Frank Sinatra: The Last Crooner

Frank Sinatra: 1915–1998

By Gary Giddins

Nobody was shocked to learn of Frank Sinatra’s death at 82 — everyone was surprised he lingered as long as he did. Yet his leaving inevitably focuses attention on a shared history. High arts never unite us as intimately as popular ones, and Sinatra’s absence is unmooring on several levels, least of which is the mourning for a great artist, since he was no longer productive. We’re mourning the symbol of his generation, a guy who counts for far more in the patrimony of the baby-boomers who now control the media than Saul Bellow or Arthur Miller, who were born in the same year. He roamed in the gloaming of our mutuality for nearly 60 years, from 1939, when he recorded “All or Nothing at All” with Harry James, until last Thursday. His legend outstripped, as legends will, the details of its making. He was one of those outsized figures who so perfectly embody the experiences and outlook of his time and place as to become a vessel for dreams and herald of the future.

The generation he personified and transformed was the one that fought the “good war” and spooned to Der Bingle; bought the first TVs to watch boxing and Milton Berle in drag; wore snap-brims and wide ties and cotton handkerchiefs that peaked from breast pockets like heraldic crests; smoked guiltlessly; drank mixed holdovers from Prohibition (often made with rye); laughed at Bob Hope and ogled Rita Hayworth; thought movie musicals were an immortal idiom; gambled in Vegas to rub shoulders with wiseguys; put their kids through colleges they never would have dreamed of attending themselves; trusted in God and let cholesterol take care of itself; and quaked in horror at rock and roll — in short, the generation that spawned the ’60s the way day precedes night (or is it vice versa?). Ladies and gentlemen, Big Daddy has left the building.

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There was not much difference — you could look it up — between media coverage of Sinatra’s passing last week and that of Bing Crosby 21 years ago, when his brood ran the media. But there is a big difference in the DNA of their fables. Crosby’s was based on being the nicest guy in town; when posthumous rumors suggested he was something less than saintly, his historical standing took a nosedive. But Sinatra was a famous dickhead — we already assume the worst, no matter what posterity reveals, and we don’t give a damn. A richer testimony to his contemporaneity cannot be imagined. His danger level is part of what makes him attractive; he played the troubadour with as much bravado as François Villon. Still, to everyone born after Hiroshima, Sinatra remains always slightly alien, no matter how much we love his music — he recalls a style as antiquated as terms like “bachelor,” “divorcée,” “illegitimate child.” The revival of ’50s lounge drivel is no more than a lunatic kitsch trip and Sinatra’s artistry will outlive it — but not his style, which will be interred with his body in Palm Springs. If you don’t believe it, buy a tri-cornered hat and call yourself a revolutionary.

The music is another story, or more precisely another two stories, for early and later Sinatra are as distinct as early and later Billie Holiday. Where she went from flaming youth to clouded vulnerablity, he went the other way. Indeed, the jet-age Sinatra who makes us soar, and whom we dreamily emulate, could hardly be more different from the bony wartime crooner who clawed his way out of Tommy Dorsey’s band to lay siege to the Paramount — the eager balladeer, his greased and wavy hair a mark of his defenseless youth. Not that his seemingly unaffected voice wasn’t recognized instantly as the magical instrument it was — intimate, earnest, and pretty; romantic and woebegone. It ached, but stoically. It swung, but reflectively. It caressed, and gently. Even the male factor — the pure baritone edge that shaped his every phrase — was equivocal. With men overseas and their women unattended, Sinatra allowed himself a measure of musical androgyny that underscored his identification with the women. The swooning girls his press agent hired astutely pegged Sinatra as a singer whose sexuality, in those years, stopped one step short of carnality — what can you do in a faint?

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The androgyny grew more pronounced as the bow-tied beanpole, his face as quizzical and angular as a marionette’s, learned to emote his ballads with daring operatic drama and design. “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” one of several Sinatra classics by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn, typifies his ability to combine genders as he brings bel canto to pop. Cahn’s lyric is characteristically simple:

I fall in love too easily.
I fall in love too fast.
I fall in love too terribly hard
For love to ever last.

