It’s not that I’ve historically been a big Sinatra fan. My parents were more Dean Martin people. It feels a little silly saying I’m a “fan” of his even now; he’s so ambient and everywhere that saying you’re a Sinatra fan feels like saying you’re a fan of air.
It started in January; I was in quarantine after coming back to New Haven for what would be the beginning of my senior year after a semester off. I was trying to luxuriate in my last weeks of relative freedom, but found myself plagued by anxiety — I was afraid I’d no longer be good at school, afraid I wouldn’t see my friends enough before they graduated, afraid I wouldn’t be able to handle the course load I needed to finish my majors in the middle of a pandemic. I’ve never been one to get all that lonely, so the week completely alone in my cozy apartment wasn’t what bothered me. Rather, it was the feeling that I could’ve been being alone better. One evening a few days into my weeklong quarantine, bored of turning my worries over in my head as I passively rewatched old sitcoms and determined to achieve this sense of solitude well spent, I decided to clean the entire apartment and put on Spotify’s “This is Frank Sinatra” playlist. I’m still not sure why I chose him. Maybe I was feeling romantic.
I had fun doing the dishes, scrubbing the bathroom sink, realizing as soft notes of violin and trumpet drifted through the air that I knew the tunes to these songs even if I didn’t know their names. I hadn’t spoken a word all day and now even the silent, empty spaces of the apartment were filled with That’s life and I can’t deny it, many times I thought of cutting out but my heart won’t buy it. I laughed at Frank’s timely lamentation and let my Swiffer twirl me across the floor. I delighted in his music, how it announces itself with fanfare, a cascade of strings that might as well be saying “Listen up, he’s about to sing now!”
After an hour or two I was sated and ready to switch the night’s soundtrack to something more contemporary when suddenly the sound of applause cut through the speaker. I checked my phone and found that “Angel Eyes — Live at the Sands Hotel and Casino” had come up on shuffle. I paused, leaning against the kitchen counter.
I’d never heard Sinatra’s speaking voice before. I found it surprisingly youthful, light after the weighty smoothness of his crooning. On the recording, it’s surprisingly clear, free of static: “You’re a delightful audience ladies and gentlemen, and I hope this doesn’t come as a severe shock, but I’m through!” He’s met by groans and shouts. “Oh yeah,” You can hear the smile in his voice, “Oh it’s boozing time.” Laughs from the audience. Then, you can hear a man cut through the white noise of the crowd:
Frank snaps back: “One more what? I’m goin’ to the bar!”
When I first heard this, alone in my kitchen, I scrambled to rewind and replay this brief exchange. I listened to it three times over, found myself coming back to it again and again over the next few days. Something about this short moment of Sinatra on stage captivated me: the way he spits out, almost venomous, “One more what?” Like it’s a ridiculous question. Like he resents this man for asking too loudly for the song he’s obviously about to sing. Like he could ever just make his way to the bar without first crooning out a lovely, if not somewhat sedate, rendition of his final song; I try to think love’s not around, still it’s uncomfortably near.
Once I was out of quarantine, Sinatra was firmly lodged in the crevices of my brain. I hummed his songs in the shower, played them as I cooked and wrote and walked my circular, pandemic confinement-fueled walks around New Haven. Through Wooster Square, up Hillhouse, past the Div School, put your dreams away for another day and I will take their place in your heart. Repeat. I did, in the wee small hours of the morning, let Frank sing me to sleep through my earbuds: You’d be hers if only she would call. He soothed my frayed nerves as I started up full time Zoom classes; he sang me through the weirdness of twice-weekly nose swabbing in the Branford common room where my friends and I used to sit and laugh and study. Still, the music was more than just a balm. Something in it, something in the sharpness of that spoken moment (One more what?), was stuck with me. I couldn’t quite articulate it, but it kept me tapping my feet to Frank for a month.
About a week ago, my podmates and I were getting ready to sit down to dinner. My friend, as they uncorked a bottle of wine, suggested we put on some music. I perked up, suggesting Sinatra for the night: “I’ve just been so weirdly into him.”
My roommate groaned, “Ugh, what if we didn’t though?”
Our other friend grinned at me: “I love that you’re going through a Frank Sinatra phase, it’s so funny.”
They weren’t wrong, it is pretty funny. I’m brown, a little dykey and on my way to being covered in tattoos. If you saw me walking down the street, I suppose you wouldn’t exactly expect me to be listening to “Learnin’ the Blues.” It had also never occurred to me before this conversation that anyone could not like Frank Sinatra. But as I contemplated my roommate’s comment and changed the music over to Lake Street Dive, I started to understand why. Because Sinatra is cheesy, overly sentimental and sometimes even a little embarrassing. For all the sexy crooning and smooth talking he did, he was also a grown man who got up on stage and sang Christmas carols and songs that went Ring-a-Ding-Ding.
When my friends asked me later in the night why I’d been listening to him so much, I found myself staring into the liquid crimson of my wine, still at a loss for words to explain why (and how much) I liked his music.
