by Steve Pick
I don't intend to pile on poor Scarlett Johansson, who has taken way more blogosphere hits than her interesting if flawed tribute album to Tom Waits deserved. But, in looking for an example of contemporary versions of "Summertime," I realized this truly appalling take is a perfect example of the ways in which popular music has changed, decreasing the likelihood that more classic takes on the song will come our way outside the jazz repertory world.
Problem number one: Swing just ain't her thing. That's not her fault - even in the 90s when that whole lounge revival thing happened, not too many people born after 1970 were able to slip into that syncopated rhythm without either sludging it over the head or exaggerating it to the point of inanity. When Gershwin wrote "Summertime," swing was moving out of the African-American ghettoes and into the DNA of every popular singer who made a record between 1935 and 1960. It wasn't an affect, it was the natural order of being. If you can't feel the swing in "Summertime" - and the difference between the muted trumpet player, who glides along with the rhythm, and Johansson's vocal, which stomps on the downbeats makes it obvious - you're gonna have a hard time finding something to do with it. That is, unless you decide to completely deconstruct it and invent something new. Johansson, however, falls prey to . . .
Problem number two: R-E-S-P-E-C-T - That sometimes demeans, you see. The arrangement, played by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is similar to Gerswhin's original, so the idea is to capture the nuances he wrote into the song. But, Johansson treats it like a museum object, afraid to inject her personality into the music in any way. Her voice here is wispy thin, as if her vocal chords are standing on tiptoes for fear of getting the melodic carpet dirty. Look, this is a song written by a white man in emulation of African-American folk music at a time when the originals couldn't get any respect. If you don't try to feel something about the music other than the fact that you're standing on the shoulder of giants, you're gonna fall to the ground pretty damn quick.
Between the lack of swing and the fear of originality, Johansson drowns the song in a sea of bathetic love for an imaginary baby. She even goes so far at the end as to "ssh" the kid to sleep. With this level of overprotectiveness, I suspect that infant is gonna grow up to have some serious difficulty relating to people out in the world.
By the way, I'm sorry it took so long to get this post up - sometimes, real life gets in the way, and sometimes I'm lazy, and when you alternate between the two, wow, suddenly it's been ten days or so between posts.