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Rufus Wainwright asks a plaintive New Year’s question

In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, in honor of the upcoming Memorial Day weekend, we’re talking about songs with holidays in their names.

Rufus Wainwright, “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?,” 2005

He never got the due of a Gershwin or a Berlin, but I’ve always been a huge fan of songwriter Frank Loesser, scorer of Broadway musicals like Guys And Dolls and How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. (I consider Guys And Dolls unparalleled, ranging as it does from the swingy Sinatra classic “Luck Be A Lady” to the clever overlapping “Fugue For Tinhorns” to the gospel-choir-ready “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ The Boat.”)

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Like most songwriters of the mid-century era, Loesser dipped his toe into the holiday canon, but his creations were a bit out of the ordinary. He wrote the delightful duet “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” so that he and his wife could perform it at parties, although the tale of a young wolf trying to keep his date from going home appears less charming over time (“Hey, what’s in this drink?”). But no one captured the impending loneliness of the holidays, especially on that most celebratory of evenings, like Loesser did with “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”

Loesser knows that it’s a big deal to ask who you’ll ring in the new year with, as we all scale the traditionally high expectations to kick off a better year than the one we’re in. So his request is hedging, and wholly self-deprecating: “Maybe it’s much too early in the game / Oh, but I thought I’d ask you just the same.” He expects his intended will have to field his request “out of the thousand invitations you’ll receive” but knows if this date happens, it’ll make his whole year, no matter how small his odds: “But just in case I stand one little chance / Here comes the jackpot question in advance / What are you doing New Year’s / New Year’s Eve?”

Unsurprisingly, there are dozens of versions of this song, which layers catchy cleverness on top of its emotionality, and its new year’s theme sets it apart from the Christmas-heavy flock of holiday tracks. Ella Fitzgerald, in particular, killed it; Ella Fitzgerald killed everything. In recent years, the song has seen a resurgence, especially with a popular 2011 YouTube video featuring Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. You will not be surprised to learn that Deschanel plays a ukelele and wears a tiara, but the unchartable charm of Gordon-Levitt carries the tune over.

But my favorite version of “New Year’s Eve” goes to Rufus Wainwright (debuted on a 1998 Gap commercial, he then recorded it for The McGarrigle Christmas Hour). Wainwright’s torchy vocals and plaintive piano completely sell the song’s insecurities, accented by a mournful violin. He exposes his emotions so that they’re bare and vulnerable, as he so often does. The tell-tale waver in his voice reveals that he fully expects to be turned down, but is so besotted that he can’t help but ask anyway. How could his intended possibly turn down a new year’s invitation like that?

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