Music for torching
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This dissertation considers how torch singing—the performance of songs of unrequited love—might constitute a subtle and subversive moment of social critique. Torch singing developed in early 20th century America out of the participatory and confrontational style of cabaret and the formulaic structure of Tin Pan Alley ballads. As sung by performers as diverse as Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf, Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan, Barbra Streisand, k.d. lang, and numerous others, the torch song becomes a form and site for a resistive interpretation of social structures and ideological discourses. Using an ironic tone, an unseemly note or trill, a swelling bravado, a series of shifting and changing voices, the torch singer says to her audiences, listen carefully, things are not as they seem. My research involved listening to the voices of classic and contemporary torch singers and hearing their stories on stage and record and in autobiographies; music criticism; and political, social, and cultural analyses. My writing hopes to invoke the pleasures of fandom, the complexity of the women who sing torch songs, and the many voices of interpretation and positionality in any performance. My writing also suggests how torch singing might create a critical consciousness, a collaborative responsibility and shared sense of agency, and an opening for change. Torch singing, for me, is a reimagining of the torch song— that sentimental ballad of unrequited love, victimhood, and the pleasure of pain—into a space for the sounding of desire and the performance of possibility. Do you hear it too?