Frank Sinatra's 'My Way' Is America's Anthem Of Self-Determination Made famous by Frank Sinatra — who grew to hate it — "My Way" represents the quintessentially American outlook that nothing in life matters more than living on your own terms.
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A Toast To 'My Way,' America's Anthem Of Self-Determination

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A Toast To 'My Way,' America's Anthem Of Self-Determination

A Toast To 'My Way,' America's Anthem Of Self-Determination

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It's hard to imagine two occasions more different than President Trump's inaugural ball and rapper Nipsey Hussle's funeral. Here's one thing they do have in common.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY WAY")

FRANK SINATRA: (Singing) Regrets, I've had a few, but then again, too few to mention.

CHANG: The song "My Way" was played at both, written by Paul Anka, arranged by Don Costa, immortalized by Frank Sinatra. Lifelong Sinatra fan Sonari Glinton argues the song came to represent a particular idea of American masculinity and individualism, one that's earned it fans from the hip-hop community to the White House. Here's Sonari in the final installment of our American Anthem series.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: "My Way" was an unusual song for Frank Sinatra. It's not a love song about a girl or a boy or even a city. It's a song about me, me, me - not me - Sinatra.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

F SINATRA: We are going to do the national anthem, but you needn't rise. This is Paul Anka and Don Costa.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY WAY")

F SINATRA: (Singing) And now the end is near, and so I face the final curtain.

GLINTON: Like others in the World War II generation, Sinatra was feeling the culture slip past him. He had just gotten past his Vegas ring-a-ding-ding rat pack years. Rock 'n' roll now was dominant - the Beatles, Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones. And at the end of an extremely difficult year for the country, on December 30, 1968, Frank Sinatra walked into a recording studio.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY WAY")

F SINATRA: (Singing) I've loved. I've laughed and cried. I've had my fill, my share of losing. And now, as tears subside, I find it all so amusing.

GLINTON: "My Way's" melody comes from a French torch song about a love affair at its end.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMME D'HABITUDE")

CLAUDE FRANCOIS: (Singing in French).

JASON KING: It's a song called "Comme D'habitude" that Paul Anka heard when he was in Paris and rewrote the lyric.

GLINTON: Jason King is a professor of music at New York University. He says Paul Anka, who was a onetime teen idol, took a song full of longing and heartache that Sinatra usually sang about and then wrote lyrics that fit his idealized image of Sinatra.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY WAY")

F SINATRA: (Singing) But through it all, when there was doubt, I ate it up and spit it out.

GLINTON: Now Sinatra's conductor Don Costa arranged "My Way" with a full orchestra and a really big, lush sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY WAY")

F SINATRA: (Singing) And did it my way.

GLINTON: Jason King says you can hear in "My Way" a metaphor for Sinatra's generation.

KING: Saying, ultimately, I did it right, and I did it in my own way. So you could look at Frank Sinatra as a kind of figurehead of American culture basically asserting his Americanness in a kind of defiant way, saying, look; I did it the way that I wanted to do it, and I did it right. And I'm looking back at all of this history, and I'm OK with it.

TINA SINATRA: Well, I think it was a song waiting for him to happen.

GLINTON: Tina Sinatra is Frank Sinatra's daughter. We met at her Beverly Hills home, where she showed me family mementos.

T SINATRA: That is Mama. This was hung in my mother's house until she passed a year ago at 101.

GLINTON: Tina Sinatra was a 20-year-old budding feminist when her dad recorded "My Way" in 1968. She says she loves her dad's performance of the song, but she's meh (ph) about the lyrics.

T SINATRA: I can't explain it except, organically, it's a man's anthem. It's not a woman's anthem.

GLINTON: If you want a woman's anthem, she says, try "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'" by her sister or just about any song by Aretha Franklin.

T SINATRA: Women are going to ask for respect. I don't know that they're going to want to talk about regrets, they've had a few. Do you know what I mean? - because men make more mistakes, and they have more to regret or whatever.

GLINTON: You can hear how for years, "My Way's" chest thumping and defiance turned off lots of people. One of the main critics - Frank Sinatra. Here he is at Carnegie Hall in 1984.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

F SINATRA: We have a song that we haven't done in a long time, and we're going to drop it in here now. I think we did it for about 10 years, and it got to be a real pain you know where.

WILL FRIEDWALD: Well, it is an anthem of self-aggrandizement that, up until that point, was everything Sinatra wasn't.

GLINTON: Will Friedwald has written many books about the American Songbook and Frank Sinatra.

FRIEDWALD: It is this song that really inflates him. It inflates his persona to stadium-size proportions, whereas the thing that people liked about - most about Sinatra before "My Way" was the intimacy, was the idea that this is a guy who has experienced life and love the same way that we have.

GLINTON: Thing is, the song quickly became about what people thought Sinatra and, more importantly, what his generation of Americans stood for. It's become the most-played song at funerals, according to a poll of funeral directors. The song, at its essence, pays homage to a certain kind of American bravado that's resonated ever since with all kinds of people who neither Sinatra nor Paul Anka could have imagined, from rock to punk to karaoke bars in Japan to hip-hop.

Again, music professor Jason King.

KING: You can see resonances of Frank Sinatra in people like Kanye West. But also, I think Jay-Z would be the classic example because he has a song called "I Did It My Way," which samples the Paul Anka version of it. But in the song - in the lyric, Jay-Z actually likens himself to Frank Sinatra.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I DID IT MY WAY")

PAUL ANKA: (Singing) The end is near.

JAY-Z: Can you believe, guru?

ANKA: (Singing) So I face...

JAY-Z: I'm from the hood, man.

ANKA: (Singing) ...The final curtain.

JAY-Z: No, the real hood hood, not the rap hood - the real hood.

GLINTON: Ayana Contreras is a cultural historian and a radio producer in Chicago. You know that guy who picks up the microphone in a karaoke bar and belts out "My Way," completely irony-free? Well, whether he's a stockbroker or a construction worker, Contreras says that he's projecting an image of his idealized self.

AYANA CONTRERAS: I think it really goes back to the aspirational nature of what Frank Sinatra represented for people. You're talking about, he's establishment artist. But beyond being establishment, it was sort of a larger-than-life - for lack of a better term - ghetto fabulous, but not ghetto. It was like this - the fabulousity (ph) on a level that we can only hope to achieve.

GLINTON: Regrets, I've had a few, but then again, too few to mention - get it?

CONTRERAS: I did it the way I wanted to do it, and I made it. And here I am - which is, at its very root, not just aspirational, but sort of - what would you call that? - a self-determination anthem.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY WAY")

F SINATRA: (Singing) The record shows I took the blows and did it my way.

GLINTON: Self-determination - what could be more Sinatra, more hip-hop or more of an American anthem?

For NPR News, I'm Sonari Glinton.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY WAY")

F SINATRA: (Singing) Yes, it was my way.

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