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, 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.

And Love? Yom Kippur, 2012.

I fasted for over 25 hours. That means I didn’t eat anything during that time. As for drinking, including water, it was more like 30 hours, because I forgot to drink anything with my last meal. It was easy…I didn’t get a headache, and except for about ten minutes mid-evening, I didn’t even feel the slightest hungry. And that’s probably indicative of why I lost more than 20 pounds over this past summer.

My immediate concern, I know, should be “hm, maybe I’m generally not eating enough if I can go a full day without eating and not feel hungry.” What should also scare me is that before I got sick, I’d also stopped eating, with much the same thoughts as I often have now, that perhaps there’s some secret way of living in which one doesn’t need to eat, drink, or sleep, and perhaps I’m on the verge of discovering it! I did discover it, and that’s why I believe wishes really do come true…and really come with lessons attached.

If I had to spell out my philosophies on life, I’d do so through a bunch of threadbare parables from my own life. Anything worth discussion has no “point”–points are generally “thought-terminating clichés,” as expressed by Robert Jay Lifton, “the most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis.”

There are a few “points” I think I’ve found that confound that notion, for instance, I do try to begin each day with a meditation on a single phrase, the same phrase I’ve meditated on daily since early childhood, and daily I strive to find its meaning anew, to find what petty contrivances I’ve allowed to overpower me. For a brief moment, I come to terms with what’s important in life. And just as quickly, I lose it and fall back into idiocy.

But the concept that, if anything is my great consolation for life, I think I best spelled out in a letter I wrote to Lucy, Apr 27, 2009, “i just experienced the greatest failure of my life–and my consolation is that i did everything right, that i wouldn’t change a single thing. life seems to me to consist firstly of a baseline, and then a wave of highs and lows that will always be equal to one another, so that our capacity for pleasure and joy is equal to our capacity for pain and suffering–that we pay for everything, in some way, if only because we would collapse without the balance. but despite the enourmity of the pain, i think the closer we stay to the baseline, the more immense the gaping darkness rests between oneself and the paragon of life.”

At Yom Kippur 2006, I spent the entire day going through the motions, grew hungry and wandered out to a deli for a sandwich. My philosophy at the time was “I am my own god. I determine my own fate,” but I spent the day there to support my father. I ate that sandwich not because I was terribly hungry, but as an illustration of my philosophy. That’s not reckoning–that’s actually what I was thinking at the time. This was immediately followed up by a great big “fuck you” from the universe, which rendered me sick and expecting to die of it for nearly a year, an extended mock-execution with which I still haven’t fully come to terms.

What I lost was my faith in other people. What I gained was a relationship with god. When asked if I “believe” in god, I can answer “no…I don’t need to believe; i’ve experienced god.” It’s something I can feel, it’s something that compels me in a million little ways, it’s something I believe everyone should be aware of in themselves–by whatever name one wants to call it–it’s that “feeling in your gut” that guides you to circle the correct answer on your school exams. For me, it’s an intensely physical experience, it’s the least subtle thing in the world, it’s the reason I pursue music, it’s the reason I do or don’t do a great many things, it’s the reason behind my aesthetic approach to as much as possible. Behind it is the knowledge that if I follow the urge, I will live; if I deny it, I will suffer, and I will die a horrible death. This isn’t supposition: I’ve tested it, I’ve tested it a thousand times.

And what am I most afraid of? I’m most afraid, beyond all else, that god might abandon me, that I might fuck up, act contrary, one too many times, and then find myself without those urges anymore, without direction, without reward, and without punishment.

The following Yom Kippur I returned, much more frail than I’d been the year before. Determined to prove that I was worthy of being alive. Nauseated, my head aching and heavy, dizzy, unable to stand without propping myself up, as we reached the 24-hour mark, I remember the lights seemed to dim, and they all began floating like fireflies, and in my eyes I could see stars, and during the final repetition of the confessional, every word stabbed me and I understood them, and I cried, I understood how I was guilty for things I’d done, for things I’d not done, for things I’d never do, guilty, guilty, guilty, so I cried, and I floated into the air as the lights descended and the stars consumed the whole world.

It is best illustrated to me as in Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa

…but today, that was not my experience. I could not fully connect with the words. I saw no stars. The world did not slow its course. No hunger, no fatigue, no pain…just this fear that I’ve been abandoned.