How is one to approach the title phrase? Is it rueful, knowing, complaining, ironic, diffident? Sinatra sings it like a frightened doe, but without a trace of sentimentality. He makes the lyric deep, an expression of the singer’s dramatic plight. We’re in act 3, scene 2. Queen Ava, having thrown the Prince’s betrothed (actually his daughter in disguise) from a castle turret, has hied to the barbarian king. Alone in his chamber, Prince Frank learns the terrible news and turns to his loyal jester, Dinoletto. “E strano,” he sighs, and sings, “I fall in love too easily.” The first two lines are small-voiced and quiet, but in an early example of Sinatra’s skillful technique, the third vents an unwavering, plaintive authority that glides upward along one unbroken breath, followed by a rest that heightens the poignancy of the final five words. For Sinatra, the words define the music and the music defines the words — so simple, so obvious, so why can’t everyone do it?

What women surely recognized in his oddly gentle baritone was a degree of tenderness and sympathy rare in the daily opera of radio. When he sang “Try a Little Tenderness,” Sinatra wasn’t merely a wise young man advising the world’s husbands on their love technique, he was identifying with women as someone who knew about the world’s brutishness. Crosby was, from the beginning, a model of virility; the young Sinatra was vaguely feminine, and consequently a bit subversive. You have to go to the records for his inventive highs in those years, because the movies and the fan mags cheapened him, marketing him as a naif, an innocent in a sailor suit in need of a strong, maternal woman. In 1946, a sexual confusion bordering on camp found its apogee in the climax of the disastrous Till the Clouds Roll By, as the camera arcs into the sky to catch a pristine and gleaming Frank, standing atop a column and missing only a ribbon in his hair to pass as a Ziegfeld adornment, as he sings “Ol’ Man River.”

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He needed a makeover, no question, especially with his idol turned rival, Crosby, now enjoying the greatest popularity of his life. Crosby had always been generous to him. “A voice like Sinatra’s comes along once in a lifetime,” he often said. “Why did it have to be my lifetime?” But postwar audiences pleased by Bing were tired of Frank. For a while he had a television show in which he wore a mustache and hustled cutlery. His movies declined, and so did his recordings — the heights he could still scale (“I’m a Fool To Want You,” “The Birth of the Blues”) vied with depths of commercial desperation. A faithful New Dealer, he was accused of Communist sympathies by rabid pundits, including Lee Mortimer, whom Sinatra rapped in the mouth, bless his soul. It didn’t help.

And then, with alarming suddenness, Frankie grew up, reinventing himself on the threshold of 40. He left the mother of his three children for Ava Gardner, which cleared up the androgyny business fast. Soon he put on weight, parted his hair, and changed his music. Perhaps it was his reportedly suicide-prone marriage to Ava that did for him what hormones couldn’t — toughening his vocal edge, teaching him something about despair, resolution, bitterness, and hatred. The first recordings in his epochal new contract with Capitol stand as a definition of artist-in-transition. Even the cover of Songs for Young Lovers suggests the persona change. In one shot, he’s got the hat, the hankie, and the smoke — he’s Richard Widmark in Night and the City. In the other, he’s leaning against a streetlight while two entranced couples walk by, ignoring him; put him in a skirt and he’s poised to sing ”Love for Sale.” The performances, arranged with sly ingenuity (this begins the collaboration with Nelson Riddle), are suave, notwithstanding a few false steps and gauche embellishments. Perhaps the highlight is ”Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams,” a song closely associated with the young Crosby, but no more.

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By the 1956 release of Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, he had the accomplishment and attitude of an old master, as well as a dark vocal edge that was at once appealingly uncertain — an accidental virtue of his pitch problems — and implacable. Recently, a fanatic Sinatraphile label issued running tapes from some of his recording sessions, illustrating the extent of his musicality. That he was an interpretive virtuoso who plotted his phrases with military efficiency was obvious, but I had assumed his arrangers or conductors ran the sessions. Not true. Sinatra ordains dynamics, tempos, and phrasing; the conductor hardly makes a peep. Still, a firm and unwavering control was always implied, which is one reason I especially treasure such anomalous recordings as his 1962 version of “Pennies From Heaven” with Count Basie, whose stamping four-beat is dramatically different from the thudding backbeat Sinatra preferred — it’s a wide-open range of possibilities. Rising to the challenge, Sinatra goes beyond the usual embellishments, and in his second chorus configures one canny melodic inversion after another.

He could not have continued in that vein forever, but I doubt there was anything he couldn’t do superbly every once in a while. Sinatra’s career on records spanned 54 years, during which time he enjoyed spectacular successes in movies and more modest ones on radio and television. The immensity of that body of work will fuel rediscovery and reassessment long after his iconicity has become vestigial and the controversies he inspired have faded from popular memory.

