Real Men Don’t Sing: Crooning in American Culture

Crooners like Rudy Vallée and Bing Crosby were not only the first pop stars: their short-lived yet massive popularity fundamentally changed American culture.

Excerpted from Real Men Don’t Sing: Crooning in American Culture by Allison McCracken © 2015, and reprinted by permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.

Strange Interludes: Rudy Vallée and Romance by Radio, 1928

The enhanced female fandom that produced America’s first pop idol was the result of women’s public roles diminishing in the 1920s as their consumer roles expanded. As the primary consumer targets of the decade, women were explicitly encouraged to view consumption as a substitute for civic participation and to emotionally invest in romantically-themed cultural products, especially before marriage. Concerns among cultural authorities about lowering birth rates among white middle class women, in particular, had prompted the reconceptualization of marriage as a companionship rooted in romantic and sexual attraction. This new “companionate” model made marriage more attractive for young flappers by acknowledging women as sexual beings apart from maternity — an important shift — but it still preserved gender and sexual hierarchies within marriage, isolated women within domestic spheres, and actively discouraged other sources of erotic and emotional satisfaction for them such as masturbation and same-sex affections. Because the only way women were encouraged to be active was as consumers, singer Rudy Vallée became a site of heightened emotional intensity in 1928-29 because he simultaneously represented a culturally sanctioned pleasurable object and offered an alternative masculinity that subverted the gender and sexual hierarchies of companionate marriage.

Although the sexualized culture of the 1920s had laid the groundwork for the rise of a radio Romeo, many women were still shocked by their own arousal when they first heard Vallée’s voice. They prefaced fan letters with disclaimers that they were not writing “mash notes,” that they were “happily married but…” Nevertheless, a typical letter of this type inevitably included language that suggested orgasmic release: “I am married and happily so, but really I enjoy your programs so frightfully much that I just have to speak of it or I will burst with admiration of your talents.” This need to have an outlet for explosive feeling is common to all Vallée’s fan letters, but especially those from women: “I feel compelled to write”; “I really cannot contain my appreciation”; “I feel unable to remain silent.”

When women did try to describe their reaction to Vallée’s voice, they most commonly identified it as “falling in love,” but “love” was often tellingly spoken of in terms of bodily activation and physical pleasure; one woman reported “jumping three feet in the air” when she heard his voice. Some women were more blunt about the specific erotic appeal of Vallée’s voice. “I’m burning up,” wrote one. A Brooklyn fan confessed, “A long time ago, I listened to you sing ‘Rain’ and all sorts of shivery thrills ran up and down my spinal column. Is it possible I’ve fallen in love with a voice?” Another early letter acknowledged the erotic power of Vallée’s voice by borrowing a term from Hollywood that would later become common in press descriptions of Vallée: “I think you are endowed with ‘It’ that’s why I sit up night after night losing my beauty sleep to hear you.”

Women’s willingness to emotionally invest in Vallée’s radio voice to such an extraordinary degree represented a boon for the radio industry, but it also indicated women’s keen ability to choose the one voice among many that best served their interests. Even as their professional choices were narrowing, women of this generation were encouraged to be particular in choosing their (male) lovers. The women who fell in love with Vallée in 1928 did so because they believed he shared many of their feelings, both speaking for them and arousing them. There were four qualities of Vallée’s performance that were essential to these listeners’ attraction: his perceived sincerity, his direct address and responsiveness to them, his frequent identification with a culturally coded “feminine” point of view, and the non-normative pleasures and fantasies he stimulated.

Listeners used the word sincere again and again to identify the quality that they felt set Vallée apart from other performers. This was not a new criterion to apply to popular singers, since minstrel tenors and vaudeville’s sentimental belters had been making audiences cry for decades, but it became an integral component of successful radio crooning because broadcasting directly addressed listeners as individuals rather than members of a mass audience. Moreover, because familial relationships had come to be based more on personal affection than ritual, sincerity had become an essential component of daily life. In order for Vallée to have the effect he did, audiences had to believe he meant his love for them, and because of his yearning, passionate delivery, they did. Richard Dyer has described this kind of star power as appearing to “experience emotion directly, unambiguously, ‘authentically,’ without holding back,” asserting that this kind of “transparency” is essential to an audience’s perception of the performer’s sincerity. For his listeners, Vallée’s vulnerability and willingness to express painful feelings indicated the genuine emotional energy he was putting into his performances.

Vallée’s unusual intimations were even more affecting to his listeners given the heavy romantic content of his songs, his consistent use of direct address, and his receptiveness to requests. When he realized that his audiences responded most to love songs, he sang more of them and regularly met individual requests. Scripts from Vallée’s 1929 broadcast schedule reveal a predominance of love songs, many of which contain the words love and you as well as first-person pronouns. He also answered every piece of mail himself during this first year and always fulfilled photo requests; many of these fans wrote second and third letters thanking him for his replies. Because of his personalized delivery and responsiveness, crooning love songs took on more cultural weight and significance.

Vallée’s song choices and use of first-person further allied him with his female audience and the cultural feminine. Some of Vallée’s early songs positioned him in the female role in lyrical terms, not an uncommon practice in the 1920s but one that had greater resonance when combined with Vallée’s intimate delivery style. According to his playlists, Vallée frequently sang “The Man I Love,” for example, and his early hit “Georgie Porgie” was sung from the point of view of someone erotically attracted to a man: “I only wish that he would just kiss me.” More generally, Vallée’s songs reflected a more traditionally feminine point of view through lyrics that depicted him as excessively emotionally vulnerable: “For all these years, I’ll go on shedding tears / For the girl who belongs to somebody else.” Vallée’s crooner was the gender flipside of the modern flapper, a Fitzgerald hero yearning for his dream girl, who was portrayed as more powerful than he. If the flapper transgressed her sex role by being confident, independent, and optimistic, Vallée’s crooner was most often sexually desiring but submissive, longing, and dependent (“You Came, I Saw, You Conquered”). In Vallée’s songs the man waits and pines for the woman, pinning all his hopes and dreams on her (“My Life Begins and Ends with You”). He has no other desire but to be with her, and if she leaves him, he is devastated.

