Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Ethel Waters and Manufacturing Meaning in Popular Music: Some Thoughts

“Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone” is a pop song written by Sam Stept and Sidney Clare, describing the singer's breakup with their lover and request for the lover not to talk negatively about the singer or their relationship. It was a hit in 1931 for Bert Lown and His Orchestra as well as the pioneering crooner Gene Austin. I've always enjoyed Ethel Waters' version of the song. Waters, an African-American vaudeville and pop recording star, is backed on the recording by an all-star assemblage of (white) jazz musicians: Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, Manny Klein, Rube Bloom. And her treatment of the song is quite unusual. After starting with the rarely-heard intro, she sings the chorus twice: first straight, as written (presumably) and as sung by pop singers like Austin, but then jazzing it up in the repeat. (This is similar to Jelly Roll Morton's “transformations” of pop, ragtime, and even classical numbers into jazz material, which he demonstrates at length in the Library of Congress sessions.) This jazzing is accomplished through altering the written melody, through playing with her phrasing (often singing words off the beat), and even half-speaking many of the lyrics. All of these jazz-inflected changes effectively highlight her now altered tone – the polite request of the first chorus has turned into a harsh warning, with Waters now changing many of the lyrics. These changes are foreshadowed in the middle of the instrumental break, between the two choruses, when Goodman breaks into a quick hot clarinet lead and the rhythm section starts swinging harder; before she begins the second chorus, Waters announces her intentions:

And I wish to state clearly again

and proceeds with this changed attitude throughout the chorus, complete with exaggerated emphasis of several words:

And get this straight:
If there's anything 'bout me you can't say real nice
Then, sugar, absolute silence – at any price

Especially noticeable is the slight directed at her now ex-lover:

In fact, I'm too modest to admit
That I've known or had better men than you put on the spot

The result is a bittersweet song transformed into a fun romp. More than that, in Waters's voice the song becomes liberating, something of a feminist statement.

Or, that's always how I've heard the song. Recently when I was listening to this song with a friend, she expressed annoyance with the second chorus, suggesting that Waters is doing the very thing that she is warning against – talking smack about her ex-lover. Between my original reading and this alternate one, we of course have a case of two listeners interpreting a song in different ways. But I think the role of the listener is highlighted even more if we make an additional observation: in a sense, both views can be correct without being contradictory. At the core of this observation is a simple question:

Who is the audience of the song?

To put it another way, who is being addressed in this song? In my interpretation, it is the singer's ex-lover: this is the narrative level of the song. But in my friend's interpretation, it is the listening public at large. This is the real-world level of the song, where it is a recording on a physical disk.

In terms of literary theory, the different potential audiences would be the narratee and the actual audience. The narratee is the character, either explicit or implied, whom the narrator addresses. Just as the narrator is a character who is largely distinct from the real-life author of a work, so the narratee is similarly a literary construct largely distinct from the reader – or, in the case of music, the listener.
The narratee is to the narrator as the reader is to the author. At first glance, this may make interpretation seem easy. Ethel Waters' character, in the world of the song, is simply addressing her lover; Ethel Waters the singer, meanwhile, is addressing her listening public. But the line is not as distinct as we might think. True, we as listeners likely imagine that there is some distinction between the character or narrator that Ethel Waters the singer plays and between the authors Stept and Clare (the songwriters) and Waters (the “transformer”). But what about other cases, especially the work of singer-songwriters, where songs are seen as a much more personal thing? As an example, consider “Ballad in Plain D” by Bob Dylan. The song describes Dylan's actual breakup with his real-life girlfriend Suze Rotolo, and includes a particularly nasty portrait of Rotolo's real-life sister. In fact, due to this nastiness, Dylan later came to regret writing this song:

Oh! Yeah. That one . . . That one I look back at and I say, “I must have been a real shmuck to write that.” I look back at that particular one and say, of all the songs I've written, maybe I could have left that alone.
Written in My Soul: Conversations with Rock's Great Songwriters, Bill Flanagan (1986)
In a case like this – and in fact in so much popular music from the last 50 years – our expectations as an audience are for the singer to be singing something real, something sincere, something authentic. Did listeners in earlier decades have different expectations of singers and songs? Is it legitimate for us to retroject those expectations when we listen to earlier recordings – like those of Ethel Waters?

There is always a special ambiguity in songs addressed to the second person (you vs he/she): who is the “you” being addressed? Songs addressed to the second person are rarely addressed to the audience, although there are exceptions – compare the first verse of “One Chord Wonders” by the Adverts or “Faults” by the Prefects, songs directly about the performer-audience relationship. In recorded song, the ambiguity is only deepened. Prior to the invention of recording technology, performances were always a one-time event, limited to the amount of time it took to finish a song, and heard only by people within the performing venue. The invention of recording technology complicates the ambiguity in audience with a new tension, a paradox: on the one hand, the actual audience for a recorded performance is much larger (or at least potentially so); on the other, the technology allows for a much more intimate experience. With recorded sound, the audience is expanded potentially infinitely – through both the ability to replay a performance again and again, and the mass-production of the record allowing for it to be distributed much more widely. At the same time, anyone can listen to a recording in a small group or even alone, allowing for a direct connection between the singer – any singer, even a star performer – and the individual listener. This intimacy was only enhanced further with the change from acoustical to electric recording technology in the mid-1920s. Instead of a singer having to shout into an recording horn, and having a muffled sound on record, singers could now sing with softer and more nuanced voices into a microphone, and have a record with higher fidelity. The result, not surprisingly, of the almost immediate adoption of this technological improvement was an almost immediate rise of the “crooner,” with softer vocalists like Gene Austin replacing the suddenly outdated styles of performers like Al Jolson.

This paradox, the combination of a vastly expanded audience with a newly intimate listening experience, results in a massive tension, leading us again to ask:

Who is the audience (or audiences) of recorded song?

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