sing softly to me: why crooning is a revolution

I want to describe to you a revolution you’ve never cared about.

Lucy turned me on to ∆ (Alt-J). At first I was only listening because she’d given it to me, but by the fourth time through I’d actually come to find it fascinating. I won’t go into details about the music itself, but on the way home from Target, just having bought my first batch of krill oil pills, and completely terrified of taking one, one of their songs ended up playing, and I began thinking about the singer’s voice. And this is where it led me:

I don’t see how a review can skip over the singer’s voice. Period. But unless you’re hanging out on sites like gearslutz.com, which I usually am, people who write about music tend to stick to a few nondescript adjectives, as if they’re reviewing wine. It’s next to impossible to find mentions about the Beach Boys harmonies, for instance, as if they just happened  naturally. People like words like “urgent” or “introspective” or “weak” to describe vocals in their entirety. I won’t even try. Alt-J’s singer has a weird voice–but it’s intentional, because while it generally bears comparison to Jethro Tull

he at times moves into more of a Peabo Bryson–and all within a single line. I can’t understand a single word he says. It’s like everything I’ve ever been criticized for all in one award-winning album. Maybe I just need to listen to other people less?

But here’s what I find most exhilarating about it: I connect to the singer. Why? I think it’s his voice. The voice is nearly inhuman, but it’s not robotic, it’s not demented, it’s possible to identify with the voice without attaching it to a face, without attaching it to a person. The lyrics are quite the same. Somehow the whole package defies individuality, and thus becomes universal to me. George Michael’s music will always be George Michael the person, the Police is always Sting, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs is always Karen O. But this? This might be the whole universe singing to you.

But we take this for granted.

Many of the earliest popular music recordings were of, of course, not just popular songs, but of popular singers of the day. For the past year or so I’ve been listening to a lot of pop music from the 1920s, and a little bit from before then. The earliest that I’ve come across falls into two categories: first, songs made for groups to sing; second, song made for vaudeville stars. What both have in common is that the amplification is human. A group can sing loud, so in recordings of drinking songs, everyone can sing along. 

As for vaudeville stars, think Eddie Cantor, Sophie Tucker, Al Jolson, they had to be heard, so they had to sing loud. Belting, it what it’s called.

Live amplification wasn’t possible yet, so “belting” out songs made complete sense. And here’s the revolutionary bit, because as always, technology dictates art: one day somebody realized that the audience at a performance is completely different than the audience that is a microphone. You can sing quietly, up close, to a microphone, and your voice can reproduced much louder. This is obvious to us now–but at the time it was completely new. And that’s why Bing Crosby falls into the category of “crooner”–because he wasn’t a belter. Here’s how Rudy Vallee dealt with a quiet voice and loud performances: with a self-made megaphone.

And this is where you begin to find the personality in vocals. That may even be why Rudy Vallee was the first of the teen-pop idols that girls would scream and faint over. Here, finally, was the voice of someone you might here beside you in bed, not from ten blocks away. “Whispering” Jack Smith fell into this category. And not entirely by choice: he couldn’t sing very loud because of the lingering effects of poison gas from World War I.

Think about that. You go into WWI with soldiers marching and singing “It’s A Long Way To Tipperary” …and you emerge from WWI with Whispering Jack Smith, in desperate need of a microphone, often not even singing his words.

And that is, in music, from what I can tell, the birth of a vocal personality, the movement from “song” to “singer.” No longer is it just the piece of sheet music you buy and play after dinner with your family, it’s now the sound of Rudy Vallee singing to you alone. The sound of someone’s voice intimately. When Ke$ha wants to be sexy, she doesn’t belt, she croons.  Seriously, listen to what she does with her voice that just can’t be pulled off loud.

or, how Helen Merrill moves seamlessly between soft and loud, and the effect being the difference between any ol’ chorus girl, and the way you feel about Doris Day when you’re on ecstasy:

The truth is, nearly everyone sings beautifully when singing softly. There’s something so natural about it, so intimate, so sweet.

The point is, without a microphones, where would we be? We wouldn’t have Alt-J because we couldn’t capture vocals in a way that they creep into you, and you must listen.

