Arts/Literature

Just sing. The damned. Song. (Also, stop fucking with Shakespeare.)

The other night I’m settling back to watch the game and out comes Kelly Rowland to sing the national anthem. And to nobody’s surprise, we’re treated to … the obligatory butchering of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Such is the mode of pop music these days – it isn’t acceptable, where a G appears in the sheet music, to sing a G. No, no. Instead, the diva (and everybody is a diva these days) runs a G scale or two, performs a series of vox acrobatica in the general vicinity of G, then moves onto the next note, which also apparently needs a good bit of “interpreting.” Not “arranging” – some actual arranging wouldn’t be a bad idea at all. But arranging and freelance improvisational histrionics are not the same thing.

I guess it’s imperative, if one expects to be respected in the disposable world of pop music, that one must make the song one’s own. And as much as I hate to say it, I think we have to blame Hendrix. Before he axe-murdered Francis Scott Key at Woodstock I think most people understood that you didn’t make the song your own because it wasn’t your song. It was the nation’s song. Respect was called for. Jimi was having fun and yes, he was by the gods burning the house down, but his version was about protest, not homage.

If Kelly Rowland had done something to make a statement, I’d evaluate it within the appropriate critical framework. If her version had made the song better or given us what the corporate types call a “value-add,” I’d have been down with that, too. Truth is, we have heard some new takes on old songs, the anthem included, that were special. Heck, a guy I used to sing in the choir with, Eddie Kiefer, did a beautifully haunting arrangement for the East Davidson High School marching band some years back (he was the band’s director, and for all I know may still be). I heard them do it one night before a Wake Forest basketball game (Wake had local high school bands sitting in during the holiday break, and Eddie was a Wake School of Music product, so his kids got the shot). Absolutely sent chills up my spine – one of the two or three best performances of the anthem that I’ve ever heard. (As a Ledford grad, it hurts me to say anything nice about East. But there it is.)

But that isn’t what Rowland did. It’s not what any of our goddamned self-absorbed pop stars do today. Because the song isn’t about America, it isn’t about the event, it isn’t about the song – it’s about them! LOOK AT ME! LISTEN TO ME! SEE HOW I CAN MAKE MY LIPS QUIVER WHEN I SING?!

Here’s the thing – all those gratuitous vocal gymnastics serve another purpose that nobody talks about. To wit: if, instead of singing a quarter-note in the space of a quarter-measure, you run a few scales, that provides cover. If you had a stunning, resonant voice, you could sing that note and rattle the rafters. You could shatter crystal. But you don’t have that that kind of ability, do you? So a bit of the topsy-turvy, some smoke and mirrors, a little technical dog-and-pony show, and everybody is impressed.

All this star-spangled masturbation is nearly as annoying as directors who feel the need to reset Shakespeare. Happens all … the … freakin’ … time. Go to a Shakespeare festival, any Shakespeare festival. If it’s like the one at the University of Colorado every year you’ll get four or five plays, one of which is by somebody other than The Bard. Of the remainder, one or two will be reset. Let’s do Twelfth Night in the Victorian Era. What if we set The Scottish Play in South Central? I know – let’s make all the characters women! (Maya Angelou actually did this last bit some years back at my alma mater. I was so proud.)

Guess what. Shakespeare’s genius transcended age and setting. It does not need to be dicked around with. Of all the resettings I’ve endured experienced, I may have seen two where the “reimagining” did something other than detract from the play. And I’ve forgotten one of those, I think. (Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet was so remarkably stylish that it was impossible not be awed just looking at it, although I can’t say that it added much to actual story.)

So, the message for our infestation of pop divas and the svengalis who pull their strings, and the message for second-rate theater directors whose arrogance leads them to think that they can improve on Shakespeare, is simple: cut it out! Sing the damned notes and perform the damned plays the way they’re written.

If it can be improved by your self-indulgence it’s probably not worth doing in the first place.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to chase some damned kids off my lawn…

11 replies »

  1. Saw a Romeo and Juliet set in the 1920’s (but still in Italy) at whatever the name of that Canadian Shakespeare festival is…liked it, but other than that i feel ya.

    I hate the national anthem, not because i hate the song or because i hate America but for the same reason as you: more overplayed than Stairway to Heaven and abused like one of Michael Vick’s dogs. (Is it too soon?) I will admit though, i get the same uncomfortable feeling during the anthem at an event as i do when i’m stuck with people praying. I used to sing along sometimes, but that was pre-9/11…now it just seems wrong.

