My dearest has taken some flack for criticizing a YouTube darling for “oversouling” their supposedly “vintage” offering of a new-fangled tune. And when I say vintage, I say a group that presents themselves as giving you a “vintage” interpretation – rather than someone whose new work has vintage or classic elements (Adele, Amy Winehouse, etc) alongside new material and new stylings.
Disliking the over the top melisma and the overselling stage manner so prevalent today, including in a song you announce you are playing in an “old fashioned” style, does not mean you’re a “hater” or only willing to listen to 78s.
This kind of oversouling (overselling, showboating, whatever you want to call it) is a marker in some supposedly vintage-styled music, the same way historical movies used to be produced with luxurious attention to detail — except for the hair, which always matched whatever era it was produced in.
This is not, on the other hand, a complaint you hear about shows like “Mad Men” because the overall texture or tone reflects what was common then, in terms of acting, emoting, expression, even colloquial language. (An awful lot of people back then had husbands, and fathers, who were as opaque as Don Draper.) Despite what people predicted from the ad campaign, I think American Hustle also nailed the ’70s in the same way.
Meanwhile, I’m pretty sure that no more than one Beach Boys’ single would have been heard by anyone in Modesto, California in May 1962, even though a character in American Graffiti complains about them destroying rock n’ roll – and that kind of stickling-detail doesn’t matter to me or anyone else watching nostalgically.
Complaining about anachronistic behavior like “oversouling” is not snarkiness about facts, or a strange insistence that everyone has to sound exactly like the people of the past, down to using the same recording equipment. It’s about intent, it’s about truly understanding the dynamics of the period you’re honoring. A showy, over the top melisma – rolling every note like you’re Mariah Carey – is simply not in keeping with vintage music. That melisma style is, right or wrong, fundamentally modern.
I follow what Maxwell DeMille and other retro-fied impresarios do to popularize vintage music. And I am also happy about Michael Buble, Diana Krall, and Harry Connick Jr. expanding traditional pop and jazz to new audiences… (and will defend them to those, even my buddies, who don’t like anyone new singing the Great American Songbook). They are taking and bending this music to their own personas and strengths, and in so doing make it meaningful for us all over again. I can’t stand Rod Stewart, but I respect that for his fans, him doing the Songbook his way is the same thing.
But if you’re saying you’re playing vintage music, know that I – and lots of potential fans who listen to plenty of music, from today and the past – would like you to keep it simple with the melisma. That was one of the wonderful aspects of music prior to the ’80s and superstars like Whitney Houston – singers, including those who had “smaller” voices or limited range, could blow your mind not by showing you how incredible their vocal chops were (“Listen to me! Listen to me!!”), but through subtlety. emotion and style.
A lot of budding singers think they’re stylists, but really, they don’t have the courage of their convictions, and so they take every note to the stratosphere. A lot of us are maxed out on that, regardless of what era we prefer our songwriting from. My grandmother was a performer in the 1920s who toured and had some success on radio and in concert, then went to Julliard to become a music teacher after getting married and having a child. I used to not understand why she shook her head every time Irene Cara’s “Flashdance” came on the radio, and started talking about Cara damaging her voice. Well, now I get it.
I sing too, and used to envy people who could hit notes that I couldn’t; now I am appreciative that at least most of the Beatles’ catalog can be sung by everyone, including strictly bathtub voices. There’s something to be said for just singing the notes, and meaning them.
Vintage performers: you don’t have to wear a costume, wink at us or roll your shoulders. If you’re vibing us some of the greats of the past who have inspired you – and some of what makes you great – we’ll get it. No oversouling required.
P.S. To see the antithesis of oversouling and showboating, I offer you torch singing – by Connee Boswell, Ruth Etting, and the later Julie London. Connee, of course, is the woman who inspired Ella Fitzgerald.
This Memorial Day, we remember Captain AJ High, who left us on April 3rd, just a few days short of his 90th birthday.
He was a caring, tough man who joined the Army Air Corps in the wake of Pearl Harbor, went on to fight in the Aleutian Islands (a forgotten part of the Pacific war), trained fighting men to continue the war in the skies, and helped build civil aviation as we know it today. He flew everything from prop planes to jet DC-9s, and trained many more pilots, including those who flew B-17 Fortresses, B-25s, P-38s, and B-29s.
He was one of the first pilots to fly for Trans-Texas Airways. If you’ve ever flown a Continental flight, you’ve enjoyed some of the hard work AJ gave to help build that company. Even in retirement, he worked as a docent teaching people about aviation, first at the Lone Star Flight Museum, and then at the 1940 Air Terminal Museum in Houston.
I had the pleasure of meeting, then interviewing AJ at length for the Library of Congress’s veterans oral history program. Thank heavens. As we continue to lose veterans, especially those who served in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam – we have to remember what else we risk losing. These veterans not only have their own stories to tell, but are the last link to their fallen comrades – who never got a chance to live out their lives or express their experiences.
Every single World War I veteran has now passed on in the United States, Canada, Britain, France, and other countries – we lost Florence Green just last year. Korean War veterans and others who served during the Cold War, but before Vietnam, are especially likely to be forgotten.
If every reenactor, every person who collects vintage clothing or trinkets, every rabid fan of TV shows like “Mad Men” – could conduct just one oral history interview, either audio only or on video – with someone who lived through wartime, we could be assured that we will never lose this history. Don Draper is just a character on a TV show, not a real Korean war veteran; “Pearl Harbor” was a fairly awful and not especially accurate film – but if we’re not careful, it’s only these fictional stories that will be remembered.
I challenge the communities who love aural storytelling, or “retro” and vintage things to seek out the AJ Highs of the world. Last Memorial Day, outside Abilene, I met two teenagers who independently began interviewing women pilots from World War II – never having heard about the Library of Congress program. They have helped preserve the stories of so many people. Every “vintage” and “retro” fan should be able to say they’ve done the same to preserve the experiences of people, not only ideas or clothing styles or music or films or architecture. Memorial Day is not just a day for you to enjoy the beach or a stroll at the mall. It is a beautiful day to honor veterans, and commit yourself to doing just one – just one – interview. I know a historian – a historian! – who has conducted several interviews over the years but just didn’t get the chance to record the one veteran – a family member – she most cared about.
You can work with the Veterans History Project today. It costs you no more than the price of a digital audio recorder, and a few hours of your time listening to someone tell you their experience. What you’ll be saving for the veteran, his or her family and friends — and for future citizens and historians of our civilization – is priceless.
You can hear excerpts of these audio stories at both the Veterans History Project website, as well as at Sound Stages Radio today, Memorial Day, and afterwards, when a special podcast will be made available of that day’s shows.