Yesterday, I bought De-Lovely, the soundtrack to the Kevin Kline movie about Cole Porter. It's an audacious experiment, since a lot of the songs are interpretations by current rock stars: Let's Do It by Alannis Morrisette? Begin the Beguine, by Sheryl Crow? Let's Misbehave, by Elvis Costello?
I was excited, because I like it when genres collide. As far as I'm concerned, one of the greatest soundtracks of all time was Judgment Night, a completely forgettable movie that mixed Slayer with Ice-T, Sonic Youth with Cypress Hill, and other alternative rock bands with rap stars. The results were mixed, but it was fascinating.
Alas, De-Lovely is not fascinating. It isn't terrible - it's hard for a competent musician to destroy the strong melodies and lyrical fireworks of Cole Porter - but the word "pedestrian" is floating across my mind. There's nothing wrong about it, but there are no tracks that reach out and grab me the way like Shirley Horn does on "Love for Sale." Or Fred Astaire on "Night and Day." Or even Ella Fitzgerald singing "Let's Do It."
And I think I can trace that to the birth of rock and roll, sadly.
As much as I love rock, it was never about singing; it's always been about rhythm, and melody, and background noise. Rock is lyrically bulletbroof. Anyone can sing Louie Louie, and it's still a good song. It doesn't take a master to sing Aerosmith songs, as long as they're in your range. Tune in to almost any K-Rock station, and most of them are singable.*
It's made easier because rock largely led to the death of inflection. Time was, the radio stations were crowded with cover tunes, because every artist had a radically different style of singing. Frankie could sing a song, and then Dean could sing it, and then Billie could sing it, and even though the backing music was usually fairly similar, it was the voice that transformed it. They stopped in different places, put the emphasis in different places, sung louder or lower whenever they felt like it... And it was uniquely theirs. Their voice alone put a spin on it.
Whereas what's the big diff when someone does a rock cover? They change the background music around. Suddenly, they transform an old jazz tune into a punk song! Or take some 1970s disco thing and metal it up, dude! The point is to transform the song via the music, not the words.
Rock and roll singers, range and stage presence aside, are usually pretty interchangeable. They shout to the beat.
Don't get me wrong, because this isn't a complaint - that's the delight of rock and roll, baby! You can sing along in your car and feel like a God. (As opposed to say, karaokeing to Frank Sinatra, where you know you're botching it.) Rock and roll is good times tunes, with simple lyrics, for everyone to enjoy. If Cole Porter is a shrimp cocktail, rock is the beer bong.
But at the same time, we have largely lost that ability to create our own phrasing. Cole Porter's songs are delicate, winding melodies with a lot of space for customization - that's why they're classics. There are a thousand ways to sing "Let's Do It," depending on your mood and intonation.
But most rock singers don't have that ability. They're largely the same. Sure, it's Sheryl Crow singing, but I wouldn't know that unless you told me. She's not distinctive. She doesn't know how to sell it. She has a voice, but not A Voice... And her version is pretty close to what my version would be.
And so De-Lovely doesn't exactly fail, but it's nothing more than a collection of nice cover tunes. Nothing sparky, nothing awful... It's just there. I'll listen to it, but I won't be inspired.
I will miss that ability, though. That special flair that's mostly confined to Broadway these days. And I'll listen to my old Porter albums and reflect upon the last of a dying breed.
* - Now is the point where Some Large Idiot gets bristly and says, "Hey! [My favorite rock band] involves singing really well!" Leaving aside the inevitable debate about whether this is true (Led Zeppelin fanatics consistently overrate Robert Plant), what I say still applies to most of rock and roll.