The Who2 Blog

Frank Sinatra ‘Gave Men License to Cry’

Photo of Frank Sinatra

Frank Sinatra is 100 years old today, and Stephen Holden has a terrific notebook that captures so many truths about the man. Holden runs through a recap of all the many Frank Sinatras, from the young hotshot to the the middle-aged alpha male to the aging (and embittered) crooner.

Holden on the Sinatra approach:

In Sinatra’s intensely emotional interpretations, popular standards took on a new life by becoming quasiautobiographical confessions. The lyrics mattered as never before, foreshadowing the singer-songwriters of the next generation. Men didn’t simply admire him; they wanted to be him, partly because he revised the definition of masculinity. He made self-pity a virtue… Beginning with his somber 1955 album of torch songs, “In the Wee Small Hours,” which some believe to be the greatest pop album ever made, Sinatra gave men license to cry without shame.

That’s putting the finger on it.

Holden on how Sinatra preserved the American song book and turned it into “a platform for philosophical ruminations on the meaning of it all”:

Ella Fitzgerald also contributed to that preservation with her monumental “songbook” albums, but with a couple of exceptions, they pale beside the power and authority of Sinatra’s best work. Fitzgerald, with her phenomenal gifts, was not emotionally invested in song lyrics. Everything Sinatra recorded he made sound intensely, sometimes agonizingly, personal.

Yup. I love Ella Fitzgerald, and I listen to her phrasings very closely, but in an entirely different way than I listen to the phrasings of Sinatra. With Ella I admire her singing; with Sinatra it’s a lot more emotionally complicated.  Holden catches that, too:

No matter what he’s singing, you listen to the words and how he phrases them and often have the sense that they’re coming spontaneously out of his mind and not from the pen of the song’s lyricist, although in his concerts he was scrupulous to give writing and arranging credits.

At times I get tired or frustrated with Sinatra constantly calling out the names of song composers. It’s a terrific thing to do, of course, but sometimes there’s a little touch of Sinatra grandiosity or pugnaciousness that comes with it. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but somehow acknowledging the composers — bestowing his blessing on them — becomes part of Sinatra’s wonderfully and terribly colossal ego.

Photo of Frank Sinatra

And regarding Sinatra’s later years:

Sinatra’s uptempo albums vented a swaggering aggression that signaled the furies unleashed by the rock and hip-hop revolutions of the future. After the high point of “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers,” that aggression became steadily coarser, harder and more pugnacious. It’s a sad reflection on contemporary tastes that the rude, swaggering entertainer of the Las Vegas “rat pack” is considered quintessential Sinatra by younger generations unacquainted with the voice of the ’40s crooner.

Well, it’s great stuff. Happy 100th birthday, Frank Sinatra.

Read more: Frank Sinatra: A Hundred Years On, The Voice Resonates Still »

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