American Idol had a Frank Sinatra night last week. The contestants sang Sinatra songs mentored and accompanied by the talented Harry Connick Jr.
The contest was down to the final five entries so they were all quite skilled and appealing. They did a thoroughly respectable job with their numbers, especially Lee DeWyze singing That’s Life and Michael Lynche on The Way You Look Tonight.
But the truth is: no modern singer can do what Sinatra did. There are throwbacks—like Connick himself, in fact—who suggest, almost imitate, that style, but the living art of it is gone.
This is not merely because Sinatra was unmatchable. It’s because pop music no longer does what it did when Sinatra was singing at his peak. The intent of the form has changed.
I was an immense Sinatra fan growing up. This was a fluke, because I grew up in the era of rock n’ roll. But my father was a disc jockey—one of the best of his time—and he worked for a New York radio station, WNEW, that played what was called MOR—middle of the road—music: Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald and so on.
They sang the Great American Songbook, songs by such masters as Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, the Gershwins and Irving Berlin. These featured music and words of elegance and eloquence and I loved them even as a boy. When lyrics like, “Flying too high with some guy in the sky is my i-dea of nothing to do,” were replaced by, “She loves you—yeah, yeah, yeah,” I did not consider it an improvement. All through my teen years when other kids were listening to deafening riffs, thunderous basslines and screaming declarations that brown sugar tasted so good just like a young girl should, I continued to feel my own youthful yearnings were better expressed by the Autumn leaves that drifted by my window, red and gold.
But of course time passed and such music faded away nearly completely. Whenever I hear Sinatra today, I find myself shocked not by how great he was—though he was great—but by how human he sounds, how much like a man speaking his heart to a woman. No one singing today—certainly no one at the top of the charts—knows how to sound anything like that.
This is because the music Sinatra sang was intended to express love and longing. Rock music and its descendants are meant to express sexuality and desire. This is not just a matter of the lyrics—“You and me we ain’t nothing but mammals, so let’s do it like they do it on the Discovery Channel.” It’s inherent in everything from the driving rhythms to the howling, inarticulate quality of today’s voices.
I’m not saying modern artists aren’t talented or that their music isn’t good. They do what most artists do: they represent the age they live in. Beginning with my generation, we were told to shrug off our repression and express unbridled sexuality openly. We did and our singers delivered the soundtrack as they still do today.
But when I listen to the women who top the charts—with some exceptions mostly bad girls like Katy Perry, Pink and Rihanna—when I hear their very catchy songs romanticizing self-destruction (“Don’t Let Me Get Me”) and de-romanticizing romance (“Touch My Body,” “Get me Bodied” etc.), the seductions of a Sinatra song—the human yearning for another human’s heart and soul—seem to me superfluous and outmoded.
“It’s Frank’s world,” Dean Martin famously said. “We’re just living in it.”
Not anymore, Clyde. That world is gone.