Midweek Music Break Playlist: Windows to the Soul

[Image: girl, dancing, in giant eye costume. Note the hands: one giving “thumbs-up!” sign,
one holding a cocktail. I have no idea if this is an advertising image or what; found it at a couple
of places, never with any explanation.]

(Note: The playlist goes automatically from start to finish, once you click the Play button. Total playlist length: around 31 minutes.

Windows to the Soul: A Playlist

Though most of us don’t hunt, our eyes are still the great monopolists of our senses. To taste or touch your enemy or your food, you have to be unnervingly close to it. To smell or hear it, you can risk being further off. But vision can rush through the fields and up the mountains, travel across time, country, and parsecs of outer space, and collect bushel baskets of information as it goes… It may even be that abstract thinking evolved from our eyes’ elaborate struggle to make sense of what they saw. Seventy percent of the body’s sense receptors cluster in the eyes, and it is mainly through seeing the world that we appraise and understand it. Lovers close their eyes when they kiss because, if they didn’t, there would be too many visual distractions to notice and analyze.

(Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses)

Windows to the soul, right. That’s what they say about eyes, anyhow. Which, if true, is good news for everybody but (poor) liars.

I poked around to see if anyone knew, definitively (or even convincingly) who first came up with the “windows to [or of] the soul” metaphor. Best guess, as far as I can tell, seems to be that it came from Cicero, in his Tusculan Disputations. I’ve found a translation of that work (by Andrew Peabody, in an 1886 edition) at the Internet Archive. The passage there (in a chapter called “On the Contempt of Death”) reads as follows:

Therefore it is that often, when hindered by being absorbed in thought or by some morbid affection, we neither see nor hear, though both the eyes and the ears are open and in a healthy state, so that it may be readily inferred that it is the soul that sees and hears, and not those parts which are like windows of the soul, but through which the mind can perceive nothing unless it be actively present.

When you pick this apart, it’s actually pretty plain that he’s lumping the eyes in with the ears as windows of the soul. But let it pass, let it pass, and give the guy the benefit of the doubt: after all, windows are predominantly an architectural feature which serves the eyes.

Whether they’re good or bad for people facing interrogation, eyes are without question a godsend to songwriters. If, as Diane Ackerman says, 70% of our sensory wiring is given over to support of vision, it’s easy to imagine that at least 70% of our music deals with it in some form or another. It (haha) focuses on the orbs themselves, or on the things the orbs perceive; the songs are full of color, light, shadow, and of course blindness. (Let’s not forget Talking Heads’ “Cross-Eyed and Painless.”) And given the other pop-music preoccupation — love, et all the cetera that goes with it — songs often deal with the color the lover sees when he sees the beloved’s eyes. Indeed, try to substitute in a song title any other sensory organ or its sense in place of the eyes and vision and you wind up with ridiculously Daliesque imagery: “Doctor My Ears”; “I Only Have Sniffs for You”; “Taste Bud of the Tiger”…

(As a thought experiment, I turned it around: pick some other art form, and some other sense, and try to think of examples of that art’s preoccupation with that sense. It’s not easy — although I suspect you, clever readers that you are, could run off a dozen examples.)

This was a difficult mix to put together — way too many choices. We take vision very, very seriously, and the eyes are everywhere in our songs.

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What’s in a Song: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (2)

[Another entry in an occasional series about American songs with long histories. This one follows Part 1, about the history of the composition of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” You can read Part 1, posted last week, here.]

[Video clip above assembled from the first film version of Roberta (1935); Irene Dunne sings it here. Later in the film, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance to an instrumental version, and their dance is what people usually remember from the film. This clip’s uploader helpfully tacked the dance scene onto the vocal: it begins at around 4:03 into the clip.]

By the time the 1940s rolled around, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” had already established itself in the pop songbook. According to at least one observer, pianist Joe Bushkin of the Tommy Dorsey band, it provided the pivotal moment on “the night Frank Sinatra happened.” (Something of a storyteller, Bushkin apparently told the story many times; the details below come from Sinatra! The Song Is You, by Will Friedwald.)

[Read more…]

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