This is the first entry in Popular that I’ve written about extensively for Freaky Trigger before, in this long piece comparing different versions of the song. It’s one of my favourite longer FT pieces so this entry is very much an extract from it, since I’ve not changed my opinions on the track at all:
“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’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. 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 to Rice and Lloyd-Webber 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. 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.
Covington’s version, from the British soundtrack album, forms a musical template for most other readings: the huge juddering strings, the rhetorical dynamics, the switch into a slow tango-tempo for the penultimate chorus. She doesn’t actually sing the final chorus, letting the song end with Eva’s vulnerable final appeal (“Have I said too much?”). But she doesn’t need to. In Covington’s hands it’s an entirely staged vulnerability – hers is the haughtiest reading of the tune, sung by a career-politician Evita whose peasant origins have long been cauterised. Her key lines? “Couldn’t stay all my life down at heel / Looking out of the window”, the crushing emphases signalling a swelling disgust at the very concept of weakness, of inertia.
Many performances of the song find the singer switching between singing to the imagined crowd and singing seemingly to herself. Covington’s, forceful and direct, doesn’t: it’s pure balcony address, pure rhetoric. And if you take “…Argentina” as rhetoric, a key question needs answering – what is the sung character trying to do? The central ambiguity of the song is its dual role as victory anthem and defensive self-justification. “How I still need your love after all that I’ve done” – after all I’ve achieved? Or – after all my sins? Power and guilt are united in the need for recognition. Listening again, though, that’s not how Covington sings it – on “I love you and hope you love me” she’s defiant. It is a hope, never a need – her love is unconditional.
There’s only a few professions more based in performance, more reliant on public acclaim – and more potentially dishonest – than politician. Pop singer is one of them, though in pop we can enjoy our demagogues more safely. “…Argentina” is Tim Rice’s finest hour, speechwriting as much as songwriting. The opening is perfect, grabbing the attention, wrong-footing the audience – “It won’t be easy, you’ll think it strange”: what won’t? What’s strange? – and then at once explaining, “how I still need your love”, before setting up another ambiguity, “after all that I’ve done.”. The verse sets the tone – Eva is being utterly frank, honest almost desite herself – and the rest of the song carries through. Rice keeps using the trick of starting a verse with something spontaneous-sounding – “I had to let it happen”; “Have I said too much?” – and then turning it into something more prepared, more cadenced (the chorus, for instance). This is great songwriting and great rhetoric both. And you have to ask that question again – how honest is Eva being? Is it all scripted? And you have to answer, “Of course it is”.