May 16, 2009

Be Soul Good

Singing, and being a singer, is very often related to being a man or being a woman (whatever the individual case may be). This is pronounced even more so in the love-song filled halls of rhythm and blues. One has got to be a guy in order to sing to a girl. The soul singer's voice becomes infused with that sex-meaning, even when the lyrics stray from love (see everyone's mother melting over her favorite R&B artist's voice). Lady crooners too need to fill up their voices with passion. The difference between the voice of the male singer and the female singer is somewhat ineffable (certainly related to pitch), and not necessarily limited by the actual gender of the singer (uncertainty as to who it is that is hitting those high notes). Even on her first record in 1958, Nina Simone seems to trouble this distinction. But she does so more profoundly than simply shifting into a masculine register, rather her voice falls distinctly outside of sexual categories:

Love Me or Leave Me
- Nina Simone, Little Girl Blue (1959)

The timbre of her voice is surprising. There is something metallic about it, and it is, of course, quite eerie. In her rendition of Gershwin's "Porgy", she somehow conveys a sensation beyond the intended emotion of the song. This sensation is apparent from even the first line: "I loves you Porgy..." It is a sorrow beyond concerns of this world. Departing from the tragedy of the dramatic situation (which is what covering a single song from a musical does), she sings the blues, the pure quality of the blues. The Gershwin song is just a vehicle for her tenor:

I Loves You Porgy - Nina Simone, Little Girl Blue (1959)

Conceiving her status as 'artist' proves quite enjoyable. She transcends many typical categories, including, importantly, The Feminine. This, again, is something particularly rare for soul artists. Her genius itself, and the fact that she composed her own music contributes to her transcendence of gender roles. To get a little theoretical: It is not that Simone accesses some status reserved for the male-singer, and it is also not that she becomes some version of male-soul. Furthermore, this is not to say that the woman in soul can do less than the man. Rather that, because she is not the one with the 'power to make soul' (a power reserved for record executives and successful male artists), the woman has the opportunity to become Soul. The man can only use Soul, while the woman can be it. What makes Simone particularly incredible is that when she becomes Soul, she does not become sensuous:

Watching this video I just keep thinking to myself how so cool she is. What I wrote above about her "becoming Soul", I don't care about as much as this feeling that she is doing her own thing in such a fucking serious way.

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