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Porter, Cole (1891-1964)  
 
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Challenging Accepted Social Values

Despite the heterosexual facade he carefully maintained in public, Porter delighted in challenging accepted social values and moral opinions. The haunting ballad "Love for Sale" was banned from radio play because it offered a sympathetic, rather than a properly censorious, appreciation of a prostitute's life. Conversely, "Miss Otis Regrets" narrates the tragic misalliance contracted by a southern town's best mannered lady.

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The largest number of Porter's songs offer a knowing, witty, even comically exuberant hedonism. "Let's Do It" (the ambiguity of whose antecedent for "it" is clarified only at the end of each chorus, "Let's fall in love"), offers a Chaucerian world in which every animal species is copulating ("Birds do it, / Bees do it, / Even educated fleas do it"), rendering unnatural any human reluctance to do the same.

Similarly, advancing the argument that "bears / Have love affairs, / And even camels," the song "Let's Misbehave" concludes that since humans are "merely mammals," it is only logical that the couple likewise "misbehave."

And while human mothers may caution their daughters to preserve their virginity until marriage, the would-be seducer in "It's De-Lovely" attends to a higher maternal authority: "You can tell at a glance / What a swell night this is for romance, / You can hear dear Mother Nature murmuring low, / 'Let yourself go.'" For Porter natural law, which makes sexual jouissance a universal right, invariably trumps any moral law prescribing caution and abstinence.

While often risqué, Porter is never vulgar. The wit of his lyrics and the musical sophistication of his melodies prevent his songs from ever being in poor taste. Marlene Dietrich's lethargic delivery in her cabaret act of "The Laziest Girl in Town" left little doubt as to what the speaker could, should, and would indeed do if only she found the needed energy.

But in "You Do Something to Me," Porter's speaker never specifies what effect the person in question has on him, although clearly sexual arousal is one of the possibilities.

Nor does another speaker explain exactly what "Adam craved when he / With love for Eve was tortured," simply that the lover addressed in "You've Got That Thing" possesses the same undefinable attraction.

Even while delighting in the physical sensations of life--as, for example, in "I Get a Kick out of You" or "I've Got You under My Skin"--Porter prided himself on being a gentleman. And, when risking indecency, Porter invariably lapsed into French, a language so formal that it makes even the basest desire sound elegant to American ears ("Si Vous Aimez les Poitrines").

"Anything Goes," the title song of one of his most successful plays, celebrates a modern world in which individuals are free to enjoy themselves however they please: "If old hymns you like, / If bare limbs you like, / If Mae West you like, / Or me undressed you like, / Why, nobody will oppose."

Throughout his career Porter delighted in opposing anyone who dared to "oppose" another person's private pleasure. As a challenge to Prohibition, for example, he composed the "Lost Liberty Blues," a theatrically outrageous lament for the loss of personal freedoms in the United States sung by an actress dressed as the Statue of Liberty.

Pleasure overcomes puritanism in Silk Stockings, in which a female Soviet military officer is seduced by the sensual and romantic delights of the West. And Can-Can, which deals with a Paris magistrate's attempt to close the late nineteenth-century club where the scandalous title dance originated, was conceived as a comment on censorship. Its song "Live and Let Live" might well have been Porter's personal theme.

Circumventing Censorship

The master of the seemingly innocent double entendre, Porter reveled in finding ways to circumvent Hollywood's Hays Code and the censor in Boston, where many of his plays were first tried out.

For example, in Kiss Me, Kate, the irrepressibly promiscuous Lois explains to her boyfriend that while she is willing to date wealthy men in exchange for gifts, she is "Always True to You in My Fashion."

While she sees nothing wrong in earning "a Paris hat" by allowing "Mr. Harris, plutocrat" to "give my cheek a pat," the auditor alert to Porter's ambiguity wonders which pair of "cheeks" is being patted, making the gesture in question either a grandfatherly chuck under the chin or an energetic game of grab-ass.

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