I’ve often wondered why we love the music that we love. Why does one performer captivate and excite us, while others simply fall flat? This is a complex question. One that involves the artist’s mastery of her craft, stage persona, and creative vision, not to mention the nuts and bolts of the actual music performed. But more often than not, it boils down to an artist’s ability to move her listeners – to create emotional, very visceral responses to the music she performs.
When I reflect on my earliest experiences listening to Sarah Vaughan, for example, I realize now that I felt as if Vaughan sang directly to me, expressing my hopes, dreams, and disappointments with her voice. She possessed an uncanny ability to create intimacy in her performances – the impression that there was an emotional connection, a real bond, between her and her listener. And the more I listened, the closer I felt to Sarah.
I heard a strong, confident, and independent woman; brilliance mixed with whit and charm. She was a true master of her craft; a woman excelling in a man’s world. These were qualities that I valued, and as a young woman just beginning to find my way in the world, it was important that Sarah possess them as well. I identified with Vaughan, the power of her voice, and viewed her voice as expressing my own. So in the end, it was all about me: my ideals, ambitions, and desires.
Of course, this happened throughout Vaughan’s career. Because she was such a consummate performer and professional, listeners, be they fans, critics, or record producers, regularly co-opted Vaughan and her voice for their own causes.
Critics of the 1940s, for example, embraced Vaughan not just because she was an engaging entertainer, but also because her singing was harmonically complex, innovative, and experimental. It was an embodiment of high modernism, and her voice represented what these critics needed to hear. As a founding member of the bebop movement, Vaughan and her singing furthered their cause to establish jazz as a true high art separate and distinct from the pop music of the day. And by elevating the cultural position of jazz, these critics elevated their position within artistic discourse, too. But when in the 1950s Vaughan delved into the world of pop music in an effort to attain more commercial success, these same critics felt betrayed. Vaughan had turned her back on jazz, on them, and their cause.
All performers, both past and present, are subject to the whims of their listeners and what these listeners need to hear, feel, and experience in an artist’s music. This is not an earthshattering revelation. Just look at the mixed reception of Beyonce’s most recent high profile performances. Was her performance of the national anthem at President Obama’s inauguration real and authentic or did she lip sync? (No lip syncing according to fellow musician Mike Dougherty.) Was her Super Bowl performance too sexy (for the kids watching at home, not to mention a “proper” lady of her stature), or just too empowered, as suggested here and here? Regardless of where you fall in the great Beyonce debate of 2013, it’s useful for all of us to contemplate why we enjoy the music we do. What expectations do we bring to our listening experiences? Are we typecasting the performers we love, placing then in straightjackets that contain and limit them as artists? Why? And what does this tell us about ourselves – our values, ideals, and desires?