Backup (Cupid, That'll Be the Day, Jolene, 2007
by Lynn Boland
"Shhhp, shhhp.""Baaaaaa, that'll be the day/Ohhh.""Ahh ahh." These quotations might seem unfamiliar and even a bit strange, but you have heard them before. They are repeated every day on oldies stations across the nation, but we are more familiar with their lyrical counterparts: "Cupid draw back your bow," "Well that'll be the day/When you say goodbye," and "There's nothing I can do to keep from crying when he calls your name, Jolene." (1)
In Backup, videos of Amelia Winger-Bearskin sing the alto voices from three popular songs in order to reveal the hidden support system of our society's cult-of-celebrity. We know the names Sam Cooke, Dolly Parton, and Buddy Holly. They are the artists on the album covers, the ones we search for on iTunes. Maybe you've also heard of The Crickets, but can you name them? I can't. Eight people are credited with backing vocals on the 1957 recording of "That'll Be the Day."(2) Songwriting credits go to Buddy Holly, drummer and vocalist Jerry Allison, and producer Norman Petty. More specific information as to who sang or wrote what is not readily available; there is no general demand for it since backups rarely enter our cultural consciousness.
Winger Bearskin's self-imposed framework of using songs found on oldies stations also draws in other compelling, if unintended, issues simply because of the nature of such formats. She initially selected and recorded eight songs for the series, arranged in sets of three. The sets are determined by the songs' pacing. Here, the visual arrangement of the three songs puts Rock-n-Roll between Rhythm & Blues and Country & Western. The traditional formula for the development of Rock is R&B + C&W = R-n-R.(3) In recent decades, this simple equation has been radically complicated, thus additional issues of underappreciated contributions to popular culture are brought to bear in the work. (4)
Winger-Bearskin's three performances for Backup were each single takes. The intense expression on her face as she struggles to pick out the alto voices contributes to a kind of deadpan humor that gives the viewer immediate entry into the work. Such access is especially useful given the eerie, dissonant nature of the music that is created through the artist's semi-aleatory process. The toe-tapping rhythms and melodic hooks are gone. The alto (literally "high") voice is most often in the middle, a somewhat awkward tonal position, and the three songs' battling keys further the work's tonal complexity.(5) All three songs conform to the pop standard length of under three minutes. Two are in 4/4 time, and one in the equally divisible 2/4; yet despite these metric similarities, each has a different tempo. Had the whole of the songs been reproduced the result would have been cacophonous, but Winger-Bearskin's process creates music that is atonal and ametric, notions unknown to Western music until the twentieth-century and still considered "difficult" in both pop and art music.(6)
Our selective idolization of popular entertainers is central to the musical and visual elements of Winger-Bearskin's videos, from her choice of songs to her performance against a green chroma screen. Beyond the convenience of her own operatic vocal training, the artist performs in all of her work herself to avoid any illusion of objectivity; she is interested solely in subjective truth.(7) Like Brecht, she wants to use "lies" to show "truth." (8)
(1) Sam Cooke, "Cupid" (single) 1961 (RCA); Buddy Holly & The Crickets, "That'll Be the Day," from The 'Chirping' Crickets, 1957 (Brunswick); Dolly Parton, "Jolene" from Jolene, 1974 (RCA).
(2) Jerry Allison, June Clarke, Bob Lapham, Bill Pickering, John Pickering, Niki Sullivan, Gary Tollett, and Buddy Holly himself are all credited with backing vocals on the album (Allmusic.com, June 8, 2007).
(3) See Renee Garofalo, Rockin' Out: Popular Music in the U.S.A., fourth edition (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2005) 82-83. I am indebted to UT Professor of Ethnomusicology Stephen Slawek whose class on the history of rock first made me aware of this formula.
(4) For more on this topic, see Philip Ennis, The Seventh Stream: The Emergence of Rocknroll in American Popular Music (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1992).
(5) Cupid is in the key of G; Thatíll Be the Day is in A; and, Jolene is in C# minor.
(6) For further discussion of the emergence of atonality in Western art music, start with Elliott Antokoletz, Twentieth-Century Music (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1992).
(7) To disclose motivations behind my own subjective reception of this work I will note that of my few published recording credits, most are as accompanying musician, with production credits second. I have only released one song in which I sing lead (see allmusic.com "Lynn Bolan(d).")
(8) Interview with artist, June 7, 2007. See also studioamelia.com.