We all have different ways of processing and reacting to emotion. For some, it is the written word, for some it is visual art, for some it is food or exercise or movies or television or complete silence. I have always equated music with emotion. Whether exuberantly happy, explosively angry, or devastatingly sad, I turn to music as my outlet and my escape; the soundtrack to my feelings when up or down. Today’s collection, “Lady In Satin” by Billie Holiday, which is rated as the 317th Greatest Album of All Time by Rolling Stone, is one of those tragically captured moments in sadness, for many reasons.
Billie Holiday, known by many as “Lady Day”, experienced a remarkable, yet heartbreaking life in her short 44 years. Beyond the cruel social conditions she and all other African-American artists were subjected to, her sultry and timelessly pure voice served as her gift and curse as a recording artist in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Confronted by deceptive management, abusive men and others who sought to take advantage of her vocal talents, Lady Day turned to a life of alcoholism and substance abuse to escape her harsh reality. By the time “Lady In Satin” was recorded in 1958, her body was breaking down from this collective abuse, and she was only to withstand this pain for another year before dying in 1959 from cirrhosis.
I don’t know if the song selection was intended to reflect her suffering, but this album is all about heartbreak and devastation. “I’m a Fool to Want You”, “I Get Along Without You Very Well”, “You Don’t Know What Love Is”, “Glad to Be Unhappy”, “The End of a Love Affair”, and others… they all capture that pain we all have felt at some point in our life. When you listen closely, you realize that her voice, while still beautiful in pitch and tone, sounds worn from the pain when compared to an earlier standard like “All of Me”.
For me, my personal gold standard for sadness and heartbreak in a song is “Back to Black” by Amy Winehouse. No other song has ever quite captured the feeling of painful loss as honestly and effectively, in my personal experience. After listening to this album and doing a comparative to “All of Me”, I switched over to this much more recent song, and I was haunted by the similarities in voice and feeling, particularly as Billie Holiday was reaching the end of her difficult life. I easily envisioned swapping the two, and contemplated the similar trails of abuse, from others and self-inflicted, that led to a sad and unnecessary ending for both, way too young.
Life isn’t always happy and it isn’t always fair. There are those amazing highs that keep us going and hoping, but in between, there are those moments of emptiness and loss, and this album and Billie herself, serves as an enduring reminder of what goes up most certainly can come back down.