1998_Village Voice package remembering Frank Sinatra

By Tom Carson

RONALD REAGAN has probably already forgotten where he was when Sinatra got shot. “For God’s sake, Ronnie,” Nancy must be prompting him right now, “the bald guy I used to take those long lunches with, remember? When you were in the East Wing rambling to Gorbachev about Harry Cohn, and thinking the whole time you were rambling to Harry Cohn about Gorbachev.” But between the two — and Reagan, not Bing Crosby (who dat?) or even Elvis, is Frank’s true competition — there’s no question which icon packs more oomph. In office, the older Reagan served as an emissary from a false history of his compatriots; the older Sinatra, who was never out of office, from a real one. It’s like the way World War II didn’t really end until Churchill kicked the bucket. Older Americans wouldn’t so keenly lament the peaceful death of an 82-year-old if he hadn’t been the last surviving embodiment of an era now all but unimaginable even to those who lived through it.

If future historians don’t come to grips with Sinatra’s bizarre status as a primary color in the postwar U.S. palette, they’ll never make sense of the canvas. What’s been mostly ignored in the obits is how even in his dotage Sinatra remained white America’s last completely satisfying definition of masculine style — to somewhat disconcerting effect, let me add, since its underlying values had been debunked by feminism and Mario Puzo a quarter century before his death. Yet however much Frank the swinger’s double standards tarnish Frank the singer’s standards, no comparably compelling image of male conduct has emerged to replace it. Aside from fitting right in at the fin de siècle garage sale, guyville’s chronic outbreaks of wistfulness about the Rat Pack — whose latest installment went into overdrive last Friday — testifies to the lack of alternative models that even most women, as pop fans if not politicos or human beings, have found palatable in the long run. Remember when Ms. was waggling Alan Alda at us like a remonstrating finger? So much for that.

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Although a taste for coarseness sometimes denotes sophistication — Billy Wilder comes to mind — Sinatra was the flip side, revering sophistication as only a coarse man could. That would make him just another case study in horse-headed upward mobility if it weren’t that, unlike most aspirants, he wasn’t intimidated by prevailing definitions of sophistication; his version of classiness strikes a peculiarly native chord because it’s an invented classiness, without a pedigree. One reason he did as much as Levittown to shape the mores of America’s postwar middle class is that they’d never been middle class before. It took a peasant to teach the midcentury’s new bourgeoisie how to comport themselves as aristocrats. So long as we’re stuck with class systems, America’s incoherent version is better than the coherent kind.

The voice didn’t hurt, of course. Over the weekend, I called my mom to offer half-joking condolences; like the ones about Nixon, our running gags about Sinatra date back to my college years. She laughed, and told me she was reading in her garden with a stack of his CDs for background music. “That sounds like a nice way to spend a Saturday,” I said. “It is,” she said, holding up her phone to the speakers. “Listen.”

1998_Village Voice package remembering Frank Sinatra

By Touré

ONE NIGHT years ago, a woman I’d long wanted was finally coming over and I put on a Sinatra album. When she heard it she laughed so hard she went out of the mood. That was the end of her, and the end of playing Frank for company. For women there were Marvin, Barry, Prince. Frank was for the best nights — the alone ones. I had discovered him in Wall Street, when Charlie Sheen was just beginning to conquer Michael Douglas and Daryl Hannah and for one moment everything was as it should have been. In the background Frank sang, “Flyyyyy me to the moon/Let me plaaaay among the stars” — and I understood immediately. This was the sound of insurmountable confidence and cosmic rightness. I never knew whether Nancy was Frank’s wife or his daughter, or who Bobby was and why his socks mattered, or what Woody Allen’s wife’s mother had to do with any of it. I knew only that Frank had the sound of a man who would never lose. Could never. A man I could turn to long after midnight on Sunday, when I was all alone, the lights dimmed, steeling for another week of battle, and ask, What happens in the end, Frank? How does it all work out? And no matter how great the evidence to the contrary, he could convince me, “The best is yet to come/And babe, won’t it be fine.”

