Saturday, September 19, 2009

"If I Were Your Woman" by Gladys Knight and the Pips (1970)

Okay. I do admit it – my musical tastes have, on more than one occasion, been described as ‘gay’. It’s all good. I don’t happen to be gay, but as there’s no proven link between sexual preference and musical preference, all innuendo just washes off.

See, it’s all about the divas. I, you see, am a bona fide fan of divas. Not Mariah Carey – can’t stand her. Just the old school ones. Even at that, I am rather discerning with my divas. Allow me to elucidate.

I recently saw an ad touting a new season of “Canadian Idol” (the Canadian version of, surprise surprise, “American Idol”). Among the wannabes soundbited on the ad was a particularly histrionic woman screeching (as opposed to singing) “Come on and take it” (presumably to be followed, post-soundbite, by “Piece of My Heart”. We’re meant to watch and say ‘Hey! She can’t sing! She can only screech!’

People worldwide will hate me for saying this, but… That seems like a pretty decent imitation of Janis Joplin. I’ve never understood the appeal of Janis Joplin. She is, to me, what a diva should not be – aggressive, dissonant, indeed histrionic. What a diva should be… I’ve heard it said that power without strength is nothing. Having the pipes is nothing if you don’t know how to use them.

Observe Gladys Knight. With or without the Pips behind her, Gladys Knight can sing (so well, I’m tempted to spell it ‘sang’). To me, that means having a great instrument and having expert control over it. Diana Ross can exude personality, take you on a journey with the way she sells a song. But her pipes are not the most powerful. Aretha Franklin can tear the roof off of a church merely with her voice. But… wait. I can’t criticise Aretha Franklin – that’s a crime in certain jurisdictions. In any case, what Gladys has is the power and the glory. You can hear, or could at one point, an a capella version of this song on YouTube. It is a thing to behold. The girl can sing like hell. She’s broken hearted, she’s triumphant, she’s wilful, she’s dreamy. She sells it all so convincingly that you want to throttle the bugger that’s choosing some other girl over her. I mean, what, is he deaf?

There might be many out there who deride Motown and say that Gladys was at her best after Motown. I do know, especially from an instrumentation point of view, what they’re saying. But what Motown could do better than anyone out there is chain enough monkeys to typewriters that stunning compositions like this would come along often enough to keep everyone on top of their singles games (albums? Well… that’s what ‘greatest hits’ compilations are for…). In this particular case, the song is heartbreaking. The melody is as evocative as any screenplay and the dynamics tell as much as the words could ever hope to. For anybody suffering from a severe case of Jon-Cryer-as-Duckie-style unrequited love, this song couldn’t ring truer.

Difficult to imagine it happening to Gladys, mind you.

Lastly, the Pips, frankly more often an anchor than a set of wings, are perfectly fine in this song, staying to the background and making the gender-shift a little less annoying than it otherwise might be.

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