Beloved and Notorious: A Theory of American Stardom, with Special Reference to Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra.
Bing Crosby : Frank Sinatra = Bill Cosby : Richard Pryor
This formula should make intuitive sense to anyone familiar with the work and careers of these performers, but for a quick illustration, consider two bestsellers by Cosby and Pryor. The cover of Cosby's 1987 book, Fatherhood, shows the author looking right into our eyes, smiling comfortably and wearing one of his trademark multicolored sweaters. Pryor's funny but harrowing 1995 autobiography, Pryor Convictions, features a stark, black-and-white photo that depicts the author as aloof and troubled. If Cosby's image suggests warmth, ease and intimacy, Pryor's conveys tension, even danger. These contrasting images closely mirror the two men's comedic styles. As a stand-up comic, Cosby is best known for his affectionately exasperated tales of childhood and family life, a vein he also mined in his popular '80s sitcom. Pryor's brilliantly vernacular, profanity-laced stand-up routines give an often brutal account of his personal struggles with racism, women, drugs, even his own body--one of his most famous pieces is an agonizing, yet hilarious, re-enactment of a heart attack.
Some of the parallels with Crosby and Sinatra may be obvious already, but let me draw them out a bit. Sinatra and Pryor both developed their styles in the shadow of Crosby and Cosby, and both struggled to differentiate themselves from the older figures. (In fact, both pairs are separated by less than a full generation; the distance is more like that between widely separated siblings.) More significantly, the relations are marked by profound differences in image and attitude. Crosby and Cosby both established a relaxed, easygoing persona whose familiarity and relative unchangingness made them islands of stability in tumultuous times. By contrast, Sinatra and Pryor are each associated with personal struggle, scandal, crime, and other forms of notoriety. Both had careers marked by crises, disasters, renewals, and reinventions; more important, both men openly dramatized those upheavals in their own work. Finally, where Crosby and Cosby were generally happy to assume the role of entertainers, Sinatra and Pryor actively sought the mantle of artists and have often been described with words like "genius" and "poet." (Sinatra sang a line from the great Johnny Mercer lyric "One for My Baby" with special relish: "You'd never know it, but buddy I'm a kind of poet.")
American culture furnishes many other instances of this pattern. Looking to the most indigenous of American art forms, for example, we find a close parallel in the jazz trumpeters Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis. Armstrong, affectionately known to fans as Satchmo or Pops, incarnated a genial ebullience that was doubly emblazoned by his outsized grin and the massive white handkerchief he flourished. The fact that he was a musical genius tended to get eclipsed by his visible delight in performing; a shameless showman, Armstrong sang, clowned, mugged, and did whatever else he could to win his audience's love. Davis's sobriquet was the Prince of Darkness, which captured both the nocturnal melancholia of his muted trumpet sound and his icy, even gruff, demeanor. The most extreme form the latter took was his habit of ostentatiously turning his back on the audience while playing, as if to signify his utter indifference to their presence--no entertainer he. Where Armstrong cheerfully went on playing and singing the same tunes for his entire career, adding new ones only when they could be adapted to his beloved New Orleans idiom, Davis repeatedly cast off in new musical directions--bebop, modal, fusion--even when it meant alienating his old fans. The supreme jazz divas Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday afford a similar contrast. Ella's mastery of the art of scatting (first invented by Armstrong) typified her playfully virtuosic approach to song, which tended to avoid slower tempos and darker shades in favor of effervescent brio. Despite her nickname, Lady Day was as much a creature of night and gloom as Davis; like him, she eschewed flashiness for a depth of expression that could be almost unbearably self-revealing, rooted as it so obviously was in her private ordeals. (Sinatra said he learned more from Holiday than any other singer.)
