Tuesday, October 8, 2013

David Bowie Presents: Florence Foster Jenkins (1944)

Good morning!

Yesterday, in her interview with New York magazine, Streisand mentioned that if she could be any singer, she would be "Ray Charles and Florence Foster Jenkins". Now, I know I said I would say more about the "soprano" (quotation marks strongly emphasized) today on the blog, and here I am to shed light on a just crazy delightful story. Take it away, David Bowie:

David Bowie in Maryland in 1971 (no joke!) source
I remember a couple years ago that our Thin White Duke published an article in Vanity Fair about his favorite records. At the time, technology (or at least my access to it) had not yet come up to the speed it is at in year of our Lord 2013, and while some references were duly cataloged away in my "lists of things to check out", a number of the records were unavailable to me. Seeing as Spotify has actually changed the way we're able to track down music (South African jazz? Pink Anderson? If you want it, Spotify has it), I looked up the interview again and was just bowled over by a) how you can hear a lot of the influences of these records on Bowie's music itself (Daevid Allen and the sound of Space Oddity are kissing cousins), and b) HOW SPOT. ON. HIS MUSICAL TASTE. IS. Ugh! It's like listening to a mix tape from the coolest boy in the grade above you.

One selection really stood out from the rest, however, and I reprint his remarks in their entirety from Bowie Wonderland's full-text of the article (here and here):
Florence Foster Jenkins - The Glory of the Human Voice - 1962 RCAIn the mid to late seventies, Norman Fisher, art and people collector, threw the most diverse soirees in the whole of New York. People from every sector of the so and not so avant-garde would flock to his tiny Downtown apartment just because Norman was a magnet. Charismatic, huge fun and brilliant at introducing all the right people to the wrong people. His musical taste was as frothy as he himself. Two of his recommendations have stayed with me over the years. One was Manhattan Towers, the first radio musical, by Gordon Jenkins (no relation to Florence) and 'The Glory of the Human Voice'. Madame Jenkins was rich, social and devoted to opera. She had and was blissfully unaware of, the worst set of pipes in the world of music. She would grace the New York set with this monstrous voice once or twice a year with private recitals at the Ritz-Carlton for the lucky few. So popular were these affairs that the tickets were scalped for outrageous prices. To meet the demand Madame eventually hired Carnegie Hall. This was the hot ticket of that year, 1942. Everyone and Noel Coward were there, falling into the aisles in barely suppressed hysterics. While performing the song Clavelitos, Madame, who would change costume as many as three times during the course of a recital, became so carried away punctuating the cadences of the song by tossing tiny red roses from a basket that the basket itself, in her enthusiasm, followed the roses into the laps of her delighted fans. Be afraid, be very afraid.
You KNOW you want to know more about this record:

Do you love or do you LOVE the parenthetical question marks there in the title?
Florence Foster Jenkins was born in 1868, and first expressed an interest in becoming an opera singer in her youth. That dream was deferred until after the death of her wealthy father in 1909, whose estate left her with well enough money to do with it what she pleased.She took formal training in operatic performance, formed "the Verdi Club" in New York City, participated in various social groups having to do with classical music and its exhibition. Only problem? Girl could not sing. Could not hit, sustain, or eke out a clear note, not ONE NOTE. Did this stop her? Absolutely not! From her Wikipedia entry:

From her recordings it is apparent that Jenkins had little sense of pitch and rhythm, and was barely capable of sustaining a note. Her accompanist can be heard making adjustments to compensate for her tempo variations and rhythmic mistakes. Her dubious diction, especially in foreign language songs, is also noteworthy. Nonetheless, she became popular for the amusement she provided. Critics often described her work in a backhanded way that may have served to pique public curiosity. 
Despite her patent lack of ability, Jenkins apparently was firmly convinced of her greatness. She compared herself favorably to the renowned sopranos Frieda Hempel and Luisa Tetrazzini, and dismissed the abundant audience laughter during her performances as "professional jealousy." She was aware of her critics, but never let them stand in her way: "People may say I can't sing," she said, "but no one can ever say I didn't sing."
I want that last sentence written in Latin on a battle shield. Talk about unshakable self-confidence!

The places I could go with that tiara (source)
As Bowie said in the aforementioned succinct history of FFJ, her cult following eventually grew to a size in 1942 that she was able to sell out Carnegie Hall. The image of Noel Coward falling into the aisles in a fit of helpless hilarity is a treasure unto itself. What's interesting to me, looking back through the lens of seventy years since, is the idea that a culture of snark, or an understood ironic appreciation, existed even then! We like to think about people only mounting their high horses in the information age, where it's easy to become an internet sensation for how truly bad you are at something (see that one Asian guy from the first season of American Idol...remember?), but it took a real talent for self-promotion, and a real fearlessness in the face of universal ridicule, for Jenkins to have taken her act, literally, all the way to Carnegie Hall. You don't understand how bad she is. I don't understand how bad she is, as I think you'd have to know something about opera in the first place to truly understand how far our singer is missing the mark here. Still, bend your ear for a moment. Whatever this is, it is NOT good:


Still! Like a lot of Yoko Ono's solo output or other avant garde recordings, it kind of goes beyond being bad into this dada, absurdist realm of so-bad-it-becomes-good. Imagine FFJ standing in full costume, in front of a bazillion people, perpetrating this serious of a missed mark, in full confidence of its greatness...the majesty of it! The honest-to-goodness, breathtaking chutzpah! They threw roses! This compares unfavorably to the mating call of a bonobo (no shade intended, bonobos), and they still threw roses. I love it.


Jenkins passed away at the age of 76, still at "the top of her game" in terms of ticket sales and concert attendance. If you're gonna do something, do it big!

So! Have you made any hilariously awful musical discoveries lately? Had you heard of FFJ in all her glory before David Bowie told you the good word about her? You should check out his recommendations I linked you to in the top of this post, I'm in the process of making a Spotify list of whatever's available so I can just soak up the goodness. I promise, this is the only tongue in cheek entry on the list that I've found so far-- still, it rates as one of my favorites!

That's all for today, but I'll see you back here tomorrow. Til then!


  1. Oh. my. God. It really is hilariously bad. Ms Jenkins really did have chutzpah. For comparison, this is what "Der Hölle Rache" is supposed to sound like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FMPv8mADpA4

    When FFJ sings, I am reminded of a kitty desperately trying to communicate despite hands about its throat.

    1. Yeah, sounds like FFJ is waaaay off. I cracked up about your kitty comparison. Still, you gotta admire the confidence level!!

  2. I would have been in line for tickets... That Carnegie Hall show must have been something. In Norway we had our own FFJ, Olga Marie Mikalsen, who also sang in Carnegie Hall once. If badly sung opera is your thing, you can check her out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b1YzHKmepro (there are more videos of her on you tube, if anyone is interested)

    Also; since I have never commented before, I'll take the opportunity to congratulate you on your recent nuptials.

    1. Hi Connie! Thanks for your well wishes and for reading!! That video you linked me to is extraordinary. What is it with Carnegie and booking outrageously bad acts some times!!

  3. Hello Lisa! I want to share with you a new documentary project about FFJ. We're honoured to have the opera-star Joyce DiDonato to star as Florence. We're running a corwdfunding campaign for everyone out there who'd like to support the project. The are some exciting perks! This is the link: http://igg.me/at/ffj-story I hope it interests you! You can follow us on: https://www.fb.com/ffj_story ; http://www.twitter.com/ffj_story ; https://i.instagram.com/ffj_Story



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