Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Katherine Jenkins

Katherine Jenkins is promoting a new album. It's called Believe. She has been on the media circuit pushing the disc heavily in the past week or so. Here for example, is a taste of her appearance of Graham Norton's show last night:

Arguments for and against Katherine Jenkins have been well rehearsed elsewhere and naturally resurface during a period in which she has a high profile. They boil down to

She can sing
She's attractive and pleasant with it
She advocates an art and its industry (classical music) for those who feel intimidated by it for whatever reason (culture, upbringing, education)
She's Welsh

She can't sing
She misrepresents classical music and its industry
She's Welsh

Clearly all these things are matters of opinion. Indeed, the great appeal of crossover music to the entertainment industry in its broadest sense is that it is almost aesthetically bulletproof. Being that it incorporates elements of different genres (or what-have-you) of music to cross its appeal over, criticism from the purist may be reasonably seen as confirmation that that crossing over has succeeded (i.e. whether the result is 'good' aesthetically is a separate argument).

It is no surprise then to hear Katherine Jenkins speaking in a manner that one more readily associates with modern, broadest-catchment pursuing political parties. In this nicely pitched article in last week's Times magazine, Hugo Rifkind isolates this issue:
Unsurprisingly, she is studiously nonpolitical. She was asked to sing at the Labour Party conference this year, but she couldn’t because she was busy. And if she hadn’t been busy? “I’d rather not say.”
So, pleasantly banal, equivocal, non-committal - no-one upset (although no-one bowled over).

On Graham Norton's show I was further impressed by her ability to maintain the nuance of this sort of thing. Faced with the idea that she is unashamedly pushing for a foothold in the American market, she agreed that the album was full of music of 'the broadest appeal' designed to find interest 'beyond the UK' - but no clear agreement that she was trying anything so straightforwardly venal as to break the US. Her PR preparation and execution are quite excellent.

I admire Katherine Jenkins very much. I think she is clearly a hard-working entertainer who has to balance pride in her own genuine talents and achievements with an understanding that she's in dangerously close - nay, cuckolding - proximity with talent and acts which can justifiably disdain her work. She clearly has got a reasonable mezzo-soprano voice inside her which she uses perfectly well. To her credit, inamgongst all the pusillanimous rhetoric of Graham Norton's show, she made an ingenuous attempt to defy the broad-appeal generalisations and define herself a little more precisely, referring to herself as a classical rather than an opera singer and making reference to her voice as mezzo- (low) rather than simply soprano (high).

Nonetheless, I still recoil a bit when I hear her plying her trade as it does misrepresent the true nature of what opera and fine singing has to offer. But much worse than any of this is one simple, unrelated truism: the fact that her album launch has been designed to coincide with the week prior to Remembrance Sunday. Rifkind again:
She takes her role as a forces sweetheart — the new Vera Lynn — very seriously. “I wish more artists would do it,” she says of her trips to Afghanistan and Iraq. “I suppose maybe they think there’s a political thing attached and they don’t want to get involved. But the troops don’t decide where they go.”
By allying herself to the wholly unimpeachable British military via the Royal British Legion, Jenkins assures herself critical immunity and an unquestioningly positive profile at the very moment when she needs it commercially. And that, to me, is far more offensive than any artistic charlatanism or limp-wristed political equivocation.

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