I am strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it.
That is why I want to talk about it...
- Susan Sontag, "Notes on Camp"
Over in his festive corner of the universe (well, one of two of them, actually - he's prolific. Among other things, or so I've heard....), dear Jon celebrates the birthday today of a woman who has over the years proved something of a pop changeling.
Miss Vikki Carr (née Florencia Bisenta de Casillas Martinez Cardona) roared out of Texas as a big-voiced girl singer in mainstream American pop in the early '60s, but when the world of cocktail dresses and variety shows faded away on her, she morphed into a major sensation in Latin music, sailing through two decades of hit records and Grammies that were more than likely wholly invisible to her earlier fans. She did what was by all accounts a creditable (but alas, unYouTubed) Sally in Follies in LA in 2002, and now presides as a grande dame of Mexican-American pop, occasionally venturing in her earlier hits, with her last album just last year.
Here, though, we see her in the incarnation more familiar to gringo audiences, albeit in a setting so odd as to be unsettling. One wonders what the possible context for this video is, why she's singing her biggest hit, 1967's "It Must Be Him," in what appears to be the offices of a minor European PR agency. In terms of performance style, it's not fair, I know, but it's a simple fact that Catherine O'Hara's devastating dissection of this kind of histrionic ultrapop (in the person of Lola Heatherton and several other personae) makes it almost impossible to watch this with a totally straight face. Despite all that, however, there's no denying that Miss Carr gives it her all.
Being an official Old, I of course remember this song back when it was ubiquitous on the radio, first on pop stations, then as a spicier than usual moment on Easy Listening outlets, now a retro curiosity for the connoisseur. I remember finding it off-putting, too much, when I was a child. It was hard to equate this kind of extremity ("or I....shall die!") with the staid adults I knew, the long-married couples at the country club or the parade of necking teens who formed my older siblings' social set. As Sontag writes, I was both drawn to to and offended by it. Perhaps, though, it set the stage in ways I didn't understand or anticipate at the time, for an appreciation of the kinds of music that specialize in drama. Opera, for example, where a lyric like "O dear God, it must be him" would be right at home - it could be lifted straight from the Poulenc-Cocteau La Voix Humaine, another one-woman telephone saga - and even for disco. What is this song but a precursor to a few days later, when the once-hopeful lover moves on to sing "I Will Survive"?
For a long time, "It Must Be Him" was a drag staple, the kind of song that's virtually effortless for a wild queen to tear apart. In part, that's because Carr's voice - so strong, so soaring, so supple - is so at odds with what she's singing; the woman in the song is falling apart, but the singer seems about as vulnerable as a tank (and there, in that contrast, in large part, is the Camp). You don't really worry about her much - with those big top notes, she'll have no trouble finding a better guy.
One night though, in some dark hole downtown, I heard a singer who really was at the end of her rope do this. I don't remember her name, or even much at all except the impact that this song, so shiny and plastic in Carr's capable hands, can have when whispered, croaked, confessed, worlds apart from its origin, and somehow in that setting even more distancing. It's a song about shame, really, and so embarrassing for the listener (why are you telling me this?); what makes it possible as a pop hit (and a durable one, as it turns out) is Carr herself, adding in the reassuring strength of her voice and her innate self-assurance.
I especially like the unexpected end of this video: she just walks out, away from the intruding camera, saving herself that awkward moment at the end of "live" performances of that era's hits, when the long, slow fade forces the singer to try a visual approximation of that diminuendo. Exit the diva, stage right. That's Camp.