Tagged: Broadway

Scarlett Johansson, singer?

Scarjo in the recording studio; image courtesy of actressarchives.com

Scarjo in the recording studio; image courtesy of actressarchives.com

Scarlett Johansson wants to be considered a hyphenate. And not by joining her surname to husband Ryan Reynolds’s. She wants you to think of her as both actress and singer.

Now, I’m not sure when hyphenates like “actress-singer” or “singer-model” or “model-actress” became a punchline, but I think it suggests a certain snobbery toward classical training and finely-honed technique, usually acquired from years of stage work. Having just watched another episode of Glee, I wonder if guest-star Kristen Chenoweth and principal Lea Michele, both Broadway babies, lend legitimacy to the hyphenate. You could sub in any number of singing actresses with considerable stage training for more examples — Patti LuPone, Julie Andrews, Rita Moreno, Bernadette Peters, Vicky Lewis, Jane Krakowski, the mother-daughter legacy that is Judy and Liza.

Jane Krakowski as Lola in Damn Yankees; image courtesy of playbill.com

Jane Krakowski as Lola in Damn Yankees; image courtesy of playbill.com

And yet, if actresses like Scarlett Johansson, Juliette Lewis, and Gwyneth Paltrow try to establish a musical career, their efforts are dismissed with a derisive chuckle (okay, admittedly, GOOP made Paltrow more of a punchline than Duets ever could). 

But Johansson is an interesting case, because she seems to want to tap into some of the indie caché that fellow It Girl Zooey Deschanel has cultivated with projects like She & Him, if not at the very least balance it with an attempted career in the imagined, perennially just-emergent film musical revival.

Johansson has made music for some time, having taken music and dancing lessons as a kid. Fans of Lost In Translation, her break-out movie from 2003, were perhaps charmed by her performance of The Pretenders’ “Brass In Pocket” during the scene at the karaoke bar. I know some girls who donned that pink wig for Halloween.

Johansson also leant her vocals to a cover of George Gershwin’s “Summertime” for a charity album in 2006 and performed with proto-shoegaze royalty Jesus and Mary Chain at Coachella back in 2007. Again, anyone who saw Lost In Translation can walk through the big symbiotic moment that results from having the actress sing a song featured in the movie that made her a star. That she is alongside the band that authored such a legendary song in the first place and performing it at such a public, credible venue as Coachella should not be overlooked. 

But Johansson’s first widespread effort to tap into hipster-approved musical ventures was her Tom Waits covers record, Anywhere I Lay My Head. Pointedly, this effort was widely dismissed by its target audience. The critics were not kind, dismissing it as a vanity project, discrediting Johansson’s ability, and crying offense that some starlet would dare cover the songs a musical legend like Tom Waits.

Cover of Anywhere I Lay My Head, released in 2008 on Rhino/Atco; image courtesy of tomwaitsuper.blogspot.com

Cover of Anywhere I Lay My Head, released in 2008 on Atco/Rhino; image courtesy of tomwaitsuper.blogspot.com

Now, I don’t consider Waits’s ouvre or anyone else’s to be a sacred text. Songs are malleable. What’s more, covers are really fascinating. When they’re bad, they test what you actually like about the original. When they’re good, they can be transcendent, forcing you to rehear a song you already know and love. The Wire faced this each season when they re-worked Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole” for the opening credits, the original only being heard in season two. Let it be known that I think Steve Earle’s pedantic version for season five that swipes from the theme to Law and Order made me question if this song was actually good. Conversely, The Neville Brothers’ version in season three reminded me that it totally was.

Oh, have you seen The Wire? If you haven’t, you should.

For me, then, it wasn’t so much that Johansson, an actress, dared attempt reworking the songs of the (male) master. I could think of far worse things Johansson could do with her time and resources (get arrested for drugs, get cosmetic surgery, get really skinny, make another movie with Woody Allen).