By passively positioning himself in relation to his lady-love, Vallée offered an alternative masculinity that combined traditional romanticism and gender subversion, appealing to a broad range of women. In a newly-sexualized culture, for example, women felt pressured to show levels of pleasure with which they were often uncomfortable. Those who did not always enjoy sexual contact with their husbands or boyfriends were frequently accused of being frigid, prudes, or lesbians; the shyness and pain Vallée expressed mirrored such women’s discomfort and disillusionment with modern expectations, reasserting their desire for romance and emotional connection.

Conversely, women who were too assertive in their sexual desires within courtship or marriage were also seen as problematic and unnatural. Many listeners therefore enjoyed the way Vallée’s surrender reversed gendered social roles, allowing women to occupy a position of aggressor in their relationship with him. Women wrote about wanting to touch Vallée, pick him up, or devour him. “When you sing ‘Rain,’(HR)” wrote one Brooklyn woman, “ I could eat you up—literally.” Another wrote, “If I could pick you up out of the cone speaker I would do so.” Sex was definitely on the mind of many of these writers, who expressed their appreciation for the “suggestive” content of songs such as “You’ll Do It Someday, Why Not Now?” Vallée also empowered women to assert themselves with the men in their lives; women wrote of forcing their boyfriends to listen to Vallée and learn from his approach.

Vallée’s voice and persona also provided a vital space for women in which identification and desire could still overlap, permitting them to refuse the divisions of gender and sexuality that modern psychologists were attempting to cement. One of Vallée’s earliest letters, from Miss Lillian L., exemplifies this intersection: “You sang ‘Lovely Lady’ the other night—that is me, that is the way I feel.” Vallée’s listeners often occupied multiple receptive roles simultaneously; he permitted feminist and proto-queer fans, in Martha Vicinus’s phrase, “to love a boy and to be a boy” at the same time. Just as female divas and blues singers have historically provided gay men with a public voice in which to sing to their same-sex lovers, romantic crooners gave women this same mode of transgressive public identification and expression, even as same-sex affections—widely prevalent—were being increasingly pathologized. Vallée also validated the desire among women to identify with the power and privileges that men had; many of his female fans wrote that he provided a professional model and inspiration for them.

Finally, women’s responses to Vallée suggested that his voice enabled them to find alternative ways to achieve their desires, including rejecting unsatisfying lovers and pleasuring themselves. Although marriage manuals advised men, in detail, about how to please women, surveys showed that many men were not up to the task and did not provide the level of communication and foreplay that their wives wanted. Although Vallée’s songs highlight male-female pairing, they also enact fantasies of escape (however temporarily) from unions that are unfulfilling. His voice provided a substitute lover for such women, one who privileged their desires. Listeners wrote of forgoing dates to “stay home, slip into a negligee, curl up to my Lawson [radio] and listen to you!” More provocatively, letters suggested a variety of autoerotic practices among Vallée’s listeners (those orgasmic “explosions”), which mirrored those indicated in sex surveys of the time. Katherine Bement Davis’s 1929 survey notes that in addition to genital masturbation, which was widely practiced, women participated in “sex reveries or day dreaming… the effects [of which] may range from mild sex excitement to the actual inducing of the orgasm, the latter without any manipulation of the organs.”

Advocates of modern marriage discouraged masturbation. They evaluated a successful companionate marriage on its ability to “supply a satisfactory adjustment to the sex-impulse” of women; proof of that adjustment would be in women’s refraining from masturbation, which was considered “devastating and pernicious” to sexual health. Men who were lonely or unsatisfied with their marital lives could find sexual relief as independent men out on the town, but women had fewer options. Vallée’s voice helped give some of them comfort and release. By fostering the potential for self-pleasure with his romantic vibrating voice, Vallée represented a way for modern women to retain sexual agency; their responses to him indicated that they did not need a man’s actual touch to be erotically stimulated and that their sexuality was not contained by marriage. This assumption was soon to be dramatically verified by the swooning reaction to Vallée’s public appearances.

Vallée’s success is a testament to the power and unpredictability of consumer activity. Despite or perhaps because of efforts to channel the public in the direction of ideal romance and sexual connection, consumers responded by creating a celebrity who most exemplified the qualities they wanted in a companion or lover and who activated their own desiring impulses. Vallée was an aspirational figure for women because he represented a less restrictive, more genuinely egalitarian social relation than marriage advocates could offer them.

Allison McCracken is Associate Professor of American Studies at DePaul University in Chicago, where she teaches classes in American popular culture and mass media, social media, gender and sexuality studies, and American Studies methods. In addition to the book, Real Men Don’t Sing: Crooning in American Culture (Duke University Press, 2015)​, her writing has appeared in the edited volumes Undead TV: Essays on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Duke, 2007), The Radio Reader (Routledge, 2002), and Small Screens, Big Ideas (I.B. Tauris, 2002). She has also written numerous articles for the online journals Flow and Antenna, including a series for Antenna about Glee’s gay male characters and their voices, “The Countertenor and the Crooner” (May, 2011). She is currently doing work on feminine-gendered fan communities at conventions and on Tumblr.​ Dr. McCracken received her PhD in American Studies from The University of Iowa, with a focus in media studies and 20th century US cultural history.