Sing It Like You Mean It

I’m used to getting flak about how I sing. Over the years, my brassiness has garnered comparisons to Ethel Merman and Judy Garland. My vibrato, which, when uncontrolled, is wide enough to drive a truck through, has been likened to Cher’s. Barbs such as these used to sting, but I’ve developed pretty thick skin. There’s one choice piece of so-called “constructive criticism,” though, that I still take to heart.

It was the late ’80s, and I had recently arrived in New York determined to be the latest luminary on the cabaret scene. One afternoon, I played a demo for my neighbor, a seasoned vet who’d already paid his dues crooning in a host of tony two-drink-minimum joints and seedy downtown clubs. He listened politely while I twittered through the Gershwins’ “They All Laughed.” When the song ended, he hesitated, then smiled and dropped the bomb:

“I don’t believe a word you’re singing.”

He didn’t put it quite that bluntly, but that was the gist of his appraisal. And he was right. My pitch was perfect, my diction precise, but I might just as well have been singing a grocery list for all the emotion I brought to the lyrics. After four-plus years of hard-core opera study, I was so preoccupied with technical details that my delivery had been drained of personality.

Lord knows, there are plenty of performers for whom this condition poses no obstacle. Cocktail lounges the world over are filled with singer-pianists who assay “Good Morning, Heartache” nightly without ever suggesting they know any pain greater than a paper cut—yet their tip snifters get filled. Sometimes, when singers tackle material beyond their ken, the results can be strangely captivating, like Barbra Streisand’s 1974 reading of “Life on Mars.” She clearly hadn’t the slightest notion what David Bowie’s words were about, but she enunciated every single consonant like she was going at it with a pair of nail clippers.

I’ve been grappling with the enduring challenge to “sing it like you mean it” since recently kick starting my performing career. Because my semifamous boyfriend and co-star already has a repertoire of 200 standards, I’ve been opting to round out the program with more obscure selections. Yet recognizing a great underrated song and being able to sing it convincingly are two distinct talents. And I’m still out of practice when it comes to the latter. Which is why I’ve been musing over my old Glen Campbell records a lot.

When most folks think of Glen Campbell, what springs immediately to mind is “Rhinestone Cowboy,” his overblown No. 1 hit from 1975. But in the late ’60s, he routinely scaled both the country and pop charts with a string of singles that were dauntingly artsy by today’s standards. And the bulk of them, including “Honey, Come Back” and “Wichita Lineman,” were written by Jimmy Webb. Theirs was a creative union of songwriter and performer on par with that of Burt Bacharach, Hal David, and Dionne Warwick. But while Warwick only had to negotiate Bacharach’s tricky time signatures and rhythmic twists, Campbell had to put over some of the most idiosyncratic lyrics ever to fill the airwaves.

Now, I’m not suggesting that having Jimmy Webb write material for you is a horrible cross to bear. Webb penned such classics as the Fifth Dimension’s “Up, Up, and Away” and Campbell’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” which, between the two of them, racked up eight Grammy awards in 1967. But he’s also the man who managed to get the baffling phrase “Someone left a cake out in the rain” (from “MacArthur Park”) into the top 10 in two different decades.

Yet Campbell could sing whatever Webb threw at him with a deftness of interpretive skill that often belies the weirdness of the words. I realized this when I decided to add “Where’s the Playground, Susie,” from Campbell’s 1969 Galveston LP, to my own set. I’d first learned the song via Everything but the Girl’s 1986 cover version and had fallen in love with its melody. But when I actually started to analyze the lyrics—a jumble of childlike images including puzzle pieces, carousels, and scattered toys—I was stymied.

I’m pretty sure “Where’s the Playground, Susie” is about the breakup of a relationship. Pretty sure. At least, that’s what I think about when I’m performing it. (Well, that and my hand gestures.) But my version still can’t touch Glen’s. When he leans into the final phrase of the first verse, “And here we stand in our box of sand,” Campbell sings the line like he knows exactly what Webb was feeling when he wrote it. Oh sure, he may not have the slightest inkling what the lyrics really “mean,” but he sings them like he does. And trust me, that’s all that really matters.