About a year and a half ago, I was working on a short project where I wrote about fifty different showtunes from different musicals which I enjoyed a lot. I haven’t touched the genre very much since then on this site, mostly because I’m kind of tapped out on the subject. But while I was listening to Cabaret again the other day, I started thinking about this song and how much more affected I am by it than I am by “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” which I put forty-fourth on my list. I’m not trying to change my list – like Pumbaa says, “You gotta put your behind in your past” – but this is the first time I’ve thought that I missed my own mark.
Like so many of the other songs in Cabaret, “I Don’t Care Much” uses its repetitive and uncomplicated melody as a front for lyrics that squeeze you real good. It might even be the simplest song of the bunch, even if “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” has an unfair accordion advantage in the “catchy” arena, or if “Mein Herr” or “Don’t Tell Mama” have an edge for toe-tapping. And while “I Don’t Care Much” doesn’t carry the same level of social critique inherent in other songs belonging to the Emcee, it isn’t thoughtless either. It takes place around one of the charged moments in the play, when Cliff and Sally are having it out about Sally’s purposeful ignorance of the Nazis’ rise to power. It also, on a simpler textual level, about poverty. A line like “Words sound false when your coat’s too thin” recalls a similar one in “Money,” where the phrase “Your coat’s thin as paper” pops up. “The roof caves in” during this song, but fittingly, that doesn’t get referenced until after the rent is due.
Poverty is used as a bridge to other forms of lack in the song, down to the most obvious form in the title. “I don’t care” is said seven separate times in a song that, despite its slow pace, almost never cracks three minutes. It’s more than the fact that the singer doesn’t care; it has to be qualified, either with “much” or “very much.” In other words, it’s the form which shoves in the most hurt, the most regret, the most pain. The difference between “I don’t care” and “I don’t care very much” is so significant. “I Don’t Care Much” speaks, in its tone and its repetition, to this enormous resignation; read literally, it sounds not like the singer doesn’t care to be kissed or touched, but that his circumstances have beaten him so thoroughly that he lacks the passion to care much. In that sense the song is even sadder; it implies that enough cruelty in our daily situations have the power to rip the love out of our hearts by the roots.
Alan Cumming, who debuted the song for the 1998 Broadway Cabaret, is perfect for the song. I have a hard time thinking about anyone else singing the song except Elliott Smith, who, alas, never got a go at it. Part of the reason Cumming’s rendition is so right is context. His Emcee is so ribald and funny and outrageous that the relatively pared down nature of this song has extra effect. He doesn’t have any little vocal tidbits to add in, no “Mmhmm” or “I bet you do” or “Hot hot hot!” Like hard liquor, this one’s best taken straight, and Cumming’s interpretation is as straight-arrow as Cabaret can get, alternately lilting and haunting.