My big frustration with her Waits covers record, which is where I ended up siding with some of the critics, is that I couldn’t actually hear Johansson. Perhaps putting her vocals so far down in the mix was meant to free her from any tethers to the master’s words. But, to my ears, it kind of sounded more like an attempt for producer David Sitek to upstage her, twiddling knobs and piling on layers of reverb so that her voice lent a “cough medicine/Tinkerbell” vibe to the proceedings. Sitek’s futuristic, anthemic sensibilities usually do it for me, particularly with the work he’s done with Telepathe, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and his own band, TV on the Radio (aka my favorite band, aka the rock band of the 2000s). But here, I was like “oh, this is really his record.” It seems to make all the difference when she sings the song live.

Despite this setback, Johansson continues to make music. Last summer, she covered Jeff Buckley’s “Last Goodbye” for the soundtrack to He’s Just Not That Into You, a movie I did not see because I figured an ensemble rom-com of needy skinny women, aloof men, and Wilson Cruz being underused would make me yell “feminism!” and throw tampons at the screen and that’s why we watch movies at home. I can’t valorize her efforts, because the original is a song that made me so swoony for the beautiful boy singer that I taped a photo of him in my notebook and spent my allowance money on Grace. Johansson’s version, on the other hand, reminded me of Vonda Shepard. Tepid execution of such a powerful song makes me feel like a wet noodle.

But now Johansson has recorded Break Up, an album she did with Pete Yorn (who has not had the effect on me that Buckley has, but he seems nice enough). If you’d like to hear some songs off the album, along with their interview with NPR, check it out here and then thank my friend Kristen for, once again, pointing you (and me) in the right direction.

Cover to Break Up, released in 2009 on Atco/Rhino; image courtesy of forthempire.info

Cover to Break Up, released in 2009 on Atco/Rhino; image courtesy of forthempire.info

Yorn had Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot‘s collaborations in mind when composing these songs and casting long-time friend Johansson, who he felt was today’s version of the French bombshell.

The music itself sounds fine, and definitely lines Johansson up more closely with the indie-friendly retro cool Deschanel has found for herself. I still feel like her voice, while more expressive and interesting here, seems a bit flat and projectable. And, of course, there’s something potentially unsettling about Johansson being linked with men like Yorn and Sitek who seem to have a little too clear a vision of what they want to construct instead of fostering a more openly collaborative relationship. One could easily extend this reading into a comparison of patriarchal impulses surrounding production between musicians and movie directors. 

So while I don’t want to suggest that Johansson isn’t singing for herself, I also hope she keeps striving to find her own voice.

Scene It: Audrey Hepburn and Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Audrey Hepburn sings Moon River; image courtesy of victoriaegs.blogspot.com

Audrey Hepburn sings "Moon River"; image courtesy of victoriaegs.blogspot.com

I started Jeff Smith’s The Sounds of Commerce: Marketing Popular Film Music, which is one of the first and best regarded books on the use of popular music in contemporary film. It also has a pretty sweet cover.

Thinking about Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Audrey Hepburn’s performance of the movie’s theme, Henry Mancini’s “Moon River,” I felt like I had to post the scene and see if it would generate any discussion (keeping in mind, of course, that I’ve only read as far as the intro and haven’t gotten to Smith’s chapter on the movie yet).  

I for one think it’s particularly important to note that Hepburn is singing and strumming the guitar, creating a sense of authenticity (however tenuous) that many argued was missing from her performance as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady three years later. It was widely reported that Marni Nixon filled in for Hepburn’s musical numbers in the film adaptation of the blockbuster musical. Many speculated that the use of dubbing cost Hepburn the Oscar, while perhaps also quick to remind that Julie Andrews didn’t need a vocal stand-in when she performed the role on Broadway.

But here, Hepburn is clearly singing and playing her acoustic guitar, perhaps further blurring the line between where she stops and the iconic Holly Golightly begins.

“Jammin’ on the one”: The Huxtables’ musical contributions

All together now with the Huxtables; image courtesy of brixpicks.com

All together now with the Huxtables; image courtesy of brixpicks.com

So, The Root is covering The Cosby Show and its cultural influence to celebrate the NBC series’ 25th anniversary, in a manner similar to how they reflected on Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. Now, once again aware of the problematics of my identity with regard to fandom, I will admit that growing up a white girl in the rural suburbs of Houston, I totes wanted to be in the Huxtable family. I would have been fine being one of Rudy’s friends (I was probably closest to the shy, chubby white boy). Specifically though, I aspired to be like Clair. Admittedly a glib comparison, but maybe young women and girls of many different racial and ethnic identities have ascribed a similar aspirational status to our first lady.