Another homegrown musical tradition provides its own version of the beloved/notorious duality. Pete Seeger's high, exultant tenor has been the voice of American folk song for over six decades. Both as a soloist and a member of groups like the Almanac Singers and the Weavers, Seeger collected, revived, rewrote, and disseminated hundreds of songs, from murder ballads to sea shanties, union songs to civil-rights anthems. He also popularized the most parodied aspect of the folk music revival, the audience singalong, a happy bonding ritual in which the performer dissolves himself in the crowd. Throughout his long career, Seeger has been the most egoless of American singers, offering his voice and banjo as a conduit for traditions and causes that originate far outside his own experience. For a brief time in the early '60s, he seemed to have found his natural successor in a young folk singer named Bob Dylan. In fact Dylan's idol was Seeger's friend Woody Guthrie, but together with his sometime sweetheart Joan Baez, he was perfectly situated to bring the Seeger folk canon to a new generation, along with original songs of remarkable power and authority. Of course, the moment did not last; in an appearance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, Dylan notoriously "went electric," crossing over into the more popular idiom of rock 'n' roll and so becoming a traitor and sellout in the eyes of hardcore folk fans. At the heart of the mythology surrounding the event is the image of Seeger himself trying to chop through Dylan's electric cable with an axe. In the decades since, Dylan has become the greatest shapeshifter in American music, to the point that a recent biopic called on no fewer than six actors to portray him. From acid rock to gospel to country and blues, Dylan has explored virtually every musical genre and style; recently he's even joined the ranks of Crosby and Sinatra in releasing a Christmas album. Unlike Seeger, he's never sought an impersonal or collective voice. His nasal Sprechstimme may be the most instantly identifiable sound on the planet; his songs teasingly allude to his biography while aspiring to the condition of poetry. Though Seeger may be more loved, it's Dylan who gets the critical studies and Nobel Prize nominations.
Or we can look to Hollywood. The two best male actors in the history of talking pictures were James Stewart and Marlon Brando. Both brought new levels of realism to screen acting, in part through their artful deployment of inarticulacy--stammering, drawling, hesitating, mumbling. Yet where Stewart's default persona was that of a shambling but goodhearted everyman, Brando embodied an explosive fury that often seemed indistinguishable from pain ("Stella!"). His erratic offscreen behavior and wildly fluctuating appearance kept him from developing the kind of stable image that made older stars like Stewart so beloved; Brando instead epitomized the Stanislavskian actor-artist baring his psyche in every frame, culminating in the literal baring of Last Tango in Paris, a role largely improvised from private reservoirs of rage, lust, and misery. Turning to movie comedians, a similar dyad might be found in Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis. Hope, not coincidentally Crosby's frequent screen partner, specialized in breezy patter and a lovable mix of lechery and cowardice. Lewis instead made his own late adolescent neurosis the stuff of his comedy, with results that many viewers find excruciating yet oddly compelling--the French in particular acclaim him as a genius and auteur, titles no one would think of bestowing on Hope. (Woody Allen might make a plausible substitute for Lewis in the notorious category.) Among female stars, we can see avatars of the beloved/notorious division in those two '50s icons, Doris Day and Marilyn Monroe. Oscar Levant's famous crack that he knew Day before she was a virgin points up how thoroughly her image as a representative of wholesome American girlhood was fixed in the public mind; Monroe projected a more troubled and vulnerable sexuality, one that inevitably drew on the audience's knowledge of her offscreen woes. Even child stars offer instances of the pattern: Shirley Temple's cheerful pugnacity during the Great Depression earned her a nation's abiding love long after she left movies, while Judy Garland remained the lost girl pining for home to the end of her tormented life.
The medium of television skews toward beloved figures, since TV seeks the kind of sustained connection with viewers that thrives on trust, familiarity, and stability; yet here too versions of the split appear. No TV star has been more consistently beloved than Johnny Carson, who remained a reassuring late-night presence for three decades, delivering the comedic equivalent of bedtime stories to help ease his viewers into slumber. For all his failed marriages, his image was cheerily affable, with only occasional shrugs at his personal travails. If Johnny offered a soothing predictability, his most talented successor, David Letterman, purveys an unsettling blend of irony and earnestness, dashed with visible measures of anxiety and self-loathing. One watches Dave not to be gently lulled, but to be nervously jiggled; his jokes often trade on his own flaws and phobias, while manifesting a distinct contempt for the very medium he inhabits. His recent disclosure of an extortion attempt and the sexual liaisons that led to it was one of his most brilliant performances, an intricate weave of comedy and confession that left his audience alternately chuckling, gasping, and applauding. Though it's still unclear as I write whether Letterman's career will survive this newest bit of notoriety, his complexly layered persona does not depend on simple likability the way that Carson's did or Jay Leno's does, and he may well emerge from the scandal more popular than ever. Alas, the same could not be said for another TV star, the marvelously weird Pee-wee Herman, whom we might see as the notorious counterpart of the beloved Mr. Rogers. For obvious reasons, Herman's scandal, involving self-abuse in a movie theater, could not be incorporated in his popular children's show, which was promptly canceled. Recently there are signs that Herman is attempting a comeback; if he pulls if off, he may join Sinatra as one of the great American rebounders.
