Crooner, Alex Coles

The Evolving Archetype of the Crooner

Art critic Alex Coles demonstrates in his convention-challenging Crooner: Singing from the Heart From Sinatra to Nas that crooning is a vocal style and image encompassing theatrical exaggeration and heartfelt reality.

Crooner: Singing from the Heart From Sinatra to Nas
Alex Coles
Reaktion Books
September 2023

The crooner is one of the most enduring personas in popular music. The first picture that might come to mind when thinking of a crooner is a slick lounge lizard in a dapper suit, but art critic Alex Coles demonstrates in his book Crooner: Singing from the Heart From Sinatra to Nas that crooning is much more than a look. It’s a vocal style and image encompassing theatrical exaggeration and heartfelt reality.

Coles’ introduction establishes his definition of a crooner: “baritone singers who bare their emotion through popular song….fashion[ing] multiple voices with different emotive functions to elicit meaning, [and] excelling at unguarded intimacy.” This section of Crooner is somewhat awkwardly written. It includes several debatable points, such as Bing Crosby – one of the pioneers of crooning in popular music – being excluded from the discussion because his torch ballads “[lack] the requisite emotional depth fundamental to the account of the crooner developed here.” The almost complete absence of discussion of Tony Bennett, one of the best-known crooners and one with a very long career in the genre, is also puzzling. But beyond these difficult initial pages lies an exceptionally well-informed and thoughtful analysis.

As the book’s subtitle suggests, Coles has structured his exploration by selecting ten vocalists from more than 50 years of recorded music. He investigates each one’s contribution to crooning by focusing on just one of their songs. This structure allows for a focused examination of the individual artist and song and a broader analysis of work by other musicians that influenced the recording. A potential pitfall of this format is going so far into the details of the song that the overall feel of the song is diluted or outlining a context so expansive that the song itself is overwhelmed. Yet, in every chapter, Coles skilfully strikes the right balance between these two components, employing extensive research to create informative and provocative discussions.

For example, the chapter on Barry White’s “Bring Back My Yesterday” highlights White’s distinctive vocal style and how, as one of the first crooners to produce his own records, White learned from earlier work by Marvin Gaye and Isaac Hayes. White also experimented with combinations of speaking and singing within a single song, opening a new direction for the crooners that followed him. The discussion of Scott Walker’s “It’s Raining Today”, from 1969’s Scott III, shows how the recording touches on both Walker’s musical past, with its yearning vibrato vocal – almost deliberately conventional crooning – and his later sonic experiments, as its almost atonal string accompaniment abruptly shifts into a more recognizable standard arrangement and then back into a whirring aural backdrop.

It’s particularly commendable that the songs Coles has selected are not the best-known tracks by each artist – far from it, in several cases. Some choices push the boundaries of what might be considered crooning – such as the gritty, roughened storytelling and down-at-heel personas of Tom Waits and Nick Cave – but Coles makes a convincing case for why these artists should be included. Ian McCulloch is the only artist included who isn’t a solo artist; he too wouldn’t usually be considered a crooner, but Coles provides a compelling argument why McCulloch’s lead vocal on Echo and the Bunnymen’s “Ocean Rain” should be considered part of the genre. Nas’ “Bye Baby” is perhaps the farthest outlier, as a rap with brief sung interjections, but Coles contends quite credibly that both the subject matter of “Bye Baby” (a failed relationship) and Nas’ use of the spoken word as a rhythmic instrument are rooted in the traditions of crooning.

With the potentially very broad scope of what might constitute crooning, it’s understandable that Coles has set subjective boundaries for his analysis. He makes reasonable arguments for his choices; of course, a different author might have chosen to highlight different artists. However, two additions would have strengthened Coles’ discussion without making it unmanageable. One is the inclusion of more women. The only female vocalist in the book is Grace Jones, and her work is presented primarily in the context of her androgynous persona and vocal style, challenging the male-identified stereotype of a crooner.

Indeed, Coles’ definition of a crooner as a baritone excludes most female singers, but some flexibility around that criterion could have expanded the discussion to include performers such as Billie Holiday. The other is the inclusion of at least one country vocalist. Country music has a long tradition of emotive heartbreak songs – “torch ballads” in Coles’ definition – and there are many crossovers between the country genre and the work of several artists discussed in Crooner.

The concluding section is weak; the speculation on how Frank Sinatra would sing each of the songs analyzed seems unrelated to Crooner‘s overall themes. But the chapters on each of the ten artists collectively give the reader a better appreciation of an often satirized or misunderstood musical style. In that way, Crooner contributes to the literature on popular music.

RATING 7 / 10