Johnny Mathis – My Funny Valentine

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My Funny Valentine has always disturbed me. The sweet melody of this jazz standard is such a big contrast to the lyrics which are a confession of love, yet profess an absolutely judgmental attitude, even controlling. Yet the lyrics are ambiguous enough so that each singer can change the meaning slightly with lyrical variation and vocal interpretation, which must be one reason why the song has been recorded many times.

Most versions I’ve heard have been sung by men, and most omit the first verse, which Johnny Mathis chose to include with one small change. The song was composed by Richard Rogers, with lyrics by Lorenz Hart, for the musical Babes in Arms, first performed in 1937. It was written for a female character to sing, and the “Valentine” of the title is actually the name of the male protagonist. The belittling of the object of love is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s sonnet 130 (My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun). The sonnet is a parody of 16th century clichés in love poems, how the mistress is compared to beautiful objects in nature. Shakespeare claims that even though his mistress is not pleasant to look at, hear, or even smell, he still loves her. It is an unpleasant statement even while it takes the form of a love confession, much like some other Shakespeare sonnets considered romantic, but which are mainly about the poet’s own greatness in writing love confessions, for example, sonnet 18 (Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?).

So, there is a long history of such love confessions in literature: your looks are laughable, and you aren’t smart, but I love you anyway. The attitude feels like the speaker is above the one who is supposedly loved. Moreover, this song has another romantic cliché that undermines the sincerity of feeling: the plead for the lover not to change at all. What kind of love is so weak that it must tout its own strength by insinuating it does not want change, even in negative qualities, altering when it alteration finds?

The first verse is actually significant in softening the statement. The melody sounds like an English folk song, and use of “thou” gives the song a hint of irony, as if it was also a parody. The Mathis version softens it even more. The last lines in the original verse are:

Thou noble upright truthful sincere,
And slightly dopey gent

But Mathis sings “I’m your noble, upright…”. It makes the singer appear more self-conscious, proud and arrogant, yet admitting it, but also admitting being slightly dopey.

Further, the meaning can be also reversed. I’ve read that Lorenz Hart was possibly writing about his own insecurity, and it is certainly possible. After all, it is more common to disparage oneself in such a way than other people. The lyrics may be an expression of a wish: I see myself this way, unattractive and unlovable, but I am hoping someone could love me as I am anyway. It does sound more sincere that way, and it is striking how the ruthlessness of such self-denigrating thoughts is revealed when sung to another person.

The most famous version of the song is probably the one by Chet Baker. He sings softly, with a pretty voice that has a similar velvet tone as that of Mathis. But the feelings is very different. Despite its softness the delivery is somewhat deadpan; the tone stays the same throughout the song. The more softly he sings, the more disturbing the lyrical content becomes when every hint of irony is stripped from it, creating a mood in which the singer sounds like he’s absolutely believing in himself as a great lover even while putting down the object of his love.

In contrast, the Mathis version has a lot more emotional variation and the range of vocal techniques used reveals it more as a performed gesture. And strangely enough, that makes it sound more sincere, as if all the variation and performance aspects made it clear that the singer is actually vulnerable, having to hide behind the mask of performance. That is one of the fascinating aspects of performance: the more we try to perform technically perfectly, the more we are revealing vulnerability behind it all. And the performance that actually sounds vulnerable may be just as much for show. It is not always easy to determine who is being more sincere: those who most bravely appear to confess their love may only be brave not out of strength of feeling, but because of indifference. And they who have the least to lose when rejected can sound very convincing, turning a confession into a performance without shyness.