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Last Friday, the last day of the 20th century, I got into a cab, one of those roomy new minivan ones. It was the hottest day of the year, and the cab was perfectly air-conditioned — the cooled air grazed your skin like on Sunday afternoons in the Hamptons. But we got stuck in traffic by Union Square Park. I rolled down the window and looked out at two very young girls, maybe seven years old. They had been roller-blading circles around the park and were sweaty and worn out. One wanted to stop, but the other begged for one more go. “All right,” the first girl replied brightly to her little bestpal, “this is the last one.” She paused and then added, without a speck of doubt on her soul, “the best one.” She said it with an unquestioning certainty that if they so decided, then life would play out that way, in the best possible way. And everything could be as it should be. As Frank would’ve wanted. And in that moment I thought that between these two little New Yorkers and this cab and this beautiful day, Frank’s Homegoing Day, that maybe New York could be the greatest city in the world and could live up to being sung about by Frank Sinatra. But now I think maybe, somehow, someday, life itself will be just right and as it should be, and life will live up to being sung about by Frank Sinatra.

1998_Village Voice package remembering Frank Sinatra

By Robert Christgau

HEY, FOLKS — Frank Sinatra and rock and roll aren’t mutually exclusive. Not that Mr. My Way could sing the music he once adjudged “a rancid-smelling aphrodisiac,” as with typical elasticity of principle he eventually tried to. (Remember “The PTA, Mrs. Robinson, won’t OK the way you do your thing/Ding ding ding”? How could you forget?) And not that his Northern, urban, assimilationist style had any rock and roll in it. But it wasn’t as antithetical as Rudy Vallee’s, Nelson Eddy’s, Mario Lanza’s, John Raitt’s, Eddie Fisher’s, or, shit, Tony Bennett’s. Like innovators from William Wordsworth to Chuck Berry, Sinatra was driven to intensify formal language by making it more speechlike. Magically, within severe standards of pitch, timbre, and enunciation, his singing is every bit as colloquial as Bob Dylan’s, Carole King’s, or Rakim’s — probably more so.

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Pop is a cornucopia and a continuum. Either way, most of the music I adore is rock and roll. But not all of it. And none of it excludes any of the rest. So when a savvy young critic praises Sinatra for delivering her from punk’s canon of authenticity, I feel sad. When a broadly experienced older critic uses Sinatra’s genius to bewail the impersonality of contemporary pop, I pray my arteries hold up. Either-or is for Sidney Zion. I want the world and I want it now.

Many claim they don’t identify with Frank Sinatra — they just bask in his artistry. But that’s not how singing works. Sinatra the man’s gruesome amalgam of confidence and insecurity was configured in his so-called pitch problems — the way every line he sings seems to waver slightly as he holds it firmly in the grip of his technical command. More than anything else, it was the ambivalence built into his certainty that made him the century’s quintessential voice for so many of us. And it was the intelligence built into his body that made him just right for any rock and roller with a grain of sensibility.

1998_Village Voice package remembering Frank Sinatra

1998_Village Voice package remembering Frank Sinatra

1998_Village Voice package remembering Frank Sinatra

1998_Village Voice package remembering Frank Sinatra


Platinum Reputation

The months preceding the release of Lil’ Kim’s The Naked Truth were like a hip-hop marketer’s perfect storm. There was the blazing “Lighters Up,” one of the summer’s hottest jams. There was a five-mic review in The Source that made people pay attention and could be the last time the magazine has an impact on hip-hop culture. There was a perjury trial that produced a mountain of press and attention as well as a year-long jail sentence and a platinum reputation in the hood—in a year when a ubiquitous T-shirt demanded “Stop Snitching,” a trial that centered on Kim’s refusal to edify law enforcement couldn’t have been better timed. Surely an album from a nationally known artist preceded by a gargantuan single, a perfect review, and offstage drama that made her look good would lead to big sales. But she moved less than 300,000 albums—a flop. Few think Kim’s jail term will kill her music career. But maybe that’s because you can’t kill something that’s already dead.

Brooklyn, New York


Very Much Like a Death

On Monday, September 3, 2001, shortly after John Forté completed his second album, i, John, he and some friends from New York were in a swanky Houston hotel called the Lancaster having a party. They stayed up late eating french fries, drinking White Russians, and listening to Reasonable Doubt over and over again. Forté spoke of a party he was going to throw at the end of the week in New York at Spa. He would buy out the bar as Mark Ronson spun. The day after he would fly off to Dublin with his girlfriend. He had that New York of-course-we’ll-conquer-the-world swagger. He repeatedly said, in a female lilt, “More champagne, Mr. Forté?” There was no champagne around, he just meant the partying and high living would not, could not stop. The next day everyone put on suits and went to court.

