My wife and I watched the recent American Masters on Bing Crosby, and we both enjoyed it very much. But we remarked to one another that we must have been among the youngest people watching the show (we are both in their 40s). We're not particular Crosby fans, but we certainly know his work. (While we are both pretty hip for middle-aged people, we are more aware of early and mid-20th century pop culture than are most Gen X-ers -- we watch a lot of TCM).
I found myself wondering about the relative stature today of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. (Christmas music is the one exception, where Bing still rules). I doubted any of my friends would identify as a Crosby fan, while I'm sure plenty of them like Sinatra. There's a Sirius XM channel devoted to Sinatra, but I can't imagine one for Crosby. I checked Facebook, and my suspicions were confirmed: 4 million Facebookers "like" Sinatra, and only 200,000 "like" Crosby. Why this disparity among the two most popular singers of their era?
Being a social scientist, I came up with a few hypotheses. Let me know what you think:
1. The most obvious -- Sinatra is a more contemporary figure, one who is within the living memory of most adults. He was born in 1915 and died in 1998, while Crosby was born in 1903 and died in 1977. Crosby's last non-Christmas hits were in the late 1950s, while Sinatra's Duets albums came out during the Clinton Administration. Even Crosby devotees would admit their icon did his best work early on, while Sinatra reached his artistic peak in the 1950s and 1960s.
2. Sinatra seems to have been a more active figure in his later years, often milking his "icon" status for all it was worth -- "My Way," "New York, New York," the arena concerts, the Reagan connection, "Duets." It was not his best work, but Baby Boomers and Gen-X-ers certainly knew he was around. I don't think Crosby was nearly as visible in the 1960s and 1970s as Sinatra would be later -- my impression is that his public presence was mostly orange juice commercials and the occasional variety show. I wasn't around then, so I could be wrong. One of the few Crosby moments known to younger people -- the Christmas duet with David Bowie -- was exactly the sort of "aging icon" moment Sinatra performed all the time.
3. Sinatra is a more "usable" figure than Crosby. He's seen as having been sexy and cool, while Crosby isn't. Every few years brings a Michael Buble or Harry Connick Jr., who patterns himself after Ol' Blue Eyes. Sinatra's "Rat Pack" lifestyle may have mostly kitsch appeal these days, but that's better than no appeal at all. Even Sinatra's records seem louder and brassier -- more "modern" -- than Crosby's.
4. Sinatra simply produced more work of a lasting quality. While he was no singer-songwriter, he pioneered the album-length statement, and he was known for his emotional interpretations of lyrics. Crosby was a fine interpreter as well, but he also became known for grinding out work of indifferent quality. Neither man was a great actor, but "From Here to Eternity" and "The Manchurian Candidate" outweigh the "Road" pictures.