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Thursday, April 06, 2006

Perry Como and Courtly Love

Recently, I purchased a couple of Perry Como CDs. I bought them because I wanted to re-capture a taste of early home life. During the fifties my mother adored Perry Como and played his LPs by the hour. She would get starry eyed when listening to him and his versions of “Till the End of Time,” “It’s Impossible” and “I Surrender Dear” would melt her heart. I can still remember her reaction as she listened to his crooning: “Awwww—I just love him.”

Until now I have never really thought too much about Perry and his effect on my mother but after listening to his CDs for the last month I have come to believe that Perry Como’s RCA Records A&R man, Tommy Loftus, truly understood women. His formula for Perry was simple. Perry’s albums and singles were always about one thing—a 20th century version of courtly love.

His songs fall into two categories. Straight on love-adoration tunes—e.g., “I Surrender Dear,” “Till the End of Time” and lighter musical vehicles with the same message but not so emotionally laden—“Find a wheel,” “Mama Loves Mambo-Papa loves Mama”. He alternated these tunes but the message was always the same--a man adores a woman with undying love and devotion and will never, ever, veer from his loyalty and commitment. This is feudal courtly love at its most stereotypical.

Marriage among the affluent during feudal times was about family mergers, not love. It was too loaded with reality and women needed the fantasy of being adored not for their estates and dowries but for their souls. Courtly love, known at the time as “L’amour courtois,” was a highly stylized, artificial and forbidden affair that was characterized by certain attributes.

It was aristocratic and practiced by noble lords and ladies. It was ritualistic and the woman was constantly courted with poems, songs, bouquets and gifts. The man was painstakingly attentive and the woman need only return a hint of approval to keep his love. She was kept on a pedestal and adored. It was secretive and the rest of the world was excluded. They were in their own special universe. Finally, it was extra-marital but sans sex. The ultimate objective was not crude physical satisfaction but a sublime and sensual intimacy based on absolute adoration of the woman by the man. Then, as now, there was nothing quite as exciting as unfulfilled sexual desire.

With these courtly love guidelines in mind, jump ahead to the fifties and think about the needs of the many financially trapped women married to men who had not yet been exposed to the liberating sixties ideas allowing them to examine and express their feelings and to begin actually listening to their women and treating them as equals. Given this context It is understandable why Perry was so adored by women during his fifties heyday. Additionally, it did not hurt Perry Como that he was a devoted family man. It made his songs' messages more believable and as important, it made him unobtainable, an important characteristic of courtly love.

And, so, following my need to reproduce a musical mood that I lived with in my parents’ home in the fifties, I bought and listened to Perry Como’s music. And as I listened I began to realize why his music was so powerful for my mother. She and my dad had an emotionally empty marriage. Neither knew how to share their feelings and each felt unloved by the other. My mom also read romance novels (the courtly love principle runs through all of them--"Man cherishes woman, man and woman have a dilemma, love conquers all, woman is still cherished, they live happily ever after")—and my dad put his energies into work. And so when I listen to Perry sing there is a bitter sweet quality to the experience. I hear not only his songs but I recall what satisfaction he brought to my mother and I smile at her swooning response to him.

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