Forté is a child of Brownsville, his mother’s only son, who won a scholarship to Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, the most prestigious prep school in America. After a year at NYU, he found his way into Wyclef Jean and Lauryn Hill’s Refugee Clique. His debut solo album, Poly Sci, had a few great moments, but the Hiphop Nation paid no mind. He was a rapper more book-smart than street-smart and that’s never been a winning combination. Since then, he’s become friends with Carly Simon, learned how to sing, and been arrested for possession of 31 pounds of cocaine worth $1.5 million.

On September 4, Forté testified that he’d met a man with no day job who thought nothing of buying thousand-dollar shirts and multiple bottles of multi-hundred-dollar champagne. The two began talking about helping one another professionally. In July of 2000 a pair of girls from New York traveled to Mexico to pick up something. On their way back they were arrested. At a motel near Houston they called Forté repeatedly, frantically. He told them, “Put the ice cream in the tub.” The phone was tapped. A day later, the girls arrived at Newark Airport. Forté testified at length that he thought the suitcase they handed him was filled with money. I testified that “cream” is, indeed, hiphop slang for currency. But the suitcase did not contain money. And Forté was surrounded by ATF agents.

On the stand, wearing a double-breasted, high-necked black suit a bit too stylish for the occasion, he seemed neither sad, nor sorry, nor scared, but smart and smug. Back at the hotel, the party recommenced. Perhaps it was a blues mentality, an urge to laugh in the face of unfathomable tragedy. Perhaps it was overconfidence. Perhaps it was an act: In private he was quiet, moody, afraid, drinking, not eating, and taking antidepressants.

On the 5th, in her closing, the prosecutor said, “These New Yorkers think they can come down here with their money and their celebrity and fool us hicks.”

On the 6th, moments before the jury came back with their verdict, a juror’s daughter told Forté’s girlfriend not to worry. The jury had liked him. When Forté heard that, the clouds that had engulfed him for over a year suddenly lifted. He could see himself at Spa. He could smell Dublin.

The 12 filed in. On the charge of possession he was found guilty.

Forté had spent the previous year in fear of that moment. He’d been on house arrest, planning his defense and writing and recording, knowing he had to be finished before the trial, knowing he might not get another chance to speak publicly. Where Jigga and Puff responded to their trials by boasting of their innocence on wax, Forté found himself focused by the pressure and reinvented his musical voice to accommodate his new mind. On i, John he is primarily a blues singer, working his way through mournfully mellow songs about the pointlessness of celebrity, the pettiness of club life, the juvenile excesses of hiphop, and the new loneliness of his life. “My cigarette smoke has long since dissolved,” he sings. “Nothing to hide behind/No one to give applause/Now I’m humbled.” He details his new reality, his sense that time is not a friend. “The only thing I’ll ever miss is kisses from Mom,” he sings. “I don’t club no more/ I smoke a cigarette, drink, then we write a new song so that/my spirit’s here even if I’m gone.” He closes with a searing ballad in which he faces his family. “Even after all of your warnings/we still managed to meet with harm.” He asks if he will remain part of the family, if they’ll accept him when he returns from his long exile. “Will you still remember us as family?/Will you not place judgment upon us?/When we one day join you at the reunion?”

Whatever keep it real means to you—repping your hood or wearing your own jewels in the video—nothing is more real than putting the facts of your life all up in your art the way Pryor, Biggie, and Jigga have. Nothing is more real than the rhyming and singing of the man deathly afraid of what is ahead of him, the John Forté of i, John. If ever a piece of art has shown how the caged bird sings, it is i, John.

A life-shatteringly long prison bid is very much like a death: Something terrible happens and suddenly someone’s not around and everyone struggles to know what to say. But in letters from prison Forté has refused to cry. In late September he wrote, “I was shown love from the moment I walked in here, Exeter’s ‘art of diplomacy’ course did me well. Hah! . . . One good thing about Houston is the weather has been decent—from what I can tell. But I am in need of some outdoor time. This detention center is just that—a holding facility where we are detained until we can get to the ‘joint.’ It’s small and repetitious. I am told it gets better than this. Shit, it has to.”

