December 12 is the centennial of Frank Sinatra’s birth. In Ol’ Blue Eyes’s honor, we offer a guest post by Allison McCracken, author of Real Men Don’t Sing: Crooning in American Culture. McCracken is Associate Professor of American Studies at DePaul University.
Frank Sinatra: “Why do you run after girls all the time?”
Gene Kelly: “I’ll tell you when your voice changes, Junior.”
–MGM’s On The Town, 1950
In my book Real Men Don’t Sing, I detail the birth of the first American romantic crooning idol in 1929, Rudy Vallée, whose stardom established the affective structures and behavior we still associate with pop idols (the devoted microphoned lover, the swooning female crowds), and whose popularity provoked the cultural backlash that established the reception framework for every pop idol to follow: his commercial success and influence had to be contained through his artistic devaluation, the ridicule of his “hysterical” female audiences, and his perceived emasculation. During these early years of pop music, the 1930s and 1940s, only romantic crooner Bing Crosby attained sufficient masculine bona fides to ensure a long and respectable pop singing career, which he did through diversifying his singing portfolio, embracing normative family life and religious affiliation, and projecting a “cool” attitude that largely erased the romantic crooner’s emotional vulnerability and sensitivity.
Part of the reason Crosby was unrivaled as “America’s Crooner” for so long was that no one else could successfully combine current codes of masculinity with a crooning voice. From the late 1930s well through the early 1960s, young men who sang romantic songs to women in films or pop music were almost always constructed as arrested, earnest, sexless, often simple-minded young men (Dick Haymes, Eddie Fisher, Frankie Avalon) who would presumably grow out of their childish crooning phase. In the meantime, their daydreaming and their music were jokes readily available for commercial exploitation but never to be taken seriously, and their audiences were constructed as entirely female, young, and mindless.
Sinatra is the most obvious case in point. As the above exchange between Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra suggests, a crooner needed to wait until “his voice changed” before he could attain adult masculinity, which is defined in that film (and others) as the desire to aggressively “chase after” women – as Kelly does — rather than passively adore them. Sinatra’s immature, asexual early crooner is most conspicuous in his MGM films with Gene Kelly, Anchors Aweigh (directed by George Sidney, 1945), Take Me Out to The Ballgame (directed by Busby Berkely, 1949), and On the Town (directed by Stanley Donan and Gene Kelly, 1950). The fact that Sinatra could be portrayed as an unsuitable mate because of his immaturity at the very moment in which he was the “swooner crooner” idol of millions of adoring young women is evidence of how well established these conventions had become by the mid-late 1940s. Notably, he is paired in the latter two films with comedian Betty Garrett, who avidly pursues him. Garrett’s character functions as a comment on the inappropriate sexual assertiveness and gender deviance of the swooner-crooner fan.
One of the best examples of the cultural distinction between the young romantic crooner Sinatra, and the fully, appropriately masculine crooner Bing Crosby is the brilliant animated cartoon Swooner Crooner, directed by Frank Tashlin. In this cartoon, crooning fans are portrayed as hens who need to produce eggs for the war effort. The hens are so besotted with Sinatra’s voice that they leave their workplaces to follow his voice, swooning in pleasure. The despairing farmer, Porky Pig, auditions several singers to try and lure the hens back to work, but only Bing Crosby can get them to return to the nest and do their domestic duty. The Sinatra crooner and his fans fit the crooner paradigm of social deviance (vulnerable masculinity, feminine aggression and self-pleasure), while Crosby’s masculine normativity lures women back to their assigned feminine roles as social subordinates and domestic producers. Ultimately, the short ends as Sinatra joins Crosby and egg production soars.
Like Crosby, however, Sinatra would eventually be able to attain “adult” masculinity, but only by winning over straight men in the 1950s. In order to artistically legitimize his sensitive, emotionally raw performances, he drew on method acting discourses of the time (associated with James Dean and Marlon Brando) and “authentic” Italian bel canto art singing; he also worked with respected musicians and arrangers. At the same time, his persona changed to reflect hyper-masculine behavior: womanizing, drinking, gambling, and possible mafia ties. Like Crosby, Sinatra needed to prove his adherence to 1950s standards of cultural legitimacy and white masculinity to ensure career longevity as a romantic singer.
To order Allison McCracken’s Real Men Don’t Sing at a 30% discount, enter coupon code E15MCCRA at checkout.