Gasp! Standards Singing Makes the Entertainment News
Well, I have to admit this is not recent news, but between the gigs I did this summer and the kids I didn’t get a chance to do this earlier…
In June the New York Times published, “Cabaret: Precarious but Resilient,” by Stephen Holden. The article was in effect the cabaret version of last year’s “Can Jazz Be Saved?” by Terry Teachout, published in the Wall Street Journal. While one can never predict the future, I hope that the venues, which Holden mentions in his article (Carlyle, Feinstein’s), will still welcome standards singers and performers who give intimate, lyrically-focused performances, when I’m older. Obviously, I have my own selfish reasons. However, I feel strongly about standards as our cultural history, and I think that there need to be venues in which standards continue to be performed live. I also feel very strongly about the craft of what could best be described as “cabaret” performance, and believe that there should be a place for this tradition as well, particularly as an alternative to the fireworks/acrobats/dancers spectacle of stadium shows and the vacant stare/closed eyes throughout gig routine that you see with some musicians. I like to be optimistic that this will come to pass, although I am very aware of what the challenges are. I envision a future in which venues such as the Carlyle and Feinstein’s become showplaces for whomever is the nostalgia/cool alt act for the current generation of 60-, 70-, and 80-somethings. When I’m an old lady, I imagine acts like Sarah McLachlan, Jewel, and Wilco will be playing these rooms. Here’s hoping I’m wrong!!
During the previous month, May, I came across a Yahoo! Music blog post concerning the Sinatra-themed episode of the latest season of American Idol. I don’t watch American Idol, so my comments refer only to the blog post and the corresponding comments. The blogger commented that forcing the contestants into a big band format for this episode did not allow the contestants to sound “current and relevant” and did not allow them to interpret the music in their own style. With all due respect to Harry Connick, Jr., who I think is super cool, I wouldn’t doubt that this was the case. I love the big band sound and I would love to make a big band record, but I do think that the big band sound with reference to standards is sooooooooooooo cliche. There’s no faster way to date this music than to force it into the “big band” box. I know that there are people out there who only want to hear standards this way, but it pains me to think of all the potential listeners who were lost, because they get the impression that the only way to sing a standard is with a big band.
The following comments regarding this blog post were simultaneously enlightening, comical, and depressing to this standards singer. The comments which elicited the most guffaws were the “the copyrights for those songs would be cheaper than for a hit single written in the last five years” and “frankly its just easier to sing older sings that are probably in the public domain” comments. Lower royalties for older songs!?!? Older songs are automatically in the public domain!?!? When I first read these comments, I couldn’t believe how ignorant these people are about the music business. I’ve since lessened my criticism, because I realize that if I wasn’t a standards singer, I probably wouldn’t know that you have to pay royalties to record/publicly perform this music, and that the cost is the same for “California Gurls” as it is for “Our Love is Here to Stay.”
The comments which elicited the most groans were the “Who knows Sinatra songs besides the older generation(no offense)” and “Why not let them sing more current songs so even the audience can reconize the material” comments. Ugh. Ours will probably never be a culture which appreciates art for its intrinsic historic and artistic value, so I know its not even worth thinking about. Ours is a commoditized, commercialized culture with, as I once heard Aretha Franklin say, an “emphasis on youth.” One could make the cynical argument that this American Idol episode was not about how wonderful the songs are or how great Frank Sinatra was, but was in fact just one big commercial for Harry Connick Jr.’s shows on Broadway this past summer. That said, given that there have been other standards/big band episodes during previous seasons of American Idol, there has to be some interest in this genre. If truly no one was watching these episodes, I just don’t think they would repeat this theme. Also, this is a family program, and this music is appropriate for that kind of audience, since it is not lewd.
Thankfully, there were scattered comments in support of this music throughout the posts, such as “If you can sing Sinatra then you’ve got real talent.” My favorite though was “Just like Kelly Clarkson in season one…if you can sing big band…you CAN sing!” To which I say a simple Amen!!