You (Were) The Top

You're The Top, a Cole Porter song from his 1943 musical Anything Goes, features two lovers endlessly complimenting each other by reference to top-tier brand-names.

Wondering which popular things really last, I thought it would be interesting – eighty years later – to see which of the branded items in the song are still considered top-tier today.

To make things Objective, I'm giving 1 point for things that are still considered Top; 0.5 points for things that are still well-known but no longer as prestigious (shall we say, Mid); and 0 points for things that are unpopular or that I've barely heard of. (I'm kidding about the objectivity, obviously this is all wildly subjective, feel free to shout at me below).

If you want to sing along, Mr Porter himself sings here: Without further ado....

The Coliseum: still a banger. I do wonder on some level if it was more important and famous in 1943 than it is today, but still. 1 pt
The Louvre Museum
: as above, but still a banger. 1 pt
A melody from a symphony by Strauss
: borderline but I'm going to give this 1/2 a point. I suspect this is more about the declining prestige of classical music than any relative decline of the fame of Strauss within that, but... I just wouldn't assume that someone I met today had ever heard of Strauss, in the way I'd assume they'd heard of Mozart and Beethoven. 1/2 pt
A Bendel bonnet:
lol, no. "Henri Bendel, Inc" was a women's department store in NYC, apparently "the first retailer to have its own fragrance, to offer in-store makeovers, and to stage its own fashion show." It officially dissolved in 2019, and its wikipedia page cites You're The Top as "immortalizing" the brand, which is a nice. 0 pt.
A Shakespeare's sonnet:
obviously yes – well done Will, still crushing it 400 years later. 1 pt
Mickey Mouse:
a nice reminder of the incredible power of Disney's copyright holdings. Incredibly, Mickey is going out of copyright in the United States only next year, in 2024. On some level I feel like he's not as famous as he used to be, perhaps related to the impending copyright expiry causing Disney to prioritize investment in other characters. Still, iconic. 1pt
The Nile
: yeah, c'mon, if we're doing a river-bracket, this is an s-tier river. 1pt
The Tower of Pisa
: Cole cleaning up again with the enduring fame of major European landmarks. 1 pt
The smile on the Mona Lisa
: as above. I do think this, also, is less prestigious than it was in 1943, but inarguably still a highly-regarded smile and painting. 1pt

The score so far: 7.5/9 points. Honestly this is incredible to me, I wouldn't have thought so many of the things would still be Things at this point. I wonder if it's notable that the one item that's completely alien to me is a corporate brand name.

On a brief digression, the chorus couplet that comes after this verse is:

I'm a worthless check, a total wreck, a flop
But if, baby, I'm the bottom, you're the top

1) it's funny that "a worthless check" has become a meaningless reference faster than most of the things so far in the song have

2) Yes, Porter was gay and the answer to your question ("did he mean....?") is maybe. Happily:

Porter, by temperament and entitlement, came of age among the openly bisexual European upper crust. Everyone knew that he was a gay man with a marriage of convenience; everyone agreed to maintain the pretense that he wasn’t. Far from a drama of either repression or subversion, the situation seems like an oddly happy social concord.


Mahatma Gandhi: still a legend. (India became independent only in 1947!) 1 pt
Napoleon Brandy
: ehhm, I thought this was a brand of brandy but apparently it's a designation of brandy quality: "Napoléon designates a blend in which the youngest brandy is stored for at least six years." I'd never heard of it, so nul points from me. 0 pt
The purple light of a summer night in Spain
: I'm gonna give this one a pass for lack of quiddity–still, sounds pleasant! n/a
The National Gallery:
so here's the thing: my initial reaction was "which National Gallery?," and I feel like the existence of that question challenges the The-ness of The National Gallery. Half points for still existing though. 1/2 pt
Garbo's salary:
I know Greta Garbo existed, and was very famous, but I don't know anything specific about her or what she was paid, whereas at the time this reference would have been obvious and hilarious, so half-points. 1/2 pt
I'm going to give this zero. I do appreciate cellophane, obviously, but I think these days if you compared your lover to cellophane it just wouldn't go over well. 0 pt
A turkey dinner: another judgement call, but I'm going to say half: it's still got some associations of prestige, but maybe not as much as it used to? 1/2 pt
The time of a Derby winner
: This was a close call but I'm going to give it a point, although I think The Derby has lost ground to e.g. The Super Bowl. 1 pt

This round: 3.5/7 points. Ol' Cole losing his touch a little.

An Arrow collar: What's an Arrow collar, specifically? Exactly. 0 pt.
A Coolidge dollar:
if someone came up to me and called me a Coolidge Dollar, I would have no idea if that was a compliment or an insult. 0 pt.
The nimble tread of the feet of Fred Astaire: I've heard of him and know what he represents, but I've never seen his films and I suspect anyone younger than me might never have heard of him. 1/2 pt
An O'Neill drama:
somewhere between half and zero, I guess? 1/2 pt
Whistler's mama:
I do want to point out this painting is only iconic in the US, but I think it is still iconic in the US. 1pt
"still a leading cheese", per cultural critic Tom Bowker, so 1pt
A rose:
an iconic flower, still, but similarly N/A
Inferno's Dante:
I mean, there must be fewer and fewer people who've read it, but still enough people who would recognize it as Canonical. 1 pt
The nose on the great Durante:
I'm sorry Jimmy, I had to google you. 0 pt.

This round: 4/8 points.

Finally, to avoid tiring us both out, a quickfire round where I won't bother justifying my scores:

A Waldorf salad: 1/2 pt
A Berlin ballad: 1/2 pt
The baby grand of a lady and a gent: 0 pt
An Old Dutch master: N/A
Mrs. Aster: 1/2 pt
Pepsodent: 0 pt
Romance: N/A
The steppes of Russia: 1/2 pt
The pants on a Roxy usher: 0 pt

This round: 2/7 points

Overall: 17/31 points, or just over 50%. Not as good as it was looking in the first round, but much better than I would have expected at the outset.

What do we learn from all this? If I may...

  • first, there's a lindy effect: the stuff that was already old when Porter mentioned it is more likely to be famous today
  • businesses/brands and rich people don't have as much staying power as it feels like looking at their overwhelming presence in the daily news today
  • there's (always) a selection effect: this version of the song might have lasted partly because the things in it are still largely recognizable; there were other versions of the song that I don't listen to, possibly because their referents are all empty so nobody plays them now.

Finally, it's worth noting that it could have been much worse: P. G. Wodehouse wrote a Brit-ified version which included a couplet for Mussolini, "later notorious [but] widely admired at the time."

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