Essays: Mark Steyn |
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Mark Steyn

A Very Good Year

Mark Steyn is so thoroughly embroiled in the world debate about Islam and Islamism that even his admirers, let alone his detractors, tend to forget he has another existence, as the best critic of popular song since Alec Wilder. Indeed he has a greater range than Wilder, and possibly even a greater technical sensitivity, especially to lyrics and the alchemical way they can be multiplied in their poetic effect by music. Anyone who has never experienced this aspect of Steyn’s work can make a good start by reading his 2008 essay on the Sinatra anthem “It Was A Very Good Year”, which started out as a number for the Kingston Trio. It was written by Ervin Drake, otherwise mainly famous for having written such barely memorable mental irritants as “Tico Tico” and “Quando Quando Quando”. But early in his career Drake had written “Good Morning, Heartache”, one of the most touching numbers in Billie Holiday’s repertoire, and so was well qualified to put together a story-song on the scale of “It Was A Very Good Year”, which verges on the operatic in its magisterial sweep. Not much of that showed up in the Kingston Trio version, but Sinatra, always hypersensitive to verbal nuance, heard the possibilities. It’s a fitting tribute to Mark Steyn, in this field of his work, that he never writes less well than the lyricist he is talking about. This essay is an object lesson in how to write about popular culture, and therefore, in my view, about culture in general. Those who find Steyn’s political opinions simplistic need to be reminded that they are the product of a subtle intelligence, and that the first thing to do, when arguing with the devil, is to give him his due.
Read Mark Steyn's article “It Was A Very Good Year.