Thursday, June 06, 2013

An Hilariously Outdated Racism Set to Music

First up, yeah, this is a racist thing. It’s not a product of its time. I mean, it is, but that’s not an excuse that makes this song any less embarrassing. Titled “You Bring Out the Savage in Me,” the song initially appeared in the 1935 British comedy Oh, Daddy!, and the cringe-worthy thing about it is that it mashes together this  ambiguously defined but essentially non-white group into the same category as unevolved, primordial man — and all to make a metaphor for horniness. That offensiveness aside, this song still has value because it’s helpful to watch it in 2013 and say “Oh, holy shit — this was ever okay?”

Here’s the song, as sung by Frances Day:

Please note her Marie Antoinette-looking white feather headdress, the back-up dancers’ black afro wigs (which kind of read as Gilly wigs in this context), the dancers’ faux grass skirts, and the dancers’ peculiar aversion to eye contact.

But here’s the catch with “You Bring Out the Savage in Me.” It was also performed by the African-American jazz singer Valaida Snow. I can’t decide if this song being performed by a black woman makes it better, in the sense of thumbing her nose at the attitudes it represents, or worse, in the sense of embracing them. (I’d post a video here, but none seems to exist online. There’s this, but it is totally not Valaida Snow singing the song in question. In fact, it’s so not Valaida Snow that it’s almost funny.) And before you make up your mind, check out the lyrics:
Way back in another generation
Long before our present civilization
One of my ancestors lived in a cave
Though to look at me you’d never know it
Since we’ve met I’m starting to show it
Here’s my excuse every time I misbehave
My blood boils with a tropic heat
And the rhythm of my heart is a tom-tom beat
For you bring out the savage in me
Your primitive words reach my ears
With the passage of a hundred million years
For you bring out the savage in me
Oh, all that madness and in
How was I to know
What was sleeping within me?
Just like Tarzan, you’ll be my ape-man
And I’m getting so ferocious you can’t escape, man
You’ll find out how wild I can be
Because you wake up the savage in me

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