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Not bad, but not serious enough
on 15 December 2012
Will Friedwald's book on Sinatra purports, at least, to be a serious study of Sinatra's art. There's no doubt that Sinatra's art is worth a serious book-length study, just as we don't need any more books going over all the Ava-related ring-a-ding-ding. The trouble is that for all his informed love of Sinatra's music, Friedwald isn't equipped to write such a book.
In order to understand why Sinatra's music is so great - because it certainly is great - it's not enough to accumulate the massed words of praise from everybody who ever worked with him. We also need to listen to it against the background of its time. Was Sinatra different from other singers of his generation and, if so, how? What was he trying to do? Did he always succeed? Who did he influence? Who did he resemble? Who did he emulate, and how exactly did he use the examples of other people - Bing Crosby, to take the most obvious example? Friedwald touches on this stuff, but he doesn't really delve into it himself. The best thing about this book are all the quotes from other people who'd worked with or knew Sinatra, people who generally have more insight and less starry-eyed perspective, such as fellow musicians. But Charles Granata's 'Sessions with Sinatra' does very much the same kind of thing more economically. Friedwald himself can't really explain how Sinatra is so great, he just affirms it over and over again. The most glaring flaw of the book is Friedwald's strong aversion to any American popular music made after the late 1960s. On his account, up until the 60s people wanted to make popular music with 'quality' but then they just lost interest, and ever since then it's all been trash. This isn't a serious argument, if only because it's almost the opposite of what the musicians themselves thought they were doing. Of course, Friedwald is entitled to like whatever music he wants, but he himself admitted in a 2007 interview that 'there's still very little from after 1970 that I listen to, pop-music wise' - which makes him drastically unqualified to be a critic of popular music.
Obviously, Friedwald would consider me a philistine. I like and listen to a lot of stuff from after 1970, even if my iTunes library of 23,000 tracks can't compete with Friedwald's, which (he claimed in 2007) has 172,000 - you do wonder how much more he'd have if he listened to anything made in the last 42 years. His lack of perspective shows in the way he talks about Sinatra tracks as if his ear is still living in 1961, the year he was born. Friedwald is inconsistent; he claims that Sinatra's appeal crosses all boundaries, but he also grumbles that the kids these days are only listening to rubbish. If that's the case, then my ear - honed on punk and 80s alternative rock - shouldn't be able to appreciate the verve, punch and class of a track like the 1957 Nelson Riddle-orchestrated 'I've Got You Under My Skin'. Even if I didn't have musical training, I can hear that Sinatra's 'Skin' is a great track with more impact than many another version of the same song by many of Sinatra's peers, but from the way Friedwald talks about it, you'd think it was something as explosively orgiastic as, I dunno, the Doors' 'The End'. (And while I love Milt Bernhart's trombone solo, I disagree with Friedwald about how it works in the context of the song, and I'd love to hear what the alternate takes sounded like.) Friedwald's book is still useful, but its uncritical reverence for its subject means that it's very much for Sinatra fans. Although anyone who loves popular music gotta love Sinatra, some of us are aware that he's not the only great popular musician of the 20th century.