Though athletes don't shape their images as assiduously as entertainers, the sports world furnishes some striking instances of the beloved/notorious polarity. The most beloved of baseball greats was surely Babe Ruth, the Sultan of Swat. The first true sports superstar, Ruth's outsized appetites and gregarious nature had as much to do with his popularity as his prowess with a bat did. His replacement in the Yankees pantheon was the brooding Joe DiMaggio, whose greatness on the field was often overshadowed by his tribulations off it; not coincidentally, his most scandalous episode, the Wrong Door Raid, involved two other notorious icons, his estranged wife Marilyn Monroe and his close friend Frank Sinatra. An even better example comes from boxing, a sport that showcases personality like no other. Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber, was the first African-American athlete as beloved by whites as by blacks, in large part because his bouts with Max Schmeling made him a symbol of national fortitude on the eve of World War II. During another war, Muhammad Ali, nee Cassius Clay, made himself a symbol of black independence by declaring that he had no quarrel with the Viet Cong. Both in his pugilistic brilliance and his expressive boldness, Ali came closer than any other athlete to being what Hegel calls "a free artist of himself," a transfixing personality under constant revision.
Popularity being an essential predicate of these categories, they are most prevalent in the entertainment world, but highly visible practitioners in the domain of the arts may also fall into them. Among poets, Robert Frost and Robert Lowell offer the clearest examples; among novelists, Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer suggest themselves. In both cases a grizzled, oracular father figure whose work seems deceptively simple gives way to a brilliant stylist and serial self-narrator of often unsettling candor. By the time we reach the fine arts, the distance between the most beloved and the most notorious figures is so great that they hardly seem to share a medium. Norman Rockwell's work has been dismissed as sentimental kitsch for decades, yet reputable critics like Peter Scheldahl have recently begun to offer cautious praise for it. Jackson Pollock's critical reputation is secure; so is his image as a tormented and abusive human being. His drip technique established a direct circuit between emotion and canvas, reinventing painting as a wholly subjective medium freed from the burden of description.
Even American politicians sometimes fall into the beloved/notorious pattern. Consider, for example, the famously likable Dwight Eisenhower and his dour veep and eventual successor Richard Nixon. Ike may not have been the brainiest or most articulate of leaders, but his fatherly self-assurance inspired affection even in his opponents. Nixon, on the other hand, was never really loved even by his supporters--his resentments and insecurities were too plain to see--yet no recent politician has given us a more gripping narrative of the uses and abuses of power, as witnessed by an endless stream of Nixonian books, films, and plays. We might find yet another iteration in the next two presidents elected to successive terms, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Once again an older, somewhat doddering, yet (for many) reassuring leader gave way to a younger, smarter figure doomed to act out his personal compulsions and failings on a national stage, leading to the ultimate drama of impeachment. While I don't mean to equate Nixon and Clinton, our fascination with both men surely has something in common with the allure exerted by the other notorious figures I've cited. Both cycled through phases of abjection and triumph, repeatedly bouncing back from disgrace and scandal to win renewed admiration. Though it was claimed by Clinton, the title Comeback Kid applied just as much to Nixon, even if his final comeback remained elusive.
For ease of comparison I summarize my examples here in tabular form:
Let me venture a few general observations about the whole array
Pee Wee Herman
of figures before considering the examples of Crosby and Sinatra in more detail. The most obvious differentiation has to do with affect or tone. The figures in the first column all share an essentially cheerful, optimistic demeanor; we tend to picture them smiling broadly. Those in the second column are for the most part darker in affect, moodier, more given to anger, fear, or melancholy. While they may smile, that expression is not characteristic; they're just as likely to scowl or mope. In a word, they're troubled. The relaxed, easygoing character of the first group is clearly reflected in their homey nicknames--Bing, Bob, Bill, Jimmy, Pops, Babe, Papa, Ike, etc.--several of which evoke the casually paternal or avuncular status these figures have come to hold in American culture. Their unaffected ease made them seem extremely comfortable on television in a way that most of the second group do not. For similar reasons, the figures in the first group tend to be more successful advertising pitchmen than those in the second; Crosby and Cosby in particular show an effortless knack for earning their viewers' trust while selling orange juice or Jello. It's also worth noting that several members of the first group were addicted to golf, the only major sport that doesn't raise a sweat. Indeed, in his autobiography, Call Me Lucky, Bing directly attributes his relaxed manner to his lifelong golf habit.