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Hitchcock: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

I haven’t any idea why both Doris Day and Jimmy Stewart hold such happy places in my heart–but they do. This is the sort of Hitchcock I enjoy most, when I’m not left feeling sick and paranoid. Well, right now I’m feeling sick because I’ve been drinking coffee all night and that’s a miserable thing for one to do. Beyond everything else, what I found striking in this film was his character development, which extended beyond the individuals and into their relationships with one another. I argue that Hitchcock takes the archetype of the hero/homecoming story for his model, but improves and modernizes it (don’t the two always go hand in hand?) by giving us two heroes whose ‘home’ is contentment in marriage; and I don’t mean that marriage is the goal, as in much of comedic Shakespeare, but rather more like in Austen, where characters battle each other and themselves in order to discover why a marriage would be happy.

Hitchcock throws us in some sense in media res by placing us at what proves to be the crucial moment in a troubled marriage. And then, rather than relying on flashbacks a la Telemachus to divulge the prehistory, the characters themselves drop hints. The first indicator in the film that this Hitchcock follows the archetype is that the film is neatly divided into two segments, both of which begin and end abruptly, and all hints are found within the first segment. A third segment is the one that occurs before the film, being the one only hinted at. The Morocco segment lays out all the problems: the marriage is in trouble, and the son is kidnapped. The kidnapping of the son arguably is a result of the failing marriage, and the London segment is dedicated to saving the son and fixing the marriage.

The first thing I noticed was that the son talks a lot. He’s obnoxious because he’s constantly commenting on everything his parents say, usually in a way that serves to lift the mood of the conversation though he acts as if he doesn’t know he’s being witty or funny. I’ve seen children act like this before–it’s how they desperately attempt to keep everyone happy. It’s how they try to prevent their parents from arguing.

1. Ben (Jimmy Stewart) says he’s called his wife ‘Jo’ for so long that he’s forgotten that she’s called anything else–her name is actually Josephine. Not only has he forgotten who she is, but he’s also given her a new name, which, as in the first chapters of Genesis, is a way of acquiring domination over anyone/anything.

2. They easily get caught up in tiffs. This is maintained throughout the Morocco segment and ends with the London segment, when they immediately begin working together seamlessly.

3. He’s fickle about what he feels strongly about, or else he tries to take up her cause with excess vigor. When he pushes aside her distrust of Louis Bernard, after she insists he finally becomes enraged with Bernard, to the point that even Jo tries to calm him down–because his emotions don’t make any sense. This is what made me begin taking notes, because it made me believe they’d had a fight in the past to which he was reacting.

4. She wants to have another baby. She brings this fact up entirely out of the blue. To us. But it’s a continuation of a series of conversations that take place in the pre-film segment that we don’t see.

5. They have monthly fights. They let us know this–and the ‘monthly’ bit threw me off because it inevitably implies that it’s her fault, but it’s not Ben who says it. She asks, ‘Ben, are we about to have our monthly fight?’ when, if it was related to her, he would be looking to her for the answer. At the same time, this happens to be the same day that she’s mentioned that she wants another baby. The conclusion I reach is that everyone should be praised for not blaming the fights on monthly lunacy, but rather they should be blamed on a monthly reminder of fertility.

6. ‘Six months ago you told me I took too many pills,’ says Jo. They measure time with their fights; but also, if she’d merely taken one aspirin too many and had a stomach ache, she wouldn’t have pinned it to a date like this. I’m going to call it a suicide attempt. Ben says ‘you know what happens when you get excited and nervous’–and she usually becomes hysterical (whose Greek root suggests the stereotype I mean), the hysteria ultimately being what saves the day.

7. Ben’s big plan is to offer the kidnappers ‘every penny I have’ to get back their son. He’s thinking in terms of his own money, not what they share. This would be meaningless except for the detail that she’s a world-famous singer who he’s convinced to give up her career and move to a backwards town in the midwest and be supported by him. In fact, their whole Europe/Morocco vacation is being funded by him and his work as a small-town doctor. They begin and carry on a joke for quite too long about which fixed body-part or delivered baby is responsible for, i.e., ‘I’m wearing Johnny Matthews’ appendix’ and ‘All the way home we’ll be riding on Herbie Taylor’s ulcers.’ Jo’s the one who comes up with this concept–and it’s the first time they’ve discussed it, as Jo says she’s ‘never thought of it that way’ before. Where is her money, as one would expect her to be worth significantly more than he is? Who knows.

