There is an upside to my not being a drop-dead gorgeous superstar: whenever I’m working with a bunch of stubbly musicians and my singing’s not up to scratch, they tell me, bluntly. I got my first paid residency after helping a pianist move a piano to a restaurant. He asked me to take over from an extraordinarily handsome bloke who wowed the female diners but sang like a drain.
Scarlett Johansson is a drop-dead gorgeous superstar—a talented actress who, I’m sure she is relieved to read, is beautiful enough to overwhelm my mild (and redundant) prejudice against blondes. Despite her youth, she has already had a dazzling career, characterized by her shrewd choices of acting roles, public behaviour, and dress designers. I wouldn’t put my money on her appearing in an Uwe Boll film, being the subject of a “secret” sex video, or being photographed with her thong peeking above the waist of a pair of towelling slacks.
She has, however, a singing voice like two labradors spinning in an industrial tumble dryer. This is not a matter of taste; it’s a purely technical assessment based on her demonstrated inability to pitch notes accurately. If I had to comment on the texture of her voice I would have to rummage deeper in my bag of similes. Watch this video [via the Flea]. How long can you last with the volume turned up? Look at the expressions on the faces of the more-than-competent backing musicians. It’s almost the opposite of certain recent Bob Dylan live performances, in which seasoned session players fix their eyes on His Bobness to watch out for whatever batshit crazy thing he’s going to do to one of his songs next, knowing at least that, under the willful musical perversity, the guy has some understanding of the Western system of harmony. The scene on the other end of that link, instead, captures the only circumstances under which you can see a room full of men, gay or straight, conspicuously not looking at Scarlett Johansson.
I like singers and I envy those people who have the ability to sing really well. But then I also like ‘non-singers’ – the best of whom is Mark E Smith. And then there’s Dylan who, at least in the eighties, took the notion of ‘singing’ to whole new levels. And, of course, there’s Tom Waits whose songs Miss Johansson covers – which is what I thought accounted for her ‘unusual approach’.
Tiny Tim. Now there was a great non-singer.
Often “non-singer” singers are talented songwriters, like Leonard Cohen or Randy Newman (though I think Randy Newman’s songs would be even better if had a wider range). People who have a problem with Dylan’s voice but like his songs can listen to, say, the Neville Brothers (amongst many others), or who can’t bear Cohen’s Jennifer Warnes. I’m not sure what the point of Scarlett Johannson covering Tom Waits songs is, except that she’s somewhat easier on the eye.
I’m not sure about Randy Newman being a ‘non-singer’ – his voice was perfect (and very good technically, I’d say) for those early songs of his, particularly the stuff on Good Old Boys. He strained himself when he started to write and perform outside of his ‘natural’ zone – i.e movie and pop songs.
And I think Dylan as a performer is vastly underrated – whatever one thinks of his voice (I love it), he is easily the best interpreter of his own songs.
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