Jan 212013

Last night while flipping channels I stopped for a few minutes on an Austin City Limits performance by someone named Kat Edmonson. I’d never heard of this woman before, and I was primed to dislike her. The guide description referred to her as a “jazz singer.” She had an upturned pixie nose, which is usually a slight turnoff for my deservedly high standards (because lord knows I’ve got God’s ideal nose and deserve only the best noses). She wore a cute red dress and stood, cutely, at the mic stand in front of a large band of musicians playing quietly and tastefully. She had a cute squeaky voice. Her music wasn’t bad, though, even for that kind of music. And she was cute in a pixie cute way, a bit of a cross between Naomi Watts and Kirsten Dunst in a pixie ‘do. Her songs were kind of cute, too, but stopped short of cloying.

The more I watched the more I actually appreciated her music—as much as I can appreciate that stuff—and just how cute I found her, in an attainable musician way. Isn’t that the point of rock ‘n roll (or related genres), according to my close personal friend E. Pluribus Gergely, to project youthful beauty while carrying a good tune? I was confused. I thought of my man BigSteve‘s Listen But Don’t Look Principle, which cautions against making musical judgments based on an artist’s visual presentation. I was caught in a possible reverse-Listen But Don’t Look conundrum: I may have been lured into liking this woman’s music because I dug how girly her overall vibe was. Yeah, that’s right: I dig girly girl stuff now and then!

I value my exquisite taste in music above almost all other qualities. Rarely do I find my powers of observation and cool-headed analysis swayed by something so primitive as a stirring in my loins, but last night I had to wonder if I was experiencing one of those only human moments I’ve tried to counsel many of you through.

I would not have had quite this hang-up if my first exposure to Edmonson had been this “official” video for her song “I Don’t Know,” a song I liked a lot when she performed it on Austin City Limits, minus the tongue-in-cheek (I think) bad Meg Ryan movie-style dancing.

This video falls squarely into our understanding of the Listen But Don’t Look Principle. Watching it is a severe detriment to enjoying the music, I guess unless you’re some kind of 20-year-old aspiring suburban drama queen. But what about performances featuring drop-the-cat moments, in which some smokin’ imagery may trick us into liking the music more than we normally would? For instance, would I have liked the music of Kat Edmonson if confronted by the visage of Pink or Courtney Love? Highly doubtful. They may top my list of Women I’d Choose Men Over, and if I were flipping channels late on a Sunday night and found them singing some kind of “pixie jazz” music I’d keep flipping as fast as my thumb would take me. (For the record, actor Paul Dano tops my list of Guys I’d Choose Pink and Maybe Even Courtney Love Over.)

Here’s the deal: after a good night’s sleep I’m still thinking I actually liked the music of Kat Edmonson. I’m going to buy one of her records. Is that wrong? Is that consistent with the high musical standards I’ve displayed in public through the years? Is this going to bring the same hammer down on me that my wife gave me when I declared that Naomi Watts was “great” in We Don’t Live Here Anymore?

“That’s easy for you to say,” she said, “considering she was nude through half the movie!”

Have you ever felt conflicted about liking an artist whose music is outside your comfort zone at the possibility that you were listening with your groin?


  22 Responses to “Listen But Don’t Look: Kat Edmonson and the Potential Hazards of Listening With One’s Groin”

  1. 2000 Man

    The bar in that second video doesn’t look like it would have that kind of music on the jukebox. But I think if I’m going to listen to that kind of music, I’m going to find Midnight at the Oasis on Youtube and just listen to half of that.

  2. misterioso

    This is some sort of joke, right?

  3. ladymisskirroyale

    Mod, just last week, we were having an email chat about one of my new favorite artists, and you said you felt uncomfortable watching her interesting and vixenish video. (Perhaps you were just being kind and didn’t want to say that you thought the music sucked.)

    So let’s just ask for some clarification about where you are drawing that (girdle) line? Sexy young thing with snake draped around her neck is verboten yet cute pixie-ish singer or actress is ok?

  4. misterioso

    Btw, “stopped short of cloying”? This steps on the gas and smashes through the roadblock at the cloying city limits.

  5. The woman who’s videos you were sending me looked like jailbait. And I don’t like spiders and snakes! The music that woman was doing had some merit, as I worked to get myself back into my 22-year-old Kate Bush appreciating self, but there was a troubling line for me to get past.

    Honestly, does no one else ever come across a performance by an artist and wonder if some physical attraction may be skewing your taste?

  6. ladymisskirroyale

    Oh, absolutely, but the spell usually happens at live shows. Of course the guitarist/singer/bassist/drummer/etc. was looking at me, and wasn’t the music amazing!

  7. BORE-ing. Have fun at the listening party without me. We’re all guilty of listening with our eyes, but she would need to be twins to make up for how dull her music is.

    Also; Harrison’s estate should sue her for ripping off his rip off of He’s So Fine in I Don’t Know.

  8. Cloying . . . or in my wife’s words “a little too precious sounding.” In my alt-country years (which I am still rehabbing from — I’ve been on a Kelly Willis-Bruce Robison jag this weekend), this sort of vocal is something I had to get used to — for both men and women.

    Some of it I really came to enjoy — early Nanci Griffith, Kasey Chambers, Mary Lou Lord, and Tift Merritt. They all are (or were) somewhat easy on the eyes, which probably helped.

    A couple of others more in the Kat Edmonson pop-jazz vein that I like are Bic Runga and Nelly McKay. Some that I find hard to swallow are Iris DeMent and Jimmie Dale Gilmore.

    Straight up country is full of this vocal style. It can sound pretty cool in harmony like it did with Trio — if you like that sort of thing — with Emmylou, Linda Ronstadt, and Dolly.

