Rock.
If today,
Any shock they should try to stem,
'Stead of landing on Plymouth Rock,
Plymouth Rock would land on them.

It's a double joke, built on the two meanings of land, and comically comparing the relative shocks of finding the New World, versus those same 17th-century pilgrims finding the wild nightlife of 1934 New York. Kinda sounds like a Bill & Ted sequel.

There's actually a lot going on here. The times do change and when they do, some people fear that change, and they react by trying to turn us back to an earlier era ("we've often rewound the clock"), a time perceived to be more innocent, more faithful, more moral. With Ronald Reagan and some of the conservative movement today, the 1960s so freaked them out, that ever since then they've been trying to turn American back to the 1950s. The same thing happened in the 1920s and 30s.

It's telling that Porter invokes the Puritans -- the symbol of social ultra-conservatism -- as a comic measure of the wild times we find ourselves in "now." No, the Puritan's likely would not have been big fans of speakeasies or The Ziegfeld Follies...

As the first verse of the song begins, we set up this comparison. Once upon a time, so long ago that the days are not just old, but "olden," America was really moral. Except that the use of the archaic "olden" (Porter originally used "former" in that spot), and the extremity of just a "glimpse" being shocking, gives the whole thing a layer of smartass irony. Who'd want to live in "olden days"...?
In olden days a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking,
But now, God knows,
Anything Goes.

Women's modesty was a big issue as skirts got shorter, arms got bared, and dresses got more form-fitting. The androgynous, body-disguising, chest-flattening fashions of the 20s were gone. Throughout history, there's always been this weird impulse to hide women's bodies for fear men can't control their sexual urges (this is what the final scene of Grease is about). It's only now that we're concluding it's the men who need to control themselves.

I think we've become numb to the title phrase of this song. It's just too ubiquitous, too embedded in our culture. But think about that phrase -- anything goes, anything is okay, nothing is off limits, there are no rules, no norms, no constraints anymore.
Good authors too, who once knew better words,
Now only use four letter words
Writing prose,
Anything Goes.

What was Porter talking about here?

James Joyce’s 1922 masterpiece Ulysses, was banned in England till 1930, and the United States Post Office reportedly burned any copies of the book they found. Finally, in 1933 (a year before Anything Goes opened), the case of Ulysses was re-opened, and the Supreme Court ruled that because the book was not "pornographic" it could not be banned or censored.

D.H. Lawrence’s 1928 novel Lady Chatterly's Lover, about an aristocratic lady who has a sexual affair with her groundskeeper was also banned over its frank discussion of sex (and the importance of orgasm), and its frequent use of the words fuck and cunt. One U.S. Senator exclaimed, “I’ve not taken ten minutes on Lady Chatterley’s Lover, outside of looking at its opening pages. It is most damnable! It is written by a man with a diseased mind and a soul so black that he would obscure even the darkness of hell!”

Erskine Caldwell's 1933 novel God's Little Acre was about a dysfunctional farming family in Georgia obsessed with sex and wealth. The novel's sexual themes were so controversial that the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice asked a New York state court to censor it.

In 1934, Henry Miller's semi-autobiographical novel of his sexual escapades in Paris, Tropic of Cancer, with its frequent use of the word cunt, was banned in the United States shortly after its first publication in France. The ACLU tried to sue the U.S. government, but lost its case. Finally, when the novel was published in 1961, sixty obscenity cases were brought in twenty-one different states. Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Michael Musmanno wrote that Cancer is "not a book. It is a cesspool, an open sewer, a pit of putrefaction, a slimy gathering of all that is rotten in the debris of human depravity.” Porter wasn't kidding about four-letter words. This really was a sea change in popular literature.

"Anything Goes" has three bridges, each with a different purpose. The first lists examples of "immoral" acts which lead, in the second bridge, to a general moral chaos, which leads, in the third bridge, to how crazy that chaos makes us all. It's an ironic jab at all the experts of the time warning about the dangers of Modernity.

The song's first bridge lists a bunch of morally sketchy things that "you" (so interesting to put this in the second person!) might enjoy if you live a Fast Life, things which will no longer be off limits in our topsy-turvy culture...
If driving fast cars you like,
If low bars you like,
If old hymns you like,
If bare limbs you like,
If Mae West you like
Or me undressed you like,
Why, nobody will oppose.

When every night,
The set that's smart is
In nudist parties
In studios,
Anything Goes.

