Walking around central London, I’ve been struck by how many shows Frank Sinatra has been performing in town recently. He played a string of concerts in July at the Royal Albert Hall (which as any schoolboy knows was actually named after Sinatra’s middle name), and he is currently performing an extended summer season at the London Palladium. Quite how Frank is going to cope this Friday evening, when this eternal Sinatra séance requires his spirit to put in an appearance as his life and music is celebrated at the Proms, at the same time as he gigs at the Palladium, I’m not sure.
The good news for Sinatra fans is that death has comprehensively failed to stall their hero’s career; in fact, since breathing his last in 1998, there have been noticeably more live events where the spectre of Sinatra has been present than when he was alive.
In July, the fruit of Sinatra’s own loins, dolled up in a Vegas tuxedo, took central stage at the Albert Hall. Had you been handed the commercially advantageous name ‘Frank Sinatra Jr’, and could buff up a semi-decent impersonation, wouldn’t you cash in too? Quick-witted Sinatra aficionados observe that he even looks like Frank Senior. A little bit. But these days that’s all you need.
When, in 2006, Sinatra played the Palladium ‘he’ came reincarnated as a hologram with virtual blue eyes and virtual vocal chords. This time round, ‘he’ appears on big screens slung around the stage, the evening spiced up by a live big band and twerking dancing girls. Holograms are mucho expensive presumably and even Frank is not immune from the brutal economic realities of austerity.
But then Nancy Sinatra, the singer’s daughter, goes and spoils it all by saying something stupid. ‘It’s not other people doing Frank; it’s Frank doing Frank!’ she proclaims, a slogan that blares from posters and banners at the front of the Palladium – a profoundly crap use of language which might even mean the precise opposite of what was intended.
Because even when Sinatra was alive, the bubble of his celebrity was such that he was untouchable, unapproachable, unused to the ways of any world which you or I might consider real and authentic. Frank himself was already a virtual Frank in his latter years, a living pre-posthumous Frank, a Frank who did Frank, a Frank who was expected to do Frank, a Frank who certainly was not about to disappoint his audience by not doing Frank, a Frank whose whole world was frankly defined by the frankness of being Frank. Frank: a dependable and enduring brand like Coca-Cola, with a formula just as mysterious.
And brands, if you happen to own the formula, become easy to mechanically re- and mass-produce – unlike art, which is about change and evolution. Old Frank, his voice not what it was, visibly aging, occasionally smudging a lyric, became erratic and unreliable at carrying the weight of his own brand. Much better now that the brand has been contained and brought in-house! Sinatra holograms and footage, airbrushed and quality controlled, locked in time, become more authentic than the thing itself.
Personally, the culture that surrounded the actual Sinatra feels as alien and inexplicable to me as golf. All that rampant hedonism; the macho drinking; not women but ‘broads’; flash the cash, get what you want; a curious of lack of concern about the ills of the wider world; complex emotional impulses reduced to three-minute archetypes that wallow, then stagnate, in the overcooked syrup of sententious orchestrations.
But his phrasing! That innate ability to carry a lyric, I hear you say. And fair enough. He had vocal technique in spades, but with technique comes responsibility and Sinatra downgraded his muse to the level of a Disney theme park – a self-indulgent ride that I, for one, wish would just stop.