If the primary virtue displayed by the first group is ease, the primary virtue of the second group is resilience. Thus where the members of the first group are notable for their constancy, their ability to remain recognizably themselves over the course of their careers, the second group are noted for spectacular comebacks, near-death experiences (literal or figurative), breakthroughs, and self-reinventions. Even the physical appearance of those in the second group--clothing, body shape, etc.--tends to fluctuate much more dramatically than those in the first, most of whom establish a fairly consistent look early on and stay with it. More seriously, most members of the second group engage in a variety of self-destructive behaviors, from sexual adventuring and substance abuse to violence and intimidation, as a result of which their relationship with the public tends to be more embattled. Yet for the most part, those behaviors and their emotional consequences only serve to enhance the allure of these figures, chiefly because they find ways to acknowledge and incorporate them in their public performances. A kind of naked self-display, often painful to behold, characterizes their most memorable work.
At this point it's important to note that most of the notorious figures emerge somewhat later than the beloved figures, and indeed in many cases, take the latter as their primary models. This relationship of priority and secondariness, whether understood as parental or fraternal, points to another key difference between the two groups. Most of the beloved figures either established or perfected a major category of stardom: the crooner, the stand-up comedian, the jazz soloist, the realistic film actor, the talk show host, the boxing champ, etc. Within those categories each assumes a kind of universal, everyman identity that's felt to be broadly American, not bound to a particular class, region, or ethnicity. If each of the beloved figures creates a kind of normative or classic version of his or her category of stardom, the notorious figures deviate from those versions in striking ways. We feel them to be more individual, more visibly marked by particular experiences and histories. Many are openly ethnic or regional in their styles, offering themselves not as typical Americans, but as members of a particular cultural group with its own values and customs; this is most obvious in the contrast between Cosby and Pryor, but it applies more subtly to others as well, Crosby and Sinatra included. While this sense of particularity makes the figures in the second group less universal, it allows them to develop more personal forms of expression, to remake their respective mediums in a more subjective guise. It's mainly for this reason that the figures in the second group tend to receive greater critical attention and acclaim than those in the first.
Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra seem to me the most complete exemplars of the beloved/notorious duality I've been exploring. The fact that two male singers specializing in the same body of material could embody such different modes of cultural value points to a fundamental split in the American character itself. From this point of view, it's worth recalling the well-known incident in which John F. Kennedy snubbed his ardent supporter Sinatra by staying at the Republican Crosby's house in Palm Springs. All sorts of political calculations may have been involved in Kennedy's decision, but at some level it's fair to say he was choosing not just between celebrity hosts but between competing images of America. I'll start by noting some of the more superficial differences between the two men, since even these play a role in establishing their iconic images. Take two of their trademark props, Crosby's pipe and Sinatra's cigarette, both of which feature prominently in photographs and performances. Where Bing's pipesmoking reinforced his relaxed, slightly old-fashioned aura, Sinatra often used cigarettes to evoke loneliness or anxiety, sometimes even lighting up in the midst of a moody ballad like "One for My Baby" or "Angel Eyes." Their physical features also suggest their temperamental differences. Crosby's eyebrows are naturally raised in the middle, giving his face an open, genial cast; Sinatra's brows are acutely arched at the outer corners, creating a faintly troubled effect that's accentuated when he closes his eyes, as he often does in performance (and as Crosby rarely does). More generally, Crosby's face and body both have a smooth, rounded quality that makes him seem safe, even cuddly. By contrast, Sinatra's physical appearance is literally edgy, a collection of sharp angles that threaten to lacerate the overly affectionate fan. At the same time, Sinatra's legendary skinniness in the first two decades of his career suggest a fragility that Crosby's stocky frame clearly lacks. That fragility is heightened by the visible scars Sinatra bore on his face and neck, results of a difficult forceps birth that he never tried to conceal. Even the two singers' names are suggestive. An obvious moniker, "Bing" has a genial, jaunty sound that accurately reflects its bearer's personality; it's hard to imagine anyone called Bing displaying intense passion or suffering. "Frank," on the other hand, is the perfect name for an artist as committed to emotional candor and complexity as Sinatra.
