Monday, March 21, 2011

The Terror of the High C's: A Small Treasury of Musical Delusions, Part 2

In the words of the Countess LuAnn, money can't buy you class. In this day and age, it can, however, buy you a singing voice- or at least, a weird robotic approximation of one!

We are lucky, of course, to have been blessed with such artists as Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, that Heidi person, The Countess and of course Kim from Real Housewives of Atlanta. Without the magic of autotune, this may have never been possible. Can you imagine a world where the only people who sang professionally were those born with the ability? That seems pretty unfair, right? However, one courageous crazy rich lady struck out on her own.

Florence Foster Jenkins

Unlike the ladies I mentioned above, FloFo was actually kind of a cool lady and I actually admire her quite a bit. As a people, ladies named Florence tend to be pretty bad ass. Flo Ballard (my favorite Supreme), Florence Griffith Joyner, Florence Nightingale, Florence and the Machine... Anyway, FFJ dreamed her whole life of becoming a singer. She begged her super rich daddy to send her abroad to study music, but he refused (not sure whether this was due to patriarchal grossness or the fact that he realized that she weren't too good at it). So, instead of doing that, she eloped with a doctor who was also totally lame and wouldn't let Flo sing! After about 7 years she kicked him to the curb and started making her own way, working as a pianist and shacking up with an actor! Hot!

St. Clair Bayfield! Flo's actor guy. This is the biggest picture I could find of him. On another note, how awesome would it be to have your first name be "St." something or another? Super awesome, probably. I bet you could get away with a lot that way. St. Clair comes from St. Clare of Assissi, who was the patron saint of eye diseases, laundry, needleworkings and television. Neat!

So, anyway, Flo's rich dad died, leaving her a shit ton of money. Naturally, she used this money to jump start her singing career! So, she founded The Verdi Club so that she could host society type events all the time at which she would sing terribly for hours and hours and change costumes with every song. Said costumes often involved tinsel and wings and flowers and she made most of them herself!

But that wasn't enough for Flo, she wanted to bring her music to ALL people, not just fancy society people. So, put she out some records!

Rejoice! This is Flo's rendition of Mozart's "Queen of the Night"- which is, by the way, a notoriously hard piece to sing, even if you are super awesome at the singing. I mean, god love her, it's just horrendous. The redeeming value to her performances is that she really was totally fucking sincere, totally without artiface. She loved music, she loved wearing costumes, she loved singing. So she did it. This, of course, is how it is supposed to sound:

Ok, so Florence obviously knew that some people were making fun of her. But instead of letting that get her down, she responded with the way many mothers accused of dressing too sexy appearing on the Maury show often do- by basically accusing the audience of being haters who are just jealous. Awesome. The people around her usually supported this delusion because she was a nice lady and they liked her too much to burst her bubble. But at the end of the day, despite her bravado, Flo had this to say about her musical career; "People may say I can't sing, but no one can say that I didn't sing."

As someone who really can sing and does not (except for the occasional karaoke adventure and general silliness)- I have to admit, I actually am kind of jealous of someone who has that much chutzpah. Whenever I do sing in front of people, I feel like it needs to be so mindblowingly awesome that it, in some small way, makes up for everything else that might be wrong with me, which usually results in my throat closing up and me feeling like I want to die. It's kind of pathetic, actually.

But I digress! There were many other awesome things about Ms. Jenkins. For one, her accompanist's name was Cosme McMoon! Also, one time she was in a taxicab accident, and afterwards discovered that it caused her to be able to sing even higher than before, so instead of suing the cab company, she sent the driver a fancy box of cigars.

After many years of performing for just her friends, FFJ finally capitulated to public demand... and performed at Carnegie Hall! The performances were a smash hit, selling out well in advance! Sadly, a month later, she passed away at the age of 76 in the home she shared with her actor boyfriend. Her life was kind of an inspiration, I think. At least to me. It would be nice if we all had the kind of brass balls she did to just go ahead and do what we want and just not give a shit. So now you know all about Florence Foster Jenkins, and you can talk about her at cocktail parties!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Something Good, Something Sad: A Small Treasury of Musical Delusions of Grandeur (Part 1)-

Sometime last week, the Internet gave birth to a musical sensation called Rebecca Black. A 13 year old with rich parents who enjoys cereal, Autotune and the pondering the eternal existential dilemma of which seat to take in the car.

For posterity:

The Internet, of course, is a lot like "Moon Unit", the gerbil my sister and I had when we were kids- in that, in the time it takes you to go to the Caldor and back again, she will eat her babies and leave you scarred for life. At first, we laughed, because it was a hilariously poorly written song sung by someone who cannot sing. Then we got all mad and bitter about Autotune and spoiled 13 year-olds whose parents not only let them drive around in cars with older boys without their seat belts on, but buy them fancy music videos about such activities. Then, we analyzed our reactions, thought about what it all meant, and some came to the conclusion that this was something that could only happen in our time, with our newfangled Internet, short attention span, and smart ass love of things that are so bad they're wonderful.

