My middle school is known for our jazz band. Definitely not as good as we thought we were, but not bad. My instrument of choice in the band was the flute. Most of the time it sounded like a suffocating bird instead of an instrument, but despite my inability to actually produce music myself, I appreciated jazz band because of how our conductor taught us how to play it. We would listen to it, break all the parts down, and then build it back together with the instruments we had. This construction and reconstruction method taught me to appreciate music for all its parts and complexity. I learned that different artists don’t just play music, they are able to use their voices or their instruments to portray a certain set of emotion and values.
We played a wide variety of jazz music like Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong; we also played more modern contemporary pieces by artists like Christina Aguilera, Beyoncé, and Amy Winehouse. One person suggested that we should perform “Feeling Good” sung by Michael Bublé, so our conductor wrote up the parts from it and it became our token performance piece. All of my friends were also in jazz band and it was common for people to play the original band songs outside of band. Sometimes it would become a whole production, where instead of singing along each person would do a vocal rendition of the part they played on their instrument in band. It was cute. But the amount of times Michael Bublé was played was absurd. My friends became obsessed. Pretty soon we weren’t just listening to “Feeling Good” but a whole array of Michael Bublé songs. Out of all the songs we played in Jazz Band they choose to obsess over this one, especially Feeling Good. They would say things like, “Feeling Good by Michael Bublé is my favorite song” or “I channeled my inner old woman and listen to jazz music yesterday, I literally had Michael Bublé on all night.” This made me angry. Why? Michael Bublé simplifies the groundbreaking emotional complexity of music and stunts cultural growth by feeding into corporate musical forms.
“Feeling Good”, the song we covered in band, is originally from the musical The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd and has themes of emancipation and civil empowerment. The song is performed by the character Cocky, a Black man. In spite of abuse and racism, Cocky wins “The Game” and sings the song to express his happiness. Even though the lyrics themselves display joy and bliss there is a somber tone in the performance. The lyrics are sung in a low opera-like stretched out voice. Cocky is victorious now, but you can sense the fatigue from fighting a long battle and feel that he is using every last bit of his energy to make this final proclamation. In addition, the musical accompaniment within the song is very minimal. The first 44 seconds of the song are sung acapella, and then only mellow flutes and violins back him. At points the song feels empty but this only emphasizes Cocky’s loneliness and isolation. He is victorious, but people oppressed him before and most likely the public is going to oppress him soon after he is singing this song. He sings this song in order to preserve and project the happiness he finally feels after years of apparent abuse.
Michael Bublé’s version erases, if not strongly contradicts, the cultural themes of “Feeling Good.” First of all, Bublé is a white Canadian man who could never portray the struggles of a black man in the 1950s. Despite that, you could argue that he could still portray happiness despite constant pain and oppression, but he does not do that. He does not feel fatigue, you do not hear any previous pain, or struggle. The song is simply sung as if he is just a happy guy, who is beaming positivity wherever he goes. The same trend appears throughout Bublé’s work. He takes songs from artists like Ben E. King, Pablo Beltrán, or John Daven Port, and “Bublifies” by adding a big band that plays peppy statements in-between lyrics, and his quirky, charming, Canadian Voice. These interpretations are obnoxiously enthusiastic, like a children’s TV show, that make you feel uncomfortable by the unrealistic portrayal of constant happiness.
I am not trying to say that all covers are bad. Nina Simone’s cover of “Feeling Good” empathizes with the original version but also has its own contemporary interpretations. The song begins acapella, and the low and raspy tones also imply fatigue, but the song does have a lot of more instrumental backings. Simone faced her share of racial and sex-based oppression, but the release of this song was in the midst of her popularity and the Civil Rights era. The song is addressing the small victories that are occurring, the largest one being the sense of unity. During the civil rights era people were starting to join together to demand change. That sense of unity can be represented by the big band and jazz aspects added to the song. Unlike Cocky, Simone is not alone, change is starting to happen and to show that she added complex musical backings to display this, while still expressing a sense of fatigue and a large margin of emotional discourse.
Themes of racial oppression, female empowerment portrayed in jazz and blues are large cultural moments in history that are rarely ever addressed. They can be found in long documentaries, scholarly journals, New Yorker articles, NPR podcasts, but in reality, there is only a small amount of our population who has access or even wants to read these ideas even though they are important. Stories of feminism and racism need to be told because their countless parallels occurring in our society to this day. Sharing these types of ideas provide a sense of validity to the people affected by oppression, but also enlighten people who were ignorant to them even occurring.
Music is the perfect opportunity to provide exposure to the problems occurring around us. Listening to music is a universal pass time. A good tune, or beat can draw a wide variety of people in. Once they are enticed with a strong melody or a good beat they can start to listen and better appreciate the ideas being portrayed. People can hear emotions that would not have never experienced themselves. A popular example would be “Same Love” by Macklemore. The song has a strong but soft baseline and chorus, but the lyrics of the song portray the struggles of being LGBTQ within America.
Bublé’s covers blanket over these vital cultural narratives. When he covers song all the diversity and unique qualities of the songs are wiped. There is no longer the sense of feminist power like Nina Simone had. The only things that say the same are the lyrics, but the way he portrays them in no way represents their original connotations. Similar to how textbooks written by white historians mislead the American public’s perception on our history, Bublé’s covers are flushed-out interpretations of important parts of history.
It might be a little harsh to so strongly associate the musical white washing with Bublé, but his sheer popularity and corporate motivations are one of the most prominent and under-reprimanded artists in the United States. “Michael Bublé – Feeling Good” has 98 million views on YouTube. Only 1.69%of people who reacted to the video gave it a thumbs down. Other videos have 110 million views, 83 million views, and 73 million views. Five of his albums have reached number one. Bublé has reached a point of popularity that only few stars have been able to reach, while also appealing to a large audience. I listened to Bublé as a middle schooler, and my 60-year-old co-workers play it at their dinner parties. His sheer popularity pushes other artists out of the cultural narrative of the US. Michael Bublé is the McDonald’s that is putting the family-owned diner out of business, and feeds into our societal need for escapism.
There is a large group of people who “don’t watch the news because it is just too depressing” and choose to live in an “ignorance is bliss” world but still manage to complain about the things going on around them. He takes those people and begins to capitalize on them more each day. He creates a massive NBC yearly Christmas special. He has a fan club with a 50-dollar membership fee. People consume Michael Bublé music in order to avoid having to digest the other things going on around them. They buy the Mocha Bublé latte special at the coffee shop. They blast his Christmas music in the car.
I don’t blame my middle school friends for liking Michael Bublé. These are the same people who listen to Kidz Bop, and Disney Music on repeat. These are albums that consistently threw up happiness out of our speakers and iPod Nanos. But Kidz Bop is known for two things: being for kids, and irritating adults. Michael Bublé does not have that reputation, and that general ignorance has the power to make our thoughts elementary. There is a reason that our Michael Bublé cover in band was our token song; there was not a lot to it. It was easy to break down and build back up again. I loved band, but we were nothing special. We simply covered songs. Although we were taught the meanings, we never truly ever portrayed them. We just tooted along, and had fun doing it. My jazz band was not famous, so I think the real question is, why is Michael Bublé?
Photo courtesy of Spotify