Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Music Morsels 2 - "Bein' Green"

Note - I'm republishing this piece, a favorite of mine, because now that I know how to embed the video it works a lot better.

As I think I mentioned here before, I firmly and irrevocably, and with no irony or insincerity of any kind, believe that Kermit the Frog's rendition of "Bein' Green" is one of the greatest vocal performances of the 20th Century. Seriously. I am speaking only of that original performance from Sesame Street, 1969 according to YouTube. I've heard other Kermit renditions since that have nowhere near the artistry and power of this one. Renditions where Henson is clearly just marking time, or just isn't as committed as he was for that first performance. And I say this not as a slight against the great Henson - after all, he wasn't really a singer. But in that original performance? He achieved an artistry and a unity of song and singer that many a ridiculously talented singer could only dream of achieving.

The first sound we hear (apart for some crickets) is a repeated piano chord, soon ornamented by a jazzy, but not too-jazzy guitar line. With the first line, "It's not that easy bein' green," we are surprised by how down, how defeated, really, this piece of green felt feels. The piano chords modulate down and we hear the next line ("Having to spend each day the color of the leaves"). Listen to how Kermit/Henson his that "color" - he's not spitting it out, but he's cutting it short with a sense of fatalism that cuts to the bone.

I love how in the next line he underplays the "red, or yellow, or gold" lines - there's no conviction, no real hope that he could ever be those things. He's going through the motions, as is made clear at the end of the line, where he can barely muster up the energy to sing "something much more colorful like that."

The next verse starts with a repeat of the first line - and this time we almost hear a catch, a break in his voice on the word "easy." What's so amazing here is that on this kid's show, Henson is singing with such a committed sense of finality, of not quiet reflection, but real sadness. There's no pulling of the punches. It's astonishing. After that repeated line, we hear for the first time a melancholy flute joining the guitar, emphasizing the sense of dispiritidness. As Kermit sings "you blend in with so many ordinary things" we can again hear the resignation in his voice, especially in the way he pauses ever-so-slightly before the word "ordinary." As he finishes the verse, listen to how he employs that same just-behind-the-beat cutting-short technique on the lines "pass you over" and "shiny sparkles."

As the bridge begins, some twinkly xylophone-sounding tones signal a shift in mood. Now we get to the switch in viewpoint, the part of the song where Kermit realizes all of the good things about being green. And what I can never get over, no matter how many times I hear this original version, is how he refuses to make the song into something it's not. Even as he sings the words, he's still down, still resigned, still sad. "But green is the color of spring," he sings, and yet even as the notes go up and attempt to sound uplifting, Henson/Kermit keeps his voice low-key, de-emphasizing the rising melody. "Green can be cool and friendly-like." There is a shift, don't get me wrong, but it's much subtler than you would expect - or than it is in other renditions. Even at the putative climax, "big, like an ocean, or important, like a mountain, or tall like a tree," Kermit downplays the epiphany and emphasizes the melancholy. Kermit may acknowledge that there are advantages to being green, but, and this what makes this version of the song so brilliant to me, he clearly still wishes to be something besides green. And still knows that he never will be.

What a remarkably mature, deep, and subtle message to try and pass on to kids! As time has passed the accepted message of the song is to love who you are--and, yes, that's also part of it. But when sung right,the message is also that we all have limitations, and that it's OK to be saddened by them. I can't help but repeat - astonishing!

For the closing, Kermit acknowledges that he will always be green. And listen to that final "why wonder" - the inevitability of his condition, of life, is supremely evident. "I'm green, and it'll do fine. And it's beautiful. And I think it's what I wanna be." Listen hard to that "beautiful." Listen hard to that "wanna be. And note the presence of that wonderfully non-committal "think" in the lyric. Do you believe him? I don't.

Until Whenever


Roger Owen Green said...

I totally agree. It's pretty much my theme song. I have it on vinyl, the Sesame Street 10th Anniversary album.

Tosy And Cosh said...

I only have it on video and it's killing me! Have a much inferior Kermit version on CD, as well as pretty decent versions by Audra McDonald and Mandy Patinkin.

Anonymous said...

I've yet to hear a remake that come close to touching it.

Tosy And Cosh said...

jenn. - That alottfma "getting to know you" thread was genius! I'm with you 100%; I've yet to hear a version that comes close (as I said, including Henson himself).