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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film: Godard: Pierrot le Fou (1965)

pierrotDear Meg,

I really am trying to write. Actually, the truth is that I haven’t begun writing at all. I have all the materials I need to begin writing, but there’s this present lack of something in me that leads me to a persistent inability not only to finding my words, but also to having real thoughts. Letter writing has failed me, travel has failed me, adventures have failed me, digging up family ghosts have failed me, I’ve tried all these things in the past few weeks and I find myself unable to write like I once could. It’s terrifying. So now I’ve been watching Godard and some opera (I don’t mean just any ol’ opera, I mean un certain opéra) and hoping desperately that forcing myself to write about these things will bring me quickly back to my senses. If nothing else will, then that’s that, I simply am unable to write ever again and I will have to just be ilwriterishly for ever after.

In the meantime I’ve been reading a lot of old reviews regarding works I’ve been involved with—and it seems to me that critics are quite possibly the dullest bunch ever formed by god, and I can only hope that someday a new sort of criticism will emerge, in which the critic will begin under the assumption that the artist knows precisely what he or she

(must I include ‘or she’–or can I just go along with the old rules of grammar in which the masculine gender is attributed to an indeterminate subject? or am I supposed to switch back and forth, like in the science safety videos where all the kids always have names we’ve never heard before? honestly, Meg, sometimes I can’t even lift my pen because I don’t know what to do with my pronouns! How do you deal with this?)

has created, has made every decision with infinite deliberation. That’s how I always tried to approach creative writing classes, in which I’d assume typos to be artistic statements. That’s how critics should be approaching everything—with a reasonable touch of taste, but mostly with confidence in the artist. Full disclosure: I was a critic for a big newspaper for four years, so I can assuredly say that there are few critical sins I did not leave uncommitted. But I suppose the special hell for critics will look very much like a Ben Franklin arts and crafts supply store.

The thing about these films that so agonizes me is how they speak to such vast numbers of people. The memory of France I most wish to rid myself of is of that smiling idiot and his expensive camera and his  adorable ‘I make websites for a living and go camping on weekends’ outfit photographing Brassai’s old apartment building and the Bunuel/Henry Miller/etc etc etc etc cafe beneath it. I want them to speak only to me. When I saw Jules et Jim originally, in the ‘foreign language lab’ I’d sneaked into so I could borrow the film from the French department and watch it wearing rubber headphones on a tiny yellowed television. The brilliance I drew from it was the following: it was made to be a very long and boring film so that at the very end the audience could be shocked by the casual treatment of death and cremation. Last I saw it I found it unspeakably beautiful, it was a whole world. So with Godard, my introduction to him, all on the large screen, was quite similar, looking for his funny sound-effects, his references to other films, his odd usage of the camera for conveying dialogue, his breaking of the rules. I understood that he was making art for its own sake, not for the sake of beauty, not because he might be able to make things new. I once looked at art as something to only be dissected, to be treated like a vial of blood to be separated and analyzed, to eke out cell-counts and percentages and meaning, when the truth of the matter is that George Michael refuses to get himself checked for HIV because he’s afraid of what the results might be—and if we took some of his blood and scientists analyzed it for every possible measurement it could yield, those scientists would find nothing telling of his sweet singing voice. That’s a proper comparison, isn’t it? Because although George Michael’s HIV status won’t change what he’s accomplished as a singer and what he still accomplishes today, his knowing the status could be helpful in prolonging his life and whatever other good that might effect. So perhaps although treating a film like a picky child treats a chicken leg might be useless in terms of understanding its beauty, perhaps it comes in useful when determining its longevity. But I sure hope not.

My great fear is that with age, if I’m finding these films beautiful now, that I someday might end up like that proto-emo kid in American Beauty who videotapes plastic bags blowing in the wind. He can go to hell too, along with everyone who gathers in big groups and lets go of balloons. But besides that, once you reach the point of finding beauty in plastic bags you’ve probably lost all usefulness to humanity. One needs standards. Here’s a standard: Sri Lanka is actually an island, and its political boundaries are not at all shaped like Vietnam.

“You speak to me with words, and I look at you with emotions.”

This is spoken by the woman to the man in a conversation I feel central to one of Godard’s concerns here, which is the failure of communication between men and women.

Briefly: Belmondo runs off with his babysitter, Anna Karina, and the two of them do what everyone does in Godard films. But they do it while being criminals and committing many crimes it’s difficult to slight them for, also Belmondo gets water-boarded twice without the camera cutting away from him

(which, if you’re counting, means that the actor Belmondo was water-boarded at least as many times as was once claimed of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed)–

but what’s most important is that the two of them run away together and there’s never really any motive established except their love for one another (ultimately questionable) and an equally fierce longing for romanticism in life. Do you know what a Carioca is? A native of Rio de Janeiro. Can you imagine how different things would be if  Columbus had thought he’d landed at Rio de Janeiro, and then he’d call everyone Cariocans. It’d be such a mess. Belmondo finds himself at peace when they live by the sea, quite romantic, he reads and writes, she says “I don’t give a damn about books” and declares herself quite bored. By the time they lose each other in a brief accident involving murder, dancing, and water-boarding, I’m led to believe that she didn’t want to stick around, and when they find each other again, I don’t entirely believe in her love anymore.

