1. Helen Kane, “That’s My Weakness Now” (1928)
Back in August, I posted a rant about the ways in which the current landscape of streaming-music services is both incredibly useful and thoughtlessly destructive to deep historical research into the music of the past. The occasion for this word-splurt was a hundred-song "album" on Spotify titled The Great Gatsby and collecting a bunch of mostly white, mostly not-extremely-well-known dance-band, light jazz, vaudeville, and pop recordings from the 1920s. It’s also available on iTunes and Amazon MP3 for what turns out to be a reasonable price; nice (packaging) work if you can get it. It would be a decent soundtrack to a Twenties costume party, especially if all the guests were middle-class, white, and uninterested in any experience of the Twenties that wouldn’t have exactly mirrored their own.
My own interest in the Twenties has drifted over the past couple of years away from the white dance-band and sentimental music which was my first introduction to the era, and even away from the black jazz music which was by most measures the most significant populist achievement of the era, into contemporary modernist analogues in Latin America, the Caribbean, Mediterranean Europe, Africa, and Asia, and the Pacific Rim. But since my investigations in those directions have really only just begun, I thought it might be a good exercise for me to try to listen to this music, square and uncool as any music has ever been, and explain it as well as I can, maybe particularly since almost none of it is the music I’ve really loved from the era. (My previous hundred-song essay on the music of the Twenties can be found here.)
Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is due in theaters May 10; if I write about one song per day (with Sundays off), I should be done by Opening Night. Assuming I’ve done the math right. I don’t particularly care about either Gatsby or Luhrmann (though I’ve no doubt I’ll see it), but it’s a convenient excuse to embark on a project I’ve been meaning to get around to for a while, and which will force me to write every day.
So to the song.
Helen Kane is today most famous for being the voice Mae Questel parodied (or, according to Kane’s lawyers, straight-up jacked) in the original Fleischer Betty Boop cartoons; but the fact that she was famous enough to be parodied is its own confirmation of her star quality at the tail end of the Twenties and beginning of the Thirties. Sex symbols with girlish voices have been with us always, of course, and Kane was actually on the more innocent end of the flapper-singer spectrum even for her day. Note her reiteration of never before having liked — or experienced — all the things “he” likes; when she gets to the nonsense syllables for which she was famous, “boop-oop-a-doop” can stand in for as much (or as little) naughtiness as the audience cares to imagine.
The orchestra backing her is credited to Nat Shillkret, who was the “director of light music” for Victor Recording Company between 1926 and 1932. Meaning, more or less, that he was responsible for the backing music for a huge variety of vocalists, soloists, comedians, and eccentric acts — anyone who didn’t provide their own accompaniment got Shillkret’s band of airy professionals, heavy on sweet strings and nimble enough if never so rhythmically dextrous as to be mistaken for jazz.
Written by Sam Stept and Bud Green (Ukrainian and Austrian child immigrants, respectively), “That’s My Weakness Now” was overwhelmingly identified with Kane, whose chirpy delivery and just-flirty-enough air carries the listener through the rather monotonous verses; it’s essentially a list song, and could be theoretically continued forever as she lists all the things he likes which she previously didn’t, but now, thanks to his personal magnetism, are particular weaknesses of hers.