The Lady

Who stole Billie Holiday? She is feminist property because she was a black woman who did it her way. Her outsider-victim status made her a gay diva. And to straight, white hipsters, she's the sound of cool comfort. But, says Phil Johnson, the cultural appropriation has gone far enough. It's high time we saw her for what she was...
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

When the jazz singer Billie Holiday died in 1959 aged 44 (of a complex of liver, kidney, heart and lung failure, her immune system weakened by drink and drugs) she was an alcoholic and on-off heroin addict with no money and a social circle of poisonous scroungers. The New York hospital room where she breathed her last had earlier been sealed off by police when a nurse found traces of white powder by her bedside, creating a symbolic dead end to a lifetime's persecution by the authorities. They hounded Holiday because of her involvement with narcotics, because of her race, and because of her celebrity.

When the jazz singer Billie Holiday died in 1959 aged 44 (of a complex of liver, kidney, heart and lung failure, her immune system weakened by drink and drugs) she was an alcoholic and on-off heroin addict with no money and a social circle of poisonous scroungers. The New York hospital room where she breathed her last had earlier been sealed off by police when a nurse found traces of white powder by her bedside, creating a symbolic dead end to a lifetime's persecution by the authorities. They hounded Holiday because of her involvement with narcotics, because of her race, and because of her celebrity.

Raped as a child, Holiday worked as a teenage prostitute before becoming a professional singer, and her two marriages and many love affairs were marked by abuse and exploitation. Shortly after her death, a friend, the critic Gilbert Millstein, described her as "a born murderee". The phrase, borrowed from the novelist Aldous Huxley (and borrowed again by Martin Amis), emphasises that quality of abjection so apparent in her art, and so important to our appreciation of it. But if the life was a mess, the art is often close to perfection: songs as dark, as rich and as longing as the poetry of Baudelaire. Together with Frank Sinatra (on whose mature style she proved a decisive influence), Billie Holiday is the greatest popular vocalist of the 20th century. The art and the life are also indivisible, and you can't help reading one through the lens of the other. With Billie, the poetry really is in the pity.

But these days, there's a growing tendency to accentuate the positive; to celebrate Billie's life by reclaiming her from the tragedy that characterised it (a tragedy that was as much a part of her act as the microphone and the piano player); to exchange troubling thoughts for improving moral messages. For like Sylvia Plath, Billie Holiday has become a feminist icon, a kind of black-hipster cross between Joan of Arc and Princess Diana, Mother Teresa and Clare Short. And just as Social Services agencies now prefer to talk about "survivors" of domestic violence rather than victims, so the new Billie is not a victim but a survivor. Except, of course, that Billie Holiday didn't survive. Had she done so, she'd be 89 next week.

"What if I said to you that Billie Holiday is my hero?" asked the singer Neneh Cherry in the introduction to last year's Radio 2 series, Billie and Me. "What if I told you that she was one of my most important role models... one of the greatest feminists and political activists of the 20th century; what would you think then?" In the six programmes that followed, the all-female cast of interviewees (including, rather surprisingly, Joan Baez, Emmylou Harris, Suzanne Vega and Tori Amos) talked about Billie Holiday as a racial revolutionary and spokeswoman for womankind; about her beauty, her dignity, her free spirit and how, if she were alive today, she would have changed the world. She was a phenomenal woman, said Maya Angelou, who created "a new conception of black womanhood". She was "God's spirit". Yes, she liked "to party", but hadn't her single-parent mother "lived life in the fast lane"? Up to now, only men had tried to tell her story - and they don't understand the struggles of women artists like women do. There was more of the same for close to three hours, but oddly enough, only brief snatches of Billie Holiday's music, perhaps for fear that it sounded old and scratchy. Now the radio series, produced by Sarah Cropper, is to become a live event as part of the Barbican's Only Connect season in London. Billie and Me, to be performed on the evening of Monday 5 April (two days before Billie's birthday), looks like quite a show, too. Neneh Cherry repeats her presenter's role as the MC, and the guest vocalists lining up to pay tribute include Fontella Bass, Angelique Kidjo, Amy Winehouse, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Carleen Anderson, Yolande Bavan, Susheela Raman and Meshell Ndegeocello. The band is led by jazz drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, and there will be film and audio clips plus readings by Farah Griffin, Holiday's feminist-revisionist biographer. There will be no men, obviously, but it still sounds like a hell of a night.

