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Jewish World Review May 17, 2001/ 24 Iyar, 5761

Suzanne Fields

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Consumer Reports

Prom night as 'Some Enchanted Evening' -- PERRY COMO was very big at our house, the satirical centerpiece of our art collection in the "Swinging Seventies.'' We called the cardboard cutout of Perry the "Pop Artist.'' Friends as well as children posed with Perry for a photograph (as with a cutout of the president).

Perry Como was kitsch, everything we were rebelling against, the steadfast whispering singer who was proud of having been a barber back in Pennsylvania. In those days every male worth his vanity grew long hair and sideburns and a lot of barbers went out of business. Perry Como wore a crew cut.

He was the opposite of Elvis Presley; he never moved. Unlike the Beatles and the Stones, he made no waves. He didn't challenge either the music or the lyrics. When he died in his sleep last week, at the age of 88, the perverse joke was the one asked when someone said Calvin Coolidge was dead: "How could they tell?''

He was a minimalist before minimalism was hip. Only fuddy-duddies like our parents could like him. The songs he crooned, like "Long Ago and Far Away,'' spoke to them. After a few decades of loud, loutish and vulgar electronic noise, our parents seem neither as fuddy nor as duddy as they used to be.

Anyone old enough to have an ounce of nostalgia can appreciate the pre-edgy, pre-Eminem Pierino Como, who described himself as "a simple guy with simple tastes,'' and who almost quit show business to return to a shave-and-a-haircut several times because show business didn't give him enough time for his family. He had married his high school sweetheart and they celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary together.

Perry Como joked that the difference between himself and Frank Sinatra, with whom he was often compared, was in the overtime period. "(Frank) was just getting started at midnight and would go on until 6 in the morning,'' he said. "At midnight I went home and went to bed.'' But it was more than that. Frankie had a flair for debauching the phrase with double entendre. Perry sang about life the way he lived it, sweet and simple. He was the nicest guy in high school.

Of course, he sang some of the worst songs of his or any generation. "Hot Diggety, Dog Ziggety, Boom,'' "Hubba Hubba,'' and "Juke Box Baby,'' which one critic said sounded "like a loathsome granddad eyeing up a tryout cheerleader.'' "Till the End of Time,'' another terrible hit, reduced the melodies of a Chopin Polonaise to clanging and banging from Tin Pan Alley.

But when Perry Como was good, which was often, he was very, very good. He was as smooth as silk and soft as down, a grownup man you could trust with sentiment. His years served to reinforce his steadiness. He never lost his nerve or his cool, and he was sexy in a "marriageable'' way. Young men and women danced to his songs, feeling the romantic rhythms in sync with their heartbeats and they could fantasize a life of domesticity. He was perfect prom music when dancing close was enticing and seductive, and nobody could call it "dirty dancing.''

Is it merely a coincidence that Perry Como's albums are being revived and sold on CDs, or that he's the cover story of "Collector's Choice,'' a mail-order magazine that looks for trends in the music trade? Is it possible that some high school seniors would rather dance more elegantly (and more eloquently) to "Some Enchanted Evening,'' one of Perry Como's big hits, than to a rap song that conjures up images of rape and murder to the dissonant sound of a chainsaw?

It's always dangerous to look for cultural trends in the obits of pop stars, but the fashion pages also suggest a retrograde impulse. Nordstrom's, for example, finds its young women customers are complaining about prom dresses that reveal and provoke. They're looking for love, not lust.

The thigh-high slits on slinky skirts combined with skimpy tops that expose the navel look fine on Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, pop songbirds of the moment, but lots of young women want something less revealing and more chic. "It sounds old-fashioned, but a sense of appropriateness is really a key lesson for young women,'' Annemarie Iverson, editor-in-chief of YM, a popular teen magazine, tells the Wall Street Journal. Un-dressing like Britney Spears is "out.''

Does that mean the mellow, mellifluous modest music of Perry Como may soon be "in''? Maybe. But maybe not. Those who remember more than a few of his soft velvet sounds mourn his death by remembering his "Magic Moments'' with a dreamy reverie. "Sing to Me, Mr. C.''

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