I started looking for songs about butter when I compiled the Heartburn playlist, envisioning a soundtrack to the excerpt from Nora Ephron’s novel Heartburn in which the main character comforts herself with a bowl of mashed potatoes and slices of cold, cold butter. I didn’t encounter most of these tunes until after I wrapped up that list, but once I heard one, I began hearing many.
In American idiom, butter is often used to denote basic needs or the currency by which those staple groceries are obtained. At the same time, smooth and creamy butter can imply luxury and comfort: “bread and butter” may be your basic living, but buttering your bread on both sides is an ostentatious expense. Butter can be slick–a skill to brag about, or a trick to watch out for. Like ice cream, butter can easily become a euphemism, as when Fiona Apple croons about desire cutting through her like a hot knife or when Nicki Minaj sings about… well, anyway. The songs on this list run the gamut of these connotations, frequently doubling up on those meanings.
The Supremes, “Buttered Popcorn”
This infectious tune is one of my very favorite food songs. Vocalist Florence Ballard (not Diana Ross!) worries that her baby loves sticky, greasy buttered popcorn more than he loves her or anything happening in the world today. Although the gentleman is less interested in kissing her than finishing his buttered popcorn, it’s hard not to read a little salaciousness into these lyrics; there’s so much attention to the tactile qualities of salty, gooey popcorn, and then there’s something saucy in the way the Supremes croon “more butter more butter more.”
I particularly love to play this song whenever I make movie popcorn with my beau. I season my popcorn with salt, sugar, and chipotle powder and would be happy to eat it just like that, but the gentleman always puts butter in the microwave to melt while I pop the kernels. It’s exactly as the Supremes tell it: “I say ‘What do you like?’ / he says ‘You know what I like/ I like buttered popcorn.'”
The Newbeats, “Bread and Butter”
I can’t resist these old televised performances, although I have to warn you that it’s a bit shrill.
The “bread and butter” in this Newbeats song suggests as simple, satisfying love. No steak and potatoes for this guy; he likes bread and butter, he likes toast and jam, and that’s what his baby feeds him. Obviously they are meant for each other! But there’s a twist: he comes home to find his baby with a chicken-and-dumplings guy. À chacun son goût, as they say.
Louis Armstrong and May Alix, “Big Butter & Egg Man from the West”
Around the turn of the twentieth century, before refrigeration made it easier to ship and store dairy products, butter and eggs (and cheese, to a degree) were high-dollar items. Men who worked in butter-and-egg commodity markets–whether they worked on the warehouse end or speculated on shares–tended to be well-heeled, and “butter-and-egg man” became a synonymous with a certain kind of slick businessman. There was even a play by that title, although it didn’t go over well with the actual butter-and-egg crowd. A quick anecdote via The Secret Financial Life of Food by Kara Newman:
…one Minneapolis butter-and-egg dealer went so far as to sue the vaudeville theater that staged Butter and Egg Man. The $100,000 complaint was filed against the Minneapolois theater and its star, actress Frankie Heath, charging that when the actress sang the song “Butter and Eggs,” she used “certain tones and gestures to convey that all dealers in butter and eggs were men of immoral and licentious character.”
You can hear a little of that double entendre–the connotation of both wealth and a little sleaziness–in this jazz standard, in which the female vocalist longs to be taken care of by a butter-and-egg man so she can play. If you click through to the video, there’s a cute anecdote about Louis Armstrong being too smitten by May Alix to stay on cue during this recording.
Will Smith ft. Lil Kim, “Da Butta”
I admit I was a little scandalized when I read the lyrics to this song by Will Smith, whose music is notoriously clean and who in 1999 was already married to Jada Pinkett. But he mostly skirts the line of euphemism and uses the butter metaphor to bolster his classic hip-hop braggadocio: in a song about music and money, the implication is that his rhymes are what’s slick (“smooth and hot!”).
Dillon Francis, “Not Butter”
This electronic song of course alludes to the product called “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.” There’s aren’t a lot of words, but such lyrics as there are expound the delicious and versatile properties of imitation butter (“You can put it on bread!/ You can dip lobster in it!”)
I first encountered this song via Clients From Hell, because the official music video is a parody of a beer marketing campaign and fits perfectly with the Tumblr’s theme of ridiculous requests from ignorant clients. I opted not to embed it, however, because the video is very very NSFW. (It’s on Youtube if you want to see what the fuss is about.) But the video warrants a brief description here because it underscores the irony in the minimal lyrics: the premise is that a company requests a sexy party scene showing lots of pretty young people drinking and having a good time. The first sequence shows exactly this. The fictional company keeps giving notes to add more sex, more girls, and more drinks; the final cut is a ridiculous beer orgy with an extensive money shot. The excessive sexual imagery and the abandonment of realism throw the song’s echoey refrain (“I can’t believe it’s not butter!”) into relief: if butter in other songs implies sensuality and pleasure, this is a song about imitation and empty calories.
Cornershop, “Butter the Soul”
If you’re opting out of “Not Butter” or just need a palate cleanser, enjoy this perky little instrumental by the 90s electronic band who brought you “Brimful of Asha.”