As I've said, beloved figures tend to project a more universal image than notorious figures, and this distinction has clear relevance for Crosby and Sinatra. Reviewing Crosby's autobiography in 1953, Whitney Balliett wrote, "[If] the bigger-than-life common man is a new figure to the world and is the century's hero, Bing may also be one of the first of the Universal Common Men." Likewise in his recent biography, Gary Giddins eloquently expounds on the relationship between Crosby's universality, his ability to transcend particular groups, times, and regions, and his essential likability:
No other pop icon has ever been so thoroughly, lovingly liked --liked and trusted. Bing's naturalness made him credible to all, regardless of region, religion, race, or gender. He was our most authentic chameleon, mirroring successive eras--through Prohibition, depression, war, anxiety and affluence--without ever being dramatic about it. He was discreet and steady. He was family.
Giddins's terms here all point up key differences between the two singers, but the notion of Crosby as family is especially resonant in this context. Very few fans, however devoted, would describe Sinatra as family; a more typical view is reflected in the popular catchphrase "It's Frank's world, we just live in it." If Crosby is one of us, Sinatra stands apart, a powerful yet vulnerable figure who reveals more of himself to us than most family members ever do. Crosby's association with family was of course strengthened by his own outward devotion and steadiness as a husband and father; here too the contrast with the philandering, thrice-divorced Sinatra is obvious. (Gary Crosby's accusations of abuse after his father's death are beside the point, since we're dealing in image rather than reality.) Sinatra's supposed links with organized crime, whatever their basis in fact, also contributed significantly to his image as a violent, dangerous figure moving in a world far removed from that of mainstream, middle-class Americans. This contrast between stability and volatility can also be seen in the broader shape of their careers as they encountered changing tastes and fashions. While both Crosby and Sinatra underwent significant transformations early in their careers, Sinatra displayed a much greater restlessness, an anxious need to keep up with the times and remake himself in accord with new styles. By comparison, Crosby seems steadfast in his constancy, his refusal to compromise his basic image for the sake of shifting tastes. You rarely step in the same Sinatra twice; Crosby is always Crosby.
It's in their singing, of course, that the contrasts between the two men achieve their clearest and most significant expression. Though Crosby's and Sinatra's vocal styles underwent significant changes, in their most characteristic phases they convey fundamentally different attitudes toward life and art. Beginning in the late '30s, Crosby sings in a smooth, warm baritone with a relatively narrow dynamic range. His strongest, most distinctive notes are in the low register and convey a kind of comfortable repose that puts the listener wholly at ease. It's hard to describe the almost visceral pleasure that Crosby's bottom notes give, but I suspect it has something in common with a sleepy child's feeling of total security in the arms of a parent; indeed, many Crosby songs resemble lullabies. By comparison, Sinatra's singing leads us through extremes of exhilaration and despondency, exposing the essential turbulence of human emotion. From the early '50s, when he entered his mature phase, Sinatra's singing style employs both subtle and dramatic shifts of timbre, tone, and dynamics to capture the endless fluctuations of the heart. Where Crosby's singing is invariably relaxed, Sinatra's often shows signs of strain and effort, which also serves to enhance the dramatic power of his performances. Unlike Crosby's, his strongest, most affecting notes are in the upper register, suggesting risk, vulnerability, the possibility of cracking or losing control. While both singers make skillful use of grace notes, their emotional implications are again quite different. Crosby's signature embellishment is an upper mordent, in which his voice quickly jumps from a primary melody note to the one above it and back. This minimal melisma, while hardly flashy, creates a sense of easy mastery; Bing can leave his note for a moment, secure in the knowledge that it will be there when he gets back. Sinatra's ornamental trademark is a downward portamento; he often begins a new word on the same note as the previous syllable, then slides down to the pitch assigned to it by the melody. Though the effect of this device varies widely with the mood of the song, in melancholy ballads it often suggests a fading of hope or darkening of spirit, sounding less like a bit of jaunty musical showmanship than an involuntary mannerism. Crosby's most parodied vocal trick, his "buh buh buh boo" style of scatting, occurs only in his early recordings, but it too suggests an essential nonchalance, a loose-lipped articulation that stands in contrast to Sinatra's crisp, almost violent, plosives and dentals. Most telling of all, perhaps, is Crosby's penchant for including whistling interludes in his records. Granted that he was an unusually good whistler, these passages reinforce our impression of Bing as an easygoing loafer rather than a man of strong feelings. Needless to say, Sinatra never whistles.
