“You’re the Top” is one of my favorite songs in Anything Goes. I love a good list song. Nonetheless, most of the references always went far over my head! If you’ve ever wondered what exactly this song was talking about, allow me to break it down for you.

Fun side note: there are a lot of different versions of this song (seven, as far as I can tell). They pretty much rewrote this song every time a new version of the show was put together, and this show has been rewritten and restaged about a billion times, so there’s a lot of old, completely unintelligible versions of this song out there. The most recent and most popular one is the 2011 revival with Sutton Foster, so I use that one for this article. It’s also the longest, with the most references, including some new ones and ones from previous versions. Thus, I decided it would be most efficient to break down this one. One day I may return to the old versions– but that’s beyond my scope today!

“You’re the Top”

At words poetic, I’m so pathetic

That I always have found it best

Instead of getting ’em off my chest

To let ’em rest unexpressed

I hate parading my serenading

As I’ll probably miss a bar

But if this ditty is not so pretty

But least it’ll tell you how great you are

You’re the top/ You’re the Colosseum

  • This, of course, refers to the Roman amphitheater in Rome, Italy. Also called the Flavian Amphitheater after the Flavian dynasty— the family of emperors Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian– who constructed this architectural marvel between 70 and 80 BC. Inside the colosseum, gladiatorial combat and other elaborate bloodsport took place, all for the free viewing pleasure of those who could attend. In the patron state of Rome, wealthy individuals would pay for spectacles and invite the public, free of charge, to witness what their incredible fortune could produce.

You’re the top/ You’re the Louvre Museum

  • The Louvre is the largest museum in the world. Located in Paris, France, it contains some 380,000 historical artifacts and artworks and also boasts a 30-hectare garden and a robust historical research center. An impressive collection, but one curated in part thanks to looting, stealing, and graverobbing. Nonetheless, the Louvre remains a prominent tourist attraction and an important historical landmark in Paris.

You’re a melody from a symphony by Strauss

You’re a Bendel bonnet

  • Henri Bendel was a women’s high-fashion brand that was established in 1895. In 2019 the stores closed after over 100 years of business. Bendel stores pioneered many modern retail concepts as the first retailer to sell its own fragrance, offer in-store makeovers, and hold its own fashion show. Vintage Bendel-brand hats and other accessories now sell online for high prices.

A Shakespeare sonnet

  • William Shakespeare wrote 154 individual sonnets. Sonnets are 14-line poems written traditionally in iambic pentameter. Shakespeare wrote so many that one of the two sonnet forms is “the Shakespearean form.” The Shakespearean form consists of 3 separate quatrains (4 lines with the rhyme scheme A-B-A-B) capped with two final rhyming lines called a couplet. Read some here!

You’re Mickey Mouse

  • Of course, this refers to the mascot of Disney, created in 1928. He is one of the world’s most recognizable characters and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

You’re the Nile

  • The Nile, located in northeastern Africa, is the disputed longest river in the world. The “fertile crescent” along the Nile, Tigres, and Euphrates rivers as well as the Mediterranean sea is known as the “cradle of civilization.” These fertile lands were home to some of the most ancient civilizations in history, including Mesopotamia, Babylon, Assyria, and Ancient Egypt.

You’re the Tower of Pisa

  • The Leaning Tower of Pisa in Pisa, Italy is known for its unintended tilt caused by marshy, sinking soil.

You’re the smile on the Mona Lisa

I’m a worthless check

A total wreck, a flop

But if, baby, I’m the bottom, you’re the top

Your words poetic are not pathetic

On the other hand, babe, you shine

And I can feel after every line

A thrill divine down my spine

Now gifted humans like Vincent Youmans

  • Youmans was a famous Broadway composer who worked with nearly every famous broadway lyricist, including Ira Gershwin and Oscar Hammerstein. He was not an extraordinarily prolific publisher, though a considerably large percentage of songs he wrote are considered ASCAP standards. Unfortunately, his Broadway work is not particularly well remembered by modern audiences.

