better: Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra?
Fans of Crosby and Sinatra have a lot in common. Theyre nostalgic,
sentimental, old (or, if young, going to be old soon enough), and
most of all, they share the conviction that their favorite is the
greatest popular singer of the 20th century.
In regard to the last point, the Sinatra fans are wrong.
Most writers comparing the relative merits of Crosby and Sinatra
are going to be tempted to make some cheap shots. I am one of those
writers. Crosby didnt fawn over the Kennedys, get publicly
rejected by Ava Gardner or drunkenly provoke Harlan Ellison and
Mike Royko. Crosbys duet with his son Gary (Play a Simple
Melody) is great; Sinatras duet with daughter Nancy
(Somethin Stupid) is self-fulfilling prophecy.
But is it really worth the time to attack Sinatra for his personal
behavior when his recorded output provides so many ample targets?
Sinatra was not intelligent enough to learn the value of subtlety.
He poured his heart out into melodramatic recordings like In
the Wee Small Hours of the Morning, Guess Ill
Hang My Tears Out to Dry, Glad to be Unhappy and
Angel Eyes. He sang without restraint, without embarrassment,
without self-consciousness in short, without intelligence
or dignity: the perfect entertainer for the American people.
The first impression most people have of Crosby is of a pleasant,
rich voice that sounds deceptively easy to imitate a voice
that seems so effortless in its intonation that listeners have accused
him of actually muting song lyrics, rendering them inert and listless.
Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Crosby, an
extraordinarily intelligent man, knew that indifference is a more
effective weapon in affairs of the heart than passion regardless
of whether the love is requited.
In Crosbys recording of Thanks for the Memory,
a first listening exudes only good-natured sentiment. It takes subsequent
listenings to reveal the brilliant cruelty in Crosbys method.
As he nears the end of the song, reaching lyrics that discuss the
parting of lovers, his enunciation becomes slightly more clipped,
more dry. The sarcasm in his reading of the lyric no tears,
no fuss / hooray for us is subtle, but unmistakable. Its
the intonation of a man whos so far past caring about his
former lover that hes perfectly willing to let his real indifference
show through. His love has faded to the point where he can be maliciously
sarcastic to his ex.
Aggression, despair and rapture, the trademarks of Sinatras
relentlessly heart-on-the-sleeve style, are obviously beneath Crosby.
And, at risk of attaching too fine a point, its because Crosby
is better than Sinatra.
Crosbys phenomenal popularity makes ours a more interesting
country, because it is extraordinary that his bleak, nihilistic
evocation of human relationships was able to find such popular favor
with the American people.
Crosby was Machiavellian and sadistic, and he makes us all a little
more Machiavellian and sadistic each time we listen to him.
Play the best of Crosbys recordings A Long,
Long Time, Galway Bay, Its Easy to
Remember and Whos Sorry Now? back
to back with Sinatra's versions and one can fully appreciate Crosby
for the genius he was. And Sinatra for a blustering, narcissistic,
self-aggrandizing, comically melodramatic goon.