Saturday, May 11, 2013

Shameless Saturday Camp Explosion: Mr. America

There is a sense in which it is correct to say: "It's too good to be Camp." ... 
Not only is Camp not necessarily bad art, but some art which can be 
approached as Camp merits the most serious admiration and study. 
- Susan Sontag, "Notes on Camp"

Let's have this wonderful moment, from 1975, stand as a birthday tribute to the song's creator, dear Mr. Irving Berlin.  If, over his long life, he became something of an American institution, this lady is part of the reason why.  Ethel Merman sang the work of all the greats of her day, of course, and while she did proud by Gershwin and Porter, and later on the likes of Sondheim and Herman, something about an Irving Berlin song fits her like a glove.

And never more, really, than this song, both her trademark and, on its own, a monumental summing up of the show-biz culture that was passing even as the show it's from, Annie Get Your Gun, took the stage.  Seeing the Merm here, fronting a band that can really challenge her, is like watching a racehorse test its mettle.  Within a few bars, she's abandoned even the minimal concessions of scale and gesture she usually made for TV and lets us see, if in an autumnal way, the sheer unbridled staginess of her performing style, her stand-and-delivery way of putting over a song.  Some singers (Peggy Lee, Julie London) seduce you.  Some (Minnelli and her mother, Streisand) sell it to you.  Merman simply puts it out there, look at what I can do (and anything you can do, I can do better - that's more Berlin, actually).

What makes it Camp, though, isn't the song, or the singer - despite the chiffon muu-muu and the hair out to there, Merman is, I think, too good to be Camp.  It's the whole package - the Boston Pops, Arthur Fiedler, the countless genteel households tuning in across the country on PBS, the adoration of the audience, even the hushed tones of Miss Bernadette Peters setting the scene.  It's a tinsel setting for a voice of brass, but the voice cuts through the nonsense to deliver, once more, the goods: the costumes, the scenery, the makeup the props - all there, in front of you.  When she sings it, what Irving Berlin knew as a fact is conjured up again, and it really is like no business you know.


  1. The word "Chutzpah" was invented for the Merm... Jx

  2. What makes this camp for me is a combination of the cheese garphics that try and do too much, and the tension between Merman and the Pops. I mean, the Boston Pops ARE camp if you think about it. Talented? Yes, but they aren't the star like a Merman, and Merman is fighting them to sell the song, and Pops are fighting to play the song. The camp is the friction between the two forces to get on top and stay on top.

    1. It was a struggle, I grant you, but NOBODY got on top of Miss Merman.

    2. It was rather a battle royal, wasn't it? But how you have to admire the old girl - she knew exactly what that bastard Fiedler was up, and she was having none of that. That last note may not have been quite vintage 1936, but by God she held it.

      As for nobody getting on top, well... just ask Ernest Borgnine.