Silent Sinatra

American Idol had a Frank Sinatra night last week.  The contestants sang Sinatra songs mentored and accompanied by the talented Harry Connick Jr.

Miss me yet?

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.

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  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    Oh, man, I knew there was a reason you’re my favorite contemporary novelist. I loved Middle of the Road too, and mourn it inconsolably. I used to say that America’s true religion had become Romantic Love, but I was behind the times. Our religion today is coitus without consequences. We’ve gone from believing in the virgin birth to the abolition of both virgins and birth.

  • Relish

    W-N-E-W, eleven three o in New York! I remember that jingle even now.

    Like you, Mr. Klavan, I mourn the passing of real singers whose vocal stylings and musicality made songs a true experience. They were truly vocalists: Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Doris Day, Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett, Judy Garland, Lena Horne, Rosemary Clooney, even later figures like Andy Williams and Bobby Darin. You could listen to them and be transported.

    I don’t do the Idol thing so I missed the episode you reference, but I wonder if you took the top “singers” today and gave them a Sinatra or Garland or Horne classic, would they have the chops to make it sound like anything? Or is everything so synthesized, blended, and mixed today that these “musicians” are anything but?

  • Carole Hayward

    For what it’s worth, my 17-year-old daughter absolutely loves Frank Sinatra–his voice, his songs, his style. Maybe a rebirth of MOR music is in the offing–wouldn’t that be wonderful?

  • Davis J. Tomasin

    LET ME GET THIS STRAIGHT— Your Dad was Gene Klavan!!! THE Gene Klaven of Klavan & Finch to whom I woke up with every morning from chldhood in the 1950′s through the halcyon 60′s until I left my North Jersey riverfront town on the Jersey Palisades directly across the Hudson from Mid-town Manhattan in 1970 to journey to Maryland and University??? WNEW 1130 in New York How marvelous. They were the best— working on the best radio station in history — playing the greatest music ever and making all of us laugh like Hell.
    Like you, I only had feelings for the Rhythms of the music exemplified by WNEW and its classic playlist which was everyone from Sinatra to Shore to Armstrong to Lee to Bing— from the Pied Pipers to Artie Shaw to Gene Krupa to The Thundering Herd. From Porter to Jenkins, from Berlin to Riddle— the best of American times and the best of our music. The best of ourselves. Living a few towns up the Boulevard from Hoboken, Sinatra was IT. He still is.
    Many a night as I lay in bed looking out the window at the New York skyline dreaming of the future with my transistor radio under the pillow I would drift off to “The Milkman’s Matinee”. WNEW, though tragically off the airwaves since 1992, has never left me— memories of the wonders of that golden age of American culture, like your father, makes me smile still.l

  • George Semel

    Me too I would rather listen to Frank Sinatra that any of the so called popular music of my youth, You want to know who killed the music business, its easy Andrew The Beatles did. It was the being of the end of what was great about music when those fellows became what they would become and every body and there mother tried to out due them in to the dust. I had Sinatra on my ipod this morning along with Dean and Sammy when I got my last turkey for the season. Shot the bugger with My way on the earphones. The one good thing about the 21 century is that I can put a ton on LP’s on a ipod and and its about as big as a credit card and maybe three cards wide. We can have all Frank all the time, I-tunes makes that possible and you can carry it anywhere. I was flying helicopters in Alaska when the news broke about his passing, I was not in a good mood for about two weeks. Love your stuff on PJTV you explained the Financial melt down spot on even a caveman would understand it. To bad those to gentlemen will ever see prison time for there part in it.

  • Kelly

    Beyond the singers, it was the songwriters that made that music so beautiful. Compare any Gershwin w/ a song … say by Beyonce … one is about love the other about how big her ass is. Music today is trash sung by singers w/ good looks and questionable talent.

  • http://www.petecoco.net Peter

    As a jazz musician, I must agree wholeheartedly with you, Mr. Klavin. The magic of pop music is long gone, and in my opinion, most of the talent too. People forget that jazz music back then was recorded live, so what was recorded was what the artist could do. There was no auto-tune, no edits and punches, no filters to make one sound better, and very limited editing at all. I’d like to see any pop or rock artist make a live, sans-Pro Tools record nowadays that doesn’t sound like total crap.

