The world is full of pop singers who have been carefully manufactured by record companies to make as much money as possible. Packaged and moulded their popularity is not based on talent, as a great deal of their appeal comes from an audience’s desire to be just like them. Talent and artistry take a back seat to glamour and celebrity as videos, stage shows and public appearances are carefully orchestrated in order to capitalize on their potential as image-making tools. The practice has been refined to the point where pretty much anybody can be slotted into the role of the “Star” and given their hour in the sun until the public bores of them and they are replaced by the next in line.
Fortunately, in a kind of alternative universe there exist those whose glamour does not need to be artificially generated as they their art gives them the ability to cast spells without anybody’s machinations. Edith Piaf, Maurice Chevalier, Lotte Lenye, Jacques Brel, and Marlene Dietrich were all singers with the gift to hold an audience in the palms of their hands just by opening their mouths. While the age of the great singers has pretty much passed us by, there are still a few out there who possess both the talent and charisma required to bewitch an audience. It takes more than technical proficiency, as the elements essential to accomplish this — heart, soul and passion — aren’t those which can be learned or taught.
Listening to Marianne Faithfull’s new release, Horses And High Heels, out June 28 on the Naive Records label, is probably one of the few opportunities you’ll have to experience a contemporary singer worthy of being included in the list above.
Faithfull has been around for a long time now, first coming to public attention with her performance of Jagger and Richards’ “As Tears Go By” in 1964. While she achieved a certain degree of popularity in the 1960s, performing in films and singing, drug and alcohol abuse caused her to fall out of the public eye. Just when she had probably been dismissed by most as another lost child of the 1960s, another talent gone to waste, she released Broken English in 1979 and was thrust back into the spotlight. While most of the attention focused on the explicit nature of some of the songs’ lyrics and for what the songs had to say about her ex-boyfriend Mick Jagger, the album’s true significance was the changes it marked in Faithfull. Gone was the young ingenue of the early 1960s with the sweet voice. Superficially it seemed like she had been replaced by a world weary and justifiably bitter woman with a voice sounding like it had been rubbed raw by emotion and experience.
However, instead of letting herself become trapped in a role as confining as the pretty young thing of her early career, after the cathartic outpouring of Broken English she was able to put the anger behind her and begin her career as a singer and actor again. Now when she performs and records she is able to bring not only her years of experience to bear on the material she elects to perform, but her abilities as both an actor and singer as well. As a result she doesn’t just sing a song, she delves into its very heart allowing the listener the chance to experience it to the fullest. That’s not to say she makes a meal of a song by emoting all over the place or indulging in any of the melodramas so many seem to think passes as genuine emotion. Like any decent actor, once she has understood the song emotionally and intellectually, she merely serves as a conduit to transmit whatever she’s performing for her audience’s appreciation.