It was about 2 in the morning and I was trying to get a handle on Alexander the Great. I had a final exam coming up and I’d missed half the syllabus – and something else was missing; a way into the man’s head. Alexander had single-handedly destroyed the world’s largest Empire and put an even larger one in its place, had conquered places hardly known to exist, had convinced himself he was the son of a God, had done most of this before he hit 30. That stuff was easy to understand though: what was harder was working out how he’d managed to keep the loyalty of his army, ordinary Greek farmer-soldiers who’d been on the march, away from home and family, for ten years. What was eluding me was the intuitive grasp of how a leader could do that, a fix on the mix of eloquence, megalomania and neediness Alexander must have had.
You won’t believe me, you’ll think it’s strange, but I played “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” that night and I had my answers. I wasn’t looking for them – I just didn’t have anything else I wanted to put on and Julie Covington’s 7″ was lying around. Nerves, melodrama and caffeine convinced me that just under the surface of this song was a secret – a secret about politics, the crowd, fame and power. The exam went fine and an intermittent obsession was born.
“Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” opens Act II of Evita, a musical I’ve never seen about a woman I know little of. I only found out today where in the musical it comes – I’d assumed it was a finale, but no. Eva Peron sings it as the wife of Argentina’s new president – the song is her address to the crowd who – we know from the start of the show – will come to adore her. Andrew Lloyd-Webber wrote the music, Tim Rice the lyrics. It’s a classic show-stopper: dramatic, lavishly orchestrated, and (potentially) catastrophically over-the-top. It’s also the only Lloyd-Webber/Rice song to have become more-or-less a standard – which is odd, given Evita‘s very specific political context and content.
But something obviously registered – the song is corny enough to be memorable and subtle enough to be a challenge to anyone taking it on. It can stand alone, and “Argentina” can stand for anything you want. Which is just as well, since from the brief readings I’ve since made of Argentinian history Peronism is not my cup of mate. In the context of Latin America an authoritarian populist is surely preferable to the endless parade of Generals, and the word “fascist” has a meaning too specific to use lightly, but it sticks enough to taint the song in some eyes. I got flamed on a file-sharing website for uploading one version – “an ode to a bloodythirsty dictator’s wife” wrote a fellow-member. This is unfair in context – where Eva’s politics are constantly questioned by the young radical Che – and out of context, where the song is too abstract to be an endorsement of anything much.
But that’s not to say it’s not a political song. Evita the musical premiered the year after Margaret Thatcher won the Tory leadership. Evita the film opened the Autumn before Princess Diana died. Three years after that you could – perhaps? – catch an echo of “…Argentina”s tear-soaked strings as Hillary Clinton tried to win New Yorkers’ hearts. One reason “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” is a fascinating song is that it resonates so much in an era when women are entering and operating in the public arena at last; an arena whose rules, like the song, are written by men. The song’s mix of empathy, spin and steel, though, is not specifically ‘feminine’ – it’s just modern. Thatcher is not the modern Prime Minister who “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina” most fits, nor is Hillary the only Clinton.
A few weeks ago, at about 2 in the morning, I wanted to hear the song again. I typed “Argentina” into a file-sharing browser window and was half-amazed at the range of people who’d covered it. So I started hunting for a perfect version. This is what I found.