You know what? If Kristen Chenoweth, Lea Michele, and Liza Minnelli were in the periphery of yesterday’s Scarjo post, let’s make today’s post be all about them and their awesome pipes.
So, if you’re watching Glee, you might have been so excited to see a TV show that closed with a rousing rendition of Queen’s “Somebody To Love,” getting at least one person closer to her goal of seeing it performed by an entire dramatic ensemble like the “Wise Up” scene in Magnolia.
More importantly, you might have been won over by Chenoweth and Michele’s duet on “Maybe This Time.” (BTW, thanks Neesha for making me think to spotlight this scene.) Followers know the cruel irony of this song’s inclusion in a series as deceptively sad and desperate as this one. Chenoweth’s April Rhodes is a washed-up former glee clubber with a surprising amount of Jerri Blank’s warped charm. Michele’s Rachel Berry is a talented, go-gettin’ ingenue who is just barely hiding how profoundly lonely she is.
You may also recognize the show’s not-so-secret gift of making the sheer cathartic power and physical release of a pop song or musical number to make both the singer and the spectator transcend to a higher plane (for a more abstract example of how the corporeality of singing can reinvigorate both parties, I’ll point you toward the Patrick Daughters-directed music video for Grizzly Bear’s “Two Weeks,” wherein the four-piece are so overjoyed by the power of singing, their heads catch on fire as I get goosepimply).
If we dig a little deeper, the Minnelli reference comes in. “Maybe This Time” was originally written for Bob Fosse’s film adaptation of Kander and Ebb’s stage musical, Cabaret, which Rachel is starring in (and a real high school would almost certainly never stage, even though I begged our choir director for us to do it). The musical, adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s novel Goodbye to Berlin, involves the doomed romance between Cliff, an American journalist, and Sally Bowles, a blindly determined British showgirl who makes the decision to stay in 1930s Berlin just as Hitler is starting to get a chokehold on Germany while her partner flees back to the states. In the movie version, Bowles is American, and played with put-upon worldliness and brittle vulnerability by Liza Minnelli, who won the Oscar for Best Actress for her performance.
Admittedly, if the song Glee had chosen was “Cabaret,” which was in both the stage and film versions, Liza’s version of it would add another layer of readability, as it’s impossible for me to hear this version of the song, which is performed right at the moment when Bowles’s personal life is going to hell, and not think of Mama Judy Garland.
But I think these twin versions of “Maybe This Time” speak to a few key issues particularly poignant to women and girls’ relationship to musical theater and to the outside world: the gendered masquerade of happiness for the sake of upholding spectacle, the ability to stop time and transmorph because of the aural spectacle of your own voice, and the strength your voice has to keep you persevering. Because the push you’re looking for to get through the next set of insurmountable odds might be found by landing that high note.
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.
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.
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.
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.