In the spring of 1909, American popular song got sexy. Of course, love and courtship, and by extension sex, had been Topic A in pop music for decades. But while songwriters had long trafficked in euphemisms and innuendo - coy talk of "sighing" and "spooning" beneath the old oak tree and by the light of the silvery moon - it was a 1909 hit by composer Harry Von Tilzer and lyricist Jimmy Lucas, "I Love, I Love, I Love My Wife - But Oh! You Kid!," which opened Tin Pan Alley to brasher, bawdier, more raucously comic songs of lust.
In 2014, "I Love, I Love, I Love My Wife - But Oh! You Kid!" is forgotten by all but a few antiquarians. It deserves better. It's a landmark, worthy of a place in the pantheon alongside "Give My Regards to Broadway" (1904) and "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (1911) - and, for that matter, "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Rapper's Delight." Like "The Twist" and "Call Me Maybe," it was a viral hit, inspiring hundreds of spinoffs and rippling through American culture for decades before dropping out of earshot. It was a succès de scandale, which brought roars from vaudeville audiences and censure from social reformers, with all sides agreeing that "I Love, I Love, I Love My Wife - But Oh! You Kid!" had captured the zeitgeist, that it was a sign - the sound - of the times. It incited countless newspaper editorials, fulminating sermons by preachers, and at least one fatal shooting.
Today, to the extent that we think at all about the turn-of-the-century hit parade, we regard it as prehistoric: quaint old music, redolent of ill-tuned pianos and gas-lit Rialtos, that was swept aside by grittier sounds, by the triumphal rise of jazz and rock 'n' roll. If we listen closely to "I Love, I Love, I Love My Wife - But Oh! You Kid!" we may hear a surprising lesson: that the culture-quaking shocks, the salaciousness and transgression we associate with blues and jazz and rock and hip-hop, first arrived in American pop many years earlier. There is more than a nostalgia trip in this 105-year-old opéra bouffe about an adulterous husband and wife.