Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Diana Ross and THE Supreme

The collective critical wisdom about Diana Ross, Billie Holiday and Lady Sings the Blues is summed up in the title of Pauline Kael's New Yorker review of the film: "Pop Versus Jazz." From its inception, observers understood the project as a battle between tawdry commercialism and the artistic expression of black suffering.

Of course, Diana did make the fray seem a little less gruesome. Anyone who wasn't startled by the incandescence of her dramatic performance is guarding the secret. So now the tack is to patronize her singing. Whether her version of the Holiday Songbook is damned with invective or faint praise, it is obligatory to compare it unfavorably to the original, and to mourn the comparison. Kael says that "Ross gives you the phrasing without the intensity that makes it dramatic and memorable," and notes ruefully, "Pop music provides immediate emotional gratification that the subtler and deeper and more lasting pleasures of jazz can't prevail against."

Please, don't take this as a put-down of Billie Holiday. Nothing her admirers can say about her singing can be excessive, because she was probably the greatest singer of the century. Although even in its prime her voice was a limited and fragile instrument, the catechism of its virtues is almost endless. Billie not only infused the most banal material with emotion and wit and languid sexuality, she was also the first singer ever to improvise melody in the manner of the great jazz instrumentalists, and she did it all with the sparest touch this side of Thelonious Monk, sticking so close to the original that I imagine many of her fans weren't conscious that it was being transfigured right in front of them. She claims her singing was all feeling, yet it implies great intellect as well. The image she presents--of a brilliant, bruised black woman--is whole and compelling. Anyone whose curiosity has been piqued is obliged to buy one of the recent Holiday re-releases--Atlantic's Strange Fruit or Columbia's Original Recordings. They may not reach you right away, but they are as safe a musical investment as you can make--eventually, they'll pay off.

Obviously, I believe Billie Holiday deserves high praise. But I don't believe she deserves reverence--maybe because the tortuous course of her life served no symbolic function for me, or maybe just because no one does. Her most avid critical admirers, however, do revere her. They have made her into some sort of totem, and I can only infer that she encouraged it.

Billie Holiday achieved her apogee of alienated suffering--as a black woman junkie artist--elegantly, almost in high style. She obviously took to the rich bohemian myth-mongering that began to surround her when she was discovered by the white intelligentsia at the Café Society in Greenwich Village. For me, the ultimate example is "Strange Fruit," Lewis Allan's image-laden song about racism that became her biggest record. Many consider it her most affecting record as well, but for me, it bears an unfortunate resemblance to the worst works of good songwriters who--like Allan, who was a real pioneer--are trying to combine poetry and lyric-writing. Songs like "Eleanor Rigby" and "Gates of Eden" sound very impressive when you first hear them, but ultimately, dense lyrics played strictly for meaningfulness turn meaningless, mannered and arbitrary. That Billie and her audience so valued "Strange Fruit" says something about the vision of her that they shared--she wasn't just a singer, she was an Artist. Personally, I prefer singers to Artists. I like the common touch.

More often, of course, Billie Holiday was just a singer in an era when song-poems like "Strange Fruit" were strange indeed. Diana Ross, on the other hand, achieved mythic stature before she ever became a singer. For as the lead voice of the Supremes, she was really only the soul--or perhaps élan vital--of a machine, ready to plug into whatever arrangement, lyric, or show dress Berry Gordy and the Motown organization provided. She sang of the pain of love without appearing to suffer, but that doesn't mean that the catch-phrases--"You keep me hanging on," "Where did our love go?" "Love is like an itching in my heart, and I can't scratch it"--were softened or somehow corrupted. Instead, they were transcended with the vivacity that is Diana Ross' great gift. No matter how she is stylized, no matter what phony truism she mouths, this woman always lets you know she is alive.

Despite her ghetto upbringing, Diana Ross always has been possessed by a will to cheerfulness. During her seven years with the Supremes she never indicated that she thought about anything except what Berry wanted her to do next. Usually, Berry gave her good things to do, but machines do break down, and when Gordy tried to substitute a new part--as on a horrendous album of Rodgers & Hart songs--the results were invariably inauspicious. That's why Lady Sings the Blues figured to be such a disaster. That Diana Ross transformed it almost single-handedly into a kind of triumph means that something has happened to her will and vivacity. My guess is that what happened was some sort of communion with Billie Holiday.

It is impossible to cover Billie Holiday songs. If you have the stomach compare Blood, Sweat & Tears' version of "God Bless the Child" to Billie Holiday's and you'll understand what I mean. Yet the simple fact is that Diana Ross' version of her songs--available on two sides of the four-side soundtrack album--are intensely listenable. That's the word I want, because it is not a word I would apply to Billie Holiday herself. Either she demands your full attention or she annoys you in the background. While copying her phrasing and intonation, Diana Ross somehow smoothes them out, makes the content easier to take without, by any means, destroying it altogether.

It can be argued that like the blatantly unfactual script of the film itself, this amounts to a desecration and deception. But I say that it speaks of Diana Ross' reality. Billie Holiday not only suffered--she had a talent for suffering. Not every jazz singer turns into a junkie, after all. Diana Ross has a talent for not suffering, for somehow willing herself through it. Gospel music was a deception of this sort, too, and now, however un-chic it may be, many black people are picking up on a secular version of it. Soul music is one example, Lady Sings the Blues another, and Diana Ross' singing in the movie a third. Ultimately, I suppose, reality will catch up with all three, just as it seemed to catch up with gospel music. But in the meantime it will help get people up and through. Billie Holiday was in fact a great Artist, and her singing probably will be remembered when Diana Ross' half-copies are forgotten. But this is now, and I find myself listening to Diana Ross. It may turn out that she's a great Artist, too, and if she is, she will owe a great deal more to Billie Holiday than she imagines now. Frankly, I can hardly wait for her next record.

N'day, Feb. 25, 1973