Why does Over the Rainbow get to me every time?

Why does Over the Rainbow(ˈrānˌbō) get to me every time?

By James Wood

I’m not prone(prōn) to bouts(bout) of sentimentality(ˌsen(t)əmənˈtalədē). In my family, anything reaching in that direction was denounced(dəˈnouns) as sentimental(ˌsen(t)əˈmen(t)l), the word said with a sour(ˈsou(ə)r) turn of lip. The epithet(ˈepəˌTHet) was used whenever spotted(ˈspädəd). Even a field(fēld) of yellow chamomile(ˈkaməˌmēl) on a humid(ˈ(h)yo͞oməd) summer morning, rendered in oil(oil) pastel(paˈstel) by my mother’s own mother, was derided(dəˈrīd).

This was my family’s way of speaking truth about saccharine(ˈsak(ə)rən) simplifications(ˌsimpləfəˈkāSH(ə)n). Life wasn’t simple, art wasn’t simple. Art was supposed to say profound(prəˈfound) things. In a song, on a page or framed, it showed or otherwise expressed experience viscerally(ˈvis(ə)rəl). Fine art was never simple – it could never smack(smak) of anything “twee(twē).” There was always a thorn(THôrn) on the rose(rōz), a snake(snāk) in the grass somewhere. Maybe you needed to know how to look at it, but depth(depTH) was always there. As students in art school, we debated(dəˈbāt) what qualifies as art, and now I hear my own students carry on the same debate.

I’ve been learning to play piano lately, and while working through a book of lessons and music for adult beginners, I bumped(bəmp) up against Over the Rainbow by Harold(ˈherəld) Arlen and E.Y. Harburg(ˌbərɡ), made famous by Judy Garland(ˈɡärlənd) in the 1939 MGM movie The Wizard(ˈwizərd) of Oz(äz).

The song begins with “Some – where …” Do you need to read any more than the first word to hear the swelling(ˈsweliNG) music in your head? To imagine the singer with a far-off look in her eye, feel a sympathetic(ˌsimpəˈTHedik) lightness in your heart?

I slumped(sləmp) on my piano bench(ben(t)SH) and sneered(snir) to myself, “What’s this sentimental syrup(ˈsirəp) doing here?”