Because lately, to tell you the truth, I’ve felt blunted. Nothing strikes me with any particular strength, not joy, not sadness, not love, not hate, not ecstasy, not agony–nothing but a dense, unending autumn. It’s what I’m afraid most people feel all the time, in their constant search for novelty and amusement, and I don’t want to feel this way. I’m terrified to lose that depth of feeling on which I thrive, I’m terrified I’ve lost all passion, all capacity to love, terrified most of all that this is but a prelude.

For a moment, I know precisely what I must focus on, what it is I want to grow, and I can only hope that this bluntness I feel is a vehicle to reach this focus, a vehicle shielding me from all that’s colorful and otherwise enticing in life.

To Lucy, Apr 30, 2009:
“Love is a complicated subject for me. . . . I don’t like the smell or taste of fish–I enjoy good sushi, and sometimes a good tuna steak, but otherwise it all nauseates me. I went to this Vietnamese restaurant and ordered what I always do, and the sauce they bring out with it is delicious, a little sweet, a little fruity and peppery, and this time the waiter realized I had only ordered vegetarian foods, and he asked if I wanted the peanut sauce instead. I said I wanted the normal sauce. ‘So…the fishsauce?’ I insisted on the normal sauce. So he brought out the fish sauce. And it was the normal sauce. And I tasted it, and now I tasted the fish in it. The sauce I loved so well, it was only in my imagination now, and nothing will bring it back, because I know that I was mistaken in my tastes. I don’t know if I wish I’d never had it now, because now I miss it. And love?”

Boccaccio, First Day, Story Five

Note: this entry had a photo of hens on it, but I was getting DOZENS of visits every single day from Pakistan from people looking for photos of hens. I just couldn’t handle it anymore. I don’t know why Pakistanis are so interested in looking at photos of hens, and perhaps I’ll never know, but this isn’t a petting zoo, it’s a Very Serious Blog. 

It’s another one of those nights. I feel this insatiable sadness that, ultimately, is probably just a fear of death or something like that…I suspect that’s what all sadness is.

I shouldn’t be writing this write now, because I owe Lucy about 10,000 words of a letter. But I was hoping Boccaccio might give me another laugh. He didn’t. And now I need draw something from this story before I can allow myself to jot her a few notes and go to sleep. So, onward, thinking cap…

Philip Augustus, king of France is about to head out on a crusade when someone says “aw, too bad you don’t have a wife, there’s this great chick, she’s great.” And Philip thinks to himself, “sounds good to me, I’ll go seduce her while her husband’s out of town and then have him killed.” So off he goes to have breakfast with her, and she serves an enormous breakfast of nothing but hens. And he’s like “do you have nothing but hens in this city?” and she says “women are pretty much all the same.” And he says “point taken” and heads off to the crusade.

Not funny. Not even a good story.

Here’s the purpose I think it serves, and I find the concept fascinating: storytelling. That’s something we discuss more often when it comes to Beowulf, but in a work of Chaucer or Boccaccio it’s unavoidable. An author writes a work, and is then held accountable for that work. This holds true now just as it did in, say, ancient Greece. How do you, as an author, get around this difficulty? One ancient solution is “inspiration” — if you know me, you know I rarely use the term because of its implications: that the author did not create the work himself, but that it came to him through the ether and he was the vehicle for its transmission. Great idea, but I work fucking hard to be creative and I’m not giving the magic air credit. But, that’s the concept behind the Bible. Was it written by God or divinely inspired and written by man or just plain written by man? That makes all the difference in whether or not you’re going to follow it, right?

But that’s precisely the point. If God wrote it, then of course you need to follow it! If it was inspired, well, you probably need to follow it. Essentially, though, it’s a system of placing blame. No, I didn’t write all this erotic poetry–I was inspired by love of God to do it (Song of Songs). But recall that writing itself was seen as magical for perhaps longer than it hasn’t. Writing, a system of nonsense scrawls that somehow transmit complex concepts. Beyond death. That’s the fucked up thing about it. How do you live forever? You write something down, die, and you’re now living forever. Magic.

So who’s the next one we can place blame on, if not God? Other people. Boccaccio writes whatever he wants for two reasons:

1) Because he can claim that it’s somebody else telling the story.
2) Because he repeatedly comes to deserve telling the dirty stories by telling the clean ones, and being a faithful narrator. And because he does this, he has more evidence for his claim that someone else is telling the story. Consistency.

Phew. Didn’t think I’d be able to draw something out of that waste of time, right? And…now I’m going to sleep instead writing to Lucy. Therefore, I’ve wasted my own time too. Sorry, Lucy.