“Que Sera, Sera” sought what lay ahead

“Que Sera, Sera” sought what lay ahead

In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week, in anticipation of the Oscars, we’re going through some of our favorite Best Song winners.

I’ve never seen the movieQue Sera, Sera” is from—Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 The Man Who Knew Too Much—but I know every damn word of the Oscar winning classic. The song was sung by the film’s star, Doris Day, and it would become her signature ditty. A wandering, vaguely ethnic set of musings, “Que Sera” tells the story of a young girl who, interested in romance and becoming a parent, repeatedly asks her mother questions like “What will I be?” “Will I be pretty? Will I be rich?” Her mother, ever vague, always answers back with the title phrase, something that roughly translates to “Whatever will be, will be.”

Perhaps by virtue of the track’s light, Day-driven vocals, “Que Sera” has become synonymous with positivity. There have been racehorses, vacation rentals, and U.S. Naval vessels named after the track. The irony is that the phrase—or its original meaning at least—is fairly fatalistic. (That’s what I like about it, actually.) A version of the phrase, “Che sera, sera,” appeared in Christopher Marlowe’s 1604 play Doctor Faustus, and it’s been used in England since at least the mid 1500s, always to mean, essentially, “you can’t control fate. If God wants you to be a doctor, then you’ll be a doctor.” As the song goes, “the future’s not ours to see.”

Day’s version makes people think that, because the singer is good, of course she’ll be pretty. But the intention of the phrase—and of Hitchcock, knowing his oeuvre—is a lot more matter of fact. Your mom could say you’ll absolutely be pretty, but she knows better. She knows that you could get in some sort industrial accident that could mangle your face or get smallpox scars. She also knows you could end up being just lovely, but why tempt fate? We can’t control what happens, be it good or bad. As “Que Sera, Sera” reminds us, all we can do is accept whatever outcome eventually comes to pass.