“Renée Fleming is singing the national anthem at the Super Bowl! Finally, it will be sung the way it was meant to be sung!”
I was excited about the prospect, too — after years of marginalization, classical music was going to be center stage in perhaps the biggest mainstream event in America. My friend, however, was more concerned with the purity of the melodic line. There would be no gospel melismas or ponderous tempi or uncertain technique; just every note of the famously challenging octave and a half span of "The Star-Spangled Banner" delivered with glowing precision, the way they did it in the good old days. The sacred melody, given due reverence.
Not long ago, I sent a number of musician friends a video that was forwarded to me by a professional soprano and voice teacher. It featured Jackie Wilson singing “Danny Boy” live on a ’50s television show. I was floored. Endless riffing bores me, as do all musical interpretations that lack subtlety or a sense of architecture, but this was something else completely. The range was ridiculous, but what impressed me most was the extreme musicality that went into his choices, the dynamic range, and the commitment to expressing the words.
The people who commented fell into two camps: the performance was either amazing, or it was good singing but inappropriate to the song, which Wilson had made “unrecognizable.” I wondered if the second group would have objected to a jazz performance of the same melody by Charlie Parker. I’m guessing, of course, but I doubt it, since traditional jazz is currently seen as a kind of art music. Gospel, pop, and R&B? Not so much.
Maybe it wasn’t the way Jackie Wilson chose to elaborate, but his choice of the beloved “Londonderry Air,” which is perfect as is. I wonder, though if the people who disliked Wilson’s interpretation and the various elaborate arrangements of the national anthem hate the fugues of the old masters, who took music that was truly sacred — chorales — and hid the melodies under layers of counterpoint. One could argue that the Baroque composers treated the music with reverence. I’m not sure on what basis, though. Adding riffs to the national anthem takes the attention away from the words, perhaps, but no more than the average fugue based on a cantus firmus.
As to the intention, I’m not sure that even ESP could reveal whether Marvin Gaye and Whitney Houston had any less love for their country because they added their personal spin to our national anthem. After all, there can be equal evidence of showing off in both Pachelbel and a pop star. I wonder how the same opera lovers who disdain improvisations rooted in gospel music can nevertheless thrill to something like “Una voce poco fa.” It’s true that Rossini’s melismas are prescribed (and equally true that not everyone enjoys coloratura in opera). Another truth, however, is that a particularly spectacular run added by a famous singer can become the standard way to perform an aria without upsetting anyone.
Of course, some things come down to preference, which can’t be dictated. One singer friend said that Jackie Wilson could certainly sing, but she would rather hear John McCormack’s version of "Danny Boy." I can’t argue with that. Still, I couldn’t help wondering if the origins of Wilson’s style were a factor in deciding that his version of the song wasn’t viable. I know many classical musicians who disagree, but I’m convinced that you can sing popular music and be a true artist. I mean, why not? Michael Jackson and Freddie Mercury were great musicians.
That said, I do draw the line somewhere. I was listening to the top 40 station, by popular demand, when I heard something that made me cringe: Flo Rida appropriating Nina Simone singing “Feeling Good” as the backdrop for rapping (which I don’t necessarily dislike). Even my 16-year-old daughter was appalled.
“Some things should just be left alone,” she said, after hastily changing the station.
Which things, though? I guess beauty is still in the eye of the beholder.