The main problem with the newly canonised, feminist-friendly Saint Billie as represented by first the radio series and now the live show - apart, of course, from all the PC slush - is where does it leave the other social groups who've been burning candles for Holiday all these years? Basically, where does it leave the men? The old jazz buffs smitten in the Fifties, such as Melody Maker's Max Jones; the middle-aged hippies who discovered her pungent songs on the soundtrack to Fritz the Cat, Bad Timing and the Motown biopic from 1972, Lady Sings the Blues; the gay diva brigade, and sensitive young men of all stripes?

For many of us, she was the ultimate late-night jukebox: Morrissey for grown-ups; Leonard Cohen for people who liked music; Tracey Chapman, only good. We could play Billie's records when we wanted to feel down and depressed; or to try and impress prospective partners with our soulfulness and sensitivity. Perhaps most importantly, Billie Holiday provided perfect make-out music for would-be intellectuals, especially those of a left-wing persuasion. Oh the tragedy, the suffering, the pain! Better roll another joint, then, quick.

And boy, did straight white males love Billie Holiday. She was almost an honorary bloke. Where other female singers simpered or sulked or went all emotional on you, Billie could be relied upon for her fortitude, her stoicism, her grace under pressure. Yes, if there were to be an Ernest Hemingway of the female jazz vocal world circa 1933-1959 (the bookends of her recording career), it would have to be Billie. You could also rely upon other men to appreciate her talents. She was a reliable topic of conversational bonding, like football or roads. "Ah, Billie Holiday," you'd say to yourself after spying a copy of The Real Lady Sings the Blues in someone's record collection. "He's sensitive, caring and anti-racist, just like me."

And, importantly, Billie had gravitas. In a world where the durable but hardly high-art Shirley Bassey could be a gay icon; where the perky but otherwise unremarkable Kylie Minogue has seemingly become our Judy Garland; and where Liza Minnelli and Barbra Streisand - and almost any brassy belter who aspires to the condition of a bad drag act - can command the affection of millions, Billie Holiday held the line: the only gay diva who was actually any good. Compared to all those screaming Mimis intent on a "spectral heightening or distortion of reality" (as a treatise on expressionism in the visual arts once put it), Billie Holiday was a rigorous classicist. She's Martial, Tacitus, Mies van der Rohe.

Her art is the acme of understatement, the model of minimalism, the epitome of less-is-more. Where today's pop idols such as Mariah Carey strain for baroque vocal effects, stretching "and", "but" and "so" into polysyllabic melisma, Billie Holiday just sang the words and the tune, kept it simple, adopting a vocal approach of extreme passivity. Her Roman Catholic upbringing - as opposed to the holy-rolling Baptist background of most American jazz and soul singers - is thought to have contributed to this aesthetic economy of means.

Tellingly, male jazz musicians who can't abide the normal, finger-snapping, standard-singing, rinky-dink type of jazz vocalist, love Billie Holiday because she's so, well, musical. "The role of the voice within the ensemble is often most effective if it doesn't try to take on the characteristics of an instrument, but simply delivers a plaintive or contrasting narrative statement," says the trumpeter Gerard Presencer, a professor at the Royal Academy of Music. "Billie Holiday understood this perfectly. Like Miles Davis, her use of space leads to better group cohesion. This makes her truly exceptional."

It's the passivity in her voice, together with a tension between the "tragedy" of her life and the on-stage persona she built into a role as consciously as any film-star learning her lines, that keeps Billie Holiday sounding so modern. Where Bessie Smith (Billie's greatest early influence, along with Louis Armstrong), was noisy and public, huffing and puffing and shouting the blues like a rag and bone man calling his wares, Billie Holiday sang quietly, as if in private, directly into the listener's ear. "Just Billie's intonation alone made her a singer that thousands followed," says Amy Winehouse, one of the stars of the Barbican show. "She never acknowledged a vocal line. All her singing was what she felt rather than what was written. This in itself endeared her to musicians and vocalists alike."

In her first recordings, with the Benny Goodman band in 1933, you can hear Billie trying to sound like Bessie, and it really is terrible - sad and corny. Two years later, however, with Teddy Wilson and his Orchestra, she's begun to find her own style: a languorous, behind-the-beat delivery combined with a sassy, slightly southern, intonation. In the years that followed, Holiday would refine her methods, rejecting the blues as old-fashioned, slowing down tempos and shrinking her repertoire to a slim portfolio of largely lovelorn laments that accentuated her favoured pose of lonely, self-possessed solitude. By the end, the songs - her dark materials, like the masochistic "My Man" - were so few in number that critics complained of repetition. Importantly, she also wrote or co-wrote her songs, including "Fine and Mellow" (the B-side to the legendary anti-lynching song, "Strange Fruit", a US hit in 1939), "God Bless the Child" and "Don't Explain".