Might think that your song is bad

But I got a notion/ I’ll second the motion

And this is what I’m going to add

You’re the top/ You’re Mahatma Gandhi

You’re the top/ You’re Napoleon Brandy

You’re the purple light/ Of a summer night in Spain

You’re The National Gallery

  • The National Gallery of Art is a free museum located in Washington, DC. It is home to more than 150,000 sculptures, prints, paintings, and photographs.

You’re Garbo’s salary

  • Greta Garbo was a film star in the 20s and 30s and is remembered today as one of the greatest actresses of all time. She initially starred in silent films. Her first film with sound was Anna Christie, and ads used the line “GARBO TALKS!” to lure in audiences. At one point, she was making at least $300,000 per film— an amount which, in 1933, would translate to something like $5,600,000 today.

You’re cellophane

  • Cellophane was invented in 1908. It was a remarkable packaging product at the time of invention and continued to be refined and improved through the 40s. See-through packaging was a revolutionary concept and Cellophane ruled in retail and food sales for decades.

You’re sublime/ You’re a turkey dinner

  • Turkey dinners are commonly associated with fancy meals for special occasions, such as holidays.

You’re the time/ Of the Derby winner

  • A derby is a type of horse race, the name stemming from the Derby Stakes run racecourse in England. 1780. The distance of the race has varied over time, but in America, in the 30s, it was about 1.25 miles. At this time the average winning time was about 2 minutes and 5 seconds.

I’m a toy balloon/ That’s fated soon to pop

But if, baby, I’m the bottom, you’re the top

You’re the top/ You’re an arrow collar

Jcl_arrow_teens
An Arrow ad showing an “Arrow Collar Man.”

 

 

You’re the top/ You’re a Coolidge dollar

  • This may be a reference to the economy under Calvin Coolidge, the 30th US president. Coolidge held office during the Roaring Twenties, an era of American history characterized by widespread financial prosperity. This line may also refer to the fact that Coolidge was the only president to be on a coin in his lifetime: he appeared on the Sesquicentennial of American Independence Half Dollar, minted 1926.

You’re the nimble tread of the feet of Fred Astaire

You’re an O’Neill drama

  • Eugene O’Neill was an American Playwright. He is credited with introducing the technique of realism to American drama. Long Day’s Journey Into Night, his dark drama, is considered his masterpiece. He also composed more than 30 other full-length plays, including other classic titles such as The Iceman Cometh, Ah, Wilderness!, and Anna Christie. Characters in his shows– mostly tragedies– are known for their struggles on the fringes of American society.

You’re Whistler’s mama

  • “Whistler’s Mother” is the colloquial name of American painter James McNeill Whistler’s 1871 piece Arrangement in Gray and Black. It became controversial as the centerpiece of a conversation regarding the idea of art as a narrative. Whistler rejected this notion, painting his mother, whom the public would have no particular care for, with no particular narrative or message in mind. It reflected the notion of “art for art’s sake,” a slogan among French artists in the early 19th century that asserted art was valuable on its own, even if it served no informative or political function. Note that throughout history prior to this point, painting and sculpture usually had a utilitarian purpose: art often served as religious education, political propaganda, and assertions of moralistic lessons. The painting is enduringly famous.
exh_mother_feature_480
Arrangement in Grey and Black, 1871. James McNeill Whistler.

 

You’re Camembert

  • Camembert is a soft cheese similar to a brie. It comes from the Camembert region of Normandy in France.

You’re a rose

You’re Inferno’s Dante

  • Dante is the name of both the author and the subject of Inferno, which is a part of Dante’s epic poem Divine Comedy. It follows Dante’s journey through the 9 circles of hell.

You’re the nose on the great Durante

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Jimmy Durante

I’m just in a way/ As the French would say, “de trop”

  • According to the dictionary, this means “excessive”, “unwarranted”, or “unwelcome”.

But if, baby, I’m the bottom, you’re the top

You’re the top/ You’re a dance in Bali

  • Bali is an island in Indonesia. According to BaliSpirit.com, “Balinese dance culture incorporates ancient Hindu traditions with drama that tell stories through dance and music. Dances can represent how the character from Hindu scripture fights demons and evil spirits.”

