Friday, June 08, 2007

Edith Piaf vs. Janet, Beyonce and Madonna

Piaf, Holiday, Garland: All worked without a net
They bled for their art. Can today's pop femmes say the same?

By Ernest Hardy, Special to The Los Angeles Times

      There's a wonderful scene in "La Vie en Rose," the new film biography of Edith Piaf, in which the raw, young singer is being tutored on how to hold her hands and move her arms while singing. It's a thrilling how-she-came-to-be moment for fans of the diminutive, definitive French chanteuse, whose expressive stage mannerisms were part of her legendary performances.
      The tutoring session becomes a bitter struggle of wills between the Little Sparrow, as she was dubbed early in her career, and the demanding male teacher who's trying to instruct her in how to use artifice and theatricality to convey the truth of a song but in ways that seem natural and spontaneous.
      As biographer Margaret Crosland wrote in 1985's "Piaf": "She relied on a minimum number of props: the plain black dress for herself, a wineglass for [the song] 'Les Amants d'un jour' ... [and] a movement of the arms or hands to conjure up the accordionist or the clown, or the flow of the crowd of the street.... Edith was probably not aware how close her technique came to that so admired by Cocteau: the acrobat who works without a net, the skill that must not look like a skill."

      That's in marked contrast to the pop divas of today — Madonna, Janet, Beyoncé, all their clones and spawn — who quite pointedly show off how hard they are working: intricate and militaristic choreography, sinewy muscles and ripped, exposed abs, casts of seeming thousands in huge production numbers.
      Titillating as that may be, it speaks to the difference between women who bleed for their art and those who merely sweat for it. It's the difference between those whose hard work and craftsmanship are also rooted in the great unsolvable mysteries of art, talent and divine inspiration versus those who are the products of demographic analyses and steely media savvy.
      That's not to romanticize myths of the tortured artist or of the suffering female (or to deny that Janet, Madonna and Beyoncé have created some of modern pop's sweetest confections). But it points up the huge differences between how some of the most acclaimed female singers of past eras shaped their work, image and public personas and how their in-gender-only descendants do the same.

      Early in "La Vie en Rose," Piaf proudly points out that she and Billie Holiday were born in the same year. That coincidence is used as a foundation of sisterhood. And though she goes unmentioned in the film, Judy Garland's tortured mythology hangs over it as well.
      Among them, the trio cover the traditions of American jazz, French music hall, Hollywood musicals and American standards. They also have in common crippling drug addictions; tragic love affairs; childhoods defined by abuse, exploitation and abandonment; and brothels. (Piaf was briefly raised in one; Holiday briefly worked in one; and Garland, of course, was a child of the Hollywood studio system.)
      They all had extraordinary career highs and devastating lows in lives that are towering examples of the heroine's journey, their real-life stories proof that truth is more riveting than fiction. And it all plays out in their music.
      The struggles and experiences of Piaf and her peers gave their voices and overall bearings a gravitas and complex interior life that manifested in their work. Piaf classics such as "La Vie en Rose" (for which she wrote the lyrics) and "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" were not only huge international hits and deeply personal statements but can be read as proto-feminist anthems.
      They're simple and direct, intended to be accessible to the working-class folk from which Piaf sprang (her street cred could rival any rapper's), but they're also grand in scope. They ambitiously speak to universal themes of love, loss and struggle.

      By contrast, many of the proclamations of strength and survival by today's pop femmes are not so much simple as cliché-ridden. Tiny and laughably adolescent, most seem drawn from some narcissistic teen's diary. There's little poetry and less emotional risk in the work of most modern female pop stars because most of them lack the courage of vulnerability; they flee the weight of adulthood.
      The costs of life lessons have been metaphorically botoxed away because real adults, particularly adult women, are MIA from the pop landscape now. They're scary monsters.
      Veterans such as Dolly Parton, Chrissie Hynde and Annie Lennox or genre redlined stars like Erykah Badu, Cassandra Wilson and Jill Scott are doing grown-folks stuff, but they're on the margins. Drunken starlets and useless heiresses in and out of rehab and out of their panties are the ruling women.
      It might seem unfair to compare the Top 40 and "American Idol" divas of today with women who came up through the rough- and-tumble training grounds of jazz clubs, music halls and vaudeville. After all, the pop world has always been filled with disposable fluff by female artists. Thank God.
      But Piaf was also pop at one point. She appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show" eight times. She sold out Carnegie Hall. Garland was one of the biggest American mainstream stars ever. And it's not about age: Piaf, Holiday and Garland all started singing as teens or younger and did some of their best, most challenging work while in their 20s and 30s. In fact, none lived to be as old as Madonna is now.
      It really has to do with the toll that fetishized youth culture has taken on the overall culture, specifically how media and music industry dictates of womanhood have shrunken women — in every sense. We're all the losers.

The article can be found here

Blood Beats Vol. 1


conrad said...

You're right that the current top 40 "diva" image has been American Idoled all the way. Reversing a trend like that takes someone with tremendous charisma. Maybe an Amy Winehouse, although I'm not a huge fan of her style.

I guess Tori Amos has pulled this off with a much smaller audience

-- conrad from the Reader, circa '86

Reginald said...

I know Piaf was a Black woman!

Aubrey said...

You can't really compare Janet, Beyoncé with those true female artists. If their goal of hard work is a piece of crap, it doesn't matter how hard they work on it, it's still just crap. There's no soul in it, unlike Piaf's, Holiday's. That's the real difference. Janet, Beyoncé are better defined as entertainers, not artists.

Anonymous said...

i just saw piaf's movie and found it great. i did not know much of her life and it was amazing. yes, she was a great artist. but i don't agree with the comparison with madonna. she is an artist too, in a different way, because our times are different, both in worse and in better ways. she has proven to have defeated time and fashions. she is beyond that and always improving herself through new musical and personal challenges. she is an icon, a point of reference for so many people. just listen to madonna's least known songs and you'll find lots of edith piaf too, surprisingly. of course, madonna is more "modern", more "perfect". but were edith's moves and attitudes spontaneous when we all know shw was taught them? i agree with what is said of janet, beyoncè etc, but i truly think madonna - in different ways - is an artist, not the way edith was (everyone's different), but yes she is and will be a real contemporary artist.
up with edith ... up with madonna...

demitrus said...

I disagree with your article. Why do we always have to compare our singers/performers of today to singers of the past. One of the reasons that singers of old could be so great was because they did not have the baggage of having to be compared to past singers. But now with youtube and dvd and cds, all we do is compare. The artist doesn't have the freedom to create because they always have to live up to "some past.' Piaf, Billie, Judy all used artifice that someone taught them. I know people who don't even like Billie's voice. What Madonna and Beyonce have done with choreography is just as good as anything that Judy did. I love the past but "F" the past. Let's deal in now.