1001 Albums You Must Die Before You Hear – Florence Foster Jenkins

1001 Albums You Must Die Before You Hear

#11: Florence Foster Jenkins – A Florence! Foster!! Jenkins!!! Recital!!!!

She sang so badly that people turned up in their droves to laugh at her sad attempts to “wow” New York. MATT KELLY on Florence Foster Jenkins.

I swear those exclamation marks are my favourite part of this entire thing.

Issued in 1954, A Florence Foster Jenkins Recital might be the world’s first meme music release. Sure, comedy records were nothing new, but AFFJR was specifically intended to be ironic, to be laughed at, an in-joke.

There is something distasteful in that FFJ was not around to defend herself or participate – she died in 1944 – but the fact that a decade after her death someone put out a posthumous album attests to the power of her legend.

 

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And it went on. The 1970 compilation The Glory Of The Human Voice was an even bigger hit and a 2016 feature film starring Meryl Streep underlines the enduring appeal of this pioneer of being so bad at something it becomes impressive.

The wealthy Manhattan socialite who at the age of 62 decided to launch an opera soloist career despite her extraordinary technical incompetence is both a figure of fun and loveable for her sheer chutzpah. Cole Porter was a huge fan, saying there was nothing like the sheer thrill of discovering what on earth she would do to the next note, and he rarely missed a performance.

Jenkins never recorded an actual album – in the early 1940s she self-funded short recordings of material as gifts for friends, which these selections are culled from. And to be honest, it’s not actually that funny. Aside from the ethical uneasiness caused by Jenkins never intending this to be published, it’s a bit of a one-trick pony.

If you’re familiar with albums like Philosophy Of The World and Angelic To The Core and their mind-blowing ability to start really bad yet continually find new and interesting ways to get EVEN WORSE, AFFJR is the opposite of that. You’ve heard the joke after one track and it’s simply reiteration after that. It is a pretty funny joke though.

Her immortal rendition of Mozart’s Queen Of The Night aria is famous for a reason. The famous run beginning with ‘So bist du mein’ which requires the vocalist to repeatedly go to high A and up to D is enough to make anyone cry laughing, Jenkins’ bizarre squeaking made even sillier by her lack of enunciation, rendering everything a wordless warble. Her voice seems to be at high A-flat by default and just bends everything from there rather than going to where the music is.

It also helps to be familiar with the material – if you don’t know your Delibes from your Strauss, the finer points of what Jenkins is doing so wrong may elude you and it will be less entertaining.

And also, this album is a contact high – hilarious for five minutes, not for 50. However, I like to hope that audiences who continue to ‘appreciate’ Jenkins are not just cruel to her but also admire that someone in their ’70s had the guts to give it a try. Appreciators of terrible music should pay their respects to the godmother of the entire scene.

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