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…

JULIE COVINGTON – “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”
Covington’s version, from the British soundtrack album, was a #1 hit and musically at least forms a 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? Maybe this is the ‘secret’ I heard in it – the way 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.

ABBA – “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina”
ABBA’s tantalising version – if it is ABBA, Google is silent here – is unfinished, sounding perhaps like part of a showtunes medley. “Agnetha” sounds near enough to Agnetha for the attribution to stand, and fills the song with regrets and an unexpected tenderness, singing “All you will see is a girl you once knew” as if to a lover. A new way of imagining the song glimmers and vanishes before the chorus, as the subdued arrangement loses its subtlety and its way. The chorus of “…Argentina” is the most melodramatic part of the song and actually the hardest to get right – partly because it telegraphs itself so much as the chorus and reminds you that this is a song not a monologue.

MADONNA – “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina (Album Mix)”
Madonna’s “….Argentina” is the easiest to find on the networks but it represents a missed opportunity for song and singer. Her Evita project was when the singing lessons started to bite and her voice lost the scrappy harshness that had given it so much of its character. And this isn’t Madonna, it’s a competent singer let loose on a meaty title role. She doesn’t make it hers – a shame, since the lyric was made for mid-90s Madonna, a once-adored star who needed one stunning performance to win her audience back. This wasn’t it. The arrangements and performance are by the book, and Madonna seems too reverential of the song, or the role, or the idea of ‘singing’ or ‘acting’, or all of it. And so “….Argentina” as comeback-classic remained a might-have-been.

WILL OLDHAM – “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina (Live)”
No reverence here, naturally. Very few men seem to have attempted the song and those that have often preferred instrumentals. Will Oldham did actually try singing it – and he forgets the words, goofs about, rushes parts, speak-sings plays to a real-life bar crowd not a fictional Buenos Aires one. It starts off like a complete joke but the song’s hokey majesty keeps poking through and when the chorus comes in everyone sings along. He switches the lyrics – “I kept my promise / I kept my distance” – and when he says that fame and fortune are illusions, it’s with the quiet certainty of someone who rejected them before they even came calling.