No easy way: Dusty Springfield performing in 1965. Photo: Dezo Hoffmann/Rex
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Good vibrations: Tracey Thorn’s new book crushes our ideas about what makes a good singer

Naked at the Albert Hall is a history of singing that hums with freshness and passion.

Naked at the Albert Hall: the Inside Story of Singing
Tracey Thorn
Virago, 256pp, £16.99

The first time I heard Tracey Thorn, I was ten and tiny at a till in a provincial supermarket. Her voice was a magical portal to a state of sophistication and grace, like treacle over posh chocolate. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she crooned. “If I stay here, won’t you listen . . .” Only my mum wouldn’t let me. That summer in 1988, when Everything but the Girl reached number three in the charts with their sleepy cover of the Rod Stewart hit, Thorn wasn’t singing to me – but that’s how people like us think of people like her.

“When we respond to a singer, often we don’t really see or hear the actual person. We see and hear an imagined version of them, a projection of our own needs and desires.” So Thorn writes at the start of her second book, reminding us that we have lungs, tongues and teeth just like the singers we worship and how, as a consequence, we feel closer to them than to bass or tambourine virtuosos. Hold up, though, writes Tracey. Cut it out. Think again.

Thorn, who has a fortnightly column in the NS, is in the business of bursting pop myths one at a time. Her first book, Bedsit Disco Queen (2013), laid the groundwork. A surprised look at her so-called pop life, it spanned her teens making bedroom tape pop with the Marine Girls (Kurt Cobain was a huge fan, which still shocks her); meeting Ben Watt, who became her band mate and husband (they released ten albums together, six apart, and now have three teenage kids), at Hull University; and their brief, blustery brushes with international fame – one being the song I caught in the queue, the other the transatlantic smash “Missing” in 1995. This was also a memoir by a woman who “wanted to be heard without having to be heard” but make no mistake – there was a streak of stridency behind her subtleties.

In her new book, Thorn debunks the myths of the singer’s instrument in raw, phlegmy detail: the primary function of the vocal tract is actually to be “one of several lines of defence against choking”, for instance. Her style is matter of fact, no nonsense. She laces together references to Willa Cather, George Eliot and Roland Barthes without sounding pompous and is good at presenting arguments in crisp, funny lines. “As singers, we are not only working with a mechanism inside our own bodies, but a mechanism that isn’t even really intended to do what we try to make it do,” she continues, waving her metaphorical chalk. “It’s like trying to use a cheese grater or a vacuum cleaner to make music, and doesn’t this make singing seem both mundane and heroic?” More fresh thoughts follow.

Thorn crushes our ideas about what makes a good singer. She has weak lungs, a pronounced underbite (one doctor suggested that she required a broken jaw) and asthma gained in her twenties from cats. We are told how singers with the greatest voices aren’t always happy with them – Dusty Springfield, for example, used to turn up her voice so loud when she was recording that she was, in essence, “singing into a void”. Meanwhile, Karen Carpenter, who was originally a drummer, didn’t want to go centre stage: “She hadn’t known what the rules were, and had never signed up to them.” Women’s doubts haunt this book like notes vibrating in the air. Nevertheless, Thorn pierces the ideas of stage fright (including hers) being born of vulnerability and of dysphonia – the inability to sing, which the folk singers Shirley Collins and Linda Thompson have suffered from – arising from hysteria.

There are chewy sections in which she meets other singers to debate the craft without pretension. The list is largely indie: the American singer Kristin Hersh, the wayward British pop singer Green Gartside, Romy Madley-Croft from the xx. “A lot of people sing better than me,” Madley-Croft says. Thorn replies, “That’s how I feel, too.”

The book has a searching spirit that feels ego-free, admitting to its flaws, such as when Thorn tries to describe a singer’s voice: “Ugh, all the same old words, and they won’t do, will they?” For me, a critic who barely reviews records any more by choice, that rings too true. She also has a facility with language that makes me want to hand in my freelancer’s P45. “A sneering engine of a voice levelled straight at your forehead” perfectly captures Liam Gallagher. “Gender-neutral, expressive without being melodramatically emotional and rebellious without buying the rock notion that rebelliousness was inherently masculine”: spot-on John Lydon. “Often accused of emulating black singers, but really, who? It’s a cartoon of a black singer, painted on to a balloon and then inflated, then put through a mangle, then through an amplifier”: one of the greatest descriptions I’ve heard of Mick Jagger. Thoughtful, funny, not overthought, just right . . . Bloody singers.

Thorn defends her passions enthusiastically, too – watching The X Factor, or singing in an Americanised accent, things that some people may think are weird. Ditto, not wanting to sing live any more: “I do sing, it’s just that quite often, like the proverbial tree falling in the forest, there is no one there to hear me.” We can hear her now, albeit in a different register. She wants to talk about everything and I’m still listening. 

This article first appeared in the 24 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, What does England want?

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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era