' ' Cinema Romantico: It's Time to Retire Sweet Caroline

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

It's Time to Retire Sweet Caroline

In the high school reunion romantic comedy “Beautiful Girls” (1996), when the old gang has reunited at The Johnson Inn in fictional Knight’s Ridge, Massachusetts, pianist Willie (Timothy Hutton) sits down at the keys to noodle a little bit. No one in this group, though, is in the mood for noodling. So Kev (Max Perlich) plunks down next to him on the piano bench and makes a request. Willie pounds out the notes to Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” as the whole gang and the rest of the place erupts into a joyous sing-along. When you see this scene, you can instinctively understand why, at least according to Thrillist, bartenders consider it one of the worst songs to play in bars. It’s the kind of song liable to result in raised glasses while belting out the lyrics and raised glasses while belting out the lyrics result in lots of spilled lager. You don’t see the spilled lager in “Beautiful Girls”, obviously; that’s the magic of the movies.


Given the celebratory nature of this scene, then, it makes sense that one year later when Amy Tobey, in charge of curating in-game music at Fenway Park, was looking for something new (old) to get the crowd going, she opted for “Sweet Caroline.” MLB.com claims this was because Tobey knew someone who just had a baby named Caroline; Boston.com indicates that Tobey had noticed other sporting events playing “Sweet Caroline” and followed the trend; Susan Orlean’s 2005 NPR report on the origins of this tradition reported that “She just liked the song. That’s it.” Who knows? A legend should have a little mystery. Tobey continued to play it, albeit sporadically, when the Red Sox needed a pick-me-up, or something, but in 2002, when new management took over Fenway Park, they requested “Sweet Caroline” be played in the bottom of every eighth inning, sort of an encore to The Seventh Inning Stretch. That’s why one of the montages in the Red Sox romantic comedy “Fever Pitch” (2005) honors this tradition.

Now it’s 2021 and “Sweet Caroline” is still going. If Tobey did, in fact, copy other sporting events, other sporting events have now copied her. The Carolina Panthers play it; the Pitt Panthers play it; the Iowa State Cyclones play it; even Oxford United plays it after matches. It’s become so synonymous that it has inevitably reached the point where some Red Sox fans wonder if it’s time to retire the song, pick something new. I would go one further. After twenty-plus years of singing along to it at Fenway Park and influencing fans, the song has run out of steam altogether; like “You Sexy Thing”, it’s time to retire “Sweet Caroline.”

You could see that “Sweet Caroline” had already gone one round too many in “The Midnight Sky.” That was George Clooney’s 2020 Netflix opus cutting back and forth between the last man on earth and the last space mission. For something like a spacewalk sing-along, Clooney calls up “Sweet Caroline”, a la Amy Tobey so many moons ago. The sequence, though, is a far cry from “Beautiful Girls”, oddly flat, like it’s forced festiveness, karaoke in an insurance office. I mean, really; listen to Demián Bichir and Kyle Chandler in this clip and try to tell me their hearts are in it. Clooney clearly does not mean for “Sweet Caroline” to be ironic but in this airless context it can’t help but feel it, unintentionally pointing out how Neil Diamond’s song is running on empty. 

We can pinpoint Sweet Caroline” hitting “E” to 2017 in the Barry Levinson HBO movie “The Wizard of Lies.” That was the movie about the Ponzi pissant, festering dickdrip (coinage: David Simon) Bernie Madoff (Robert DeNiro), who kicked the bucket a few weeks back. “The Wizard of Lies” did not move the needle much for me, though there was one significant sequence toward the beginning, when the amoral ferret (coinage: David Simon) throws an extravagant party for his family and workforce in the Hamptons. At dinner, Madoff insists his son he eats the lavishly priced lobster even though his son would prefer steak, like Henry Hill bringing home the most expensive Christmas tree from the lot just because, men who have never needed nor wanted to cultivate their own appetites, artistic or culinary. It’s evocative of another rich dufus, the 45th President of the United States, King Big Brain I, His Imbecility, whose taste, once memorably described by David Roth as something like “a tufted settee that somehow has shoulder pads, or a photo of himself with two Cincinnati Bengals cheerleaders taken at Joe Piscopo’s 40th birthday party”, is not really taste at all, more like, as Roth writes, “what he believes he deserves.” Everyone in Madoff’s orbit deserves lobster; taste is irrelevant; Madoff has no taste.

And that is what “Sweet Caroline” comes to represent in this sing-along scene: the choice of the tasteless. It is the song you choose for a sing-along when you have no favorite songs of your own, a human being as an iHeartRadio algorithm. The death of a song, or of a musical genre, when it passes from cool to uncool, from in to out, is not always observable, typically defined by myriad factors over a period of time. But in the image of Bernie Madoff, albeit a fictional one, cutting a rug to “Sweet Caroline”, it becomes clear the song has nothing left. 

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