In late October he wrote, “All is well in exile. . . . We are treated like junior high school science projects—open the cage, and the mouse awakens. Turn off the lights, and the mouse grows weary. Scream about ‘chow’ and the mouse comes running. . . . My ‘cellie’ is a real good guy. He’s recently found Jesus Christ as his lord and savior. . . . He’s trying to get medical treatment for his snoring, but until then I deal with the earth-shattering noise. I’ve never had a problem sleeping through din. But reading and writing become increasingly difficult when someone snores so loud and awkward it gives you the chills; like when the kids in elementary school would run their nails on the chalkboard! Eeek!! . . . I’ve met some brilliant minds behind these walls. . . . The best thing I can do now is prepare myself for the long haul. I cannot allow myself to think about the likelihood and chances of coming home on appeal.”

Just before Thanksgiving, Forté was sentenced to 14 years. Federal guidelines mandate he serve at least 85 percent of his sentence. He won’t drink champagne before 2013.

It would be easier if he was a bad person who’d done numerous crimes, a menace who deserved a long bid. Or someone who had little to offer society. But to think of an artist with something to offer, to think of a boy from the ghetto who made it to the most prestigious prep school in America and then came back to hiphop to share what he’d gleaned, to think of a man who dug his own grave, that is to think of a cry for which there aren’t enough tears.


Circling the Drain

There are few joys quite like writing that discovers new words for the mundane: the
microwaved sandwich as “radiated,” the “mouth [that is] a garnet slash of uneven lips,”
the subway that is “silver boxes…one strung to another like an enormous caterpillar.”

In Amanda Davis’s debut, Circling the Drain, a short story collection, there is a host of
examples of such writing. With a calm tone, the sensibility of a Southern writer, and a twinge of magical realism, she probes the lives ofgirls and women for whom boys are a painfully enthralling necessity. It’s amazing how deep Davis’s stories run because most of them are as short as a few pages, as if the book were a literary box of assorted chocolates, each meant to be savored in a five-minute sitting. She starts quickly, plunging the reader into her stories with
often impeccable opening lines: “Fat ladies floated in the sky like balloons,” or “Lily was in love with a boy who chased freight trains,” or “I don’t know when I disappeared…”

But mostly Davis wins by employing the sort of piercing self-awareness and painful
vulnerability at play in those great, emotional John Hughes films.She creates women with hearts so big they can barely see the faults of the men
standing in front of them.

“When I laugh sounds come out of my throat that violate the rest of the world. My laugh causes injury: it makes people nauseous or crazy…

“The first time I laughed around him—we were sitting on my porch when a nervous
frantic giggle escaped and I tried to snatch it back with my hand, to stuff it back down my throat—he just tucked a curl behind my ear and whispered, You are so beautiful.

“And like that I was putty.”

Inside Davis’s tightly sketched women’s world,
imaginary friends are fat girls scarfing down rhubarb pie and Pringles and boys are slightly insane, yet have a magnetic power; girls, in the face of
love, are, tragicomically,
powerless. It’s their willingness to be vulnerable that makes them heroines.


32 Questions

What makes a great MC? Is it hypnotizing flow— a delivery that gets inside the drum and bass patterns and creates its own rhythm line— and a magnetic voice, and sharp details, and high-tech slang, and striking punch lines, and witty metaphors, and original insights, and an organic attitude— keep-it-realness, down-homeness, a worldview and a way of carrying and presenting yourself that replicates the way people in your home base really feel about life— mixed with enough supercool? Enough toughness or sex appeal or intelligence or bravado to inspire listeners to say, “It’d be cool to be him”? Does Eminem, the most talked about new MC since Missy, have any of those?

Is his flat, whiny delivery interesting? Can he flow in more than one simple pattern? Is his timbre not flat? Are his stories well-detailed? Are his tales of hatred of his mom (“I never meant to hit you over the head with that shovel”— “My Fault”) and his ex-wife (“Da-Da made a nice bed for Mommy at the bottom of the lake”— “97′ Bonnie & Clyde”) and almost any of his punch lines (“I can’t figure out which Spice Girl I wanna impregnate”— “My Name Is”) funny, disturbing, or just dumb? Would anyone be talking about him if Dr. Dre wasn’t in the mix? Is Eminem’s mention of Dee Barnes on “Guilty Conscience” a violation of the spirit of the six-figure settlement negotiated after the beating Dre administered? Is he really fucked up and angry at the world or good at calculating what the 16-year-old white, suburban, pot-smoking, Beavis and Butt-head­loving misanthrope wants to hear? Can he really rhyme? Can he battle? Can I see a videotape of the Rap Olympics he won? Can you get “My Name Is” out of your head?

