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Fred and Ginger

Skip this post if you’re not a sucker for great “story songs” from old musicals.

I mean the kind of moment when Fred stops the fancy dancing for a sec, takes off his hat, sits down at the Steinway and belts out a number that tells Ginger what he really thinks of her and how she looks tonight.

OK, she’s actually in the next room, in the middle of shampooing her hair and in her jimjams, so some might call that ironic, in a non-Alanis-Morissette kind of way.

Anyway, besides having melodies to die for, these numbers often have complex and subtle lyrics. Even cleverer than “You say tomato, I say tomato.” And usually they have to make sense of a moment within the storyline.

Here’s an old clip of a young Jane Birkin on French TV. She’s singing in English for a change, and sans Gainsbourg (but with Peter Noone as the eye candy half way through).

Though YouTube bills this clip as “Something that happens”, the proper title of the song is “Where or When”, from the Rodgers and Hart musical Babes In Arms.

The number wouldn’t be as well known nowadays as a couple of other standards from the show (“My Funny Valentine”, “The Lady Is a Tramp”) but it’s well worth a second look/listen. Wikipedia has a superb entry about the song, explaining its context in the show:

Twenty-year-old Valentine LaMar discovers at his doorstep a young hitchhiker named Billie Smith. Instantly smitten, he engages her in a discussion of movie stars, self-defense maneuvers, and Nietzsche’s theory of individualism, at which point Val impulsively steals a kiss. Both admit to a powerful sense of déjà vu and sing ‘Where or When’ as a duet.

Nietzsche’s theory of individualism, eh? Heady stuff.

So the song is really a duet, and really all about déjà vu. Yet people often get in a right muddle over the “something” that is “happening” here.

That very line “Some things that happen for the first time…” is often turned into “Some things that happened for the first time…” This changes the meaning entirely. As the Wikipedia entry goes on:

Rather than recalling past events which actually ‘happened’, the lyrics refer to present events which ‘happen’ for the first time, but which falsely seem to be recurring.

Deep. Very deep. So there you have it. An entirely different meaning, destroying the proper sense of déjà vu, and all because of that oh-so-tiny mistake, two tiny letters in the difference, all because “happen” became “happened”.

Well, at least Ms Birkin gets it right. Those lyrics are ever so clever, with their elaborate rhyme schemes (ABB ABB CB?) and so much hinging on the word “seems”/”seem”. I really must work out how to use them in a book sometime. Or is it just a feeling that I’ve done so already?

It seems we stood and talked like this before.
We looked at each other in the same way then.
But I can’t remember where or when…
The clothes you’re wearing are the clothes you wore
The smile you are smiling you were smiling then,
But I can’t remember where or when…
Some things that happen for the first time
Seem to be happening again.

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