  • Michael Hutton

    Andrew,

    A very fine comment. I appreciate that you are able to articulate the difference between the approaches to music.

    When so many of us say, “I just don’t like it” we fail to communicate the basis of our criticism, and it comes across as a matter of taste.

    You have clearly shown why it is more than this. What the real differences are and why this ought to matter to people to whom people matter.

    God Bless,
    Michael Hutton

  • S.Morgan

    Pick up a Michael Buble cd…… He is better than Harry Jr. in my opinion!

  • http:.//thehud.com/blog James Hudnall

    I love the standards. Jazz and the music of that era is America’s Classical Music. I call it “grown up music” because when you listen to the lyrics, it’s like adult dialog vs teen dialog. Rock is full of lyrics that are inane and purile. (“I wanna rock and roll all night/and party every day”). Standards are like stories with heart:

    “I’ve wined and dined on mulligan stew,
    and never wished for turkey.
    As I hitched and hiked and grifted, too,
    from Maine to Albuquerque. ”

    I grew up loving classic rock, but I also listened to MOR and “Easy Listening” stations and learned to love that music from an early age. Since my 40s I began collecting the old stuff and find it a deep well of inspiration. The lyrics are written by prose masters, who turned a phrase with wit, style and substance. Few of today’s songs even come close.

    One of my favorite stanzas from one of my favorite songs “Blues in the Night”, by the great Harold Arlen, the lyrics by the master, Johnny Mercer, is a perfect example.

    “From Natchez to Mobile, from Memphis to St. Joe, wherever the four winds blow
    I’ve been in some big towns and I heard me some big talk, but there is one thing I know
    A woman’s a two-face, a worrisome thing who’ll leave ya to sing the blues in the night”

    That’s both evocative and visual. Mercer’s songs can almost be seen in the mind’s eye when you listen to them.

  • Steve

    I’m pretty open minded about music, musical genres, etc. I hate the “today’s-music-just-doesn’t-match-the-kind-of-stuff-I-listened-to-when-I-was-a-kid” plaint because, of course, yesteryear’s “adults” plied that line on me when I was a kid. However … I have to say the “guest performances” of nearly all the professional, marquee performers sprinkled throughout this season’s AI competition/result broadcast, have been flatly dreadful. One or two exceptions, of course, but generally speaking the best have been merely self-indulgent; the worst?: “change-the-channel” bad. Lady Gaga last week, former Idol Adam Lambert, PDiddy, a blond, European(?) guitar-rocker several weeks ago, virtually all of ‘em — overbearingly unlistenable. Honestly, one of the few I can recall that was bearable (I’m a little embarrassed to say) was Miley Cyrus. I even found Harry Connick’s outing a little odd. How many times I’ve turned to my wife in the middle of a bewildering eruption by one of this era’s so-called superstars, and said, “I’d love to know what Simon is thinking right now.”

  • Bruce Arlen

    James Hudnall is right, of course, it is grown-up music… and grown-up lyrics. Combined as they once were on a regular basis in song after song
    illuminating the many small and private moments in our very American lives into something big and important. Those writers sweated over every word and musical phrase and it was magic. Reductionism at it’s best.
    They didn’t just shout it out, they gave us a powerful human essence.

  • Jimmy

    Sinatra was a reflexion of 1930 Hoboken. Sicialian Gangsters. Dirty Irish Cops. Confident, streetwise immigrant kids. That world is gone so no more Sinatra. Likewise the dirtpoor South that produced Johnny Cash & Sam Phillips is gone. No more hard men like them singing country music. Sinatra’s diction was perfect despite Sicialian/Italian being his first language and growing up around other immigrants from all over the world.

  • Bob Zidlicky

    Thank you for giving voice to thoughts I have had for over 40 years! I thought I was an anachronism, or worse, a mutant, because I never really enjoyed the music of my era (I graduated college in 1969). My Dad played violin and viola, my Mom had a beautiful voice and sang many of the old 40s and 50s MOR standards, and I grew up appreciating good music. You have freed me from feeling guilty for liking and enjoying Sinatra, Vaughn Monroe, and many others of that era. Thanks again, from the bottom of my MOR heart.

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    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.

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