Jazz Genius


Ben Pettis

Early in the development of our project, we identified a particularly interesting song in the dataset which we simply couldn't let go. Whether for its multilayered meanings, the upbeat and catchy tune, or perhaps just the food-related title, Cheesecake by Louis Armstrong was a regular topic of converstation throughout the course of the project. If we needed to pick out a single song to test a potential method or approach, we immediately knew which song to turn to. And for project components such as the text classification and topic modeling, the distinct use of the word "cheesecake" gave us a waypoint to search for in the resulting data and analysis.

The song itself contains 189 words, 69 of which are the word "cheesecake" and 30 of which are the word "gobble." Yet despite the song's apparent simplicity, there is much that we can interpret from this lyrical masterpiece. If we are to believe user Postaboy on the Genius.com page, Cheesecake is simply a song that reflects Louis Armstrong’s concern of health and weight, balanced by his own intense love and desire for food.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Cheesecake is not really a song about cheesecake. It's no secret that song lyrics have frequently hidden supposedly taboo topics in plain sight, and references to food are especially common as sexual innuendo. This is because "it’s easy to argue that you’re just singing about how much you like to eat, which gives everybody a way to be willfully naïve about the actual subject matter" (Hopper 2014). Notably, another Louis Armstrong song has been identified for its use of food-as-sexual-innuendo, "Struttin' With Some Barbecue." Though it is well-established that food and sex are lyrically connected to one another, it is worth keeping in mind that simply saying "Cheesecake is a song that is only about sex" may still be overly reductive. In her analysis of Belizean music, Lyra Spang (2011) convincingly argues that food-for-sex metaphors are culturally situated and that "the food/sex arena has become a highly contested space of interaction between men and woman who deploy multiple competing discourses about appropriate sexuality and gender roles in a power struggle to define the meanings of (and power behind) food and sex in Belize and the broader Anglophone Caribbean" (p. 20). Thus, when Armstrong sings "Cheesecake," he not only sings about sex and sexuality, but implicitly employs masculine and patriarchal views about how these issues, along with gender relations more broadly, ought to be situated.

All that said, when when we hear the same song separated from Armstrong's original context, as in the case of this Muppets version, perhaps it is really just about cheesecake!

Hopper, C. (2014, April 16). Cheesecake, jelly roll, lobsters, egg yolks, and staying ahead of censors. AV Club. https://tv.avclub.com/cheesecake-jelly-roll-lobsters-egg-yolks-and-stayin-1798268127
Ryan, K. (2013, July 12). “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” probably isn’t about food, but who cares? AV Club. https://music.avclub.com/struttin-with-some-barbecue-probably-isn-t-about-foo-1798239227
Spang, L. (2011). Fruits and Culture: A Preliminary Examination of Food-for-Sex Metaphors in English-language Caribbean Music. Folklore Forum. https://folkloreforum.net/2011/03/21/fruits-and-culture-a-preliminary-examination-of-food-for-sex-metaphors-in-english-language-caribbean-music/