Yet, is his realness assailable? Is he an MC in the Master P mold— making up for limited skills everyone acknowledges with organicness, realness, personality? Or is he more like Missy and Mase— hugely popular MCs who divided hip-hop over whether or not they had skills? Is he any less representative of whiteboy culture than Jay-Z of black BK culture? Is he the ultimate white-trash MC— not trying to be black, not a wigger, but a pure whiteboy talking up the problems of his America? Is he using the dominant form of speech for this generation of American youth to give a voice to the Tonya Harding/Howard Stern audience?

Does it disturb the Black hip-hop constituency— which may soon be, if isn’t already, the minority— that he seems a talentless exploiter who recalls Arthur Ashe’s famous observation that Blacks won’t be equal until we can be successful without having to be twice as good, but by being just as mediocre? Does he recall the 19th-century minstrelsy that LeRoi Jones described in Blues People: “There was room for artistic imprecision in a minstrel show because it wasn’t so much the performance that was side-splitting as the very idea of the show itself: ‘Watch these niggers’ “? Is it that he’s using our form and not trying to contribute artistically to the Black community? Does our dislike of him start with our ears or our politics, our cultural discomfort with whites walking on our turf? Or is it that he’s just wack?

Does the love for him in a large segment of the Black hip-hop community start with the ears or with a perverse pleasure in the expansion of hip-hop— a joy that the national conversation that is hip-hop may now begin to tackle the fucked-upness of white people? Is liking him not unlike enjoying the complicated, hate-chocked shock-humor of Andrew Dice Clay, Sam Kinison, and Bob Goldthwait? Is it a positive that one of the ultimate beneficiaries of his rhymes is a black man, Dr. Dre, and all the money their 283,000 units moved in their first week, will go into a black pocket, meaning the whiteboy is kinda slaving for the blackman? Or is he funny and original?

And will he become like Ice-T for the West Coast or Master P for the South Coast, sparking a rush of MCs from his area— the White Coast— so large that this moment becomes a marker in hip-hop history and even if Eminem himself is no longer a factor in six months, hip-hop slowly becomes bleached— imagine new albums from blonde females from Kansas, skateboarders from Seattle, John Gotti wannabes from Bensonhurst, Harvard degrees taking Chuck D’s space as the intellect of the genre— until it becomes too white for us and blacks needing to say something musically revolutionary will have to create an entirely new form because hip-hop looks like modern rock ‘n’ roll and Rakim is remembered as a Chuck Berry­–type innovator with Eminem as the liberator who gave them the freedom to be white on the mic?


Show Me the Money

It’s like a death in the family. I mean, MJ is gone. For a decade and a half he’s lived in a section of the collective consciousness marked Ubiquitous, alongside Sinatra and Picasso and Brando. Unleashing Baryshnikovian dunks, slicing through Nike commercials with his American prince manner, and winning, always winning. The cult of Jordan got its first spark from his undeniable artistry, but grew to mythic and hypnotizing proportions because rooting for Jordan paid such handsome dividends. Fandom is filled with heartbreak— crushing defeats, sudden trades, mortality clipping the wings of yesterday’s invincibles. To sit on the sideline is to embrace helplessness. Your hero battles, you do nothing. Hollywood guarantees everything will end up okay. In sports you know only that your guy will lose— if not today, then some soon tomorrow. Jordan cut through that. He won so often it was ridiculous. From the first time we noticed him, as a UNC freshman, beating Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown with a last-second shot, to the final time we saw him, getting out on top, a triumph over mortality itself.

Yes, he never made it hard to root for him. Never made us accept him along with his controversial opposition to some war or his strong public stance on something like apartheid. Never demanded we enjoy anything more than his style and his shoes. He’s bigger than basketball, so measure him against men like Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali, men bigger than their sports, men with an impact so nuclear they changed society. Louis, heavyweight champion while Hitler was mulling over squashing Europe, opened a world of pride for black Americans. Robinson and Ali moved mountains in society so large that the reverberations can be heard almost daily. They were senators representing the world of sports and they are inseparable from the political history of their generation. Jordan is a man of rare dignity and an even rarer pursuit of excellence, but his political impact has been zero. Certainly, the opportunities of Louis and Robinson have evaporated with time, and the self-sacrificing example of Ali seems an impossible standard. But Jordan has the fame, charisma, and grace of a Mandela. Any cause he might have championed— from something as morally simple as supporting the candidacy of fellow North Carolinian Harvey Gantt, who lost two close Senate races against Satan’s cousin, Jesse Helms, to any stand against any sort of American injustice— would have been taken seriously because it was endorsed by Jordan. Yet as careful as he has been at vacuuming every possible penny into his pocket— did he really have to do ads for Ray-O-Vac? Ballpark Franks? Long-distance ads costarring Tweety Bird?— he has been equally diligent about leaving every bit of political potential on the table. Couldn’t the world’s greatest endorser have sold us something besides shoes?

