Man Without Qualities

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Desperada II

What to make of Jim Fusilli's peculiar defense of Linda Ronstadt in today's OpinionJournal? What to make of a professional writer with a great many strong opinions about popular music, who purports to give us the wisdom he has garnered after seeing about a thousand rock concerts.

"Seeing" concerts? Well, yes. It is a commonplace to note that many rock concerts - apparently including the ones favored by Mr. Fusilli over the years - are designed mostly to be "seen" and not "heard." That is: the music is often not the main point. For many people attending enough of these over-amplified events makes "hearing" any music almost out of the question. The condition is sometimes known as "club disease."

Perhaps that is why Mr. Fusilli chooses his vocabulary as he does. But in that case it is odd that his article seems to argue that one should focus on Ms. Ronstadt's music, music, music. He writes: She doesn't need the kind of publicity the Las Vegas incident provided to drive her career. As a musician, she still has the goods. But Mr. Fusilli is a subtle thinker. Although he is sure that Ms. Ronstadt doesn't need the kind of publicity the Las Vegas incident provided to drive her career, he also writes that It's too early to tell whether this controversy will re-energize Ms. Ronstadt's career. Ah, the inscrutable Wild Occident of Las Vegas!

In any event, is an entertainer mostly concerned about serving the best music! to her audience who gives concerts at which, as Mr. Fusilli puts it, she had to combat not only the noise from a passing elevated subway line and motorcycles roaring toward Coney Island, but a swarm of unidentified bugs? I've heard and enjoyed many outdoor concerts at venues where railroad, traffic, aircraft and other noises were very much part of the performance environment. Those venues include Ravinia and the Hollywood Bowl. But I've never thought such concerts were mostly about the music! Live and learn.

Mr. Fusilli deems Ms. Ronstadt a pop singer extraordinaire - mostly, it seems, because she has sold a lot of records. That is not an insubstantial accomplishment on Ms. Ronstadt's part - and she should be proud of it. But modern recording and amplification technology assure a performer that success need not depend on the quality of one's singing or voice. And Ms. Ronstadt - to her credit - has taken full advantage of such technology. But if pop singer extraordinaire is supposed to mean more than good, lifetime record sales, Ms. Ronstadt cannot be counted in the first rank. To really get a sense of what these modern marvels can do, it's worth watching (and that is the right word) a recording session of someone like Paul Simon, a man with no detectable singing gift whatsoever - but who has commendably sold a very large number of records. Of course, Mr. Simon's records are mostly of songs he has written himself - a claim which Ms. Ronstadt cannot hope to aspire, just in case Mr. Fusilli uses pop singer extraordinaire as having anything to do with the ability to compose a popular song. But Ms. Ronstadt sounds good in her recordings and good enough on stage. Indeed, the ordinary reader would likely be amazed what modern recording and amplification technology can do for the reader's own voice.

But the fact is that Linda Ronstadt has always been notoriously dependent on amplification and heavy engineering to make her musical points. When she is heard unamplified and unengineered the reviews generally have this cast, regardless of whether she is warbling pop or folk or opera

The fault was Ronstadt's. Her voice seemed small and uncertain, and she was unable to move from her strong, rock­belter's low register to her silvery high notes without shifting gears awkwardly in her uncertain middle range, where most of Mimi's singing is done. It seems doubtful that her deficiencies are readily curable.
Mr. Fusilli also oddly associates Ms. Ronstadt with a song canon for which she is not known - a canon of first-rate songs not one of which she has ever made a popular hit:

Mexican songs  ... the great American songbook ... Gershwins' "Someone to Watch Over Me," Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life" ... Cole Porter's "Get Out of Town"  ... Frank Loesser's "Never Will I Marry."
Yes, Ms. Ronstadt has covered a lot of recording turf over the last several decades. But these are not the songs that made Ms. Ronstadt's career or her pop singer record sales extraordinaire. Her well-known greatest hits were pleasant but distinctly second-rate musical offerings which are still available: here and here and here. As the saying goes, they are liked by their friends. Ms. Ronstadt recognizes her "greatest hits" - it's no accident she dedicated "Desperado" to Mr. Moore, not "Night and Day."

But perhaps wierdest of all is Mr. Fusilli's treatment of Ms. Ronstadt's introduction of her unwelcomed political material as just one more example of how she sprinkles a teensy bit of left-leaning politics onto the tail end of her shows, did so on Saturday night at the Aladdin Casino and Resort in Las Vegas. His implication seems to be that the audience should have known that she would "sprinkle" her politics as she did. Strange, then, that so many of them paid to be offended and claimed they didn't expect to be "sprinkled" at all. Also strange that Aladdin management says they didn't expect to be "sprinkled" by Ms. Ronstadt.

The Aladdin in fact seems to have experienced Ms. Ronstadt's event as a lot more like the shit hitting the fan than a sprinkle.

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