Listen closely to Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin," and it's hard not to marvel at the composer's genius. Neither showy nor self-conscious, the song makes its point with a quiet sophistication, keeping its language simple and straightforward, and limiting the melodic material to a few variations on a basic theme.
Within that framework, however, Porter exhibits astonishing degrees of wit and ingenuity. Just look at what he does with the song's title. Knowing that his audience is familiar with this figure of speech, Porter plays around with those associations by setting the melody to a percolating Caribbean beat. That exotic touch puts a different spin on the phrase; as our mental imagery shifts to the tropics, "I've got you under my skin"somehow suggests mosquito bites as much as it does infatuation.
Suddenly, the lyric's description of sleepless nights and vain attempts "not to give in" take on a new meaning. Is this love, or some sort of romantic malaria? Porter wants us to imagine both, but does so with such subtlety -- and such unmistakable melodic grace -- that we barely realize we're being led to this unlikely conundrum.
They just don't write 'em like that any more.
But why not?
That's a question that crops up throughout "Red Hot + Blue" (Chrysalis 21799). An all-star production that bills itself as "a tribute to Cole Porter to benefit AIDS research and relief," it features modern pop interpretations of Porter classics by stars including David Byrne, Neneh Cherry, Fine Young Cannibals, k. d. lang and Sinead O'Connor, running the gamut from rock to rap to Afropop. There's even a television special, with video versions of these songs and hosted by Jody Watley, scheduled at 11:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 1, International AIDS Awareness Day, on ABC (Channel 13).
Well-meaning as the project is, it's by no means a complete success. It isn't just the difficulty of reconciling Porter's compositional sophistication with rock's emotional immediacy;
on a certain level, what Porter wants from a song seems almost diametrically opposed to the energy and intent of today's music.
But why? Some critics have suggested that rock's reliance on guitar deserves part of the blame, since guitar-based styles like blues and folk music tend to emphasize simple, repetitive chord structures. But if so, how do we account for such complex, guitar-based songs as "Michelle" by the Beatles?
Another argument holds that today's pop singers, because they value emotional expression over technical agility, simply can't handle the vocal demands of a Cole Porter melody. Certainly, some of "Red Hot + Blue" bears that out; it's hard to have the same respect for the vocal abilities of Sinead O'Connor after hearing her unsuccessfully wrestlewith the tune to "You Do Something To Me."
On the other hand, many others on the album, from Annie Lennox to Aaron Neville to Lisa Stansfield, can and do handle Porter. But that shouldn't be a surprise, because rock's reliance on the blues can lead to melodies with as much chromatic complexity, and requiring just as much vocal finesse, as any of the standards.
Perhaps a better way of putting these differences into perspective would be to look at the ways in which rock and its antecedents have changed our perception of what a song should do, and probably the best place to start would be with "Blue Moon." Written over half a century ago by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, contemporaries of Porter, the song as originally conceived was typical of its time, with voice-flattering melody and gorgeous, soaring chorus.
But when a doo-wop group called the Marcels got ahold of it, "Blue Moon" changed drastically. Although the original melody was still there, what the listener focused on was the bomp-bomp-a-bomp, a-dang-a-dang-dang harmony vocals; Rodgers and Hart's contribution seemed interesting mainly for the contrast it provided.
Was this a perversion of the song's intent? In some senses, yes, since it obviously shifted the musical values away from melody (which the original prized) and toward rhythm (which the original nearly ignored). But in making harmony a tool of rhythm, the Marcels' "Blue Moon" was reflecting how the idea of popular music had changed since the back-beat driven sound of rock and R&B; came into its ascendancy.
Because now, what music prized wasn't change -- melodic development and harmonic invention -- but stasis, the implacable momentum of trancelike repetition. It wasn't a new idea, exactly, having been found in both the hypnotic rhythms of African traditional music and the simple, cyclical harmonies of Anglo-Celtic folk songs, but its intensity and popularity were unparalleled.
And as the music evolved, the values Porter prized -- elegant harmonies, inventive modulations, carefully developed melodies --grew even less important. In fact, not only do some hip-hop records treat beats as if they were melodies, but the collage approach of digital sampling has even worn away at basic notions of tonality.
All of which comes into bold relief with the first single from "Red Hot + Blue," a performance of "I've Got You Under My Skin" by singer/rapper Neneh Cherry.
In place of Porter's benign beguine, Cherry's version kicks in with a hip-hop drum pattern and a deep, thrumming bass line. Nor is the beat the only thing that has been changed. Instead of singing about an aching infatuation, Cherry warns against needle sharing and unsafe sex; practically the only lyric she retains is the title phrase. Yet even that gets modified to suit her purpose, as Cherry bends Porter's six-note hook into a bluesy lament.
Radical as her rethink is, however, it still shares a lot with the original. For one thing, Cherry has taken Porter's love-as-infection gag and given it a chillingly contemporary twist. Moreover, she uses music to set the scene just as adroitly as he did, since that bass-heavy club sound implies impetuous sex just as plainly as the beguine evoked swaying palms and sweltering evenings.
Beyond that, the two are poles apart. Cherry's version is driven by the beat; apart from the chorus, its only attempt at melodicism is a short, singsong blues that leaves her working the same three notes over and over. It's efficient and infectious, but not terribly tuneful; if anything, it's the groove, the rhythmic energy, that remains in the memory.
Porter, by contrast, is all melody. Play through the song, and what you'll find is a series of deliciously subtle variations on the song's six-note theme. Rather than rely on mere repetition, Porter prefers to play with the melody, changing a few notes here, a few others there, gently modulating the harmonies as the songs shifts from chorus to verse and back again.
No, they don't write 'em the way Cole Porter did. They don't even play 'em that way any more. Today's music is different, meeting new needs and contemporary tastes. But frankly, that's as it should be, because Porter never tried to write 'em the way they used to, either.