Slate's Chatterbox: 'You're the Top,' Today

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Slate contributor Timothy Noah analyzes the classic Cole Porter tune "You're the Top." The song was a catalog of the top of 1930s pop culture, but Noah wonders whether the then-current references will leave contemporary listeners bewitched, bothered and bewildered.


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

In a few minutes, we prowl the mean LA streets with one of the city's top paparazzi photographers.

But first, a piece of service journalism. Timothy Noah is a columnist for our online partner, Slate magazine. He's just published a guide to a song we've probably all heard, but maybe not really listened to, Cole Porter's "You're the Top."

(Soundbite of "You're the Top")

Mr. COLE PORTER (Songwriter): (Singing) You're the top, you're the Colosseum, you're the top, you're the Louvre museum.

TIMOTHY NOAH reporting:

That's Cole Porter himself singing the song. It's a love song in which the singer compares the object of his affection to a list of wonderful things. But since it was written in 1934, a lot of the things Porter thought were wonderful are now meaningless to most of us. After hearing the song, my nine-year-old daughter asked me what lines like this meant.

(Soundbite of "You're the Top")

Mr. PORTER: (Singing) You're a Bendel bonnet, a Shakespeare sonnet, you're Mickey Mouse.

NOAH: A Shakespeare sonnet I can explain. But a Bendel bonnet? The song's original lyric is filled with such dated references. Thanks to the miracle of Google scholarship, I discovered that a Bendel bonnet is merely a fashionable bonnet named for its designer, Henri Bendel. And I've tracked down almost all the other obscure references as well. So without further adieu, here is an annotated guide to Cole Porter's "You're the Top."

(Soundbite of "You're the Top")

Mr. PORTER: (Singing) You're the National Gallery, you're Garbo's salary...

(Soundbite of a needle scratching vinyl record)

NOAH: After the success of "Flesh and the Devil," Greta Garbo demanded that MGM raise her salary from $600 a week to $5,000 per week. Louis B. Mayer hemmed and hawed, so Garbo sailed to Sweden. Eventually, Mayer gave in, and Garbo sailed back. Five thousand dollars per week comes to $260,000 per year, or the equivalent in today's dollars of $4.6 million per year.

(Soundbite of "You're the Top")

Mr. PORTER: (Singing) You're the top, you're a Waldorf salad. You're the top, you're a Berlin ballad...

NOAH: Irving, of course.

Mr. PORTER: You're the baby grand of a lady and a gent. You're an old Dutch master, you're Mrs. Astor, you're...

(Soundbite of a needle scratching a vinyl record)

NOAH: Mrs. Astor is the viscountess Nancy Witcher Langhorne Astor, who became the first woman to serve in the British Parliament. An American, she married the great-great-grandson of John Jacob Astor, America's first millionaire. Astor's great-grandson had emigrated to Britain and essentially bought himself a peerage that he passed on to his son. Mrs. Astor famously matched wits with Winston Churchill. She said, `Winston, if I were your wife, I'd put poison in your coffee.' Churchill replied, `Madam, if I were your husband, I'd drink it.'

(Soundbite of "You're the Top")

Mr. PORTER: (Singing) You're romance, you're the steppes of Russia. You're the pants on a Roxy usher.

(Soundbite of a needle scratching a vinyl record)

NOAH: The pants on a Roxy usher; the Roxy was a Manhattan movie palace famous for its opulent floor shows and for housing not one, not two, but three pipe organs. Roxy ushers dressed in quasi-military garb and participated in military-style drills.

(Soundbite of "You're the Top")

Mr. PORTER: (Singing) But if, baby, I'm the bottom, you're the top.

NOAH: Now there are a few lyrics so obscure they didn't even appear in the recordings we could find, but here are a few.

(Soundbite of "You're the Top")

NOAH: You're a Brewster body. That's a luxury car body built by the carriage maker Brewster. You're a Nathan panning. This one really had me stumped for a while as I searched the Web in vain for somebody Nathan Panning with a capital P. Then I would a version of the lyrics in which the P was lowercase. And, eureka, it all became plain. Panning was a verb, not a surname. George Jean Nathan was a famously severe theater critic for the New York Herald and Journal-American, and his pans really scorched.

You're the dam at Boulder. In 1930, President Herbert Hoover had his Interior secretary rename Boulder Dam in Nevada as Hoover Dam to boost his re-election chances in 1932. This crude political ploy didn't work and in 1933 Hoover's successor, Franklin Roosevelt, had his Interior secretary change the name back to Boulder Dam. In 1947, a briefly Republican Congress changed the name one last time back to Hoover Dam.

And there's only one lyric for which I could find no good explanation. It goes. `You're a drumstick lipstick.' If you know for sure what that means, you'll find my e-mail address and a complete list of annotations at In the meantime, happy 114th birthday, Cole.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: Timothy Noah is a columnist for our partners at the online magazine Slate.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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