The new insulting c-word: cabaret

Singer and songwriter Barb Jungr laments how, courtesy of pop competition shows, ‘too cabaret’ has become the putdown du jour.

Barb Jungr

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The world of cabaret in 2012 going into 2013 is a wide one – eclectic, diverse and spanning continents. Yet for all of that, it’s a loyal and pretty tight community. The writers and critics who care about cabaret are on speaking terms with the artists who work in it, and there’s a general sense of good naturedness about it all.

For some years, however cabaret hasn’t had the kind of cachet that something like jazz enjoys. In fact, if you want to know how many people feel about cabaret, think about what the word ‘folk’ used to conjure up just a few years ago. The moment folk was mentioned, someone would throw on a sweater and mime a finger in their ear while singing in a nasal voice, while some other scamp would say ‘Morris dancers’ and everyone would guffaw with laughter. Not anymore. Now folk is dead cool. And let’s not even think about what has happened to sweaters; two words: The Killing.

Cabaret hasn’t had any such luck. It hasn’t so much been talked down, or laughed up; its been given a kicking. A serious, frontal, Reservoir Dogs-type kicking. And from whom? The judges on American Idol, The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent. I know. You’re thinking, ‘You’re kidding? They’re kicking cabaret? Is that even humane?’ The answer is yes. Recently, Gary Barlow was taken to task by the musical duo Frisky and Mannish, a comedy cabaret act, for his comments as a judge on ITV’s The X Factor, where, like other judges on similar shows, he frequently criticises acts with the words, ‘It’s a bit cabaret’. Immediately, Time Out writer Ben Walters took up the baton and wrote at length about why Barlow needed to rethink, followed by Dillie Keane of Fascinating Aida, a satirical cabaret act, who used her Stage column to fight the good fight right back at Barlow.

But let me backtrack. Cabaret. What is it? What does it mean to anyone? Right here, right now, underneath its large umbrella, it is many things. At its furthest poles, it touches jazz, comedy, stand-up, storytelling, theatre, pop, performance art, burlesque and songwriting. Its roots are European (political and dark) and American (Great American Songbook), with a dash of good old British music hall and Australian fearless bravura.

It happens in jazz and supper clubs, underground secret haunts, East End working-men’s clubs, gay nightclubs and pubs, concert halls, roving tents, festivals and arts centres. Its audience and its performers span young to pretty elderly. They all get along fine. And they all think that cabaret deserves the same attention as an artform as everything else. They know that it’s as guilty as jazz or pop or any other genre for having rubbish elements, while equally encompassing great artists and wonderful exemplifiers of the form. But since it has become a dirty word, there are movements afoot to rename it, reclaim it, and beat the bad mouthers and naysayers into submission by art, wit, skill and class. Look out world, once again cabaret is becoming vibrant and political.

Over the past few years, I’ve been travelling back and forth to New York, working in a scene there which has gladly called itself ‘cabaret’ for decades. Then, slowly, a terrible thing started to happen. On American Idol, artists who didn’t appeal to the judges were called, for often impenetrable reasons, ‘too cabaret’. This was noted by writers and critics in publications from the New York Times to the Huffington Post, but the power of TV is vast, and before long the c-word had become just a tad déclassé, a trifle non-us. As is often the way with things Stateside, a continental drift brought the insult over here to Britain, and soon the mouths of Gary Barlow and Louis Walsh were heard using the same word as an insult to acts which offended their rare sensibilities. ‘Too cabaret’, they say, with a slight sneer, a knowing disdain.

Ben Walters, Time Out’s cabaret critic and columnist, said in a recent Guardian article: ‘“Very cruise ship, very cabaret, very pub singer”, Louis Walsh said of one performance on last Saturday’s X Factor. “Just that little bit too cheesy for me.” The week before, Walsh’s fellow judge Tulisa used “cabaret” as an insult; it’s also a favourite putdown of chief judge Gary Barlow, as it was for Simon Cowell before him.’

Viewers use it that way, too. During showtime, Twitter heaves with comments such as ‘Thank God for the mute button #xfactor #cabaret’, ‘That’s just cabaret. Awful. #XFactor’, and ‘Didn’t realise xfactor was a cabaret show now #shitttttttt’.

So the word slips into the public consciousness as a putdown of things that are… what, exactly? I recently saw Barlow performing – don’t ask – at a music industry bash where he was being honoured for his services to pop music. And in the middle of his triumphant set, because he’s a good singer and pop writer, no question, he slipped, for reasons incomprehensible to me, into what I can only describe as a pub impersonation of Sinatra singing ‘Mack the Knife’. Now, I don’t know whether the gods of cabaret were wreaking their revenge on him, on the basis that he’s been saying ‘too cabaret’ about everyone else, but I would like to know whether he understood that he was doing exactly what he accuses other people of doing – and it’s not cabaret; it’s your old down the Old Bull and Bush pub singing. It had no sense of personal creative voice. Which is an accusation that could easily be levelled at many performers on The X Factor and American Idol.

Frisky and Mannish’s superb video response to Barlow so moved him that he tweeted the YouTube link to his followers. We’ve yet to see whether it will stop him saying ‘too cabaret’ to people. Who knows, by the time The X Factor is back on the air next year, cabaret may have clawed its way back up the mountain of acceptability.

What you can get from good cabaret is moving, funny, personal and dramatic art. Alex Harvey’s superb version of ‘Next’ was TV cabaret history for me; it has 468,564 hits on YouTube. This may not be ‘Gangnam Style’ numbers, but it’s very respectable. And, may I say, Fascinating Aida’s brilliant ‘Cheap Flights’ is way into the millions now.

I asked Mari Wilson, the English singer and fine exponent of the artform of her cabaret, for her thoughts. ‘The word cabaret should be held in the same high esteem as jazz, blues, great pop, dance, ballet or any great performance art’, she says. ‘A good cabaret artist paints pictures and creates touching, heart-rending moods in the club – every member of the audience feels like they are in their living room with that performer; it should feel that intimate and that’s where the honesty comes in. At the end of the evening, the audience should feel like they totally know the artist they’ve just spent two hours with, as if they’ve lived through those experiences together and that’s what they take home with them. I’ve always said that what comes from the heart touches the heart.’

New York critic David Finkle, in reviewing the 73-year-old Tommy Tune in the Huffington Post, said, ‘And they say cabaret is old-fashioned. It’s a view to which only the sadly unenlightened, no matter how prominent they may be, could possibly lend credence.’

British writer Piers Ford nailed it thus: ‘I think the value of the term cabaret has been diluted. It has become a dirty word in some respects. People sneer at it because it evokes the idea of third-rate entertainers honking out standards to undiscriminating diners in tired nightclubs. It must be reclaimed by the people who are best at it: storytelling singers who thrive in an intimate environment and connect with their audience through lyrics and melody, using humour, pathos and drama to create a special kind of art. The genre of the music is irrelevant, I think – indeed, the great skill of this type of performer is to transcend genre and simply focus on the truths at the heart of the material, working it in their own style. New York – and specifically, Manhattan – has been the main curator of cabaret as an artform, a meeting point for the traditions of the American Songbook and the darker, cynical influences of Europe. Many of us long for it to cross the Atlantic and find a second home here. The depth of homegrown and visiting talent really deserves the platform this would provide.’

I think London is beginning to provide just that. With a plethora of new rooms and artists coming here from the four corners of the globe, maybe Piers’ wish is coming true; maybe ‘too cabaret’ will soon become praise rather than slur.

Barb Jungr is a singer and writer whose most recent CD, Stockport To Memphis, was just released on Naim Jazz. Visit her website here.

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