I cried listening to Etta James and Dr. John sing “I’d Rather Go Blind." It was the middle of the night, and I was watching a dvd from a Time/Life collection called The Midnight Special—I guess I was on theme (the version I was watching is not available online). When James sang, suffered really, the lines “When I looked down in the glass I held to my lips and I saw the reflection of the tears falling down my face that’s when I knew I loved you, couldn’t do without you, and I’d rather be a blind girl,” I lost it. She sang with such emotion, voicing the hopelessness of the feeling, the indignity of that kind of love. That phrase culminated the dialogue between her and Dr. John, in which a lot was communicated between the heaviness in her voice and the gravel in his. But it was more than the emotion, it was also the art. The rising and quieting of the music—moving between the bedroom, the bar, and church—is the foundation of the experience. The performance was at once an intimate conversation, an embarrassing revelation, a renunciation, an example of musical improvisation, an exploration of the relationship between word and sound in music, and an artistic experience of the highest quality. It felt real and true (so does the version I link to above, I think).
Ed Sheeran seems to be going for something similar. The musical sensibility is certainly close: this song aims at the same slow burning, soulful quality. He also wants to bare it all, to hold his heart in his hand for you to see and weep with him. But I’m not feeling it. When he says “Darling, I will be loving you ‘til we’re 70/And, baby, my heart could still fall as hard as 23/And I’m thinking ‘bout how people fall in love in mysterious ways/Maybe just a touch of the hand”; I don’t really believe him. It sounds insincere to me. It sounds like what you say to someone because you know they want to hear it. It sounds more like flattery or bullshit than truth. It means to sound real and vulnerable but it just sounds like a song.
But who is the bigger liar here? Is it the performer who sounds like he is catering to his audience by expressing pretty insincerities? Or is it the performers who sing as if they are feeling the very sentiments they are singing about? Isn’t Ed Sheeran being more honest by performing an untruth, untruthfully? I know these aren’t very penetrating questions. But they do bring up something interesting about art, I hope. Etta James and Dr. John do not love each other. They have never been in a relationship. I’m pretty sure neither of them would choose to be blind over having a broken heart. Everything they portray and sing about in that performance is an untruth. The truth of their performance, that is, what appears so real about it is directly related to their ability to convince us of the artifice. Ed Sheeran seems less truthful than Etta James and Dr. John because, unlike them, he is not a convincing liar.