Oh Susanna!

This summer we made plans to join our friends Lisa and Doug for a night at the Rochester Jazz Fest, and after some discussion decided to meet at the show of an act called Susanna and the Magical Orchestra.  None of us knew anything about them – what type of music they played, what their vibe was, how many members there were in the Magical Orchestra – but we figured that it seemed as good a place as any to start out the night.

They were performing in a church that was often a site for concerts.  The acoustics were good and the sightlines excellent.  When we got there it was standing room only, with most people at the back sitting on the floor or in the aisles.  As we sat in a pew near the back, our friends Mark and Anne walked in and they joined us.  They too didn’t really know much about the band but had come to see what they were about.

The setup on stage was a couple of keyboards and synthesizers, along with a computer, on the left with three different microphones.  But as the band came onstage, we realized that it was just a duo – Susanna, of course, and Morten, who was in charge of pretty much all the sounds other than Susanna’s vocals.  Morten played the keyboards and the synthesizers and was in charge of the programmed music on the computer, and he occasionally joined in backup vocals to Susanna.  Susanna operated the two microphones on the right, one of which was a regular mic, but the other of which her vocals into something more electronic and less – for lack of a better term – human.

I use that term consciously because Susanna, it turns out, has a beautiful voice, a haunting voice, and the band’s arrangements highlight her broad vocal range and her rather strange and occasionally off-putting phrasing.  The band plays some originals, which sound like the output of an 80s-era Euro-style synthesizer band, like a cross between early Depeche Mode and a-ha.  They’re kind of New Wave and kind of not, kind of dance songs, but only in the same way that “Stairway to Heaven,” “Layla,” and “Freebird” were dance songs played at the end of junior high dances.  (You never could tell just what to do while dancing to these songs, hold the girl close or groove awkwardly waiting for the guitar to kick in and the song to really come to life.)  Their songs switch suddenly from a slow tempo to something much more strikingly upbeat and the shifts seem to come without warning or logic.  With Susanna’s voice a distinctive note above the music, the songs somehow all evoke the sound of Kate Bush, Bjork, and Sinead O’Connor – all at once.

And, of course, I mean that in a good way.  They’re totally odd and they’re great.

And yet they are nothing like the covers that the band plays, which are beyond my descriptive capabilities.  Here’s their version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah:”

It’s pretty great, but it’s also representative of their approach to covers, almost all of which are classics of rock or country.  They strip down the originals to their core and through her vocal phrasing Susanna reinterprets the lyrics into something personal to her so that it brings out something different in the lyrics, evoking a mood often rather different than that of the original.

Nothing demonstrated this more than what they did in their second song.  We were sitting listening, feeling as if there was something familiar in the song as we heard her sing, “Riding down the highway/going to a show/stop in all the byways/playing rock and roll.”  All of a sudden I recognized the song: “It’s a Long Way to the Top” by AC/DC.  But the hazy, lazy phrasing that Susanna offered and the gentle undertone of the electric organ made it sound like an altogether different song than the one we know from Angus Young and his bandmates.  It was, in a word, wonderful.  Everything about the song – as well as the one that followed, Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right” – was somehow discordant, pushing against expectations and what we had heard before.  It’s music that you have to hear for yourself.  It’s kind of that amazing.

Their look onstage is something I’d describe as Nordic hipster.  Susanna was blond and seemingly tall and thin on stage.  She was an embodiment of Marlowe in Heart of Darkness: a voice more than anything else.  Morten, on the other hand, was geeky and immersed in the experience of making music. .  Lots of the music he was producing was computerized and he was working the keyboard pulling out these preprogrammed sounds, but he was also playing an electric organ and a synthesizer.  As he played, he would bite his lower lip and totally lose himself in his performance.  He would make faces, and move in overstylized ways, and yet there was no irony there but just a fantastic and wonderful earnestness.

Overall it was an absolutely weird, great, stupefying show that came out of nowhere and blew us away – just what you really hope for in a concert.  What ultimately made the night for Joan and me, and maybe for everyone, was what they did with Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.”  This video provides the audio version of it:

It is just a really beautiful, moving performance of one of the great all-time songs.  She takes Dolly’s work and makes it her own in a way that is totally singular and believable.

You owe it to yourself to check Susanna and the Magical Orchestra out.  They’re crazy and excellent.  They were the oddest and best and trippiest show we’ve seen in a long, long time.


You Just Have to Want it Enough: Jim Rome, Individualism, and Sports

I’m not sure why, maybe it’s a slight case of masochism, but sometimes on the drive home I listen to Jim Rome on the radio.  Jim Rome, for those who don’t know, has a syndicated talk radio show where he talks about sports.  (He also has a show on ESPN that’s airs during the afternoon.)  He’s kind of horrible.  Not horrible in a vaguely pleasurable way like, say, Howard Stern, but horrible in a way that you always end up saying to yourself, “Why am I listening to this guy?”  And then turning it to a different station.

As I said, it’s probably a touch of masochism that I sometimes listen.  A little self-flagellation for my sins.

Last week, I was driving home and Rome was discussing the Dallas Cowboys-Houston Texans game that had taken place a few days earlier.  He said that in the previous week he had thought that maybe the Texans had turned the corner this year, that perhaps they had moved into the elite in professional football.  They had won their first two games and looked good, and the Cowboys had lost their first two and had looked pretty lousy.  Rome was expecting Houston to take the next step and to finally beat Dallas and to take control of the professional football landscape in Texas.  He spoke to a few of the players on Houston and he thought they were ready.  But then the Texans lost to the Cowboys and Rome was mad.