So, these are the hints. And I think what it comes down to is likely this: they made a ‘deal’ that meant her retirement, their marriage, some children, and their total settling down. It wasn’t in that order, as she’d played London four years before the film’s action, and their son is older than that, but since then she’s settled down–and another child hasn’t come. And I think this is why they fight, because he hasn’t held up his end of the deal, and he’s holding her down because he feels inadequate when he compares their respective financial values.

In the end, it takes what he regards as her weaknesses (her hysterics, when she screams and thwarts the murder; her music career, when she uses it to both find their son and keep all the bad guys occupied) to save them all. And while this occurs, he’s given the opportunity to deliver their son to her by rescuing him from near-murder. If the son was the most important focus of the film, it would have ended with his rescue, the happy family back together. But it doesn’t. There’s an additional, slightly jarring, brief scene in which the happy family returns to the hotel room: they open the hotel room door, Jo’s uppity friends who used to work with her in showbiz are waiting there for them, and only one line is spoken, Ben saying, ‘I’m sorry we were gone so long, but we go and pick up Hank’ [sorry, but the screenplay transcript I’m using was made by a Russian (seriously), and I don’t have the energy to go back and see what the actual Jimmy Stewart quote was, so you’re just going to have to imagine Jimmy Stewart speaking in broken English]. I think his apology indicates that he’s accepted Jo more fully as a person–accepted her past in music, and may be willing to give her back her career (he never flaunts her career in the film–though she’s happy to mention it, he’d prefer to discuss himself), and who knows, maybe they’ll make some more babies.

film: Walters – Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1960)

I suppose it’s rare that one can watch a lengthy portion of a film and miss every shred of context.

Something that has angered me for years: the general perception of the ending to the musical Pippin. Wikipedia sums it up: “Pippin realizes that he has given up his extraordinary purpose for the simplest and most ordinary life of all, and he is finally a happy man,” which is precisely what the actresses I spoke to told me. But it seems quite obvious, especially given Fosse’s involvement in changing the text of the play, that the play actually ends sadly–that is, yes, Pippin “has given up his extraordinary purpose for the simplest and most ordinary life of all” because he finally backs down in the face of suicide. He ends up suffering that which most people must suffer, accepting less than their childhood dreams, and smiling all the meanwhile. And so he smiles, and audience exits happy. The more cynical ending is one in which Pippin’s son is displayed as the next victim of high hopes. It’s the most fucking depressing play I’ve ever seen, more tragic than any Shakespeare’s tragedies (his comedies are a different matter) because there is no justice, and at the very least, the characters suffer past the curtain’s fall.

So when I saw a bit of this film, Doris Day, dancing and singing with children, loving tiffs with her husband, old friends helping out the family…I thought, ah hah, this is precisely the sort of film I enjoy most: it has no plot, and everyone is happy throughout! I could watch something like that all day. No, this is not that at all, behind a mask of “comedy” it’s a film about a man who finally earns the prestige he’s craved his whole life, and he turns into a real shithead as a result, which leaves his wife in an unhappy position of having to bow to his whims while trying to also create an equal marriage–certainly, she’s a housewife, but she’s raising four children, has a keen decorating sense, and can sing, dance, and play the ukelele. She makes a comment that suggests all housewives have their special abilities, and their dreams.

And in the end, with the possibility of being made a fool of, and somewhat thwarting that by publishing a scathing criticism of himself, the husband finally returns to his wife, where we are to assume that when he says he’ll change, he means he’ll stop doing the things that he does well and enjoys, and put their lives back to his pre-fame, when he cared about other peoples feelings, and did not care for “names”–and we assume that the cab-driver who wants to be a playwright will be a perfect match for the actress sans morals who may or may not be lonely, we’re unsure based on everything handed to us. The plays ends with uncertainty–but is billed as an outrageous comedy, with a happy ending, a Doris Day ending. I’ve never been so depressed on this morning in my life!