When it comes to singing (jazz and otherwise), it's about more than words
In Stephen Sondheim’s old formulation, opera is about music and musical theater is about words. For years I’ve had to listen to non-pop fans complain that they couldn’t understand the words in rock songs: “Aren’t the words what they’re about?” Well, yes and no. I once asked a writer whose rock-record review I was editing why he didn’t refer to a single lyric. “Who listens to the words?” he answered, completely serious. I knew what he meant. I needed Pryzbylewski — the decoding expert on The Wire — to give me the first line of the Stones’ “Brown Sugar.” “I bet you’ve heard that song 500 times, but you never knew, right?”, Pres asked in one episode. Yeah, right, but who gave a shit? On the other hand, I remember sitting in front of the stereo, headphones clamped to my ears, pencil in hand, yellow legal pad on my lap, trying to decode the Gun Club’s “She’s like Heroin to Me.” The same goes for the Arctic Monkeys. Something made me want to lean in, figure out what the kid was drawling in that South Yorkshire accent. The words were what kept me coming back. But when in “Mardy Bum” it comes time for Alex Turner to plead to his girlfriend that he really does care, he demonstrates his devotion with a guitar solo.
HARD WORK: By the time Cassandra Wilson wrote the lyrics to “Go the Mexico,” she really did want to go to Mexico.
It was at PJ Harvey’s first Boston-area show, at T.T. the Bear’s, that I realized how much lyrics can matter when the singer cares. I didn’t know what Polly was talking about, but I hung on every word of the opener (“Dry”?) as she delivered them over her one-note guitar picking. It was a reminder: oh yes, singers can do more than sing notes. They can shape words. And even if you don’t know what those words mean, the singer can create the illusion that you do.
I recently heard a radio interview where the cabaret singer Michael Feinstein said that Sarah Vaughan, one of the greatest singers in the history of jazz — perhaps in the history of recorded song — didn’t understand the lyrics to “Send In the Clowns.” Much of the music derived from musical theater really is about the words — and that would include the whole of what’s come to be called the Great American Songbook. Listen to John Pizzarelli sing Sinatra and then listen to Sinatra sing Sinatra and the difference is clear. Johnny Pie sings the words as though he didn’t know what they mean. Sinatra sang “Fly Me to the Moon” as if his life depended on it. If he knew what the lyrics meant or he didn’t, he sold ’em.
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