I'll never forget the first time someone called me an artist. It was my brother Alexi, and considering that he was the first artist I ever knew -- to this day, I'm in awe of the representations of reality (and sometimes fantasy) that he used to create when we were kids, using only paper and a pencil -- I took it as the ultimate compliment. But I thought he was kind of out of his mind. I can barely draw a straight line!
Eventually, I learned to expand my definition of "artist." By the time my friend Hernan in Buenos Aires called me an artist simply on the evidence of my reaction to watching Lisa Stansfield's "So Natural" video -- His implication: It takes an artist to respond to artistry so passionately and singularly -- I was willing to reluctantly accept the tag, though I don't believe he ever read a word I wrote that wasn't in the form of a text message. (Emails, texts, IMs and Spanish homework aside, I took about 15 months off from writing after I moved to BA.)
I'm still not sure that I am willing to include myself among the hallowed group of people I respect possibly more than anyone who's ever roamed God's green earth (true artists like Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush, Van Gogh, Picasso, Oscar Wilde, James Baldwin), but by the definition that I assign to "artist" -- someone who creates something tangible from the intangible -- I suppose that I might qualify. When I presented this idea to my friend Gavin, a singer, songwriter and musician who lives in Toronto, he agreed before taking us on one of our usual conversation detours. It led to our revisiting an old debate about interpretive singers, this time focusing on whether producing something "new" out of something pre-existing is true artistry.
My initial inclination is always to side with interpretive singers, especially since I've always considered the gift of interpretive singing to be an undervalued one, especially in this day and age when powerful A-list singers angle for credibility -- and increased royalties -- by insisting on songwriting credits for other people's work. Many jazz greats and performers of the Great American Songbook never wrote a word they sang, but they are as vital to the history of recorded music as the George and Ira Gershwins, the Irving Berlins and the Cole Porters; the Tin Pan Alley, Motown and Philly Soul song maestros; and the poets and great confessional singer-songwriters of the '60s and '70s onward.
There certainly can be artistry in interpretation, in taking someone else's song and transforming it into something completely new and different. What Aretha Franklin did with some of her greatest hits, songs like "Respect," "I Say a Little Prayer," "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and "Spanish Harlem," songs that were written by fellow songwriters, is nothing short of miraculous artistry. But then, all interpretive singers are not created equal. Where, for instance, does Celine Dion, singer of 1996's Album of the Year Grammy-winning Falling Into You, fall?
Gavin had a perfect response, one that I'm jealous I didn't come up with first.
"Though I respect Celine Dion for her drive and work ethic, I don't think of her so much as an artist as an athlete. To me, her abilities are primarily physical. She sings the hell out of other people's songs. I realize there's a certain artistry to interpreting and personifying songs. I just think of it as a different thing, and the word 'artist' doesn't come to mind. 'Actor' or 'athlete' does."
Words, or one of Dion's ballads, couldn't express how hard I fell for Gavin's athlete analogy. It was impossible for me to argue with it, so I decided to add to it. In accordance with my obsession with listing and organizing, I decided to categorize female singers who are thought of as being primarily interpreters of song. Who are the "artists" and who are the "athletes"? In the "athlete" column, I dropped the following names: Dion, Shirley Bassey, Barbra Streisand, Linda Ronstadt, Reba McEntire, Whitney Houston and early Mariah Carey, singers whose primary emphasis is/was on technique and presentation.
In the video above, Shirley Bassey looks and sounds great, but pay attention to her expressions and to her gestures. They're all so stagey, just like her trademark gusto and enunciation. Does she appear to be feeling what she's singing? It's all an act, her act. No wonder the word "actor" comes to Gavin's mind when he listens to/watches this expensive brand of singer. It's all very measured and rehearsed.
In her heyday, Linda Ronstadt was considerably less hammy than the Basseys and the Streisands. She was and still is one of the most incredible singers ever to grace Billboard's Hot 100. Though she was, by most accounts that I've heard (and from the evidence I gathered in my one interview with her), opinionated and strong-willed, her primary contribution was her voice. Most of her hit singles had previously been singles for other singers, and Ronstadt was never known for taking the classics to unexpected places. What she did was sing them well -- extremely well -- but did anyone actually ever think of her as that forlorn lovesick girl on blue bayou? We were just blown away by her voice. Yes, that voice again.
Consider "You're No Good," her only No. 1 single. Its instrumental coda is possibly the best moment in any of her recorded work, yet it had absolutely nothing to do with her. In fact, I recently listened to an interview with the late Andrew Gold, a singer-songwriter and musician who worked extensively with Ronstadt in the '70s, in which he revealed that she initially hated the instrumentation of "You're No Good." (In Gold's words: "She heard it and said, 'What the hell is all this Beatles stuff all over this track?'... She was like, 'Wow, this is too much,' and she didn't like it at first.") But what an Olympian vocal performance. What a musical athlete!
The interpretive-singer branch of the "artist" category ended up being far more eclectic, filled with stranger talents: Franklin, Tammy Wynette, Dionne Warwick, Dusty Springfield, Roberta Flack, Anita Baker, Emmylou Harris... I immediately noticed some similarities among them. With the exception of Dionne and Dusty, all of the female "artists" are/were gifted songwriters as well as singers. Flack even enjoyed success as a producer of her own albums in the '70s. Perhaps they bring/brought some elements of their approach to songwriting to their singing and therefore offer/offered a unique perspective with their un-originals that typically cast them in a revelatory light.
Maybe it's the emphasis not on reinventing outside compositions but on belting and showcasing one's voice that conjures an image of a singing athlete. That's why Streisand, who did co-write several of her key hits and even won a Best Original Song Oscar for "Evergreen (Love Theme from A Star Is Born)," is more "athlete" than "artist," while Dionne and Dusty, never big belters or technicians, but more masters of unique phrasing, exude(d) the aura of artistry despite not being songwriters.
I felt as if I needed to add a third category here, a category that includes performers who may write (or more accurately, "co-write," and often more in the aforementioned behind-the-scenes political sense -- yeah, that would be you, Beyoncé) but aren't quite "artists," nor are they exactly "athletes" (though if the pop charts were the Olympics, Beyoncé would be swimming in gold medals). These would be the "performers," a category that includes the traditional pop stars with the singing prowess of mere mortals, people like Diana Ross, Madonna, Janet Jackson, Britney Spears, Rihanna, Katy Perry and later Mariah Carey. (I almost added Lady Gaga, but I think she'd qualify as being part "athlete," part "artist," part "performer," part alien.)
For the most part, with the "performers," their producers deserve equal billing and in some cases, top billing. They're the queens of the video age. In concert, they rely on spectacle and costume changes because, well, that's entertainment, and for them, music appears to be less about expressing and moving (artistry) or impressing and excelling (athleticism) than entertaining. I could spend all day assigning singers to categories, but I'll stop myself here. Now that I've spent quality time listing and organizing, it's time to just enjoy the music.