Why Does Bing Crosby, One-Time Vocal Revolutionary, Sound So Old-Fashioned?

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Dec. 21 2011 4:48 PM

How Bing Crosby’s Voice Went from Revolutionary to Retro


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:

David Haglund David Haglund

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

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.



Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

The Congressional Republican Digging Through Scientists’ Grant Proposals

Renée Zellweger's New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Whole Foods Is Desperate for Customers to Feel Warm and Fuzzy Again

The XX Factor

I’m 25. I Have $250.03.

My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I’m 25. I Have $250.03. My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

George Tiller’s Murderer Threatens Another Abortion Provider, Claims Free Speech

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 21 2014 3:13 PM Why Countries Make Human Rights Pledges They Have No Intention of Honoring
Oct. 21 2014 1:12 PM The Global Millionaires Club Is Booming and Losing Its Exclusivity
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 3:03 PM Renée Zellweger's New Face Is Too Real
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 1:47 PM The Best Way to Fry an Egg
Oct. 21 2014 10:43 AM Social Networking Didn’t Start at Harvard It really began at a girls’ reform school.
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.