Remixing is all well and good, modernizing old things for young ears, but some works need no help. Some works are already so modern in their drive and immediacy that it’s like there’s no such thing as changing times. Nina Simone, of course, almost singlehandedly kept jazz music relevant in the 1960’s, when the rock’n’roll youthquake was sweeping away everything minted before 1963. The reputation jazz had acquired for being pompous and louche and the domain of squares who still wore suits and strings of pearls – Nina Simone swept that aside, showing how fierce and subversive jazz could be, how deeply political and historically significant. She tied her music to her political activism, and to her personal struggles as a mentally ill black woman artist trying to make it in unforgiving America. Sinnerman is one of her best known works, a masterpiece in sustained emotional force. It is also, importantly, a traditional Negro spiritual rooted all the way back to times of slavery, grown into a gospel standard during Simone’s childhood, and rearranged as a jazz number in the 50’s. It is in no way ironic that a 1965 recording of a song with a history that may stretch back centuries sounds so unbound by time; things that are deeply important don’t get withered by small things like changing trends.
I’ve been listening to a lot more Nina Simone lately. I can’t say that I’ve just discovered her; she is a legend who doesn’t need to be ‘discovered’. But I’ll say that I’m really feeling her music in a way I didn’t before. It’s all part of trying to slowly learn more about jazz. Simone established herself as one of the great jazz vocalists at a time when being a great jazz vocalist was becoming a less and less relevant position. Singing and composing jazz was a tenable way to become a star in the 50’s when Simone began her career. But while the cultural changes of the following decades made most jazz musicians fall out of popular regard, Nina Simone managed to become more important and prominent. This was thanks to her involvement in the civil rights movement, her outspokenness, her socially conscious and politically charged writing, her Afrocentric personal style, and her general reluctance to be made polished and nice (as so many black entertainers had been forced to do in order to enter into the public sphere). Though her more politically charged songs may be what she’s best known for today – and for good reason – they’re the tip of the iceberg. She wrote and sang with unprecedented honesty about the specific burdens of being a black woman, but she could just as easily elevate the most basic love song. There is no message in this particular song that isn’t found nearly verbatim in Sonny & Cher’s I Got You Babe. The difference between ersatz sentiment and genuine soul lies in the delivery.
Lana Del Rey has a lot of nerve taking up a Nina Simone song – some would say – but I think she made a relevant choice. If nothing else, it’s deeply thought provoking how differently the same words sound, when separated by several decades of social progress. When Simone sang about the other woman, it was as an honest-to-god blues song. Coming in 1959, a time when women genuinely had little to no recourse about the situations they found themselves in in life, the figure of the other woman was a tragic one. Once a mistress, never a wife. Today, of course, the idea that getting involved with a married man is enough to tar one’s reputation for life, or that one even has such a thing as a ‘reputation’ to be tarred upon, is hopelessly retrograde. So when young Lana sings about it, it must be as a pastiche of social roles that some women may still inhabit but which can easily be cast aside for better ones. Is she really making a social point here? Or does she just enjoy the tone of self pity it allows her to take? Well, I’m not sure how self aware Lana Del Rey really is, but she has to grasp that what in Nina Simone’s time was a broken life is in ours just a mildly poor lifestyle choice, and that there is no way to really interpret it without some degree of irony.