It could be said that the two singers' styles evolved in opposite directions. Crosby's recordings of the early '30s are at times surprisingly jazzy in their improvisational freedom, at others deeply expressive in their use of vibrato, glissandi, and other devices. Plaintive ballads like "Please," "I Surrender, Dear," and "Just One More Chance" and wistful Depression anthems like "Pennies from Heaven," "Street of Dreams," and "Brother Can You Spare a Dime" display a dramatic intensity that essentially disappears from Crosby's later singing. One factor in this change is the spontaneous remission of the vocal nodes that gave Crosby's early singing its distinctively husky sound. The smoothing out of his timbre that resulted may have allowed Crosby to develop the less quirky, more "universal" sound that would make him the most beloved singer of his time. Another factor is Crosby's association in 1934 with Decca Records and, more specifically, with the producer Jack Kapp, who in Gary Giddins's words "hoped to remake him as a smoother, less mannered, ultimately less expressive singer, a kind of musical comfort food." As Giddins points out, this transformation was crucial to Crosby's popularity and longevity as a star, yet it did not come without its costs:
The biggest risk in taming Bing was the threat of a middlebrow blandness, imposed not through songs or arrangements but coming from within Bing himself. As the all-purpose troubadour, he could no longer play the jazzman who subverts corny material with the tact of his own musical impulses, who subordinates the "what you do" to the "how you do it." Kapp didn't want that from him, and the Decca schedule, with its relentlessly diverse range of material, made such knowing detachment almost impossible to sustain. Bing had a genius for popularity. His major achievement was to plait the many threads of American music into a central style of universal appeal. But the price was exorbitant. To achieve universality, he had to dilute individuality.
That last sentence concisely summarizes the trade-off that defined Crosby's special appeal, while allowing Sinatra to emerge after him as a fundamentally different kind of popular singer. Interestingly in his earliest phase, during the early and mid-'40s, Sinatra's vocal style is much closer to Crosby's than it would eventually become. While the young Sinatra's voice is thinner and reedier, his effortless, smooth vocal production, legato phrasing, and relative lack of dynamics owe an obvious debt to Crosby. Only in the '50s, after a series of setbacks and vocal problems, did Sinatra develop the percussive, emotionally fraught style that led to his greatest recordings. In Giddins's terms, Sinatra moved toward individuality and expressivity where Crosby had moved away from them.
Of course, popular singers' images are determined as much by the songs they choose to sing as by the way they sing them. It's a striking fact that while Crosby and Sinatra drew on the same sources of material--Broadway, Hollywood, Tin Pan Alley--their core repertoires show relatively little overlap. The pleading ballads and bubbly jazz numbers of Crosby's early career give way in the '40s to his more characteristic blend of confident love songs ("It's Been a Long, Long Time"), seasonal anthems ("White Christmas"), nostalgic tributes to home and family ("Dear Hearts and Gentle People"), and upbeat inspirational tunes ("Accentuate the Positive," "Swinging on a Star"). Add to these his many Irish, Hawaiian, and cowboy specialties, and one might assume there was nothing Bing couldn't or wouldn't sing. Yet a quick comparison with the Sinatra canon makes clear that Crosby drew the line at songs of unadulterated passion or grief. A typical Crosby love song of this period, like "Moonlight Becomes You," takes the form of a series of playful compliments that show no sign of yearning or doubt; the tone is admiring, not passionate. The possibility of rejection rarely enters into a Crosby love song after the '30s--not surprisingly perhaps, since in his movies Bing never fails to get the girl, often by stealing her from Bob Hope. (In their most notable film together, Cole Porter's High Society, Crosby, and not Sinatra, is the one who ends up with Grace Kelly.) By contrast, rejection, either potential or actual, is everywhere in Sinatra's love songs. His greatest recordings probe the uncontrollability of desire, the way it literally infiltrates body and mind ("I've Got You Under My Skin"), leaving desolation in its wake ("One for My Baby"). Where Crosby's songs typically evoke a peaceful, changeless emotional state, Sinatra's best songs assume a fundamentally dramatic shape in which the psyche is buffeted by contradictory forces. In this regard it's significant that Sinatra achieved his greatest artistic success with concept albums like Songs for Swinging Lovers and Only the Lonely that allowed him to explore a range of related but distinct moods and emotions. While Crosby also recorded concept albums in the '50s and '60s, his primary medium remained the individual song.
