In search of Eva Tanguay, the first rock star.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
Dec. 1 2009 7:04 AM

Vanishing Act

In search of Eva Tanguay, the first rock star.

(Continued from Page 2)

Tanguay had many imitators. Decades before the first Elvis impersonator slicked up his pompadour, vaudeville was chockablock with performers donning Tanguay's outfits and belting out her songs. She took on the copycats in "Give an Imitation of Me" (1910):

If you are broke without a sou
And really don't know what to do
Just take my tip, go on the stage
And you can be the season's rage
Watch me while I'm on the bill
Then jump into vaudeville
And give an imitation of me
Rush around the stage and fuzzle up your hair
Get a pair of tights and holler "I don't care."

American audiences had never encountered such bluster. (As one journalist noted, Tanguay's "whole performance is of herself, for herself, and by herself. She is motive, cue, subject and sub-subject.") But Tanguay's shtick was based on self-deprecation as much as self-aggrandizement. In the press and in song, she belittled her talent, framing her act as an elaborate spoof of virtuosity and professionalism. Critics called her singing "unlistenable," "awful," "a hairshirt to the nerves"—and she professed to agree with them. "I can't sing, I don't how to dance. I am not even graceful," she declared. She elaborated on the point in "I Don't Care":

My voice is what you'd call a freak
But I don't mind it …
If teachers rates I could afford
Or I had studied hard abroad
I'd now be working for my board
And that's why I don't care
I don't care, I don't care
If I'm not Queen of Song
And while I am shouting
You may all be doubting
And hoping it won't last long …
My voice may sound funny
But it's getting me the money
So I don't care

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Tanguay's voice did sound funny. But does that mean she couldn't sing? On the contrary: She sang very well, in a style that burlesqued the practice of "normal" singing. Which is something Tanguay knew how to do. She had played straight roles in musicals, both as a child actor and in her early years on the New York stage; at the height of her fame, in 1915, she had a huge hit with an unironic tear-jerker, "M-O-T-H-E-R, a Word That Means the World to Me." What we hear in "I Don't Care" is not a Progressive Era William Hung but a vocal stylist in command of her instrument, deliberately deploying comic effects: drawling, squeaking, and mixing straight-ahead singing with a kind of proto-rap patter. In "I Don't Care," Tanguay bragged about this technique: "Some lines I sing, some lines I don't sing/ I don't care."

It was a sound of and for its time. The public's fancy was turning from old-fashioned music—sentimental parlor ballads and Viennese light opera—to the buoyant melodies and jagged syncopations of ragtime. And now Tanguay was waging her own revolt against 19th-century musical values and hoity-toity high culture. In concert, she interspersed songs with poetic recitations that parodied flowery Victorian verse. (An example can be heard at the end of the "I Don't Care" record.) In 1911, when she appeared on the same vaudeville bill with the Danish ballet star Adeline Genée, Tanguay brought down the house with a slapstick sendup of prima-ballerina dance moves. She kept the bit in her act for years, belting out "When Pavlova Sees Me Put It Over" while staggering through pliés and arabesques.

Tanguay's vocal style, meanwhile, mocked the Europhile emphasis on formal training, clear diction, pure intonation, and squarely hit notes. Think of her boast in "I Don't Care": "If teacher's rates I could afford/ Or I had studied hard abroad/ I'd now be working for my board." In other words: Roll over, Beethoven. (Or maybe it was: Step aside, Victor Herbert.) Vernacular pop culture was winning the day, and paying handsomely. In a country being remade by modernity—by new machines and new immigrants, by rising skylines and rising hemlines—Tanguay's madcap screech was audibly, if not scientifically, the soul of America.

This is where the received history of popular music begins to crack open. The standard pop music narrative regards vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley as quaintly pre-historic—the sepia-tone showbiz that was swept aside by "gritty" roots music and the triumphal rise of jazz and rock 'n' roll. But how do we account for Eva Tanguay, whose spectacular performances anticipated so much 20th century pop, and predated nearly all of it? If Tanguay tells us anything, it's that turn-of-the-century variety stage, where popular song first was transformed into mass entertainment, was rowdy and transgressive—as "rock 'n' roll" as rock itself. How did such a big star, such a heady period, slip from our view, and slide out of the history books?

In part, it's an issue of semantics. In the first decades of the century, when Tin Pan Alley songwriters counted on vaudevillians to break their new tunes, theatrical comedy and popular music were one and the same. The term "pop singer" had not yet been coined, and the period's top hit makers, like Tanguay, were referred to as actresses and comediennes. To the extent that Tanguay has been studied, it's been by historians of the stage and investigators of "the theatrical roots of modern feminism." These theater specialists fail to connect Tanguay and her vaudeville fellow travelers to the broader story of American popular music; most music scholars, meanwhile, remain indifferent to the pop pioneers who lurk on variety theater bills and in sheet music cover photographs.

The methodological mess is exacerbated by a dearth of the usual primary sources. In Tanguay's glory days, the recording industry was in its infancy. The period's wax cylinders and 78 discs were primitive and rackety, and the musical aesthetics—the broad comedic gestures and booming voices, raised to reach the theater rafters—were ill-suited to a medium that would come into its own with the invention of the microphone and the rise of dulcet crooners. Some big name stars, like Al Jolson and Sophie Tucker, left behind a decent body of recordings, but many others made just a few records, or none at all. Why bother with the rinky-dink record business, when the big money and the big glory waited on the vaudeville proscenium? Tanguay didn't bother stepping into a recording studio until the very tail end of her run. We can be thankful that she did—imagine how doubly obscure she would be without that "I Don't Care" 78.