But Rebecca Black is not the first of her kind by a long shot... I shall present, this week, an examination of her predecessors.

The Cherry Sisters

When my sister and I were kids, I used to make her put on "shows" with me for our parents and relatives. Said "shows" consisted of things like mini-operas about how we were orphans lost in the woods somewhere with someone trying to kill us because we were too beautiful to live; elaborately costumed and poorly choreographed interpretive dances to Tina Turner, Whitney Houston, and for some reason, Burl Ives songs- and of course, lots and lots of Girl Group style singing. "Leader of the Pack", "Don't Mess With Bill" and "Stop in The Name of Love" were of course favorites due to the potential for combining both singing and interpretive dance.

After these performances, our mother would clap wildly and tell us we sounded "just like The Cherry Sisters". Oh, how we'd beam with pride! Surely, Our Sainted Mother believed that we were destined for stardom! Or not. Unfortunately, Mom was totally a jerk, and I found out way later that The Cherry Sisters were actually famous for being terrible.

Hailed by The New York Times as "Four Freaks From Iowa", The Cherry Sisters came from a small town in which everyone patted them on the head and told them they were wonderful. Probably because they felt bad that the sisters were orphans and their brother had gone missing and such. Emboldened by this, they decided to take their act, "Something Good, Something Sad", on the road. Said act consisted of very poorly sung songs about Amurica and Jebus and how smoking a cigar will inevitably lead to a ladies ruin- as well as short morality plays involving terrible ethnic impersonations, and a "tableau" in which one of the sisters was suspended from a giant crucifix. Wherever they performed, the sisters were met with godawful reviews and vegetables. Many, many vegetables. Rotten ones, to be exact. It was sort of like an old-timey Rocky Horror. It got to the point where, eventually, The Cherry Sisters had to perform with a mesh net in front of them to protect them from the onslaught of produce.

Yet, the sisters soldiered on, apparently believing that all the bad reactions and reviews were due to professional jealousy. While one would like to think that it was some kind of Andy Kaufmann-like performance piece, and assume the ladies were in on the joke the whole time... it's pretty unlikely that this was the case. Extremely Puritanical in their ways, The Cherry Sisters took everything pretty seriously. They refused to go to Coney Island on account of the fact that there were ladies there in bathing suits. None of them were ever married and in fact, they insisted that none of them had ever even been kissed. The fact is, they really believed in their act, and believed that the dour moral stringency they adhered to and promoted was the exact thing that the country needed.

They sold out shows wherever they went because people were curious to see how bad they really were (and probably excited to throw their rotten vegetables). Newspaper theater critics (the media bloggers of their day) delighted in cleverly verbally skewering the act. One such critic, William Hamilton, went too far and ended in a landmark Supreme Court Case- Cherry vs. Des Moines Leader.

Excerpt from said review:

"When the curtain went up...[t]he audience saw three creatures surpassing the witches in Macbeth in general hideousness. ... Their long, skinny arms, equipped with talons at the extremities, swung mechanically , and anon were waved frantically at the suffering audience. The mouths of their rancid features opened like caverns, and sounds like the wailing of damned souls issued therefrom. They pranced around the stage...strange creatures with painted features and hideous mien. Effie is spavined, Addie is knock-kneed and string-halt, and Jessie, the only one who showed her stockings, has legs without calves, as classic in their outlines as the curves of a broom handle."

Which is maybe one of the most hilarious things I have ever read. The sisters tried to sue dude for libel, and lost because the press has the right to fair comment and because the judges had seen their act.

The sisters got their "big break" when in 1896, Oscar Hammerstein I (The OG Hammerstein. His son was the "Rodgers and Hammerstein" Hammerstein.) decided to bring their act to the bright lights of Broadway. Not because he thought they were awesome, but because his shit was failing and he needed to generate some revenue. No one was coming to his shows at the new Olympic Theater because it was kinda out of the way and smelled funny. Ye Olde Simon Cowell that he was, he realized that people would be more likely to watch his real show if they could watch some hilariously, cluelessly bad ones first. Especially if they got to throw tomatoes at them. He was totally right- people clamored to see the worst/best act ever-Hammerstein made boatloads of money from their 6 week stint and the day was saved!

Eventually, after about 7 years of touring, the ladies retired back to their hometown in Iowa, opened a bakery, tried to revive their act a few times and then died pretty much penniless, mostly of Oregon Trail type diseases. Their spirit, however, live on today in some of our most notable YouTube and E! Channel based performers.

Next up in this series, we shall discuss the gloriousness that was Florence Foster Jenkins! Stay tuned, bitches.