Many folks have rightly critiqued the show for its idyllic, comforting, and unrealistic depiction of the charmed Huxtable clan against the racially charged climate informed the social dimensions of AIDS, drug addiction, incarceration, wage gaps, single-family incomes, education, and other major issues that many believe were ignored, if not outright caused, by the Reagan administration. And these are, for the most part, valid critiques. Indeed, Kanye West spoke and continues to speak for many people when he says “I ain’t one of the Cosbys, I didn’t go to Hillman” in “Can’t Tell Me Nothin’.” I’d even go so far as to point out that this was true for many prime time families by the end 0f the 1980s: there’s not a college degree between the Connors, the Bundys, and the Simpsons. Assuredly, the classed dimensions of racial inequality were in Bill Cosby’s mind, even going so far as to originally conceptualize Clair as being a plumber of Dominican descent and later, pairing up again with Phylicia Rashād on Cosby, making their characters decidedly more working class. 

And I don’t think we can talk about The Cosby Show‘s influence without mentioning how no other show with an African American principle cast has since followed its legacy. Fledgling networks like FOX and, later, the WB and UPN, would incorporate a wide range of prime time programming featuring African Americans, though often met with middling to low ratings, short life cycles, and diminished corporate interests in representational politics as networks began to flourish.  

And of course, we can’t discuss The Cosby Show without mentioning Dr. Cosby’s troubling history with partiarchy and sometimes limited view of what is considered respectable mediated representations from/of African Americans. That said, while I empathize with Lisa Bonet’s reported run-ins with Cosby, I’ll hedge that Angel Heart does look fucking terrible.

That said, The Cosby Show was a considerable cultural milestone and a damn entertaining sitcom that did an admirable job widening the scope and depth of representation for African Americans on prime time network television. And they were really funny.

I’d also like to add, echoing Erin Evans’s piece on the show’s theme song, that The Cosby Show broadened the scope and depth of African Americans’ contribution to music. Jazz, blues, rock and roll, hip hop, gospel, classical, Afrocuban, Broadway. It’s all there. “Kiss Me” was discursive and malleable, changing arrangements, historical moments, and generic arrangements from season to season.

Sometimes these contributions were peripheral, much like many of the paintings that hung on the home’s walls — Vanessa’s Michael Jackson poster most immediately comes to mind.

In the Huxtable home, Ellis Wilsons Funeral Procession co-existed with posters of Michael Jackson; image courtesy of stylecourt.blogspot.com

In the Huxtable home, Ellis Wilson's "Funeral Procession" co-existed with posters of Michael Jackson; image courtesy of stylecourt.blogspot.com

Sometimes these contributions dialoged with other musical forms associated with traditionally coded “white” culture (my mother would always giggle when opera tenor Placido Domingo sang to Clair; I’m always reminded of my mother in episodes involving Rudy’s teacher, played by Broadway’s salty Elaine Stritch, now recognizeable to many as Mother Donaghy on 30 Rock).

And sometimes music’s shifting racial dynamics back-and-forthed within one body, a point I’d argue is evident in Olivia’s Village coffeehouse performance of Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes.” This is a noteworthy song selection, as punk legend Legs McNeil argues in Don Letts‘s documentary Punk: Attitude that it is one of rock’s most political songs and an influence to punk’s stripped-down, anti-hippie, confrontation style, as it’s a song about personal freedom (to single in on McNeil’s comment, start the clip at 7:33). That said, I’d like for none of to step on Olivia’s face. Thanks.

Let’s close with Olivia, and extend this discussion of musical moments to focus on the ladies, both within the Huxtable family and within music culture writ large. In addition to Olivia’s performance, let’s remember Vanessa’s struggle with the clarinet, enforcing that not all black people are inherently musical. Let’s remember Clair singing with Stevie Wonder. Let’s remember Lena Horne and Miriam Makeba. Let’s remember Rudy jubilant lip-synced performance of Margie Hendricks’s part in Ray Charles’s version of “Night Time Is the Right Time” for her grandparents anniversary. And let’s not forget: don’t step on their blue suede shoes.