  2. I think the anthem would bother me less if it were more authentic, and it would be more authentic if a legion of Simon Cowell-spawns would stop fucking with it. That wouldn’t solve my jingoism issues, but it would be nice.

  3. Agreed. It’s like the flag these days: whatever reverence it should evoke is hollowed out by how (and how often) it is invoked.

  4. I agree wholeheartedly with you about the SBA. But I kinda like some of the rehashed versions of Shakespeare. As far as I’m concerned, anything that gets kids reading/watching/thinking about Shakespeare is a good thing.

  5. This has been obvious for a long time so happy to see someone say it so well. Although, it seems that pop music in general is full of histrionic singers who have absolutely no other reason to sing other than to show off their vocalizing “chops”. Really, the ascent of rock and roll had a lot to do with recognizing the message and the heart and soul behind the message as anything else. Or as an iconic rock and roll singer with an iconic rock and roll band once told us on the classic album “Between the Buttons” it’s the singer, not the song”. I think he may have seen it coming?
    Whatever, whenever I walk into a store and hear Mariah Carey or one of those ilk, I simply walk out. PUTRID

  6. Samuel – I agree that for official occasions improvising is extremely inappropriate. But occasionally, there are instances, like Hendrix’ Woodstock performance, when the surprising interpretation brings really joy. Examples of these exceptions are Marvin Gaye’s 1983 NBA performance and the movie Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead.

  7. THANK YOU!!! I am completely sick of people messing with the National Anthem. If you can’t hit that note, sit down and shut up.

    I will say I saw a Denver performance of Romeo & Juliet where the time change really worked. It was set in California when it went from being a Mexican territory to a US territory. Juliet’s family was Spanish, Romeo’s was “American” (white). The tension between the two families made complete sense (and gave us some lovely Spanish guitar music during the party and scene changes).

  8. Man, people messing with the anthem sits in my craw somethin’ fierce. Thanks for articulating that so well, Sam.

    As far as Shakespeare reimaginings, I’m not too bothered by them if they offer me something interesting to think about, but like you, I’ve seen enough of them that are reset someplace/time just for the sake of resetting them. In most of those instances, it seems like the show’s design ended up being more important than the story, and it showed (because, as fabulous as design might be, it still can’t cover shitty acting and slipshod directing).

    Best reimagining of the Bard, besides the R&J example you offer, was Richard III with Ian McKellan’s Richard as a Hitler-like dictator and England as a Nazi-eqsue state. The resonance was amazing.

  9. Thank you times ten for making this point about singing the national anthem (and pop singing in general, in which the noise of ornamentation lately makes a strained substitute for musical ability or emotional resonance).

    There is also an apt parallel between this and some Shakespeare “re-imaginings,” but there are other reasons for setting Shakespeare in time periods other than the Elizabethan. Putting Shakespeare in period costume is very easily just as risky and distracting as putting him in World War I. This is, actually, where a lot of the “second-rate” directors you mention go wrong: attempting to restore Shakespeare to his own time period, and losing the drama in ridiculous hoop skirts, garters, and hats. Compare that to, say, the so-called “minimalist” Macbeth at the RSC in the 1970’s, with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench wearing understated contemporary clothing that did not pull attention from Shakespeare’s play. King Lear and his daughters have to wear something; you have to place them somewhere in time. But if Reagan and Goneril are running around in ball gowns and cone hats, it’s going to be deadly, and you will have sacrificed so much opportunity for dramatic images that will open up the timeless verse for an audience.

    In the hands of the self-indulgent, pompous, or inept, however, you are quite right: this way madness lies. I saw a production of ROMEO AND JULIET in Providence, Rhode Island, years ago that took place in a gigantic pool of water. The director had some concept of everyone being on the river Styx or some such inanity — something that was never in the play to begin with. How many people were confused and turned off of Shakespeare because of it? We may never know.

    • Good point – you don’t have to reset a production to lose sight of the story. I fear that some of the impetus toward all this foolishness is institutional – no credit is awarded for simply doing the show the way it was intended. It’s like in the academic research world. So many profs waste so much time on activities that are ultimately beyond pointless because of the publish-or-perish rules of our universities. Publishing is important, but when the formal structures are driving pedestrian work that doesn’t really advance our understanding of anything, then perhaps an adjustment is in order.

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