Adele, Lana Del Rey, and the return of the torch song
At the end of last year, the British singer Adele's phenomenally successful 21 album eclipsed the late Amy Winehouse's global 2006 chart-topper Back to Black as the best-selling album of the past decade. As one great torch singer passed on the torch to another, Adele's second album notched up an astonishing 20 million sales worldwide, surpassing Winehouse's 11 million. After a decade of shiny, happy, manufactured pop, it seems sadness and heartbreak are making a comeback. Black is the new black.
Meanwhile, the biggest breakthrough pop star of 2012 is 25-year-old New Yorker Lana Del Rey, whose lush and gloomy album Born to Die has already sold 1.5 million copies in the two months since release. Del Rey joins a swelling tide of sorrowful young divas from Europe, including Sweden's Lykke Li, Norway's Ane Brun and Austria's Soap&Skin - the stage name of Anja Plaschg, who topped the charts in her homeland last month with Narrow, a powerful collection of fiercely gloomy avant-garde torch songs.
Del Rey calls her languid, tear-stained, self-consciously retro style "Hollywood sadcore", citing Kurt Cobain and Jeff Buckley as key inspirations: both fairly depressive, and both very dead. "Most of the songs are about heartbreak," she admits. "I want to kill myself. It's miserable."
But at least Adele recognises the creative value in pain, claiming "heartbreak can definitely give you a deeper sensibility for writing songs".
Perhaps more remarkable than Amy and Adele's astronomical sales figures is our universal, apparently insatiable appetite for fragile young women sobbing confessional lyrics of heartache, loneliness and loss. According to the academic and author Lucy O'Brien, who has written biographies of Madonna and Dusty Springfield, the doomy diva has always played a crucial role in pop culture. "It's an enduring story," she says, "from when Juliet swallowed the poison. The tragic siren acts out our unexpressed emotion, our female side, the unconscious."
Predating the pop era, the term "torch singer" was first coined in the 1920s New York to describe jazzy balladeers performing in Broadway shows and late-night cabaret clubs. But this is an archetype that transcends age and genre, race and culture. Adele, Winehouse and Del Rey are just the latest in a long line of emotionally charged singers that includes the blues legend Billie Holiday, the French chanteuse Edith Piaf, the doomed screen star Judy Garland, the rock icon Marianne Faithfull, the sultry siren Dusty Springfield, the icy German diva Nico, self-destructive soul queen Whitney Houston and Beth Gibbons of the noir-tinged trip-hop group Portishead.
Even before the term was popularised, most nations already had their own home-grown variant on the torch-singer tradition. Born on the rough streets of 19th-century Lisbon, the passionately sad Portuguese folk-song style known as "fado" made stars of iconic divas such as Maria Severa and, more recently, Amália Rodrigues. The rowdy music halls of 1930s and 1940s Paris spawned not just Piaf but many equally tragic songbirds including Marguerite "Frehel" Boulc'h and Marie-Louise Damien. The Arab world has also produced its fair share of sorrowful sirens, including the veteran Lebanese queen Fairouz and the young Tunisian rising star Emel Mathlouthi, their ballads of exile and loss charged with an unavoidably political subtext.
Of course, there have been male torch singers, too - from Jacques Brel to Marc Almond, Marvin Gaye to Rufus Wainwright - but the vast majority are female. According to O'Brien, this is partly because male-dominated cultures routinely co-opt and constrain powerful female icons.
"On one level, we want our heroines to be unhinged and vulnerable," she says. "It's more believable when a woman sings a torch song because in society she is the one who has historically been oppressed and divested of her power. When a man sings a torch song we can sympathise, but he doesn't have the same vulnerability as a woman."
For some, this swing back towards sadness is a welcome cathartic release from chart domination by shallow, hedonistic pop. "That's one of the reasons everyone's gravitated towards Lana Del Rey," argues Shirley Manson of the moody alt-rockers Garbage, "because there's a real sad darkness underlying that girl. People do need to tune into their sadness and melancholia and fears - if they don't, they end up having nervous breakdowns."
Inextricably intertwined with our concept of torch singers is the sense that we are hearing genuine pain in their sobs and sighs, not just artifice and melodrama. Indeed, many seem to actually inhabit their tormented songs offstage. Holiday, Piaf, Garland, Nico, Winehouse, Houston and many others died far too young after stormy lives full of abuse, addiction and romantic pain. Their lyrics tell us that life is cruel, men are no-good brutes and love is a losing game.
Del Rey and Adele make no secret that many of their songs were inspired by real-life failed romances, while Soap&Skin commemorates her father's death on Narrow, a trauma that plunged her into months of clinical depression. But O'Brien questions the validity of making direct links between torch singing and genuine suffering.
"I don't think we need the back story to enjoy it more intensely," she argues. "After all, when we hear music, we are excavating our own buried pain. The torch singer just brings it out. Often she is going deep into her own feelings of loss or sadness to perform authentically, but I don't think you have to have a painful life to be a great artist. Too often pain is romanticised, when real pain can be utterly grey and mundane."
Soap&Skin's album Narrow is out now. Lana Del Rey's new single Blue Jeans is released on April 8
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Updated: April 1, 2012 04:00 AM