Back in 1998, my girlfriend at the time went to Atsitsa in Skyros, and while she was there, somebody gave her a tape of Madeleine Peyroux. When I first heard it, I said, as countless others have and countless more will, “Wow — she sounds like Billie Holiday!”
On her site, it says, “All the initial reviews that greeted Dreamland [her first album] focused on the Billie Holiday resemblance. But perceptive reviewers noted that Peyroux wasn’t imitating Lady Day. As acclaimed pianist Cyrus Chestnut, who played on Dreamland, put it: ‘[Peyroux] has her own story to tell: with her voice, her heart, her spirit.'”
There is no shortage of good singers in the world, but the ones who become successful these days have to offer something more. Either it’s looks, or some gimmick, or the fact that they’re also great performers, or their material (usually original) is very good as well. One would have to be very naive to think that Peyroux would be where she is now if she didn’t sound almost exactly like Billie Holiday. Dreamland struck me as only somewhat catchy. It was cute Billie Holiday, Lady Day for Starbucks.
A couple of things interest me about this. One is the idea that a singer who sounds like someone who’s been dead for half a century can also be a novelty. The Peyroux experience allows you to imagine what it would be like if Billie Holiday were still alive today and singing like a young woman. It allows you to hear what it would be like if Billie Holiday were around to sing Leonard Cohen. It’s kind of like the interest GCIs had when Forrest Gump first came out. We got to find out what it would be like if a retarded Tom Hanks had met JFK.
I remember a band in the late 80s or early 90s — I don’t remember their name — whose singer sounded exactly like Bono. They can’t have done more than one album. He was imitating someone still alive and active, so they weren’t a novelty, unless people just wanted to ask, “What would it sound like if Bono were in a really mediocre rock band?” I also remember the Canadian band Tea Party, which was more successful because their singer was ripping off a dead singer: Jim Morisson. The stuff you can hear at their website suggests that the singer has dropped the act, which also means he had been putting it on all along.
But what really interests me is how Peyroux, in her heart of hearts, feels about all this. I can only imagine how many times she’s had to hear, “You know, you really sound like Billie Holiday!” I’m sure she’s sick of it, but does she realise that’s what’s got her where she is? Does lie awake in the wee hours and tell herself, “What an existential oddity I am!”
Now that the mechanism of fate has started working, there must be a lot of people who listen to her and don’t know who Billie Holiday is, but most, I’m sure, do.
How long will Peyroux remain successful? Will the novelty wear off, so that she will have to search for other material, in case someone somewhere asks, “I wonder what it would sound like if Billie Holiday had lived to sing Iron Maiden.”
What will happen when Peyroux is dust with the dust of Billie Holiday? Will we have computer generated voices by then, so we can choose which singer will sing what song?
Enrico Caruso does Talking Heads! Tiny Tim sings Megadeath! Elvis does Nirvana!
And what if Madeleine Peyroux did “Don’t Explain” or “Lover Man” or “No Detour Ahead”? It would probably sound pretty cute. But it definitely wouldn’t ache.