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Sing a Sexy Song for the Well-Dressed Armed Forces

ART TIMES Aug, 2003

In Gilbert & Sullivan's "Patience," a chorus of Dragoons lament the fact that the ladies of the neighborhood prefer the "Early English" dress of the local aesthetic poets to "a uniform that has been as successful in courts of Venus as on the field of Mars." Part of the first stanza states, "Gold lace has a charm for the fair/And I've plenty of that and to spare/While a lover's professions/When uttered in Hessians/Are eloquent everywhere!"

Indeed the soldier has always been given the gaudiest of parade costumes to put them above the common (non-military) male population, to disguise the darker nature of their profession, and to impress the populace, especially the ladies.

Now while giving my talks on the songs of the two World Wars, I keep noticing one type of song that keeps cropping up among all the love ballads. It is designed for a sexy female chanteuse to praise the way a man looks in a uniform in order to make him run to enlist.

In the First World War the female singers appealed to the male sense of virility, so we had "We don't want to lose you, but we think you ought to go" which stressed the role of Duty, so dear to every Englishman, and "I'll make a man of any one of you" in which the singer details her "recruiting scheme" which consists of dating a chap from a different branch of the service (including the Boy Scouts) on different days of the week.

If you saw the old film version of Noel Coward's "Cavalcade," there was a nightclub sequence in which these two songs were sung by vapid females to a crowd of tuxedoed gentlemen out with their gowned women. In an earlier sequence, a very similar song had been sung about running to enlist to fight in the Boer War. The more things change, etc.

The Second World War, the one that the First World War was supposed to make impossible, had its share of "uniform songs"; and while I used to joke that Dinah Shore played a larger part in winning for our side than did many combatants, I began to take the concept more seriously as I repeated the talk and got feedback from men and women who were active teenagers and adults during those years.

The very title "A Boy in Khaki--a Girl in Lace" tells it all. It is the FUNCTION of the male to wear the uniform. It follows that it is the function of the lacy female, delicate and helpless as the adjective implies, to be protected. The old "Me Tarzan, you Jane" syndrome is right there.

A similar idea was also expressed by Dinah Shore when she recorded "He Wears a Pair of Silver Wings." This not only gave equal time to the Air Corps but introduced another aspect. The silver wings implied a more god-like quality to the wearer of that uniform, since the American symbol is the eagle and the eagle was the symbol of Jupiter in ancient myth. (In "Superman II," the arch villain comments when seeing the eagle on the floor of the Oval Office, "I see you worship things that fly" or words to that effect.) Small wonder that men consciously used their garments as a strong aphrodisiac--and were successful a good deal of the time!

However, the song that seemed to have made the deepest impression on the bobby socks crowd was sung in a film called "Iceland" and later recorded by Nancy Norman and the Sammy Kaye orchestra. The title alone--"You Can't Say No To a Soldier"--gave the message clearly enough to all those "nice girls" whose hormones were contradicting everything they were told by parents, school, and church--and here was a popular song telling them it was all right to go all the way because "If he's going to fight, he's got a right to romance." It goes on, "Get out your lipstick and powder; be beautiful and dutiful too." This is potent stuff--and the lyrics were written by a male.

The power of these songs has always been implied in documentaries of the times that use period recordings as part of the soundtrack, but seldom does the narration examine the subliminal messages contained in the lyrics. Gilbert was able to see through the nonsense, although he himself posed for the customary photographs in military outfit. Perhaps as more of us stop looking at war as a glamorous venture, the desire for it might stop. It is revealing to note that toward the end of the war, Vaughn Monroe put out a record in which he sang that all he wanted to put on once more was a blue serge suit and a tie!

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