Things I Like: Gershwin’s “Someone To Watch Over Me”

The version of this song that I grew up with is this:

It’s Linda Ronstadt and the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. There are people out there who have very, very strong opinions about definitive renditions of classic tunes, or who should or should not sing things. I am not that person. I like the Sarah Vaughan version, the Lady Gaga cover, Julie Andrews, Etta James — I’m not particular.

It’s a Gershwin classic, one that is both general enough for continual re-evaluation and specific enough to feel personal.

There’s a saying old says that love is blind
Still we’re often told “seek and ye shall find”
So I’m going to seek a certain lad I’ve had in mind
Looking everywhere, haven’t found him yet
He’s the big affair I cannot forget
Only man I ever think of with regret

I’d like to add his initials to my monogram
Tell me where’s the shepherd for this lost lamb

There’s a somebody I’m longing to see
I hope that he turns out to be
Someone to watch over me
I’m a little lamb who’s lost in a wood
I know I could always be good
To one who’ll watch over me

Although he may not be the man some girls think of
As handsome to my heart
He carries the key

Won’t you tell him please to put on some speed
Follow my lead, oh how I need
Someone to watch over me
Someone to watch over me

It’s a song of longing, of yearning. Not the yearning of “Bizarre Love Triangle,” in which the object of the song is known and attainable. “Someone To Watch Over Me” has a lonelier sound. Here, our point of view character has less assurance.

The song is riddled with uncertainties. The man who is the object — is he an ex, or not? Has the narrator found him yet and lost him, or not? If he’s an ex, the narrator doesn’t seem to know much about the guy. The song is not sure of his character or nature. Is he a caretaker, a steady, reliable, marrying sort, or not? When the narrator does find him, will he be everything that’s desired, or not?

The freight of human hope is typically a weight that mere mortals can’t bear. It seems very likely that the narrator will be disappointed. I think that the narrator knows this. It’s part of why I like the song. There are a lot of conditionals in the song, and I think they are the voice of life experience. If the man is an ex, it makes sense that the narrator is promising to do better this time, to always be good. It’s a contract on offer, a compact, an overt deal — we marry, you take care of me and help me be better than I have been in the past, and I’ll take care of you, be what you want, be good, make you feel successful.

This is not a great deal, by the way. It predicates the relationship of people only ever being one role, one fit. It grounds the relationship on no-one ever changing or needing or being anything different. The moment either of the parties wants something else, the contract fractures into lies and silences and failed expectations. I’ve had relationships like this. Entered into with clear eyes and the best, most generous, hopeful expectations. My relationships of this model didn’t last.

It’s clear that the narrator of the song has had some trouble, too. The song seems to think that trying harder to be good will be the answer, will solve the problems. That … didn’t work, for me. The lies we tell ourselves are the worst. “I am happy with everything exactly the way it is right now” is, if it is a lie, one that can rot a person from the inside.

But our narrator regrets the actions of the past. Maybe this time will be different. Maybe, this time, the man will be everything that’s needed.

I root for the narrator, in this. I hope he or she gets what they need, if not what they want.

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