You can also interpret the passivity in Billie's vocals as a kind of hipster's defence against racism, a musical equivalent of dumb insolence. Indeed, Holiday's demeanour, together with that of her closest jazz pals like the saxophonist Lester Young - a man so sensitive he could wear only the softest of clothes - did become the foundation for hip, influencing everything from Jack Kerouac's tea-and-bennies powered prose to the angle of Elvis Presley's curled lip, his "revolt into style". In this respect, the impact of drugs - the major agent of her "tragedy", together with racism and men - is not incidental to her artistry, but integral. From the reefer-related slow drag in early Vocalion recordings, to the smackhead-neurasthenia evident in the Decca mid-period and later Verve years, it's possible to interpret Holiday's increasingly alienated sound according to the chemicals she was using at the time.

As with other addict-vocalists - such as the late Tim Hardin and Tim Buckley, the Marianne Faithfull of Broken English and most of all Chet Baker, with whom Billie shared a love of heroin-cocaine "speedballs" - there's an emotionally neutral, interiorised quality to her singing that only enhances the pathos. And with Billie, our pre-knowledge of all that tragedy can't but be read into the work - the suffering inscribed into the art, as if all the cigarettes, alcohol and dope were smoked into the very fabric of her voice.

"As she began to look and sound as if she had been victimised by her lifestyle, it merely reinforced her authenticity," says the jazz critic and biographer of Billie Holiday, Stuart Nicholson. "In later life it would almost become a trademark, signifying her right to sound the way she did as her voice slowly but inevitably deteriorated. It's this mediation between the social truth of the singer and the audience's desire to identify with it that goes to the source of 'meaning' in her voice."

At the time, the uncomfortable rub between life and art was not to everyone's taste. "Sensational publicity about her personal problems was such that, for many people, her singing came to represent the pathetic sound of an attractive but wretched woman crying in self-pity," wrote the black critic Albert Murray. The publication of Billie Holiday's autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, in 1956, added to the self-dramatisation. Cannily ghost-written for maximum shock-effect by the tabloid hack William Dufty, this unreliable memoir kicked off in famously quote-friendly style: "Mama and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was 18. She was 16 - and I was three."

When I get to talk to Neneh Cherry on her mobile, she's pounding down the pavement on her way to breakfast in a cafe. "I think that speaking from a female point of view, it's always an inspiration to have any role model as strong as Billie Holiday, and women like her made a hell of a lot of difference. It gives me goosebumps," she says. "I think there's a lot more to her; but unfortunately there's this stigma to her and people focus more on that than on her tremendous talent. She was a woman who stood her ground, working in a man's world. She held her own. In a way, she was also like a queen, she was incredibly beautiful even though she had a hard life.... As a woman that's something I want to celebrate. There's been enough said about her addictions. The tremendous achievements have been lost."

But they haven't. Billie Holiday remains one of the defining artists of the age, and the biggest-selling singer of her era. She also continues to provide a powerful cautionary tale. Who would have thought that Diana Ross, derided as a lightweight Minnie Mouse-lookalike when she played Billie Holiday in the 1972 film of Lady Sings the Blues, would turn out to be a tragedy in the making, or Whitney Houston, or Mariah Carey? But the story of Billie Holiday isn't just about women and drugs, or women and race, or women and the music industry; it's about real human experience re-processed into the most perfect art.

And that might be what men see in it: the tragedy, the pain and loss and suffering, but at a respectable aesthetic distance, distilled into a late-night smoochy soundtrack with a romantic kick. Perhaps Billie Holiday really is different for boys: if women seek inspiration and role models, maybe we want confirmation that life is cruel and hard and then you die. Rather worryingly, it looks like what we might actually be after is a kind of memento mori. A death's head with a gardenia in her hair singing sweet words of consolation: "Hush now, don't explain. You're my joy and pain. My life's yours, love. Don't explain."

'Billie and Me', a tribute to Billie Holiday is at The Barbican Centre, Silk Street, London EC2 (0845 120 7550;, on Monday 5 April