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Why Do We Love Bad Singers?

Florence Foster Jenkins was a truly lousy vocalist, but that didn’t stop her from selling out Carnegie Hall. Is that true of today’s pop stars, too?

Getty Images/20th Century Fox /Ringer illustration
Getty Images/20th Century Fox /Ringer illustration

Florence Foster Jenkins, the amateur singer portrayed by Meryl Streep in Stephen Frears’s new movie of the same name, was a genuine eccentric. You will not need to be convinced of this after seeing the movie, but in case you haven’t yet, please enjoy this paragraph of narration from a 2007 documentary about her, recounting a time when the comedian Alan King attended one of Jenkins’s infamous parties:

Frears’s film is quite faithful to the spirit of its idiosyncratic subject, which is to say, yes, there is totally a potato salad bathtub scene. But the movie mainly focuses on the stranger-than-fiction story for which Jenkins is most famous: Though she was a completely tone-deaf singer, she sold out Carnegie Hall in 1944, when she was 76 years old. The concert has now become the stuff of legend, and it holds a strange allure even among modern music fans. To this day, her recordings are some of the most requested in Carnegie Hall’s archives. “More than Toscanini,” Streep marveled in a recent interview with The Washington Post, “more than Callas. More than anybody, it’s Florence’s. Isn’t that amazing?”

She’s even something of a YouTube star: An audio recording titled “Florence Jenkins massacres Mozart” has more than 1.5 million views. Check it out, as long as you’re not in a public place: She’s wildly sharp throughout the entire song, and at very few points does she hit the correct note. She has audible difficulty modulating her breath and the tone of her voice. At times it comes out in wisps (“It was largely a recital without voice,” the New York Sun wrote of her Carnegie Hall performance, “for the tones Madam Jenkins produced were tiny, to the point of disappearing”), but more often, it’s ear-bleedingly loud. In the video the YouTuber made to accompany Jenkins’s singing, one of the LOLCats looks at us with bug eyes and asks, “This is a joke, right?”

Streep, in her portrayal of Jenkins, brings complexity to that question. She plays her as neither a heroine nor a punch line — an enigmatic figure whose mask keeps switching from tragic to comic. Which is why we spend much of the film unsure of how to feel about Jenkins. Is she a cautionary tale of self-delusioned, rich–white lady entitlement? (We see that she buys the approval of nearly everyone in her life, from her pianist Cosmé McMoon to her husband, St. Clair Bayfield; she pays the rent on the apartment where he hides his mistress.) Or is she a courageous, before-her-time icon of ignoring the haters and doing what you love regardless of what others say? To quote a phrase, there’s definitely bravery in her bravado. An attendee of the Carnegie Hall concert later marveled at her degree of self-preservation: “She went right ahead. I don’t care how much laughter there was — it didn’t faze her at all.”

Streep emphasizes this virtue in her performance. “People may say I can’t sing,” she says toward the end of the film, “but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”

Why are we so fascinated with bad musicians — and bad singers in particular? Sure, there’s an inviting sense of reassurance in listening to them. I can’t possibly be as bad as that, you might think while listening to Jenkins sing Mozart. But I also think it’s because they open up this portal of uncertainty in all of our judgments about what “good” and “bad” music actually are. It’s freeing, in a way: Staying on the beat or on the note is limiting, but there are so many different ways to fail at these things. Failure’s creative in that way.

The appeal of Florence Foster Jenkins reminds me of the Shaggs, the proto-DIY trio of sisters who, with the release of their 1969 album Philosophy of the World, became cult legends for their strangely off-kilter pop tunes. Listening to that record (which is about to get a snazzy reissue) still prompts all kinds of questions: Does this music sound good in their own heads? Are they even trying to keep the beat? Or are they savant-geniuses keeping a beat that is way too sophisticated for our nongenius ears to understand? The Tao of the Shaggs runs deep, and it’s applicable to the recordings of Jenkins, too.

All told, history has looked pretty kindly on Florence Foster Jenkins; plenty of “better” singers have been completely forgotten, and they will certainly never be portrayed by Meryl Streep in a movie. And in the 72 years since her Carnegie Hall performance, plenty has happened to make her look more like a pioneer than a laughingstock. Jenkins predated both punk rock and the self-recording-friendly DIY movement. She also predated “Carpool Karaoke,” tone-deaf choirs, and the Rebecca Black–spawning Ark Music Factory. (Is Jenkins’s original song “Like a Bird” the OG “Friday”?)

Even with today’s pop stars, sheer virtuosity of voice isn’t prized as much as it used to be. In an era of Auto-Tune, pitch-shifting, and all the other kinds of digital manipulation, you don’t exactly need Adele’s pipes to have a hit on the radio. Less-than-virtuosic singers such as Britney Spears and post-808s Kanye West have proved this to be true; the notion that Auto-Tune is only there to make “bad singers” sound better than they naturally do is so pervasive that digitized crooner T-Pain blew minds two years ago when a video confirmed that he could actually sing without Auto-Tune. Still, even these days, there’s a visceral thrill that comes from hearing a human voice crack, break, and pushed to its limits. Rihanna has certainly benefited from some digital correction over the years, which is perhaps why “Higher,” the penultimate song from her 2016 record Anti, is such a showstopper. It’s far from a “perfect” vocal — her voice sounds like she’s been up for days subsisting on nothing but cigarettes and whiskey — but it’s the imperfection, the palpable struggle to hit those high notes, that makes it so emotive.

Jenkins’s imperfect vocals transmit emotion, too, but it’s more joy than neediness or desperation. Delusional or not, Jenkins succeeded in living out her dream on her own terms. The O̶x̶f̶o̶r̶d̶ ̶E̶n̶g̶l̶i̶s̶h̶ Urban Dictionary defines “based” as “when you don’t care what people think” and “doing what you want/how u want.” By that measure, let us praise Florence Foster Jenkins, our original Based God.