You’re the top/ You’re a hot tamale

  • Tamales are a traditional Mesoamerican dish. It is a popular Mexican dish today. The candies, Hot Tamales, were not created until 1950, so that is not the intended reference in this line.

You’re an angel, you

Simply too, too, too diveen

You’re a Botticelli

  • Sandro Botticelli was a painter of the Italian Renaissance. His painting “Birth of Venus” appears in the Animal Crossing series as a collectible art piece. Note that some previous versions of the song say “you’re Botticelli,” but this one specifically states that Reno is “a Botticelli”, as in one of his works. Botticelli’s works often represent divine religious and mythological figures.
The-Birth-of-Venus-canvas-Sandro-Botticelli
The Birth of Venus, ca 1480. Sandro Botticelli.

You’re Keats

  • John Keats was an English Romantic Poet. He’s well known and frequently referenced today, famously by Robin William’s character, Professor John Keating, in the movie Dead Poets Society. His career was short– seriously writing for only six years and publishing for only four— yet proved prolific and cemented him as one of the most recognizable and admired British poets in history.

You’re Shelley

  • In context, this is likely a reference to Percy Bysshe Shelley, another English Romantic Poet, though it could also refer to his wife, Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein.

You’re Ovaltine

  • Ovaltine is a brand of milk flavoring that was invented in 1904 and is now owned by Nestlé. It is billed as a healthier, vitamin-rich, lower-sugar alternative to chocolate syrups used to flavor chocolate milk. In the 30s and 40s, the brand sponsored some popular radio programs, including Little Orphan Annie and Captain Midnight. Young listeners could clip proofs of purchase from Ovaltine products and mail them in to the company in return for products such as decoder rings to uncover secret messages in the program.

You’re a boon

  • According to the dictionary, a boon is something that is good or helpful. A “boon companion” is a close friend.

You’re the dam at Boulder

  • The Boulder Dam is a dam on the Colorado River. The ambitious construction of the largest concrete dam ever built was partially intended to create jobs during the Great Depression, however, it also caused the loss of many lives. It was renamed Hoover Dam in 1947 after president Herbert Hoover and is today a popular tourist attraction.

You’re the moon/ Over Mae West’s shoulder

  • Mae West was a singer, actor, and comedian, as well as a sex symbol of the 20th century. She performed in vaudeville, on Broadway, and in Hollywood. She was also a fighter of censorship, landing herself in jail for 10 days for indecency after writing the play SEX. 

I’m the nominee of the G-O-P or GOP

  • “GOP” stands for the Grand Old Party. This is America’s right-wing Republican political party. The “nominee” would be candidate nominated to compete in the presidential election.

But if, baby, I’m the bottom, you’re the top

You’re the top/ You’re my Swanee River

  • “Swanee River” is the unofficial colloquial name of Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home,” a popular minstrel song referencing the Suwanee River, a major river running through Georgia and Florida. It’s now the state song of Florida, though the original (very) racist lyrics have been changed.

You’re the top/ You’re a goose’s liver

  • The overstuffed liver of a force-fed goose is used in the creation of the French delicacy foie gras. The dish has raised some controversy due to the cruelty involved in force-feeding birds. The liver can be prepared without force-feeding, and foie gras is often created in this way outside of France.

You’re the baby grand/ Of a lady and a gent

  • This one’s easy to overthink: it refers to a baby grand piano.

You’re a dress from Saxes

  • The spelling here seems to allude to Gunne Sax, a retired formal clothing label. However, this label was founded in the late 1960s, far after the events of Anything Goes. This probably refers instead to Saks Fifth Avenue, an iconic department store, established in the 1860s. However, this reference is unique to the 2011 revival production, written well after the establishment of both brands, so perhaps the writers merely mixed up their dates.

You’re next year’s taxes

You’re Pepsodent

  • Pepsodent is a toothpaste brand introduced in the US in 1915. An iconic neon Pepsodent sign depicting a young girl on a swing hung in New York City’s Times Square from 1930 to 1933. Later, in 1938, The Pepsodent Show Starring Bob Hope debuted on the radio. Featuring Hollywood guest stars, the show aired live from the Hollywood Canteen and was popular among soldiers during World War 2.

