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A Success Story Where the Good Guys Win?

What's Not to Like?

book cover

There are many things we don't know about Norah Jones. There are many things we will never know about Norah Jones. But one thing we do know--she's not a "hype." In the wake of her Grammy sweep, some who find her hopelessly anodyne may try to make her the latest symbol of all that's wrong with the record business. This would be obtuse. If Norah Jones is what's wrong with the record business, then the record business is beyond hopeless, and we should all still hope it's not.

Come Away With Me should be taught as a business model to everyone not prey to the alt adages that bigness is bad and consensus weakens the moral fiber. It's on Blue Note, owned by EMI-Virgin but run by Bruce Lundvall, a music man adept enough at corporate politics and the bottom line to keep the suits at bay. Lundvall glimpsed commercial potential in the jazz-schooled young singer-pianist or he wouldn't have let her make the most unjazz album the label has ever released--let her make it twice, hiring venerable popmeister Arif Mardin after Cassandra Wilson producer Craig Street turned in something too elaborate. But he certainly didn't "groom" the little lady from Williamsburg, or project her quadruple-platinum sales. As for Jones, it's credibly reported that after she went platinum she asked Lundvall if they couldn't stop selling the album--this thing was getting out of hand. She's plainly someone who just wants to play her music and sing her songs, so palpably honest and unpretentious that 4 million Americans and counting have bought those songs. So forget the specifics for a moment. Structurally, Come Away With Me is what the biz needs--executives who follow their musical instincts, artists who are in it for love. Bruce Lundvall equals Russell Simmons. Norah Jones equals Public Enemy. Not a Clive Parker or Mandy Moore on the set. This is an exemplary biz success story in which the good guys win.

A skeptic might argue that thousands of other young women out there just want to play their music and sing their songs, and even more young men. Many of them are honest and unpretentious, a few pretty good. So how come they aren't all multiplatinum; how come most are lucky to sell 20 thou? As indicated, hype is not an acceptable answer, although multiplatinum sales do start replicating themselves by means that have nothing to do with intrinsic musical value. But talent isn't an acceptable answer either. Jones's gift is clearly bigger, and more ineffable. I could hear it before the advance gathered its word-of-mouth--that mysterious gestalt bizzers on a roll adoringly and inarticulately call a "sound." Not every sound captivates every listener. But the right sound can inspire mad loyalty--definitely Al Green for me, maybe U2 or Dr. Dre or Björk for you, and in 2002, for millions of music lovers who can't go home again, Norah Jones.

Yet, oddly or perhaps not, the attributes of that sound remain pretty much undescribed in reams of comparison-strewn coverage. The most thorough attempt I've unearthed was Jody Rosen's in the Times "a lovely, pure voice that crackles now and then with a pleasing hint of grit" gets the flavors and proportions right, and "combines jazz and folk influences to make sophisticated contemporary pop" surrounds the style. Mix in her widely noted restraint and famous respect for her elders and you have the basics; add that, vocally and physically, she always chooses pretty over glamorous. But with the social potency of these basics now established, we can take them further. The fact that Jones studied piano in college yet never took a singing lesson is the material basis for the belief that she imbues breathy innocence with old wisdom; she seems incorrigibly incorruptible, yet no fool. And then there's the sensual dimension, by which I do not mean sexual, although others might. Say her voice is all curves and no corners. Say there's a deep openness there. Say it makes you want to like her. Or on the other hand, get meaner with a joke no one known to Google dislikes her enough to have made: I know why she didn't come--it's the Paxil. Antidepressants help many good and vivid people be themselves. But for her own sake, I hope Norah Jones achieves her seductive serenity sans pharmacology.

