Posted Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2011, at 4:48 PM
Earlier today, Slate’s Emily Yoffe, who is best known for answering questions—she writes the “Dear Prudence” column—had one of her own, which she emailed to her colleagues:
Driving around this time of year one hears a lot of Bing Crosby, a voice you otherwise almost never hear. Within one note I know it’s Crosby and my overwhelming feeling on hearing him is how old-fashioned he sounds. However, I know his style of singing once revolutionized music. I’d love someone to explain what Bing Crosby did to change singing and why he now sounds so dated.
Happily, one of our colleagues here at Slate, music critic Jody Rosen, literally wrote the book on “White Christmas,” the holiday song with which Crosby is most closely associated. Rosen took a few minutes to explain both what was radical about Crosby’s style in his own time and why it sounds so retro today—which are, it turns out, the same thing.
“I think what sounds old-fashioned to you is the very thing that made Crosby revolutionary: the sotto voce, conversational, ‘crooning’ style that he brought to popular music by mastering the microphone, a new technology in the late ’20s and early ’30s,” Rosen explained.
Before the crooners—before the advent of electrical recording and the microphone—pop was dominated by vaudeville belters, like Al Jolson, who performed unamplified and had to shout-down-the-rafters to be heard. Crosby et al made pop more intimate; they also domesticated it (the radio/record player became the new venue, as opposed to the stage) and de-ethnicized it (no more leather-lunged Jewish schmaltz-merchants or blackface “coon shouters”).
Also notable in Crosby’s delivery, Rosen said, was his “long legato phrasing,” though Crosby “didn’t totally refrain from vibrato: another of Crosby’s signatures was the ‘mordent’—a warble or trill that comes out of the Irish tenor tradition and Victorian parlor singing, which he deployed strategically, especially in ballads.” And he wasn’t the only one: Rosen pointed to Fred Astaire and Rudy Vallee as other employers of this technique. “But Crosby was a genius, they weren’t.”
Still, there is a less technical reason Crosby’s records so vividly evoke the past, according to Rosen: “I think what sounds most old-fashioned about his records are the old songs themselves.” For comparison’s sake, Rosen pointed to “the current Billboard #1 album by Michael Bublé. That,” he said, “sounds old-fashioned, too.”
Further listening: the much-loved “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy” duet between Bing Crosby and David Bowie, discussed on a recent Culture Gabfest, which you can watch below.