  9. machinery

    Mr. Mod, this is too funny. I did the same channel flipping and ended up watching a number of songs by the red dress pixie. I didn’t know her name, but was pleasantly surprised by how good she was. Her voice had a modern-day Billy Holiday rasp to it, but she never felt like she was doing an impersonation. Her phrasing was effortless … And the band was really good too. I didn’t get quite the … ahem … rise out of her that you did, but I really enjoyed her.

    But I see what you’re saying. I might not have stopped to listen to her had she not been quite so cute.

  10. Great survey of a certain kind of vocalist! I kind of liked Nelly McKay along the same lines, but I can’t remember what she looks like. I actually heard her music before ever seeing her. I kind of like Jimmie Dale Gilmore despite the fact that his Look does nothing special for me.

  11. In some apparent space/time glitch, this thread, planned to be posted on April 1, appears on January 21…

  12. Rock on, machinery (and even you, chickenfrank). This is the kind of friendly perspective I need to consider.

  13. I’ve seen Nellie (it’s Nellie) a couple of times — she’s pretty sharp — if you like thin blondes that smile a lot.

  14. OK — I’ll bite — who are you talking about?

  15. hrrundivbakshi

    Mod, look — I’m sorry for strapping on the know-it-all codpiece, but REALLY…

    If this rocks your world, please do yourself a favor and check out the genuine (or at least the original) article: Blossom Dearie. In addition to being an ace songwriter (and label owner!) when chicks didn’t do much of that, a fantastic interpreter of classic American song (check out her brilliant, slowed-down version of the uptempo Rodgers & Hart standard “I’ll Take Manhattan” below) — she was possessed of similar voice and cuteness factor. One of the reasons I knew I could love my wife forever is because she revealed herself early on to be a *huge* Blossom Dearie fan. Anyhow — check her out.


  16. hrrundivbakshi

    Oh, and she played the piano, too. Well.

  17. I remember hearing of her and hearing her music here for the first time when she died a couple of years ago. See, I know this is very good on many levels, but it barely interests me. I feel like I have to lean in too much to hear it. The thing that was good about Edmonson is that she brought that kind of music right to me. It wasn’t some insider thing. I don’t even follow the titans of that Olde Thyme Singer scene. It’s a million miles away from me. I’m not saying I’ll never dig any of it. I actually own and listen to Ella Fitzgerald and Rosemary Clooney records without anyone putting a gun to my head, but – for me – the visuals really helped. Not just the woman but her entire band. She had a guitar player, a guy just playing jazz chords on an acoustic guitar – nothing fancy – but he made excellent “tasty” faces, like he was really feeling those augmented minor 9th chords he was strumming inaudibly. That shit helped.

    Getting back to my broader question, do none of you ever find yourself liking a band more than maybe you normally would based on the performers’ visual presentation? Do you ever question your own tastes because you fear you’re getting suckered into liking music that you can’t be sure you actually like?

  18. Not to mention, do you ever fear you’re psyching yourself out and that you actually like something new, even if the aid of visuals helped open your ears?

  19. jeangray


  20. mockcarr

    Yes. I can’t think of a good recent example, because I haven’t surfed the tv music channels as much lately to stumble across this sort of thing. As a young man I probably felt that way about Dolly Parton. Do I like these songs, well, not so much, but I am I really only watching her boobs while the sound plays? No, she’s a great singer, and some of her stuff is just as good as anything, just tilted a country way. Hmm.

  21. Mr. M., I’ve been thinking about and getting a kick out of your Kat Edmonson quandary since you posted this. I should probably say right away that I am a fan of Kat’s to the point of mild obsession, but my approach is somewhat different from yours, in that I grew up listening to midcentury jazz and was very happy to discover a young singer with an interesting voice who performs that music as well as newer music with that sensibility (I get nothing from most of the other contemporary jazz vocalists, including Diana Krall, Sutton Tierney, &c., but prefer the classics: Dinah W., Ella, &c.).

    That said, I am of a generation (probably same as yours) that most of my friends listen to rock (as do I), punk (which I love), 80s alternative, hip hop, &c. I think the only reason I don’t fully share your quandary is b/c I actually *heard* Kat’s music on the radio & found it very compelling & decided to buy her albums *before* I saw what she looks like. But I have to laugh at myself b/c of how often I find myself explaining that to friends. So apparently I share some of your uncertainty & concern about what exactly it is I’m responding to (btw, I am a queer woman, and even tho’ Kat is not my usual type, how good she looks in a cocktail dress and how striking those eyes are do contribute to my fandom).

    So, as a somewhat kindred spirit, a couple of suggestions:
    1. Zadie Smith did a great article in the New Yorker a month or so ago on stopping worrying and learning to love Joni Mitchell that, I think, addresses some of these same feelings (tho’ not exactly the groin part). I think she really digs into the questions about taste that you’re asking.

    2. If I can post a video link here, I will post one that–I hope–will show you another aspect of Kat’s vocal ability and stage persona, something more mature and intense than what the ACL selections put on display: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kea1wsUFXx4

    If you get a chance to see her perform live, I recommend it. What you say about the guitarist, Steve Elliot, is very true, and as a vocalist Kat immerses herself in the experience of her music in a way that I see few performers achieve today. Live, it is immensely compelling.

  22. oleblanc, welcome to the fray! Thanks for engaging right out of the chute. This is great stuff. I will keep your words in mind as I explore further. I need to find that Joni Mitchell piece, too. I was terrified of her as a teenage boy. It took years for me to get what she was all about and enjoy her pre-fusion works. I still don’t like much stuff from that point on.

    I look forward to hearing from you on whatever topics float your boat as we move on.

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