Commenter “snowonpine” made an interesting observation in the American Idol thread, in response to my praise of the getting-on-in-years Dionne Warwick’s performance:
Ms. Warwick seemed, to me, to exemplify the inability of a star–be it a TV star, prize fighter or singer–to let go and retire gracefully at the top of their form rather than drag it out, year after weary year until all that made them great has vanished and only an embarrasing croak or just the ability to take punishment remains. When they start to rearrange your charts, so that notes you once sang with ease but which are now unattainable are eliminated and the song is changed, its time to retire.
I can understand snowonpine’s point; sometimes performers stay way too long at the fair. And if all that had made Ms. Warwick great had vanished, I would agree with snowonpine that it was time for her to hang it up.
But listening to Warwick at this point–when of course her voice has changed and isn’t what it once was–was still wonderful, and far more enjoyable (to me) than listening to the Idol contestants with young, strong, more perfect voices. Warwick still retains that je ne sais quoi that made her great.
Another analogy is to ballet dancers. The really great ones (Fonteyn, Ulanova) tended to dance long past their prime of optimal technical skill. But those same really great ones made up for it in artistry, often exhibiting a growth in spirit and the ability to convey something meaningful through their art. In the end, they transcended technique.
Of course there comes a time for many, if they live long enough, when technique falls so very precipitously that performance is an embarrassment and it is indeed time to retire. But that time’s a while away for Warwick, at least for this listener.
Since I’m in a poetry-quoting mood today, I’ll post one of my favorite poems, Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium.” And it just happens to be especially relevant, as I think you’ll see:
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees –
Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.