Because most of Jones's material is original, it's hard to remember that she's a singer, not a singer-songwriter--the album's only self-compositions are the inviting title track and a mistake about a nightingale, plus a collaboration with Jesse Harris, the tasty guitarist who lured her from North Texas State to NYC in 1999. Harris has five copyrights, Jones's bassist boyfriend Lee Alexander four, and though Harris is edgier, one reason Jones's voice dominates the record is that her main writers are pretty anonymous. Harris's "Don't Know Why" towers over the album's many subsequent dispatches from the milder shores of melancholy, and Alexander's "Seven Years" feels thematic--better Jones should emulate a delicate little girl than a European bird whose natural habitat is the library. But let's hope the three covers teach all involved how complex simplicity can be: Hoagy Carmichael's Sarah Vaughan standard "The Nearness of You," John Loudermilk's Nina Simone staple "Turn Me On," and the only piece of unalloyed use value I myself have extracted from Jones's sound, a "Cold Cold Heart" that transforms Hank Williams's desolation into something playful, alluring, and negotiable--until "Why can't I free your doubtful mind/And melt your cold cold heart" drives Jones to doubts of her own. I wish we could be certain she understood how audacious this is. But the essence of her appeal is to leave the answer to that question indistinct. That's why it's not so odd that her admirers never describe her. Beyond her sound, which it would be willful to gainsay, she's become a symbol of quality for people reluctant to think too hard about what quality is.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. Never take the Grammys seriously, but this year--with the biz suffering its biggest downer since disco went bust, Buddy Holly died, or Herbert Hoover was president (Lord how I miss him)--they have their meteorological attractions. Unless you believe Eminem had a snowball's chance in Harlem, or can name a bizzer other than L.A. Reid and maybe Clive Davis who knows how brilliant Pink is, Jones's five-statuette victory wasn't surprising or especially unjust. The Rising and Nellyville and Home (Dixie Chicks, you remember, great title gals) are overrated feel-good albums too, and The Eminem Show is for newbies. But though the biz needs Norah Jones structurally, it doesn't need her aesthetically, and in both respects, as hasn't been said loudly enough, Come Away With Me is the same record as last year's surprise winner, O Brother, Where Art Thou?: Sincere left-field entry on music man's corporate imprint wins aging voters and consumers alike by proving that young people can too play real/honest/ genuine/authentic music. This means music that cossets neither computers nor scary black guys. It also means music that pays fealty to an aesthetically respectable past authorized by public broadcasting, tony feature stories, and an educational system in which jazz is a major at North Texas State.

Some wags explain the Grammy winners' mega sales another way--the they-play-their-own-instruments thing, it is said, targets an audience too old and technophobic to download. And though Jones is one of Amazon's star performers, there could conceivably be truth in the joke. But even if home burning is killing music, a convenient oversimplification at best, it's not acting alone. The NARAS posse also bears some responsibility, and in part the Grammys constitute a self-reproof and/or statement of principle--a way to compensate for the cynicism many bizzers believe they're driven to by a nose-diving economy, demanding bosses, fickle fate, and the stupidity of the young. This would be dandy if only the principle weren't so limited. It's not as if the adult alternative market many crow about is a bad idea. It's been ignored too long, and will provide succor to some lively geezers as well as many soulful bores. By definition, however, it's not much of a future. Jazzypop is more promising than neobluegrass--it's possible to imagine Jones or someone like her adding bite to the recipe without wrecking its outreach. But what we really need is more NARAS aesthetes alert enough to realize that the Neptunes have earned some kind of prize--and that the greatest pop musicians have always wanted things to get out of hand. In this, Norah Jones is of less than no use.

Since I bear Jones no ill will, I regret to report that she has new product out. Following in the blurry footsteps of debut divas Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, and Jill Scott, she has followed her first studio album with a premature live album. That this one is a DVD doesn't help a bit--I thought the visualization of music was part of the problem. Anyway, showpersonship is not her long suit in a presentation replete with gawky smiles, gawkier stage talk, lots of pictures of hands, five songs that aren't on the album, and 10 that are--several of which become unbearable under the spotlight.

Stardom is never easy, is it? My advice is that Norah Jones study the career of Tracy Chapman, who for 15 years has exploited the unexpected multiplatinum of her debut for all the privacy and autonomy it's worth--and who has thus remained honest and unpretentious whether you like her or not.

Village Voice, Mar. 11, 2003