The origin of Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina
Joe Queenan on the only song ever written by a knight that was recorded by both Tom Jones and Sinead O’Connor and banned from British airwaves during a war
Friday 7 September 2007 06.58 EDT
Every once in a while, somebody comes along and writes a catchy tear-jerking ballad in honor of a dead fascist’s dead wife that makes you forget all the other great crypto-fascist tear-jerkers you’ve ever heard. Just such a number is Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina. Composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice for the musical Evita, the song was released in 1976, the year the United States of America was celebrating 200 years of freedom, and Argentina wasn’t. As a matter of fact, the year the song came out, Argentina was in the throes of an undeclared civil war which would result in thousands of brutal murders, mutilations, rapes and disappearances in a conflict whose seeds had been planted by the aforementioned dead fascist and his cronies. One thing you’ve got to say for Andrew Lloyd Webber: His politics may be obtuse, but his timing is impeccable.
As conceived in the musical, Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina is a show-stopping number meant to be belted out by the character playing Eva Peron, the second wife of the colourful South American dictator Juan Peron. An illegitimate child, but plucky, Eva Peron rose from poverty and obscurity to become a colourful actress and radio personality who would one day win the heart of the reform-minded generalissimo. The Hugo Chavez of his time, Peron started out as the savior of the working class, much to the chagrin of aristocrats and privileged intellectuals, but then fell in with the wrong crowd and ended up becoming just another South American thug. Peronism, which continues to exist today, even despite Evita, is a rabble-rousing cult whose ideology is difficult to pin down, because it is neither left nor right, neither fish nor fowl, but an eclectic mix of the worst elements of both. Eva, with her own solid working-class credentials, had little trouble winning the hearts of the hoi polloi, but could never quite seduce the upper classes, who found her pushy, Machiavellian, absurdly coiffed and just a smidgen trashy.
Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina belongs to a fascinating category of songs purists refer to as the geographically hortatory; that is, songs in which a city, state or nation is addressed directly and exhorted to take a particular course of action at the direction of the singer, no matter how onerous or implausible. Examples include San Francisco (Open Your Pearly Gates) and New York, New York (“Start spreading the news…”), but do not include O Canada, From Russia With Love, Oklahoma!, Kansas City, Here I Come or LA Woman. Thematically linked to La Marseillaise, in which the “children of the fatherland” are strongly encouraged to “slake” the “thirsting furrows of their fields” with “impure” blood, the more decorous Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina counsels the peons of the pampas to avoid shedding tears for Mrs Peron, as no tears are required. The reason no tears are required is because Mrs Peron, all through her “wild years”, has kept her promise to her kinsmen. Apparently, her promise was a stipulation in her will expressly barring Liza Minnelli from playing her in the biopic about her life, because this would be unfair to the people of Argentina, who had already suffered enough. Michael Collins made similar pre-assassination arrangements vis-a-vis Kevin Costner.
With its lush orchestral passages, which evoke both the magic of the pampas and the smoky romance of those sultry Buenos Aires evenings we all dream of in our private moments when we discreetly cue up a few Astor Piazzolla tangos on the trusty old iPod and imagine ourselves clad as gauchos, Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina addresses an Argentina of the mind. The real Argentina is a bit less attractive; Nobelist VS Naipul once said that Argentina’s farcical performance since 1900, given its immense natural resources, highly developed economy, powerful middle class, and ties to European civilization, is one of the greatest mysteries of the twentieth century. It didn’t help that the Argentine people kept electing thugs like Peron, who served as president not once, not twice, but three times.
Evita was a studio album before it was mounted on the stage, producing a No 1 UK hit for Julie Covington in 1977. An intergalactic favorite, Evita finally made its way to the screen in 1996 with a somewhat limp Madonna playing the title role, sharing the stage with Antonio Banderas, cast as the lovable psychopath Che Guevara. For a while, there was talk about an Oscar for Madonna, but then the cocaine supply dried up in Hollywood and everyone came to their senses.
From the time Evita debuted, Webber was criticized for writing a musical that seems to idolize a Nazi sympathizer. (The Village Voice referred to Little Eva as “Cinderella Fascist.”) But as a number of historians have argued since that time, Eva Peron was not so much a fascist as an idiot. While it is true that her husband helped Nazis escape from Germany, and ultimately fled to Paraguay – a rainforest retirement community for Nazis – after he was ousted from office, there is no evidence that either he or his second wife were Nazis. In Juan’s case, it seems more likely that he was the gracious host who admired Nazis as people, enjoyed their company at dinner, and probably pocketed a few Deutschmarks in exchange for his conviviality, but never embraced their divisive, millenarian policies. As for Eva, she was too politically unsophisticated to know the difference between a commie and a Nazi, as she was basically a lounge act. Thus, in selecting Eva Peron as their heroine, Webber and Rice were less interested in Evita the Politician than in Evita the Diva. This is no more offensive than writing a musical called Mrs Petain or Attila’s Last Girlfriend or Franco’s Main Squeeze. Harmless fun. Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina is the only song ever written by a knight that was recorded by both Tom Jones and Sinead O’Connor and banned from British airwaves during a war. To be fair, the ban occurred before Jones recorded it.