Charles Taylor’s achievement in A Secular Age is to show secularization to be deeply rooted in movements of Reform within European Christianity. This is also the book’s limitation, to imagine both religion and the secular in European, Christian terms. To be religious in A Secular Age is to orient one’s life in view or in search of a “transcendent window” in the immanent frame, an opening onto experiences of fullness, immediacy, and spiritual depth felt to lie beyond or outside of “ordinary human life.” The committedly nonreligious, humanistic alternative is to pursue one’s flourishing without reference to a transcendent reality. Either project is likely to be vexed by what Taylor calls a “malaise of immanence,” a sense that lives “encased entirely in the immanent order” are in that measure intrinsically lacking. “In a sense,” says Taylor, “we could sum up the malaise of immanence in the words of a famous song by Peggy Lee”—Is that all there is?
Taylor hears Peggy Lee sing “Is That All There Is?” and hears disappointment, ennui, the champagne of life gone flat. What we might decide to hear instead is Lee’s cool accounting of what hasn’t stopped her, a list of things that challenged her and lost. “Is That All There Is?” to my ear is a drama of resilience in four acts, a story belonging not only to Peggy Lee but to composers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and above all to the history of American song their voices helped to make. The history of American vernacular song tracks a different account than Charles Taylor’s of our secular age, one I find acutely consoling in our odd, unnerving present.
In a feat of Dylanesque imitation, lyricist Jerry Leiber cribbed some of the scenes in “Is That All There Is?” from German writer Thomas Mann’s 1896 short story “Disillusionment.” Taylor’s “Peggy Lee response” to the immanent frame might as aptly have been named for Mann’s protagonist, who gazes on the sea in search of vastness and sees only the circumscribing horizon. “Why a horizon, when I wanted the infinite from life?” He’s a preacher’s son who fled his father’s small-town pulpit in search of keener, larger life. He came to despise his beloved books for evoking depths he’s avid for, “glorious and intoxicating bliss” or “unspeakable, undreamed-of anguish.” Words are cruelly empty, he decides, because they are so full, so “extravagantly rich compared with the poverty and limitations of life.” A house fire he survived felt “flat” beside the soul-licking flames of imagination and so “defrauded” him of bolder fears. “So this,” he thought, “is a fire. This is what it is like to have the house on fire. Is this all there is?”
The first stanza of “Is That All There Is?” follows Mann pretty closely, but in Leiber and Stoller’s version the house-on-fire story also recapitulates an ur-scene of American songwriting. Irving Berlin, né Israel Baline, owned to one childhood memory from before 1893, the year his family docked in New York from present-day Belarus; it was looking on as his family’s wooden house was torched in an anti-Jewish pogrom and burned to the ground. As a street kid Berlin busked in the Bowery and earned a few pennies each for the songs he wrote and sold as sheet music, little dramas about a Jewish ballplayer or a Harlem romance or Marie of Sunny Italy, and in 1911 he created an international sensation with “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” The tune was a pastiche of borrowed elements—a march, a bugle call, a minstrel version of a slave melody, and a Scott Joplin–inspired rag rhythm so infectious it drew alarmed comparisons to malaria.
Berlin’s borrowings and innovations set a template for American song for decades to come. Songwriters in Berlin’s line—“Negro minstrel music as interpreted by ‘Tin-Pan-Alley’ New Yorkers of Hebrew origin,” as composer Henry Cowell described American vernacular song in the 1930s—supplied music to the vaudeville circuit, the record and sheet music industries, Broadway and Hollywood, downtown clubs and Harlem cabarets, and the touring big bands, black and white, where Peggy Lee and other “girl singers” got their start.
When contemporary recording artists revisit the American Songbook, the unofficial list of standards made famous in the big band era and in the repertories of, say, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, and Ella Fitzgerald, their selections tend to top out at about 1950, the year Leiber and Stoller began writing. By the measure of radio play, record sales, and sheet music royalties, the Songbook had yielded by then to what detractors heard as an insipid mix of “novelty numbers, lachrymose ballads, simplistic jingles, hillbilly hokum”—and then the fatal rumblings of rock and roll. But listen to Leiber and Stoller’s output—maybe start with “Stand By Me” by Ben E. King, “Spanish Harlem” by Aretha Franklin, or “On Broadway” by George Benson—and you hear continuity in twentieth-century sound, not rupture. Like composers of standards before them, they achieved the shift into newness by never sounding entirely new. They wrote “Hound Dog” and “Kansas City” when they were still in their teens, and when they moved out of their parents’ rec rooms and into their own studio they hung a framed portrait of George Gershwin on the wall.
In the scrappy saga of love and theft that is American vernacular song, two Jewish kids could write “Hound Dog” for Texas blues singer Big Mama Thornton and later grumble that Elvis ruined it. A teenaged Peggy Lee, née Norma Deloris Egstrom, could leave off singing radio jingles in Fargo and style herself a nightclub singer after Billie Holiday. It was the swing music she heard on the radio, Lee said, that brought her out of tiny Jamestown, North Dakota, where she lived with a father who stayed drunk and a stepmother who beat her with a skillet to keep her in line. (Lee said she thought Leiber and Stoller wrote “Is That All There Is?” just for her because before she left town her family’s house really did burn to the ground.) Lee eventually teamed up with Benny Goodman in Chicago and had a hit with blues singer Lil Green’s “Why Don’t You Do Right?” sung like a woman who would not be knocked around any longer, then a string of hits, including “Fever,” for which she wrote new lyrics to the R&B original by Little Willie John. Her trademark sultry stillness made synonyms of hot and cool.
