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They worked without a net

Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday and Judy Garland bled for their art. Can today's pop femmes say the same?

June 08, 2007|Ernest Hardy | Special to The Times

There's a wonderful scene in "La Vie en Rose," the new film biography of Edith Piaf, in which the raw, young singer is being tutored on how to hold her hands and move her arms while singing. It's a thrilling how-she-came-to-be moment for fans of the diminutive, definitive French chanteuse, whose expressive stage mannerisms were part of her legendary performances.

The tutoring session becomes a bitter struggle of wills between the Little Sparrow, as she was dubbed early in her career, and the demanding male teacher who's trying to instruct her in how to use artifice and theatricality to convey the truth of a song but in ways that seem natural and spontaneous.

As biographer Margaret Crosland wrote in 1985's "Piaf": "She relied on a minimum number of props: the plain black dress for herself, a wineglass for [the song] 'Les Amants d'un jour' ... [and] a movement of the arms or hands to conjure up the accordionist or the clown, or the flow of the crowd of the street.... Edith was probably not aware how close her technique came to that so admired by Cocteau: the acrobat who works without a net, the skill that must not look like a skill."

That's in marked contrast to the pop divas of today -- Madonna, Janet, Beyonce, all their clones and spawn -- who quite pointedly show off how hard they are working: intricate and militaristic choreography, sinewy muscles and ripped, exposed abs, casts of seeming thousands in huge production numbers.

Titillating as that may be, it speaks to the difference between women who bleed for their art and those who merely sweat for it. It's the difference between those whose hard work and craftsmanship are also rooted in the great unsolvable mysteries of art, talent and divine inspiration versus those who are the products of demographic analyses and steely media savvy.

That's not to romanticize myths of the tortured artist or of the suffering female (or to deny that Janet, Madonna and Beyonce have created some of modern pop's sweetest confections). But it points up the huge differences between how some of the most acclaimed female singers of past eras shaped their work, image and public personas and how their in-gender-only descendants do the same.

Early in "La Vie en Rose," Piaf proudly points out that she and Billie Holiday were born in the same year. That coincidence is used as a foundation of sisterhood. And though she goes unmentioned in the film, Judy Garland's tortured mythology hangs over it as well.

Among them, the trio cover the traditions of American jazz, French music hall, Hollywood musicals and American standards. They also have in common crippling drug addictions; tragic love affairs; childhoods defined by abuse, exploitation and abandonment; and brothels. (Piaf was briefly raised in one; Holiday briefly worked in one; and Garland, of course, was a child of the Hollywood studio system.)

They all had extraordinary career highs and devastating lows in lives that are towering examples of the heroine's journey, their real-life stories proof that truth is more riveting than fiction. And it all plays out in their music.

The struggles and experiences of Piaf and her peers gave their voices and overall bearings a gravitas and complex interior life that manifested in their work. Piaf classics such as "La Vie en Rose" (for which she wrote the lyrics) and "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien" were not only huge international hits and deeply personal statements but can be read as proto-feminist anthems.

They're simple and direct, intended to be accessible to the working-class folk from which Piaf sprang (her street cred could rival any rapper's), but they're also grand in scope. They ambitiously speak to universal themes of love, loss and struggle.

By contrast, many of the proclamations of strength and survival by today's pop femmes are not so much simple as cliche-ridden.

Tiny and laughably adolescent, most seem drawn from some narcissistic teen's diary. There's little poetry and less emotional risk in the work of most modern female pop stars because most of them lack the courage of vulnerability; they flee the weight of adulthood.

The costs of life lessons have been metaphorically botoxed away because real adults, particularly adult women, are MIA from the pop landscape now. They're scary monsters.

Veterans such as Dolly Parton, Chrissie Hynde and Annie Lennox or genre redlined stars like Erykah Badu, Cassandra Wilson and Jill Scott are doing grown-folks stuff, but they're on the margins. Drunken starlets and useless heiresses in and out of rehab and out of their panties are the ruling women.

It might seem unfair to compare the Top 40 and "American Idol" divas of today with women who came up through the rough- and-tumble training grounds of jazz clubs, music halls and vaudeville. After all, the pop world has always been filled with disposable fluff by female artists. Thank God.

But Piaf was also pop at one point. She appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show" eight times. She sold out Carnegie Hall. Garland was one of the biggest American mainstream stars ever. And it's not about age: Piaf, Holiday and Garland all started singing as teens or younger and did some of their best, most challenging work while in their 20s and 30s. In fact, none lived to be as old as Madonna is now.

It really has to do with the toll that fetishized youth culture has taken on the overall culture, specifically how media and music industry dictates of womanhood have shrunken women -- in every sense. We're all the losers.

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