Pop Goes the Culture
By Paul Tatara
As Valentine’s Day approaches, you may find yourself in need of a song that rises from earthly desire and suspends itself somewhere near heaven. Though I’m certainly not the first person to suggest it, there’s no better place to look for romance than in the works of Frank Sinatra. I know what some of you are thinking. Sinatra is for grandparents. He’s corny. That ring-a-ding-ding crap is so outmoded, it’s not even worth satirizing anymore. But great art is great art, regardless of when it was created, and Sinatra was one of the supreme artists of the 20th century. If you don’t know that yet, you simply haven’t listened closely enough.
It’s not like I sit around the house playing 78’s on a Victrola. I’m gripped by music ranging from Charlie Parker to John Coltrane, from the Sex Pistols to Hüsker Dü, from Lily Allen to the Flaming Lips. Sinatra easily gives me as much pleasure as any of them . . . and I do mean easily. His effortless sense of swing, and the way he casually elevates a word, let alone an entire lyric, to the level of high drama, emerges from true genius. The idea that Sinatra is “old-fashioned” doesn’t even occur to me. My spirit tells me what’s worth embracing, and, along with many other things, I embrace Sinatra.
If you’re capable of accessing your secret longings, if you haven’t closed yourself off to such a degree that you can’t get there anymore, I’m convinced that Sinatra can stake a claim in your consciousness. Songs he recorded 50 years ago still ring absolutely true, because the human condition never really changes—only the arrangements do. Whether you’re ready to laugh, cry, or swoon, Sinatra is a brilliant, utterly viable option. And he always will be.
The problem from a modern perspective, of course, is that many listeners can’t get past the much-publicized failings of Sinatra the man. Serial womanizing, a sense of self-assurance that bordered on contempt for anyone who questioned him, a sometimes shocking mean streak, and long-standing Mafia ties are just a few of the lowlights. But he was also a deeply sensitive person with a burning passion for civil rights, and he was extremely generous with the people he loved. He got off on the sheer possibilities of life, and you can clearly hear it when he sings.
Though his outward demeanor was cocky and cynical, Sinatra seemed incapable of maintaining those barriers when he stood before a microphone. “Whatever else has been said about me is unimportant,” he once noted. “When I sing, I believe. I’m honest.”
What more can we ask of an artist? If that exact quote had been attributed to John Lennon, rock & roll fans would nod their heads in unison. Honesty lies at the heart of what Lennon accomplished with his music. It lies at the heart of every great artist, whether it’s John Lennon, Charlie Chaplin, or Pablo Picasso. So, if you’ve never properly approached Sinatra’s work because you assume there won’t be anything for you to hang onto, that your post-’60s sensibilities have no room on the rack for a dark-blue fedora, remember that Sinatra supplies us with something we all long for on a daily basis. And, though he may have been a flawed person—Who isn’t?—he does so with an unmistakable sense of compassion.
Unlike Lennon, Sinatra didn’t write the songs he recorded—or, at least, not very many of them. But he locked his sights so assuredly on the Great American Songbook, he made the songs his own, then passed them on to us as dazzling gifts. The series of concept albums he released for Capitol Records in the 1950s, in particular, are so genuine and endlessly resourceful it’s mind-boggling. Make no mistake. This guy had it down.
No one sang about newfound love with the giddiness of Sinatra. No one else conveyed the heartbreak of lost love with more profound beauty. He eased himself into the soul of a song until its beat, what other singers measure through the bass drum or the high-hat, pounded from his own heart. His ability to drag out a syllable or slide a word down a slope to wring new meaning from a phrase was impeccable, like a great actor who knows the text to such a degree, he can play with it to reveal its core truths. On his finest recordings, Sinatra seems in love with the sound of the words as much as their meaning. You can get drunk on the joy he takes in what he’s doing.
Again, if you’re searching for the perfect song for Valentine’s Day, pick up some Sinatra. It’s one sure way to get to the heart of the matter. And it’s easy to dance to.
To read more of Paul Tatara’s musings, visit www.wallofpaul.com