“Is That All There Is?” includes one verse that isn’t lifted from Thomas Mann. It tells of a circus, the “greatest show on earth,” with a “beautiful lady in pink tights” who “flew high above” on a high wire or trapeze, one misstep from a fatal fall. If we hear Peggy Lee checking off a list of things that didn’t defeat her, we might hear the circus verse in “Is That All There Is?” to be about show business, and what show business demanded of women. Broadway and Hollywood musicals at mid-century increasingly looked backward in period pieces and splashy show-within-a-show revues. In her final, Benzedrine-fueled turns in MGM musicals, Judy Garland sells sheet music in In the Good Old Summertime (1949) and puts on a show in the barn in Summer Stock (1950). Twentieth-Century Fox insisted Marilyn Monroe take the part of a showgirl in No Business Like Show Business (1954) after she breached her contract by refusing to play a showgirl in The Girl in Pink Tights (1954). Peggy Lee wasn’t interested in entertaining you. She never traded equilibrium for applause. (Compare the minimalism of Lee’s “Fever” to the poignant mania of Judy Garland’s “I Don’t Care.”) She could sing standards but was not nostalgic, and she never stopped incorporating new materials into her sound.
Lee’s stardom coincided with Leiber and Stoller’s rise. The songwriting pair pushed past the eclipse of musicals by making records, three-minute dramas that made a bridge between the closing of the American Songbook and the juggernaut of rock and roll. Their productions often gave women the best lines. You can wag your tail but I ain’t gonna feed you no more was Big Mama Thornton’s salvo in their original lyrics for “Hound Dog.” The New Orleans trio the Dixie Cups had a hit with “Iko Iko,” a girls-eye take on Mardi Gras Indians’ battle chant. Peggy Lee sang Leiber and Stoller’s twangy “I’m a Woman” in a duet with Johnny Cash.
I got a twenty dollar gold piece says there ain’t nothing I can’t do
I can make a dress out of a feed bag and I can make a man out of you.
In 1964 Leiber and Stoller founded Red Bird Records to give a platform to girl groups, black and white. In addition to the Dixie Cups, they signed the Shangri-las, streetwise schoolgirls from Queens who took their bouffant hairdos and deadpan delivery from Peggy Lee. Iggy Pop and Patti Smith were fans. “It was the necrophilia of it that shocked the adults,” the great Lillian Roxon wrote of the Shangri-las in her 1969 Rock Encyclopedia, “not the funkiness of three bitchy white girls who told it straight out that in motor-bike gangs you don’t just hold hands”:
From time immemorial the bitch goddess has haunted and fascinated man. And so, of course, has the girl next door. The Shangri-las were both, a real bargain for the boy who wanted everything in a girl and the girl who wanted to be that everything. They played it soft and tough at the same time. Their toughest song was Leader of the Pack. (He was the head of the motorcycle gang and she was his tough mama. Then he dies. Tough mama goes soft, but not for long. You know whoever gets to be the next leader gets her too. Teased hair, doe eyes, ankle bracelet and all.)
Roxon hears the Shangri-las sing “Leader of the Pack” and hears a grrrls’ version of Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields’ pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again. You might hear something similar when Lee sings “Is That All There Is?” The song’s final stanzas return to Mann’s “Disillusionment.” Love dead-ends in sorrow, Mann’s speaker says, and death holds only blankness in store. As Peggy Lee sings Leiber and Stoller’s tune, the closing stanzas pay tribute instead to life’s ongoingness. That boy went away and it didn’t kill me. This world will keep spinning without us. So let’s keep dancing and raise a glass, not because tomorrow we die, but because, despite all, here we are.
Leiber and Stoller lighten Mann’s speaker’s grey malaise of immanence not by opening a transcendent window but by adding music, wit, and company. They bring his “agonies of baffled lust” (another of his gnawing disappointments) into a tradition that includes the Dixie Cups’ Teen Anguish, the Coasters’ “Poison Ivy,” and Rodgers and Hart’s “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered.” They make doleful rumination into a blues refrain, or a Yiddish joke. You hear the kind of music they made on every street corner in the world where kids who busk with keyboards or guitars want to sound like American kids. Taken as a whole, American popular music may be the least white and least Christian of America’s gifts to the world, and “malaise of immanence” was never really its thing.
Make what you will of the fact that the current occupant of the Oval Office, the white president to whom white evangelicals en bloc remain faithful, told an interviewer in 2014 that his favorite song is Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” “It’s a great song. Because I’ve had these tremendous successes and then I’m off to the next one, because, it’s like, ‘Oh, is that all there is?’” I don’t hear Peggy Lee in these remarks. I hear the addict at the end of the bottle or bag, the compulsive gambler for whom no stakes can ever be too high. Maybe a secular culture of excess and attendant malaise of immanence are partly to blame for the predicament we’re in. But I’m certain the “Peggy Lee response” to the grasping soullessness of this administration would not be more of the same.