Who can sing Rufus’s music? (part 3)

February 4, 2006

The various responses to this question were widely varied and passionate. I realized that my question was really too vague to get a focused answer, but the ambiguity of the question brought out various facets not considered before.

Based upon your responses, the question will be more useful by divorcing it from a specific artist, and breaking it into several components:

  1. The issue of straight men singing gay-specific music;
  2. Does a song with lyrics about a woman’s love for her male lover translate perfectly to a song about a male lover’s for his male lover?
  3. Conversely, does a song with lyrics about a male’s love for her female lover translate perfectly to a song about a male lover’s for his male lover?
  4. Vary the two situations above considering the second couple is a lesbian couple instead of a gay couple.
  5. The issue of changing pronouns “solves” the issue for some
  6. Personality specific songs can be awkard being sung by someone who is not the artist (“Dinner at Eight”)
  7. What of Rufus’s music could make it into the repertoire of classical vocalists? The answer is often lyric related; the courage and/or willingness of otherwise “serious” artists is a necessary prerequisite.

I’d like to feature some of the comments about these questions in upcoming blogs.

The first comment is by slvrlark:

Charles E Rhodes

When it comes to “art songs” (a term which I detest, since it suggests that many of the great songs which I love more than anything in the world and think are of unequalled artistry are not actually art), the gender issue has intrigued me for a long time.

It has been quite acceptable since at least the mid-19th century for women to sing songs clearly intended for men to sing. Jenny Lind, the famous Swedish soprano, was known to have sung Schubert’s “Die Schöne Müllerin,” (The Beautiful Miller Maid), which is entirely from the voice of a young man (well, and a brook, too). Women have never hesitated to sing any number of songs that are very much from a man’s point of view, whether by Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Ravel, etc.

On the other hand, Schumann’s song cycle “Frauenliebe und Leben,” (A woman’s life and loves), which is from the point of view of a woman from youth to old age, is never, ever sung by a man–at least, I have never heard of it having been. I have often thought that, in these days of Queer Theory, it would be something a male singer would want to do, just to shake things up.

Mark Carlson

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Rhapsody February 6, 2006 at 5:42 am

I see no reason to trap a song in some sort of gender prison. A song that has the lyrics and music working together to create a memorable music experience should be able to transcend gender issues. Themes about love are more universal than they are gender-related.

Aside from the obvious tradition of males playing female parts in opera, and females assuming male roles (thinking of contralto/countertenor arias), most songs can be “performed” whether or not the pronouns are appropriate in song lyrics. A singer/performer assumes a stage persona that gives some measure of poetic license, accepted by an audience.

Pronouns and other gender references can be changed to make a song fit a specific occasion. Bacharach’s “Message to Michael” can also be “Message to Martha,” for example.

Even a song like “Dinner at Eight” deals with universal issues like love, abandonment and resoultion, making it a song easily covered by other singers in other contexts. Rufus Wainwright fans who know the story behind the song might recoil a bit at first, but this song can stand on its own merits. Rufus has said that when he wrote “Dinner at Eight” he thought the song was a harsh angst-ridden rant insulting his father. It was only later that he realized the song was about love, not hate; the song was about poignancy, not angst.

What I find interesting is that I can easily see Rufus’ song, “Danny Boy” sung by a woman with no contextual changes, whereas I have difficulty imagining it being sung by another male performer, regardless of his sexuality. Perhaps being a straight female has prejudiced my sensibilities.

If Rufus were asked to write a song for a film whose storyline depeicted an ill-fated love affair between a man and a woman, I doubt that he would have the slightest difficulty writing a wonderful song, appropriate to the context of the film.

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