 

MNY196333
The iconic Pepsodent sign in Times Square.

 

You’re a prize

You’re a night at Coney

  • This refers to Coney Island, a famous beach and boardwalk destination in lower New York, recognizable by its iconic ferris wheel.

You’re the eyes/ Of Irene Bordoni

  • Irene Bordoni was an American actress and singer in the early 1900s. She had previously worked with Anything Goes composer Cole Porter in his first big Broadway success, the 1928 musical Paris. She famously recorded Porter’s song “Let’s Misbehave,” which you can hear here. The song appears in some versions of Anything Goes. 

 

Irène_Bordoni_01
Irene Bordoni. She does have nice eyes.

 

I’m a frightened frog/ That can find no log to hop

But if, baby, I’m the bottom, you’re the top

You’re the top/ You’re a Waldorf salad

  • The Waldorf salad is comprised of fruits and nuts. It is named for its birthplace, the luxury Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, where it was created around 1903. Previous versions of the song mention the Caesar Salad instead, a simple green salad first introduced in 1924.

You’re the top/ You’re a Berlin ballad

  • This is a reference to the work of Irving Berlin, a highly acclaimed composer and lyricist of the 1900s. He is the composer of such classics as “Puttin’ on the Ritz”, “White Christmas”, “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)”, and “There’s No Business Like Show Business”. His works, including his ballads, have been performed by stars into modernity. “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody”, one of Berlin’s ballads, was written for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1919 and was so enduringly popular it remained the main theme of every Follies thereafter.

You’re the boats that glide/ On the sleepy Zuiderzee

  • The Zuiderzee was a bay of the North Sea in the northwest Netherlands. Construction in the early 1900s closed it off from the North Sea, transforming it into a freshwater lake now called the IJsselmeer.

You’re an old Dutch master

  • The “Dutch masters” were artists from the golden age of Dutch art, which spanned roughly the 17th century. Paintings from this era typically show peasant life through landscapes, portraits, and genre paintings. Dutch masters include Vermeer, Van Hals, and Rembrandt, among others. Rembrandt’s work is thusly featured on the packaging of Dutch Master Cigars, established in 1912. This line could reference either.

 

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A Dutch Masters cigar box.

 

You’re Lady Astor

  • American-born Viscountess Nancy Astor was the first woman to serve in British Parliament, in office from 1919-1945.

You’re broccoli

You’re romance

You’re the steppes of Russia

  • This refers to the Great Eurasian Steppe, which has historically served as a trade route for goods, culture, and knowledge to travel between the Middle East, China, Eastern Europe, and South Asia.

You’re the pants/ On a Roxy usher

  • The Roxy Theater was a silent film venue that opened in 1927. Though it thrived during the Broadway film boom of the 50s, it closed and was demolished in 1960. All of the ushers wore a designated uniform, as is standard for such a position. However, the Roxy’s owner was known for making his venue as showy and pristine as possible– So while I can’t find photo evidence to back this up, I presume the pants were quite nice.

I’m a broken doll

A folderol

  • According to the dictionary, this means “a trivial or nonsensical fuss.”

A blop

But if, baby, I’m the bottom

But if, baby, I’m the bottom

But if, baby, I’m the bottom

You’re the top

Final Analysis

All of these references point rather squarely in one direction. Whoever is speaking puts themselves down, implying they themselves are inept, unimportant, and unspecial, but they always build up the other person with these elaborate complementary metaphors. Interestingly, most of these references are complements not only by virtue of being popular or successful products or people but by being groundbreaking, revolutionary inventions or figures of the early 20th century. This is thematically appropriate for Anything Goes, a show with a lot of references to changing times and attitudes.

As many of the references have changed between iterations of this song and show, it would be interesting to see if this messaging is retained in every version. I may have to attempt to revisit these earlier recordings on this blog in the future!

One thought on “Explaining Every Reference in “You’re the Top”

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