The obnoxious, ubiquitous ode to self-satisfaction deserves its cult of haters—including Frank Sinatra himself.
I don't think I'll ever hate a song as much as I hate "My Way."
"My Way"—which you've probably heard at funerals and Italian restaurants and in late-night infomercials for Frank Sinatra compilation albums—is an execrable, inescapable song that nests in your brain like a virus.
The tune, which alternates between monotonous plodding and totally unearned bombast, was borrowed from a French song about a pathetic, failing marriage. Every single rhyme in Paul Anka's English-language rewrite for Sinatra is trite and cloying: the main refrain, "my way," is rhymed with "highway," "byway", and "shy way" before the song mercifully ends. And that ending doesn't come nearly soon enough, because the whole thing rambles on for nearly five minutes.
But all of those musical crimes have nothing on the substance of the song's lyrics, which pay tribute to a deeply obnoxious philosophy: the idea that the purest way for a man to live his life is to constantly push forward without ever questioning his own methods or allowing any criticism, right or wrong, to penetrate his thick skull. This attitude has since been grafted, incorrectly, onto Frank Sinatra himself. In a 2015 column, a music critic for the Tampa Bay Times wrote an eye-rolling tribute to Sinatra as filtered through the message of "My Way":
"In Frank Sinatra's world, there was only the Sinatra way, debonair
and uncompromising. He was, and remains, an archetypal American man,
perhaps the archetypal American man, and so of course he did it his
way. No one else's way would do."
That is a terrible definition of "the archetypal American man"—but even if you buy into it, the song is mired in false profundity. "My Way" is a song that celebrates individuality in such a thuddingly generic, white-bread manner that any self-important fathead can take it on as a personal anthem. It is a song designed to appeal to egomaniacs like the former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, who was reported to have listened to "My Way" on repeat while he was sitting in a jail cell awaiting trial for crimes against humanity. It is a song that celebrates being a douchebag.
When the topic of "least favorite songs" came up at a party last year, a stranger interrupted me to complain that I shouldn't speak ill of "My Way" because it was his grandpa's song. No shit, dude. "My Way" is everybody's grandpa's song. It's a tribute to a very specific and old-fashioned definition of masculinity: the kind of man who's so smugly confident in his own unflagging rightness that he has no interest in considering anybody else. The song caught on because pompous assholes related to it, and it endures because pompous assholes continue to relate to it. Just look at the big climax:
"For what is a man, what has he got? / If not himself, then he has
naught / To say the things he truly feels and not the words of one who
kneels / The record shows I took the blows and did it my way"
Can't you just imagine Donald Trump enthusiastically nodding along to that? If it weren’t so long he’d probably put it on a baseball cap.
We’re never going to be completely rid of this song—but in recent years, the anti-"My Way" contingent has grown more vocal. This American Life's Ira Glass has ranted against it. In 2010, The New York Times reported that karaoke bars in the Philippines had removed "My Way" from playlists after concluding that the song was likelier to inspire violence.
If the verse weren’t so long Donald Trump would probably put it on a baseball cap.
But perhaps the most notable "My Way" hater of all is Frank Sinatra. Forced to perform this ridiculous crowd-pleaser night after night for nearly a decade of touring after his supposed "final curtain," Sinatra got so fed up that he started openly mocking the song right before performing it. "And of course, the time comes now for the torturous moment—not for you, but for me," he told one audience in 1979. "I hate this song. I HATE THIS SONG! I got it up to here [with] this goddamned song!" he told another.
Unlike "My Way," I prefer to go out on a positive note, so it's worth remembering that it is possible to use this terrible song for some good. When "My Way" turned up as the score for Don and Peggy's impromptu office dance near the end of Mad Men, it was poignant—but only because the series had already successfully obliterated the idea that Don Draper could credibly make any similar boasts about his own life. On The Sopranos, Vito Spatafore celebrated his newfound freedom by driving drunk to the strains of "My Way"—and promptly crashed into a parked car. And when Sid Vicious' cover of "My Way" popped up at the end of Goodfellas, as Henry Hill settles into his bland new life in the Witness Protection Program, it carried an implicit sneer—this is what happens to assholes who think this is the best way to live their lives.
What do all of those examples have in common? They're engineered for maximum irony, mocking the lie at the heart of "My Way"—the idea that a man should reach the end of his life with the arrogant, unjustified conviction that he did it all himself.