k.d. lang is an artist. This is my primary tenet and the one I feel is not attributed to k.d. enough. And while I am preaching to her fan base here, perhaps a stray “muggler” will read this and be swayed to understand the true artistic gift we have in k.d. lang. A second tenet, which substantiates everything else about k.d., is that she is the fast train to seeing Truth in and of itself.
That’s a huge claim I just made! By asserting this, I in no way mean to exclude the myriad of other artists like Alanis Morissette, Joni Mitchell, Jane Siberry, and Avril Lavigne and countless others. All of these are also incredible performers and artists, and they too access other worlds with their lyrics and performances. But of all of these incredible women who “do their own stunts” (imagine, write, perform), I want to argue that k.d. falls in a class that is very nearly sui generis. And as a professional philosopher, I realize that trying to justify a claim like this is nearly impossible. Counterarguments, and good ones at that, will emerge almost instantly. Perhaps the strongest one against me would be made by k.d. herself who I suspect to be both flattered and annoyed at a blog post like this.
Both of these are great songs. Each talks about profound experiences of life and forces us into a state of self-reflection. How much better said is:
Valley is dark, the burgeoning holding
The stillness obscured by their judging
You walk through the shadows
Uncertain and surely hurting
Deserted by the blackbirds
And the staccato of the staff ?
Or how many of us understand what Cohen means when he cryptically says:
Maybe there’s a god above
And all I ever learned from love
Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you
And it’s not a cry you can hear at night,
It’s not somebody who’s seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah ?
So kudos to Siberry and Cohen on that end. And when authors perform their own work, this carries with it an element that can never be captured by anyone else, even k.d.
So, what is it that k.d. adds to these already-sacred songs that allows Truth to come whooshing in for most of us who listen? Pace. Just like a good race car driver speeds up just a bit as she takes the curve, k.d. sings both of these songs faster than their makers do.
If you have time to listen very carefully, you will notice that the reason k.d.’s rendition of these songs is so profoundly and unbelievably delivered is because of how she adjusts the throttle at just the right time and in just the right amount at critical times in the song. (It’s true that k.d. does not sing as many verses as Cohen does, but I do not think her shortening the song affects my point). And not only this, it is how she changes the emphasis of the words by changing the pace. Just compare how Cohen sings “It’s a cold and broken-hearted Hallelujah” with how k.d. does. With the pace and particular emphasis she places on the vowels, the line transforms from an odd sentence to one that eviscerates our private souls. k.d.’s ability to do this is Divine; she has no idea how she is able to do it (I don’t think). But she can, and she is exceptionally good at selecting songs where her talent in this regard is crazy good.
Next, listen to Siberry sing Valley. If you are like me, you are very used to k.d.’s version of this song and you will hear immediately how much faster k.d. sings it. In spite of a dramatic increase in tempo, k.d. is able to maintain the breathiness of the ultra high tones that are nearly out of her range, and add her own stresses on the vowels she wants. As she does this, Truth “comes waltzing in” (as k.d. is fond of saying) for us to witness and experience.
Of course, it is always risky to try an argue that one artist is “better” than another. Perhaps I should say that k.d.’s singing is more accessible; that more people are spiritually moved and see elements of Truth that they would not otherwise see when she sings. But however one wants to try and talk about it, there is definitely something going on with k.d. that sets her in a class of her own.
I have heard fans on Twitter “complain” that k.d. is impatient. k.d. herself has griped that “if she had more patience” she’d be a genius. But k.d. and pace go together well when she sets out to interpret and release Truth’s ties for all the world to witness. I don’t know about you, but I’ll settle for an impatient k.d. lang any day.
Photo Credit of k.d.: Jim Cooper/AP. Taken 12/4/2007 in New York. Used with permission.