The dramatic power of Sinatra's performances, like those of Billie Holiday, stems in large part from the sense of absolute authenticity they project. Listening to Sinatra at his best, it's impossible not to feel one is being admitted to the singer's innermost psyche. The public's knowledge of Sinatra's tumultuous private life only enhances this effect; those in the know sense that a particular song of amorous devastation or longing grows out of his doomed marriage to Ava Gardner, for example. (His great 1958 album, Only the Lonely, is a virtual diary of his despair over their breakup.) The emotional nakedness of Sinatra's work contrasts sharply with the genial mask that most of Crosby's songs seem to wear. If Sinatra willingly displays his private pain and elation in his performances, Crosby insists on maintaining an unbreachable barrier between his personal life and his public image. Thus when his first wife Dixie Lee died in 1952, no hint of grief appeared in his recorded output. In his breezy autobiography, Call Me Lucky, published a year later, Crosby wrote, "I don't plan to talk about my grief at losing her. I believe that grief is the most private emotion a human being can have, and I'm going to keep mine that way." Perhaps the closest Crosby ever came to an outward display of grief was in his 1956 film, The Country Girl, in which he plays an alcoholic singer struggling with his guilt over the accidental death of his son. Tellingly, Crosby's character only succeeds as a performer by putting aside his private emotions and entering wholeheartedly into his Broadway role as the optimistic founder of a western town.
Two songs can help to illustrate the distance between the singers' musical personae. No title was more closely associated with Crosby than "Where the Blue of the Night Meets the Gold of the Day," which served as his theme song from his earliest days in radio. A simple, almost hymnlike melody accompanies a lyric that Crosby himself helped to write, whose key line, coming directly after the title, is "someone waits for me." Though the song is plaintive in its longing for the distant beloved, her loyalty is never in doubt; like Brunnhilde or Sleeping Beauty, she waits only for one. Much of the song's power derives from the substitution of the spatial preposition "Where" for the expected "When" (according to Giddins the word originally used), transposing it to a dreamy neverland in which desire and fulfillment remain perpetually suspended. Crosby's wonderfully even vocal production, which his friend Louis Armstrong compared to "gold being poured from a cup," enhances this sense of timelessness; his long notes seem to float, barely rippled by the occasional mordent. Crosby recorded the song three times--in 1931 with a small band, in 1940 with a Hawaiian trio, and again in 1945 with a string orchestra. The first version is the most ardent and includes an introductory verse that evokes "dreams of the days I used to know"; the later recordings drop this dramatic frame, letting the space of erotic fantasy hover undisturbed by any thought of time. The instrumental accompaniment further enriches the effect of suspended time, as long string or organ chords yield to gentle guitar fills, with minimal emphasis on downbeats. All three recordings also include whistling interludes, suggesting an underlying serenity at odds with passionate desire.
Many songs recorded by Sinatra could be cited for purposes of comparison, but I'll choose a masterpiece from his halcyon period with Capitol Records and the great arranger Nelson Riddle. "Last Night When We Were Young" was originally written by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg in 1935 for the operatic baritone Lawrence Tibbett, and it has an aria-like complexity far beyond the typical pop song of the period. Its leaping and falling melody is fiendishly difficult to sing accurately, but in the hands of its best interpreters, Judy Garland and Sinatra, it's among the most moving of all American ballads. The most obvious contrast with "Where the Blue of the Night" lies in the song's emphasis on time rather than space, signaled by the title word "When." But of course the title does more than point to time; by equating the transition from night to day with the passage of years, it renders time an elastic medium governed by desire and accelerated by loss. If Crosby's song projects a dream space where night and day merge, "Last Night When We Were Young" places a vast gulf between them that swallows love and hope. In the song's most poignant line time itself becomes palpably estranged: "You flew away, and time grew cold." Sinatra recorded this song twice, first in 1954 with Riddle and again in 1965 with Gordon Jenkins. Though the later version is powerful, the earlier stands as one of Sinatra's finest performances, a reading of supreme sensitivity and tonal nuance. Of many marvelous details, I'll just mention the poignantly extended portamento on the first syllable of the line "Ages ago, last night," in which Sinatra's voice drops over an octave and a half before moving up to complete the word. A more spectacular enactment of the fall from youthful possibility to mature resignation would be hard to find.
