Thursday, July 22, 2010

Songs that Changed the Landscape of Human Thought and Understanding: Jim Lowe's "The Green Door"

Prior to the late 1990s, when mainstream music and television was much less permissive regarding sexuality, very few radio-friendly hits actively made one think of pornography directly. Songs like Donna Summer's "Love to Love You Baby" (1975)--rife with its litany of Summer's orgasmic coos--the Andrew Marvell-like desperation of George Michael's "I Want Your Sex" (1987)--and Debby Boone's "You Light Up My Life" (1977)--whose lyrical conceit is, of course, loaded with descriptions of borderline-nauseating hardcore kink (and, surprisingly, an ecumenical message of hope for our salvation)--were capable of establishing such a connection. But one song, one much older than the aforementioned hits, actually inspired the title of one of the most notorious pornographic films of the 1970s. Of course, I'm speaking of Jim Lowe's enigmatic 1956 classic "The Green Door," the song that served as inspiration for Marilyn Chambers vehicle Behind the Green Door (in 1972). The Mitchell Brothers, the notorious pornographic filmmakers, thought they had solved the mystery by intellectually exploring the possibility that a whole bunch of hardcore sex was going on behind that door. But as I will soon explain, this is but one of an infinite amount of things that could be going on behind it. What's so especially interesting about Jim Lowe's unlikely hit is that it could just as easily have been the inspiration for a children's film, a Biblical epic, or an undercover cop drama. The answer to the question "What's behind the green door?" is entirely dependent upon the whims of each of the song's listeners. The answer is, therefore, what anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss refers to as a "floating signifier."

The world of art has been blessed with many powerful examples of the floating signifier. Examples include the smile on Mona Lisa's face in Leonardo DaVinci's famous portrait (~1506), Hester Prynne's Scarlet Letter in Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel of the same name (1850), the White Whale in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851), the monolith in Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), or the "Baby" referred to in Justin Bieber's important hit from earlier this year. Into each of these exemplary pieces, a receptive community can project their fears or desires. Yet each of these floating signifiers does contain a certain set of constraints. While generally perceived to mean "Adultery," the "A" on Hester Prynne's Scarlet Letter could mean "Angel" or "Awesome." It could not, however, mean "Armadillo" or "Z" (unless the letter had an asterisk attached explaining "A=Z"), because neither of those really meet the conditions of the text. The White Whale or the monolith, similarly, cannot be said to represent concrete objects, like "a butterknife" or "Old Yeller" (unless the monolith was ACTUALLY made out of concrete, I suppose).

What's so exceptional about Jim Lowe's "The Green Door" is that, despite its apparent setting, it is a floating signifier that can only embody the listener's desires. It can be assumed that "The Green Door" opens to a club, because, behind it, there's a "smoky cloud," and "old piano," lots of "laughs," a fear of outsiders ("[thin] hospitality"), and a judgmental "eyeball peepin'" through a peephole requiring a "password." But, really, anything could be behind it, literally. And that is the supreme achievement of the song. There could be gambling going on behind the green door. Or Johann Sebastian Bach composing a sonata for violin. Or an orgy. Or the Oompa Loompas performing a ritualistic sacrifice (if that's what you're into!). Or Jesus hosting an indoor beach party with the Twelve Apostles and the Founding Fathers as guests. Or greedy carpenters building more green doors. Really, anything could be happening there. Jim Lowe's narrator is not fearful of what is behind the door. Rather, he's disappointed at the exclusivity of the gaze that denies him access to what's behind it. For these reasons, and so many more, 1956 should not be remembered solely as the year Elvis Presley broke through to the mainstream with his "Heartbreak Hotel": it should be remembered as the year we all began to wonder what was happening behind the green door.

What do you think is going on behind it?

Here's a link to the song:

1 comment:

  1. Well, look at him--[] probably too Robbie Douglas (My Three Sons) to be let into what sounds like either a Speakeasy or an African American blues joint. Either way, dude was way too squeaky clean to be let behind any door, green or any other color. Now, Charlie Rich--that man knew "What Goes On Behind Closed Doors." Maybe Jim should have given ol' Charlie a call.