for some, a singer is a singer is a singer. she is there to be seen and not heard, for the most part. at the very least, the physical aspect of who she is can be ingested and thrown into the equation of her assessment as a vocalist well before her talent is called into question. for all intents and purposes, she is whatever they think of as pretty. and pretty, as any female on the planet will tell you, is its own currency. pretty matters. a lot. sometimes, it matters too much. or rather, a certain kind of pretty matters too much -- one that is virtually unattainable. but i digress.
how heavily all of this weighs on the singer in question depends on which genre you embrace. jazz, it seems, requires a certain level of musicianship -- like ella fitzgerald, obviously. blues demands a powerhouse, a la koko taylor. and although what you look like is important all the way across the board, when it comes to producer-driven pop and r&b, what you look like is way more important than what you sound like, which is why a lot of those singers are visually primed and sonically irrelevant. when they can sing and not just warble with a lot of electronic assistance, they usually sing at you -- not to you.
ah, but these are the video ready times we live in. as you consider the latest offering from your favorite multi-hit wonder, its important to remember that once upon a time, not too long ago, live music was everywhere -- supper clubs, cabarets, breakfast sets, big bands, after hours combos, church gatherings, parlor dances, tea socials, juke joints, road houses, speakeasies. every venue seemed to demand a different kind of singer. a supper club appearance required a floor show -- something that eartha kitt could fill easily. a cabaret act? give dianne carroll a call.
interestingly, there were song stylists everywhere -- those singers whose outfits and presentation and arrangements were paramount. their performance level was incredibly individualistic, highly personalized and intimate. what they did onstage seemed effortless. a song stylist has to be able to do it all.
case in point? everyone considers nancy wilson -- who sings blues, jazz, cabaret and pop, and who had her own variety tv series back in the day -- to be a jazz vocalist but she calls herself a song stylist.
for me, josephine baker epitomizes this in all the right ways. for those of you who don't know, the performance in this video is how should be done.
here she is, la baker, way past her prime supposedly -- and yet she shines. she is old -- she is of the age that is dismissed, that is ridiculed, that is ignored by society. and yet she is slim and shapely and shimmering and elegant and beautiful. mesmerizing, really. she is singing to you and she is using everything she's got -- not just her voice but her all -- to give you this song.
of course, it helps that she has an endless supply of that indefinable thing called charisma but who would seriously think to get onstage professionally without any of that?