Part of what this comparison suggests is that the difference between Crosby and Sinatra, and perhaps by extension between the beloved and notorious figures generally, is at its core not just emotional but ontological. Crosby is fundamentally a creature of space, whose singing evokes idealized zones of tranquility and suspension. His many songs about Hawaii, Ireland, and the western range all present variations on this theme; even his biggest hit, "White Christmas," treats its subject more as paradisal landscape than temporal moment. Sinatra is a creature of time, which means that desire and feeling are in constant flux in his music. His artistry consists in his ability to register those fluctuations both in broad contrasts--between swinging songs of nearly manic elation and brooding ballads of suicidal despair--and in minute alterations of volume and color from word to word and note to note. His famously fluid phrasing (learned in part from Billie Holiday) also helps make time an audible force in his songs; Sinatra often places notes well before or after their designated beat, creating effects of eagerness and reluctance that suggest an ongoing struggle against time's tyranny. Of course we all live in time and can only dream of escaping it, which helps explain why artists like Crosby are so beloved.
In his little book Why Sinatra Matters, Pete Hamill deftly limns the difference between the two singers:
Crosby successfully presented a reassuring, almost paternal image to the audience, one whose wild oats had long ago been sown, and kept his personal life--and whatever private demons he might have had--safely behind his own walls. With Sinatra, public and private seemed to merge, and the result was a disturbing ambiguity. Yes, he had a wife and children and a house, but in the music he professed a corrosive emptiness, an almost grieving personal unhappiness. The risk attached to his kind of singing was that it promised authenticity of emotion instead of its blithe dismissal or the empty technique of the virtuoso. His singing demanded to be felt, not admired. It always revealed more than it concealed. Unlike the Crosby persona, Sinatra could not laugh off his losses. That transparency was essential to his music.
Hamill's rhetoric clearly favors Sinatra, which is not surprising given his book's title. But Crosby matters too, though few critics today are willing to say so (Gary Giddins being an important exception). I've suggested that beloved stars tend to be viewed primarily as entertainers while notorious stars are often treated as serious artists, and this distinction clearly holds for Crosby and Sinatra. To a great extent, of course, this is a function of the different levels of ambition that the two singers set for themselves. Sinatra arguably aimed higher and worked harder, pushing himself to expand the possibilities of his medium in a way that Crosby did not. But it's also crucial to recognize that Sinatra could never have found his way without Crosby as an example, a mentor, and a foil. Sinatra's deeply personal renditions of American standards presuppose and play against the more detached, uninflected readings of Crosby, which established the basic sound of popular music for generations. If Sinatra still strikes us as the most masterful interpreter of American popular song who ever lived, Crosby simply was the voice of popular song.
Part of my point is that the greater prestige associated with the notorious figures accrues from the cultural roles they inhabit, rather than the intrinsic value of their work. We tend to celebrate our tragic confessionalists more than our genial showmen because they take us deeper into our own suffering while transforming it into aesthetic experience. Crosby and Cosby may prove in time to be as significant in their respective mediums as Sinatra and Pryor, but in the short term, that significance has been occluded by the less complex and tormented images they project. Of course, some of the beloved performers on my list--Armstrong and Stewart, to name just two--achieve a shattering pathos at times, precisely because they seem so self-possessed, so thoroughly at ease with themselves. Crosby too can be unexpectedly moving, when a hint of pain or longing breaks through his otherwise placid facade. For the most part though, we love them for giving us images of graceful bearing and unanxious dedication to the pleasures of their craft. While we may grant a higher value to those more searching, restless, self-consuming figures--the artists maudits who embody individual genius--we need their safer, more stable brethren too. Greatness comes in many forms.
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|Title Annotation:||Style as Performance/Performance as Style|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2010|
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