Before we get to the content, let's look at the craft here. The bridge has seven lines and five of them start with "if," and six of them end with "you like" -- and in between an AABBCC rhyme scheme. That's some really skillful writing. Then we return to the verse, and of those six lines, three start with "in," and those same three lines all have an "-ood" in the middle of the line. But also "smart is" makes a kind of subliminal rhyme with "parties," and to top it all off, the last line of the bridge rhymes with the last two lines of the verse that follows it.

In terms of content, much of this lyric references current events. In 1930, twelve states still did not have any speed limits; it was an automobile wild west.

The "low bars" (i.e., speakeasies) of Prohibition were disappearing by the time Anything Goes opened, a year after the repeal of Prohibition. The reference is a joke on the two meanings of the word low. Here the word means disreputable, but also, literally lower in height. According to a 1946 Life magazine article, before Prohibition, bars were 46-47 inches high, but during and after Prohibition, so many more women were drinking that they lowered many bars to 43 inches.

The "old hymns" reference may be a joke about how many hymns were set to the music of drinking songs because those tunes were already popular. Why else would liking old hymns be subversive like the rest of the items in this list? Maybe the joke here is just that "you" like drinking in taverns, where they sing old hymns that have been converted into drinking songs.

Of course, "bare limbs" were still pretty new in women's fashion and still considered shocking by some. Mae West was still a new movie star in 1934, but she already had been writing plays, starring in them, and getting arrested for her plays' "obscenity." After the Hollywood Production Code was established in 1933, West simply perfected the double entente, with famous lines like "When I'm good, I'm very good, but when I'm bad, I'm better."

Nudism / naturism spread throughout Europe in the 1920s and got to America in the 1930s, due in part to sociologist, political theorist, and liberal social critic Maurice Parmelee’s 1931 book Nudism in Modern Life. Also, "the set that's smart" refers to the phrase "The Smart Set," meaning the cultural elite, usually fashionable and wealthy. It was also the title of a literary magazine that published from 1900-1930.

The song's second bridge is more general than the first, more a catalog of the fallout. Here, the world is just fucked up, backwards, upside-down, disorienting...
The world has gone mad today
And good's bad today,
And black's white today,
And day's night today,
And that gent today
You gave a cent today
Once had several chateaus.

When folks who still can ride in jitneys
Find out Vanderbilts and Whitneys
Lack baby clo'es,
Anything goes.

No revival has used those last four lines because no one would understand them today. Jitneys were independent taxi cabs or small buses, so the joke is that the middle-class folks who can still afford to take a cab, here in the middle of the Depression, would be shocked to find out that some of the richest Americans (in this case, the Vanderbilt and Whitney families) had lost nearly everything -- due to the creation of income and estate taxes not too long before, the effects of the Depression, and the weirdly profligate spending of the Vanderbilts and others. The "baby clothes" might refer to Gloria Vanderbuilt, who was a child at the time. The Whitneys went broke through corruption.

The third bridge of "Anything Goes" returns to the second person -- you -- acknowledging everybody's feeling that the world has gone crazy and it's making us all crazy. Much like right now. And notice this very early critique of the mainstream media...
Just think of those shocks you've got
And those knocks you've got
And those blues you've got
From the news you've got,
And those pains you've got
(If any brains you've got)
From those little radios.

According to the PBS website:
For the radio, the 1930s was a golden age. At the start of the decade 12 million American households owned a radio, and by 1939 this total had exploded to more than 28 million. But why was this ‘talking telegram’ so popular?

As technology improved radios became smaller and cheaper [hence the "little" radios]. They became the central piece of furniture in the average family’s living room, with parents and children alike, crowding around the set to hear the latest installment of their favorite show.

News broadcasts also influenced the way the public experienced current affairs. When the Hindenburg airship exploded in 1937, reporter Herb Morrison was on the scene, recording the events to be broadcast the following day. But above all the radio provided a way to communicate like never before. Franklin Roosevelt’s ‘fireside chats’ helped the population feel closer to their president than ever.

There's yet another bridge section, with an early lyric that was not used in 1934 but restored for the 1987 revival:
If saying your pray'rs you like,
If green pears you like,
If old chairs you like,
If backstairs you like,
If love affairs you like
With young bears you like,
Why nobody will oppose.

And yes, "young bears" meant then what it means now; it's a gay reference that a fair number of New York theatre-goers, "the smart set," probably had heard. "Backstairs" was surely a reference to brothels or speakeasies. But what of these other lines? Though several of these references seem oddly random, two of my friends, Mark Cummings and Michael Dale, suggest that the whole stanza is about acceptance of varying sexual tastes, and I think they're right. After all, anything goes. We know Porter loved to joke in code...
If saying your pray'rs you like = Good Girls
If green pears you like = Young Girls, Virgins
If old chairs you like = Older Women
If backstairs you like = Hookers (or Servants?)
If love affairs you like
With young bears you like = Young Men
Why nobody will oppose.