I’ve figured out something close to an answer by first considering what music I decidedly don’t like, and why. I hate a lot of sad contemporary indie music. Specifically, I hate the kind of music where the singer isn’t particularly adept at singing and the lyrics, instead of telling any kind of story or conveying any particular meaning, just read as someone who has been too much convinced that they are uniquely interesting telling you about their boring day: I brushed my teeth, I made jam, I went to therapy, etc. (sorry Phoebe Bridgers). I found myself considering this over breakfast as Frank sang into my ears, When you’re at home alone the blues will taunt you constantly. It struck me that Sinatra sang, in fact, the exact opposite of this kind of music. No part of Sinatra is trying to be colloquial. Every part of him, from the croon of his voice to the careful tilt of his hat, is a careful and deliberate performance.
This is my answer. The thing that has bothered me most in my time at Yale, my time in the Northeast in general, is the latent, starchy puritanism of the place. It isn’t exactly prudishness, but it is everywhere and unspoken. We want to be smart without trying, skinny without exercising, ambitious without being desperate, beautiful and cool without effort. We want to be in love without seeming too sentimental. We want to have striking, critical thoughts constantly instantly and organically pouring off the tips of our tongues. To be seen trying or to talk about these ambitions in the open is unbearably gauche; to admit to preforming is to be revealed as inauthentic. As much as imposter syndrome has become a ubiquitous buzzword for describing the experience of being at Yale, it’s hard to define this particular social symptom. It’s almost a kind of modern Calvinism, the way we are all so desperately trying to construct ourselves to seem as if we naturally deserve to be a part of the Elect — those cool or smart or successful enough for it to make sense why they get to be at Yale. I’m not criticizing anyone in particular, these are all hangups that I’ve as much internalized myself as I’ve observed them in other people. I am no less worried about seeming cool and smart than the next alt girl with a nose piercing and cuffed jeans.
This is a development that occurred during my time at Yale — in high school, I was uncool and I knew it and somehow managed to not care. I was annoying, for sure, but I was also louder and less afraid than I am now. At Yale, I find myself wondering as I make points in class, will they realize I’m basically just parroting another one of my professors? Will they realize I don’t write nearly as much as I seem to talk about writing? I find myself feeling a constant pressure to prove myself authentic to my peers, to verify that I can indeed speak as a writer, as historian, as woman of color, as a person who is interesting.
Sinatra, in comparison, is completely unafraid to be seen performing. Everything about his music is unabashedly curated, from the archetypal stories he tells to the twinkle of the melody in perfect syncopated time with each practiced chuckle. He’s a master of artifice. I think back to the sudden sharpness in his voice captured in the “Angel Eyes” recording — “One more what?” he asks. I think that maybe that venom in his voice comes from a distance that the heckler tried to bridge with his cry; he cuts through the crowd, calls out to Sinatra himself as if to a friend. “One more what?” Sinatra snaps back. Has this man not been paying attention? Does he not know that he’s watching a performance? I almost think that this moment is the only one I’ll ever hear from any ‘real’ Frank; a man defending his right to be who he’s made on stage and leave it at that. One more what? I listen to Frank Sinatra and I love that I have no idea who he is, other than a man putting on a careful and wonderful show.
A lot of people have written about what extended quarantine has done to change our self-perception and subsequent self-performance, about what happens when you’re forced to stop performing for others and left with only yourself to figure out who you want to be. I’m by no means an expert on this, but it is true that I now have almost countless friends and acquaintances who have realized over quarantine that they are queer or nonbinary or otherwise something other than what they initially thought themselves to be. I myself have had no revelation so important other than that, as I ease back into public life — even if it’s just on Zoom for now — I want to be thinking about Frank Sinatra.
It’s not that I feel I’ve learned anything quite so definite and moralizing as “It’s time to stop performing and just be myself!” We’re always performing something, especially at a place like Yale. I think what I’ve taken from Sinatra, though, is the feeling that it’s okay to pick and choose the show I’m going to put on. I don’t need to pretend I’m not giving some kind of performance when I’m in class or writing or eventually back at parties in too tight jeans. I don’t need to pretend; I can accept that I sometimes don’t know what I’m talking about in class, that I worry often whether or not people think I’m cool, that I want to be thought of as beautiful. What I want to take with me going forward is that I can be intentional with how I present myself to others, with who I am onstage versus off. There often feels like there’s a persistent demand at Yale to constantly externalize, to collapse our private selves into our public selves, write our trauma, bear our souls and anxieties and lived experiences so we can be seen as whole, authentic people. I’m feeling more and more ready to say no to this. Not everything I write or wear or am has to be part of my ongoing political and intellectual project to present to others. There are things about me that I want to keep to myself, things that, if I wrote or talked or tweeted about them could maybe be considered interesting and important, but that I’m starting to realize are just for me. Of course, I don’t expect to ever fully stop performing for others, but part of the fun of life is getting to decide who and how you want to be with people.
Which is all to say, I’ll keep putting on the show of myself, probably for as long as I live. Though now, forgive the pun, I’ll try doing it my way.