Pulitzer prize winner David Halberstam records much of what Jordan did do, as well as the doings of many of the major figures of his life in Playing for Keeps, his 400-plus-page look inside Jordan’s life from the jayvee basketball squad he dominated after being cut by the varsity (“the entire varsity began to come early so they could watch him play”) to those last seconds in Utah last summer when the Jazz decided not to double-team him and, suddenly, Jazz defender Bryon Russell was the loneliest man in the world, out there isolated one-on-one with Michael Jeffrey Jordan. It’s an epic, detailed vision of the landscape that shaped and was shaped by Jordan, though strictly about basketball— the game and the business— with scant information on Jordan’s life away from the court (on his days off, Halberstam uncovers, he takes the kids to school, and he runs a lot of boring errands). In the absence of an interview with MJ, Halberstam relies on the words of Jordan’s friends and associates to fill in the tiny crevices of the big story you already know. He also looks inside the locker rooms of the Bird Celtics, the Isiah Pistons, and the Magic Lakers, as well as the offices of Nike, the NBA, and ESPN to fill out his trip inside the practice sessions where Jordan schooled Pippen into greatness, the weight room where Jordan worked to extend his career, the Bulls team bus where Jordan took on Bulls GM Jerry Krause with his sharp tongue (dissing Krause in front of his teammates, extending the world of “the school yard, where some boys are popular, and some seem to be born to be targets”). Halberstam, in this book, is more of a reporter than a historian— he’s especially verbose on the byzantine dispute between Jordan and Krause that eventually broke up the mighty Bulls dynasty, and he’s light on Jordan’s place in history. Sports fans who love behind-the-scenes maneuvering get their fill, as do those who live for well-recounted tales of great games, such as the greatest pickup game ever played, during a 1992 Dream Team practice. Once Charles Barkley began talking trash to Jordan and:

The game became raw and physical, all territorial and all ego. Michael Jordan more than anyone else set the tone. He simply took over the game, driving to the basket every time he got the ball, rebounding, stepping in the passing lanes for steals, hounding [Magic] Johnson on defense, screaming at everyone, opponents and teammates alike, pushing himself. There was one stretch where he made twelve points in a row, though some witnesses claimed that it was actually sixteen. When a call went against his team, Johnson yelled out, “What is this, Chicago Stadium? Are you going to get all the calls here, too?”

“I’ll tell you what it is,” Jordan shouted back. “It’s the nineties, not the eighties.”

The play on both sides was frenzied . . . a level of ferocity almost unmatched in basketball history. . . . It was, [coach Mike Kryzyewski] thought, like being in a house and hearing a terrible hurricane outside, then opening the door and seeing that the storm was even more powerful than envisioned.

[After Jordan’s team won 36-30, a journalist asked,] “You just have to win every time, don’t you?”

Michael smiled that wonderful, radiant smile. “I try to make a habit out of it.

Near the end, Halberstam makes excuses for Jordan’s apoliticality, his silent unwillingness to confront society, suggesting, “He was clearly not very good at it. Some people had a natural feel for it, grievance was in their souls, while others did not.” But also because of “a fear that he might taint his value as a commercial spokesman.”

It is so difficult to be a capitalist with a cause. But I cannot accept that there is no grievance in Jordan’s soul. Can his intelligence and legendary warrior spirit be limited only to hoop contests and golf? Is his burn to compete against the Knicks greater than his burn to compete against real enemies like racism? We will know the full answer eventually, as his prime selling years dwindle and his tongue, once so visible, loosens, maybe enough to let us know what he’s thinking in between backdoor cuts and back-end profits. But for now we just know that he has grabbed more than $250 million in nonsalary income in this decade, generated $10 billion for the economy, and wasted so much more. The premier shoe salesman of all time, he is a fitting member of the Show-Me-the-Money era. That is no compliment. He was bigger than basketball, but, in the end, our beloved was just a ballplayer.