Monday, August 23, 2010

Torch Songs: Wicked Game

Chris Isaak: Wicked Game


As we move through our new theme, it would help to have a definition of the term “torch song”. On the sidebar, you will see “sentimental songs of unrequited love”. Certainly, that’s part of it. But some of the classic torch songs depict a love that is requited for a time, and then lost. Others depict a love that is slipping away, usually because of the misbehavior of the party being sung about. has the definition as “a popular song concerned with unhappiness or failure in love”, and that covers the range of possible topics better. That definition also says that the term dates from 1925-30, which is earlier than I expected. That means that torch songs predate the big band era. So, stylistically, torch songs begin with the Tin Pan Alley sound and really start to flourish with the big bands. After World War II, things get interesting. Most people would look at the classic crooners of the 1950s, and say that torch songs belong especially to the female contingent of that group. But you also find jazz singers working with small groups, doing material that certainly would qualify. And then there is country music. I would say that the country divas of that period certainly should be considered torch singers as well.

So, is it only a torch song if it is sung by a woman? I would say not. The singer must be the party who is wronged or unfulfilled in love. The fact that more male torch singers can be found nowadays than in the past reflects changes in gender roles in our society.

Finally, this brings me to Chris Isaak and Wicked Game. Musically, this one does not fit any of the classic sounds. Certainly the subject fits, and the song could be arranged to fit perfectly. I can imagine kd lang doing this one with a full orchestra. But Chris Isaak’s original is also a torch song. That’s because of his approach as a singer. We hear that this is an idealized love that went astray, and we hear in his performance the combination of love and hurt that makes a torch song. That’s good enough for me.

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