Lately I’ve rediscovered my love for Linda Ronstadt’s 1980’s albums of pop standards: What’s New (1983), Lush Life (1985), and For Sentimental Reasons (1986).These albums combined Ronstadt’s considerable vocal talents with arrangements by Nelson Riddle, who had previously worked with Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and Judy Garland, among others. Here’s the title track from What’s New:

My dad had these albums when I was a kid, and I remember falling in love with many of the tracks as soon as I heard them. “What’s New” was instantly among my favorites. Even as an adolescent, I was impressed with this song’s story — I didn’t know music could do this. It made you imagine a little movie as you listen to it.

I also love the emotion of the song. Ronstadt’s ability to capture the embarrassment, disappointment, and yearning that imbues this song fascinated me. It’s so beautiful, delicate, and sad when she sings it. And the final cry of the last line’s crescendo is amazing.

I also loved “Someone to Watch over Me”:

Ok, let’s just say it: this is the gayest music an adolescent boy could possibly have been listening to in 1983. Way gayer than any mainstream pop music — this was practically Liberace gay.

It’s not just that pop standards are inherently gay. It’s that they tend to express what a certain type of adolescent gay boy would be feeling. “Someone to Watch over Me,” for example, captures the young gay boy’s yearning for a boyfriend, for someone to watch over him, protect him, and take care of him:

There’s a somebody I’m longing to see
I hope that he turns out to be
Someone who’ll watch over me

I’m a little lamb who’s lost in the wood
I know I could always be good
To one who’ll watch over me

Growing up in a religious family and in an environment that led me to believe that there was something wrong with me, that love would never, could never happen for me, and that I was totally lost made me yearn for that special someone to find me and give me all of the love that I desired so earnestly.

Another one I immediately loved (and still do) is “Crazy He Calls Me”:

I’m still likely to be driving down the street singing this song at the top of my lungs!

But my favorite track from “What’s New” was “What’ll I Do,” a hauntingly beautiful song of failed love. I can’t find a video of it on YouTube, so here are the lyrics:

Gone is the romance that was so divine
‘Tis broken and cannot be mended
You must go your way and I must go mine
But now that our love dreams have ended

What’ll I do
When you are far away
And I am blue
What’ll I do

What’ll I do
When I am wondering who
Is kissing you
What’ll I do

What’ll I do with just a photograph
To tell my troubles to

When I’m alone with only dreams of you
That won’t come true
What’ll I do

What’ll I do with just a photograph
To tell my troubles to

When I’m alone with only dreams of you
That won’t come true
What’ll I do

Of course, I had never been in love when I first heard this song, but (again) the yearning that this song expresses struck a chord with me. As I listen to these songs now, that’s what strikes me most about them: just how much I longed for love and happiness. These songs let me feel this yearning by imagining myself in the female vocalist’s role, and my parents didn’t mind since they were standards — it’s not like I was listening to Madonna or Boy George or something gay!

Ronstadt’s next album had fewer tracks that I loved so deeply, but Lush Life was still wonderful to hear. My favorites from Lush Life ere “Skylark,” “Can’t We Be Friends,” and “Falling in Love Again.”

Listening to this album today, my favorite track is “I’m a Fool to Want You”:

I love its moodiness and its expression of being unable to control your desires. It’s a great song.

For Sentimental Reasons finished this trio of standards. I loved “You Go to My Head,” “My Funny Valentine,” “I Love You for Sentimental Reasons,” and “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” but my two favorite songs were “But Not for Me” and “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered.” I can see how the first of these would match up with a closeted teen’s feelings of never being able to love someone:

“Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” is, of course, one of the greatest standards of all time. I still think Ronstadt’s version is the best I’ve ever heard. Here’s a clip of her singing live:

While preparing to teach my Gay & Lesbian Literature class once, I came across the original lyrics to this song, which are a little racier:

I’m wild again
Beguiled again
A simpering, whimpering child again
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I

Couldn’t sleep
And wouldn’t sleep
Until I could sleep where I shouldn’t sleep
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I

Lost my heart but what of it?
My mistake I agree.
he’s a laugh, but I like it
because the laugh’s on me.

A pill he is
But still he is
All mine and I’ll keep him until he is
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered
Like me.

Seen a lot
I mean I lot
But now I’m like sweet seventeen a lot
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I

I’ll sing to him
Each spring to him
And worship the trousers that cling to him
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I

When he talks he is seeking
Words to get off his chest.
Horizontally speaking
He’s at his very best.

Vexed again
Perplexed again
Thank God I can’t be over-sexed again
Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I

Lorenz Hart, the song’s writer, was gay and the sleeping and trousers bits capture that queer aesthetic of desiring, sexing, and cruising men. (There’s a great scene in The History Boys when the gay kid sings this song about and to the boy he’s in love with.)

I didn’t know who Linda Ronstadt was when I first heard this music. And I’m still woefully ignorant about her larger career. For me, she’s the woman who sung these light pop standards that I loved so dearly as a young teenager.

I’m not sure why I dug these CDs out recently, but I’m enjoying getting reacquainted with them. They’re great songs, and Ronstadt’s interpretations of them are peerless. (And, if you see me singing in my car, now you’ll know what I’m singing!)

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