Getting the “Glee”

The cast of Glee, coming to Fox this fall

The cast of Glee, coming to Fox this fall

I was a choirgirl. From sixth grade until I started grad school, I was in some kind of singing ensemble. When I was a teenager, I was in all of my high school’s musicals and hoped to one day be on Broadway. Chamber choir. Church choir. Pop choir. Texas All-State Choir. Concert and Sight-Reading. Solo and Ensemble. Voice lessons. Recitals. Running clinics for my mom’s junior high ensembles. E-T-C. This was my life.

It’s perhaps no surprise that I have a bit of a vested interest in Glee, Fox’s new TV series that focuses on a high school glee club in Ohio. The network ran the pilot after American Idol last night. Here are my thoughts.

First, the pros:
1. I will watch Jane Lynch in anything. She’s awesomely funny and brings some butch swagger to every project. She’s already my favorite thing about the show. I love her take on the tough, unimpressed cheerleading coach.
2. I love that Mercedes, the full-figured African American glee clubber, demands to sing lead and refuses to be in the background. The actress, Amber Riley, can really sing! I also like that she’s quick to announce whiteness, referring to the ensemble’s jock ringer as “Justin Timberlake”. Oh, and she wears cute outfits. I especially liked her sailor outfit at the end of the pilot when she insists on managing the glee club’s wardrobe. I was in charge of our choral program’s wardrobe senior year. I anticipate hilarity to ensue.
3. I think Kurt, the gay boy in glee club, has potential. He is stereotypical, but shows promise as a complex character. Some might think it’s cliched to have a gay teen in glee club but, eh, I knew three gay guys who were in the musicals, including my first boyfriend. It’s a safe space for some of them. Also, I liked Kurt’s rendition of “Mr. Cellophane” from Chicago because a) it’s ironic, as he’s totally not — he’s out and proud and b) it’s poignant, because he’s bullied and unpopular.
4. They totally nailed the characterization of Rachel Berry, the glee club’s aspiring ingenue. She’s determined, alert, ruthlessly perky, consumately professional, and more than a little insecure. And actress Lea Michele, a Broadway veteran, has got pipes!

And then the cons:
1. I can do without director Will Schuester’s totally unnecessary love triangle between his materialistic, castrating wife and Emma Pillsbury, the perfectionist guidance counselor with the cute haircut and wardrobe. UGH. SO OVER LOVE TRIANGLES. If they cut this, Mr. Schuester could actually be shown directing the glee club.
2. Since this is TV, the characterization of glee club is a little far-fetched. These kids have a full band, which seems too expensive. Our pop choir was accompanied by our harried choir director on piano. And a fancy rival school has the girls in a flirty polka-dotted dress when they sing Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” that seems too expensive and flashy for the average high school show choir. Especially since I’m imagining the girls in this emsemble to have multiple outfits. We just had one black and gold dress and jacket, bless us.
3. I doubt the average high school show choir could get away with singing a song like “Rehab” anyway because of the “mature” subject matter. Again, TV is fantastical.
4. While I like Mercedes and Kurt, they’re pretty broad and tokenistic. As is Tina C., the Asian American girl who, apart from a stutter, has absolutely no defining characteristic. Oh, she does sing Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl” for her audition. I can do with never hearing this song again.
5. Finn, the football star with the gift of song is even more boring than Chris Klein in American Pie. But these guys usually are.
6. Speaking of Finn, I don’t remember choir membership being such a form of social suicide. We had male and female jocks in choir. Several members of our cheerleading squad were featured dancers in the musicals. It wasn’t so much the refuge for the school’s social outcasts as the show chooses to depict it.
7. I don’t love the singing. Overall, it’s very pop. Too nasal, too pinched, too thin. Breath support should come from the diaphram instead of the chest. The singers should drop their jaws and round their mouths. But, it came on after American Idol, so it doesn’t surprise me. Singing has to be commercial here.

Still some work to do, but I’m willing to spend a bit more time with it in the fall.