tremble clef

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Nina Simone, "Everything Must Change" (1978)

There are some musical vocal tricks that I, like a good Pavlovian dog, react to almost instinctively. It doesn't even matter if they are "tricks" in the more insidious senses of the word: calculated, scheming, deceptive. My comprehension of their manipulative nature doesn't lessen, in any way, their emotional impact on me. I am their bitch.

Foremost among these is the catch in the voice. It says: I am choked with emotion. I can barely go on. It pricks and bruises me, and, aside from being entirely intended, is perhaps analogous to what Roland Barthes called the punctum of the photograph. On several seasons of American Idol, the savviest contestants, of which there are few, knew this enough to offer us variations on it. When Tamyra Gray came out on Bacharach night and sang her two-minute but unforgettable version of "A House Is Not A Home," her voice hit the high notes effortlessly, but also seem on the verge of breaking, thereby signaling, especially to the critics who had found her too robotic, that not only was she human, but human enough to almost cry in the middle of a song and not care. More recently, Elliot Yamin movingly outsang Michael Bublé (admittedly not that hard) on the latter's "Home" by vocalizing a line of the lyric -- "I'm just too far, from where you are" -- with just the right hint of a catch, more akin to a despairing sigh, on the word "far."

For me, the most poignant example of a proper, official recording that demonstrates the power of the catch in the voice is Nina Simone's "Everything Must Change." I sometimes think, in fact, that it might be the saddest song ever recorded. Even though the lyric can come across on paper as consisting of a series of neutral, dispassionate observations -- of how "everything must change/nothing stays the same/everyone must change/no one stays the same" -- when sung, as it has been by everyone from Quincy Jones to Randy Crawford to Barbara Streisand, it usually leaves no doubt of the pain in which this inevitable state of affairs causes its singers. Nina Simone, of course, sings the hell out of it, her voice full of hurt as a piano rumbles with unbearable gloom behind her. But the pain is nowhere most convincingly conveyed than on the final lines. "There are so little things, so few things in life you can be sure of," she tells us, "except rain comes from the clouds, sunlight from the sky. And hummingbirds do fly." And then: "Everything's changed. Everything ends. Everything, must -- change." She sounds like it's all she can do to get the last word out; it catches in her throat, and when it gets out, finally, it stings with its resigned finality. On some versions of the song, the last line is actually "and music, music makes me cry." Nina doesn't sing that. She doesn't have to.


  • So where are you to scrape me off the floor after that one? I am always overcome by her voice. Do you by chance know her song "A Single Woman"? I love to play that one when it's me and me against the world. I am, you know, a single woman too.

    PS: Tell me you have seen Sandra Bernhard's version of "Four Women"! ?

    By Blogger xolondon, at 8:48 AM  

  • I am also like Nina, but in that I'm a Strong Black Woman (tm Kathy Griffith). I haven't seen Sandra's performance -- I'll go look on YouTube, where all videos ever made apparently reside. My favorite Nina "woman" song is probably "The Other Woman," though.

    By Blogger Brittle, at 2:30 PM  

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