Now fans of teams can get mad when their team loses.  Fans invest emotionally in their teams and give all sorts of energy and time to rooting for them, so they often take losing personally and blame the players, the coaches, the management, and/or the owners.  But Rome isn’t exactly a fan – he talks about sports for a living.  And he isn’t specifically a fan of the Houston Texans.  No, he was mad for another reason.  I don’t think that reason was that he had predicted them to win.  I’m guessing – hoping? – that it wasn’t that shallow.  No, instead he seemed to take their loss personally for an altogether different reason.

Rome’s take on what happened was really pretty simple: he said that the Texans just didn’t want it enough.  Now, this is a pretty common cliche when it comes to sports, and I’m always amazed by it because it so rarely applies in any way.  Rarely have I ever known an athlete – professional, collegiate, high school – who didn’t want to win.  Athletes, by their very nature, are generally speaking competitive people.  Competition is part and parcel of sports, and especially so when it comes to professional sports.  Now, you might say, maybe Rome was not saying that the Texans didn’t want to win, but that they didn’t want to put the hard work in to winning that particular game, which usually has to do with preparation, practice, studying, and giving the extra effort during the game that might make the difference between winning and losing.

Yes, maybe he was.  But professional athletes DO put that work in – it’s their job to do so, and if they didn’t then the team would get rid of them.  It’s what the coaches do and what the players do during the week – study their opponent and their own playing so far that season, devise a strategy for the game, and practice execution of that strategy.  And if they don’t work hard during the week or during the game, then they won’t play for that team – or likely any other – for very long.

So Rome’s use of this cliche, while common, actually makes little sense.  Of course the Texans want to win.  Pro football players want to win every game they play in.  Pretty much ALL athletes want to win every game that they play.  More likely, the Texans’ strategy for the game wasn’t appropriate for beating the Cowboys or the athletes weren’t able to execute that strategy as well as they had hoped.  Or perhaps the strategy was fine as an approach to the game, but the Cowboys simply did a better job in that particular game or made fewer mistakes in their execution.  I would venture that one of these reasons was much more likely for the loss than the outlandish claim that the players just didn’t want it enough.  Of course they wanted it, but so did the Cowboys.  Wanting it doesn’t really have much to do with winning.

So I turned off the radio and cursed Rome for his stupidity and for his empty bluster, just as I do pretty much every other time I make the mistake of turning to his program.  And I went on my merry way.

But later I came back to this notion of wanting it.  Why, I wondered, has it become a cliche that you have to want it?  Why do people use this rhetoric?  Why has it taken hold in American sports culture?  What can we trace it to?  It seems to fit into an American ideology that privileges a belief in the power of the individual.  Individualism is founded on the idea that individual agency is possible, admirable, and essential: we have the ability to make our own choices in our lives, it is good that we can do so, and it is essential that we do so in order to make possible our own futures.  Individualism discounts the power of other forces acting on individuals and influencing or controlling what individuals can do or accomplish.  While some might argue that individual agency might be mitigated by social, economic, historical, or cultural forces, the primacy of individualism often overwhelms these arguments so that the idea of the individual in control of his or her own destiny remains a viable and, for many, crucial American belief.  These contingencies, often grouped under the ideology of determinism, are potential impediments to individual agency, but they tend to be dismissed by the greater American public as something extraneous or inapplicable to our experience.  Most people just don’t want to buy into the argument that maybe their are socioeconomic reasons for why individuals might be limited in what they can or cannot do.

If we want it enough, we can make it happen.  Rhetorically, Rome’s feelings about the Texans and their loss to the Cowboys came straight out of the ideology of American individualism.  And the way that this belief has taken purchase in sports culture makes sense when we consider that so much of sports is a measure of individual achievement: how many yards did that player gain, how fast can she run, how many points did he score, how many triple axels can that skater land – all of these are measurements not only of success in a competition, but in terms of what men and women can actually accomplish.  Determinism doesn’t really seem to have much of a place in sport.  Yes, men and women might be limited by what their actual bodies can do – we cannot jump ten feet high, we cannot run a hundred meters in five seconds – but at the same time, the keeping of records is an actual measurement of how individuals overcome these limitations and surpass what others have been able to do before.  Moreover, the limitations of class, culture, and other factors, in many people’s minds, have nothing to do with what happens on the field or court.  All of that is left behind and what is left is individual athletic achievement.  Which is why “wanting it” is so important, because wanting it is about the individual embracing the challenge of the competition and striving for success.

So when Rome claims that the team lost because they didn’t want it enough, what he’s really saying isn’t only that the Texans didn’t work hard enough, he’s saying that individual agency is the sole determination of success.  It’s paramount to an unshakable faith that the American Dream results from individual desire for success.  Nothing can stop you from your dreams as long as you want them enough. This faith, this belief, has always been of interest to me as a concept, and it is especially intriguing in Rome’s use because it’s not particularly hard to imagine impediments to the individual’s success in a particular athletic event – from ones having to do with injuries, strategy, execution, or the other team’s own determination – but also because it’s fascinating how pervasive this belief is in the world of sports.  It’s not something I had really thought much about before, but something that’s been on my mind in the last week or so.

And I have Jim Rome to thank for it.  Huh.  Who knew?