I am fascinated by the different ways people can interpret the same song. Last week, I wrote a post about Billie Holiday and how I came to appreciate her and how the song that helped me to appreciate her was”My Man.” While I was looking up Billie Holiday’s many versions of the song on youtube, I came across several other versions and it was interesting to trace the evolution of the song: ballad, jazz, Broadway; from storytelling to an emotional display. So just for fun, here are six different versions of the song “My Man.”
Fanny Brice recorded this in 1921. She performed the song in the 1921 Follies for Florenz Ziegfeld and also had a hit record. The way she sings, it sounds like a torch song, though it is often described as a ballad. She sings it at the pace of a ballad. She was especially identified with this song. Primarily a comedian, she was also known to be able to break the hearts of her audience. I can understand why. Possibly sung as an interlude and not part of an overall plot, it has a self-contained storytelling quality to it and she even talks some of it.
In 1937, Billie Holiday recorded a jazzy version with Teddy Wilson and His Orchestra. I don’t think it has the depth of her later versions, though, though her work with Teddy Wilson is considered some of the greatest jazz ever recorded.
The words that come to mind are emotional pyrotechnics. In 1964, Barbra Streisand starred in the musical “Funny Girl,” with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Bob Merrill. The story is inspired by the life of Fanny Brice and the musical was later made into a movie in 1968 and included the song “My Man”. An entirely different singer from Fanny Brice, here Barbra Streisand lets ‘er rip, with a touch of defiance for good measure. I’ve always liked Barbra Streisand, partially because she was one of my mother’s favorite singers.There’s something electrifying about her performances and I can’t help getting swept up in it, even if it’s not always subtle.
I am not familiar with Glee, apart from hearsay, but I thought this clip was interesting since it is a direct homage to Barbra Streisand’s version. We’ve come a long way from 1920s ballads/torch songs and 1930s jazz. It’s funny, but although Barbra Streisand sang in Broadway musicals, I never thought of her as a Broadway singer. I think of her as a superior pop singer (that may not be an entirely fair assessment – she is versatile and could sing jazz, pop and Broadway). But this is pure 21st Century Broadway belting. The word for this song is waterworks (cousin to Anne Hathaway’s tearful, choked-up version of “I Dreamed a Dream” in Les Miserables). It is a style of singing that places more emphasis on the emotion the singer is personally feeling than on the words being communicated by the singer. But she seems too young to be singing this song.
Here is a unique example I came across from the soundtrack for Boardwalk Empire (another show I am only familiar with by hearsay). Regina Spekter is the singer and the best word I can think of to describe this song is ironic. She drips irony. She seems to be mocking the genre, the torch song, the eternally suffering woman. Or is she mocking something else? I would be curious to know the context in which this song features in the show. It made me think of a drinking song.
I can’t help including my favorite version of the song again, even though I featured it on my previous post. I mentioned that the girl from Glee was too young; here is Billie Holiday’s most mature and moving version and makes the last several versions seem shallow in comparison. This is the only version I have found where the performer displays heartache and yet dignity at the same time. Most versions I’ve heard are meant to be a raw display of emotion, but so much emotional honesty can also turn you into an object of pity. To have a breakdown in front of someone is to give a little piece of yourself away (Frank Sinatra once said of Judy Garland that “every time she sings, she dies a little”). There is no self-pity with Billie Holiday. She is telling us about her love; it is her decision and she has accepted it. She is not asking for pity. In that way, she retains her autonomy from the audience. She has reserved a part of herself for herself and apart from others and while the song is tragic, you respect her, too. And like Fanny Brice, she has slowed the song way down and is engaging in a sophisticated form of storytelling.