In other words, Free Love. That does make a certain Porter-esque sense, both in terms of his writing and his biography. With that in mind, this sure does feel like Cole's quirky take on "chacun à son goût." And if we're right about this, that may explain why it was cut in 1934...

This last version of the bridge was written by P.G. Wodehouse for the first London production, and it's been used in all the revivals, because so much of the original 1934 lyric is unusable today.
When grandmama whose age is eighty
In night clubs is getting matey
With gigolos,
Anything Goes.
When mothers pack and leave poor father
Because they decide they'd rather
Be tennis pros,
Anything Goes.

That's a fun little joke about married women running off to be lesbians, but this lyric is way too British for this show and these characters. Americans don't use the word "matey" because we don't use "mate" to mean friend; and most Americans don't say, "grandmama." Also in America, "father" and "rather" do not rhyme. And Porter rarely inverted sentences as awkwardly as these first two lines. Still, this stanza does get at another cultural phenomenon of the 1930s.

While the trend up to that point had been for the divorce rate to increase, that got interrupted in the early 1930s. Due to the Depression, many couples stayed together because they couldn't afford divorce. It wasn't until the unemployment rate went down that the increasing divorce rate trend continued. Unemployment was at its highest in 1933, and as the unemployment rate declined throughout the 30s, the divorce rate increased. At the same time, women's tennis greatly increased in popularity. While Cole may be suggesting a connection -- a lesbian joke? -- I am not.

This cheat rhyme was written for the Act I finale of the 1962 revival:
They think he's gangster number one,
So they've made him their favorite son,
And that goes to show.
Anything Goes!
Anything, Anything, Anything Goes!

But "show" doesn't rhyme with "goes"! A different alternate Porter lyric I found corrects the bad rhyme with "And that plot twist shows..." Like I said, there is no single definitive version of this show or most of its songs.

Much of the original 1934 lyric for "Anything Goes" would just baffle today's audiences, with references to Mrs. Ned McLean (a socialite who was the last private owner of the Hope Diamond), Eleanor Roosevelt's radio broadcasts sponsored by Simmons mattresses, extravagant Broadway producer Max Gordon, movie studio head Sam Goldwyn, Ukrainian movie star Anna Sten, actor and socialite Lady Mendl, and others.

When Anything Goes first opened, the title song worked because it reinforced a feeling the audience already had -- that the world is spinning madly out of control, and that sometimes that can be fun. (Or as Little Red might put it, "excited and scared.") As proof of the show's thesis, the songs "Anything Goes" and "You're the Top" (the latter mocking our love affair with celebrities and brand names), offer up example after example ripped from the headlines (and society pages) of 1934. Today when we see Anything Goes, all those examples suggest the craziness in 2018, without literally referencing any of it. But it still works. Crazy is crazy.

In 1934, Americans were grappling with the massive, disorienting changes our country was going through. It did feel to many American as if all the rules had been ripped up, that literally anything goes. Today in 2018, we're grappling with much the same thing, here in the early days of the Digital Age, at the start of huge demographic and social changes in America, when the very nature of truth is up for debate. Life today is just as crazy as it was in Reno Sweeney's America, maybe crazier. Today, all these references may serve only as metaphors, but still pretty potent ones.

I've been telling people that the reason "the bad boy of musical theatre" decided to produce Anything Goes is that it's built on two central themes that fit our kind of work perfectly -- the American habit of making religion into show business and criminals into celebrities. But now, after taking such a deep dive into the title song, I realize those two themes are just the results of the show's true central premise, which is literally "anything goes" -- the world is upside-down.

Every element of this story is testament to this one idea. All the couples are wrongly coupled at first, the clergyman gets arrested and the gangster gets a cruise, the passengers deify a fake murderer, the real gangster is as nervous as a fucking cat, the worldly-wise speakeasy hostess falls for the dorky Englishman... Everything is up for grabs. None of the rules apply. We're in Shakespeare's woods.

And anything goes!

Now, the next time somebody tells you Anything Goes is just silly and mindless, I give you permission to tell them to shut the fuck up.

Long Live the Musical!

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Anonymous | March 27, 2022 at 9:56 AM

Thank you, Scott. This post is so helpful for me, this foreigner and someone too young, to know what happened during 1920s and 1930s and what Cole Porter was referring to in his sophisticated, witty and compact lyrics.