It might make me unpopular, but… for once, TMZ actually said something intelligent. When it comes to Etta James talking trash, I’m behind Beyoncé.
In case you missed it, soul legend Etta James kicked up (and then retracted) a cross-generational duel of the divas this week, purportedly saying “I can’t stand Beyoncé” on stage. This came after Beyoncé performed James’ biggest hit, “At Last,” as the first dance at a post-inauguration party for President Obama, an offense which James said was “gonna get her whooped.” After the jump, we explore arguments, thumb our nose at the idea of ownership, and explain how the tabloids are sort of on to something.
Throughout this week’s media blitz, James’ primary complaint has been that, since she performed the definitive version of “At Last” it is “her song,” and Beyoncé’s rendition at such a high-profile event is without merit and, more generally, a direct insult. While it may be that the song is primarily associated with James, it’s inexplicable that she wouldn’t couch her reaction a little more carefully: after all, she didn’t actually write it.
In fact, as TMZ points out, in an uncharacteristic moment of clarity, James wasn’t even the first to make it a hit. Written by Mack Gordan and performed by Glenn Miller some 20 years before James covered the tune, “At Last” also received major recognition on a #1 album by the legendary Nat King Cole. Sure, you could argue that James reinvented it, perhaps even took it to another level, but the idea that previous versions were insignificant is ridiculous: when it comes to legendary status, Nat King Cole is every bit her equal. And, according to the almighty Wikipedia, the song has since been covered by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Céline Dion, Lou Rawls, Eva Cassidy, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Nicks, Norah Jones, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Jimmy Scott, The Manhattan Rhythm Kings, and Cyndi Lauper. So how exactly does Etta own it?
Still, the issue of whether or not Beyoncé had the right to sing it is another thing entirely. As I’ve already argued, writing your on songs is overrated, and in this case, neither artist is making that kind of authenticity argument anyway. So what’s to stop anyone form doing anything? Absolutely nothing.
Don’t get me wrong, I think Beyoncé in many ways represents everything awful about the industry. While her pipes are fairly pristine, I can’t help but recognize that she’s a bona fide, certified studio creation, one that, dicked over her bandmates pretty badly back in the Destiny’s Child days. In that way, I’m hardly impressed by her integrity.
Still, the accusations floating around out there are simply absurd: not only are James’ statements catty and unbecoming of such an established star, they begrudge the new guard its rightful ascendancy. As James well knows, soul has a long history of passing the torch, and the handing off standards is part of that process. In fact, it’s exactly what happened when she first sang the song!
To claim the exclusive right to a standard isn’t just ridiculous – it’s shortsighted. Soul’s lasting power is in its continued applicability; unlike genres like jazz and classical, it has successfully maintained its mainstream appeal, largely because it has been willing to adapt to new audiences. Without that cycle, James legacy would plummet. Maintenance, or better said the continued appreciation by the current crop, is every bit as important as the legendary act itself. And the danger with complain too loudly is that it can end up hurting you more than the original “insult.” Guess what comes up above the fold when you Google “At Last”? I’ll give you a hint, it isn’t the tribute to James that used to be there. It’s something else entirely.
This isn’t to say that the original guard aren’t owed a great deal of respect and that they don’t have a right to defent their legacies. Certainly, legends like James deserve our continued attention. That’s why it was such an important tribute when Beyoncé played the legendary singer in last year’s Cadillac Records. She sings your song, shes makes you look amazing in a movie. Honestly, what more do you want?