The problem is that I identify with both of them. How many times a day do I not give a damn about art before rushing and clutching its limp bodies off the floor to cover them with kisses?  I think if anyone else I know identifies, you do, because I’ve seen you take both sides. Is that everyone’s eternal struggle?  I don’t quite know what it is to be a man or to be a woman. I don’t know if I speak with words or with emotions, I don’t know if I look with words or with emotions. I’m afraid I’m quite changeable. What is certain, regardless, is that both their dreams I love instantly—and even their violent ends seem terribly merciful of Godard, because it would be much worse to led them languish in a courtroom.

But to the point: how should I be taking this film? intellectually or emotionally? All the essays in the world don’t change the fact that Brecht consistently found factory workers easily comprehending his plays while intellectuals got it wrong, and got it wrong, and got it wrong. They didn’t begin writing the screenplay for this until the day before shooting began. Yet some assert that every film of Godard’s deserves a book to dissect it. Does it? Or is that too simple and insulting? Is it supposed to be experienced and sensed, or is it supposed to be turned into words? is it supposed to be felt or reduced to concepts? is it meant for everyone or is it only for wealthy undergrads? What does it show me to be attainable in life? What’s most attractive and what’s worth sacrificing? Have I learned anything about myself? I hope so.

Could I have written this better? Absolutely? Could I have? No. I’ve totally failed.

For this I also read Review: [untitled], by Michael Klein. Film Quarterly. 1966. University of California Press, which was a bunch of shit, as most everything ever written about film is apt to be.

In the next thing I write I’ll be writing about Une Femme est une Femme—and I’ll write about the people who don’t deserve to enjoy French new wave cinema and why.

George Michael vs. Beyonce

Let me preface this by saying that I’m a little bit in love with George Michael right now. I began voice lessons this week–what’s difficult about it all is the difference between ‘proper’ and what really works for me. For example, I’m learning to breathe through my nose. But I love the sound of in inhalations through one’s mouth–it’s a sexy sort of thing and I think ties in with the sounds of the mechanical aspects of the piano, of the fingers sliding against the guitar strings when changing positions, even the buzz of bass strings, I love things that remind us of the humanity behind the music, I mean, I often love mistakes, I love the way Miles Davis does something like ghost-notes in his mis-hitting notes that in anyone else would probably be a mistake, but with him and his classical background, we have to assume is intentional, or else we’re doubting his genius. Charlie Parker against the early Coltrane, both have their explosions, Coltrane even borrows suspiciously from Parker’s patterns, yet Coltrane seems somehow so precise, Parker seems almost racing himself with his head turned to see if he’s still in the lead, and when he stumbles, he really fucking stumbles (listen to Chi-Chi take 3, when they play the head at the end this is most apparent); I don’t know how I feel about Parker fucking up, the careless sound of it, is what I mean. I like dirt, but I like it to be dirty precisely where one is expecting it to be dirty, like that post-sex-day-in-bed sort of feeling, you’re simply covered in everything you’d expect to be covered in, regardless of how the performance went, and it’s delightful, and it’s that which makes Brandenberg Concerto no. 2 difficult to listen to while naked, and James Gang’s ‘Funk #49’ something that makes it difficult, at the very least, to keep one’s shirt on. I love these noises. But now I’m being asked to stop making them. Listen to Head Automatica’s ‘Beating Hearts Baby’ and you’ll hear they even dub these inhalations in to make them better. But…I want to sing like George Michael. I’m officially a high tenor. James Taylor is a tenor. I already knew I could sing anything James Taylor could, that at all times I can hit every note on a full three octaves, and on occassion, more than that. I love you, George Michael, I love you. But…there’s this one thing about you that bothers me:

On ‘Wake Me Up’ he jumps the word ‘up’ fairly consistently, sometimes worse than others. I don’t know if it’s intentional. Being ‘in the pocket’ is somehow very important in music, which means being a little behind the beat, perhaps it indicates a self-assurance, like crossing the street without looking, but George Michael is so far out of the pocket that it hurts my ears. In comparison, there’s Beyonce’s ‘Crazy in Love’ which at first I believed had a chorus in which she was simply off beat, or that someone had lined it up wrong. I don’t know if I can contribute the serious in-the-pocketness to her own vocal chops or if it’s just somebody moving everything over a little to the right on the computer. But I don’t care. One of them has something that screams out sex to me, even if it’s some dumb lyrics about being in love; the other one is about…well, being sad about not going dancing, and this is the guy who more or less brought rap to England, or made rap British, or something like that. I just don’t know if I can deal with it much longer without rationalizing it, and I’m trying really fucking hard.

And I finished something by Moliere today so I haven’t only been dicking around, I’ve also been reading a little bit. So fuck off.