The Curious History of â€œI Put a Spell On Youâ€
By Moze Halperin on Feb 12, 2015 9:45am
The Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack was released earlier this week, and surprisingly, itâ€™s composed of more than sounds of hundreds of â€œholy cowsâ€ a-mooing and â€œholy crapsâ€ a-squelching. No, to bring some semblance of chemistry to the starsâ€™ seemingly steely relationship, the soundtrack enlists the sex-therapeutic presences of talents like BeyoncÃ©, Sia, Frank Sinatra, Ellie Goulding, the Rolling Stones and Annie Lennox. The Lennox track is especially noteworthy, as itâ€™s a cover of the oft-covered Screaminâ€™ Jay Hawkinsâ€™ â€œI Put a Spell On You.â€
Lennox, as she proved at the Grammys, still can belt an amazing performance, but the nature of her music has shifted towards the wholly uninspiring (â€œI Put a Spell On Youâ€ first appeared on her standards album Nostalgia â€” which followed an album called A Christmas Cornucopia â€” before the Fifty Shades soundtrack). This isnâ€™t atypical for a contemporary performer who chooses to cover â€œI Put a Spell on You.â€ The original songâ€™s brevity and lyrical simplicity, coupled with its suggestive rhythm and alternately feline and forceful instrumentation, can render any aspiring cover-artist an invincible love-sorcerer of sorts, regardless of how plain the rest of that artistâ€™s back catalog might be. Even the most forgettable of American Idol singers can, and will, choose to sing it, and itâ€™ll still be compelling because of the masterful, near-foolproof framework set up in the original track.
Itâ€™s one of those rare songs that sonically matches its lyrical content, but here the heavy-handedness is so deft that it bewitches rather than repels. This perfection has become something of a vice for films â€” itâ€™s turned up in Crazy Love, Lost Highway, Hocus Pocus, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, Stranger than Paradise, The Ballad of Jack and Rose, and Kinky Boots (as well being covered by the aforementioned vocalists, and also appearing in commercials for McDonalds, Burger King, and Pringleâ€™s Potato Chips). Itâ€™s invoked whenever someone needs a quick way to put a spell on audiences.
The entire appeal of The Ballad of Jack and Rose, for example, lay in the repeated usage of Nina Simoneâ€™s cover. Because of its very brilliance, the song has become somewhat over-covered â€” itâ€™s a welcome listen, because itâ€™s impeccable, but no matter how punchily a vocalist delivers it, it loses some of its punch each time.
Of all the things the song has metamorphosed into, and all of the meanings and anti-meanings itâ€™s taken on, the original â€” which never made the charts â€” remains the most potent, perhaps because itâ€™s a historically spectacular vocal performance, perhaps because an extemporaneously weird recording of the song defined Screaminâ€™ Jay Hawkinsâ€™ entire career, or perhaps because of the uncomfortable murkiness of its identity politics seen in Hawkinsâ€™ performances. Probably all of the above.
Itâ€™s a known-ish fact that Screaminâ€™ Jay Hawkins wouldnâ€™t have been Screaminâ€™ Jay Hawkins if it werenâ€™t for the drunken shenanigans â€” foreshadowing a life replete with shenanigans â€” that overtook his performance of what was originally intended to be a love ballad. After getting blackout drunk on a night of recording â€œI Put a Spell On You,â€ he realized he â€œcould do more destroying a song and screaming it to deathâ€ than attempting more traditional blues stylings. He told the LA Times that he â€œcalled on [his] opera trainingâ€ and his ability to â€œscream soprano.â€
At the time of recording, in 1955, The Beatles didnâ€™t even exist, and thus hadnâ€™t yet â€œsexually revolutionizedâ€ music with their perverse, licentious claims of â€œwant[ing] to hold your hand.â€ So you can imagine how listeners responded to Hawkinsâ€™ song of demonic attraction, which he ended in a series of noises that sounded halfway between your typical, orgasming man and a pig whoâ€™d just completed a marathon (different Hawkins recordings culminate in various other animal noises). It was, of course, banned on many radio stations and in stores.
Hawkins realized, with the help of DJ Alan Freed, that the possessed, voracious hyper-sexuality that surfaced in that first recording could make for a larger artistic persona, and he soon undertook a sartorial transformation to match the vocal performance. His ghoulish spell-caster look â€” which often involved emerging from coffins, sporting witch-doctor-y nose appendages, capes and leopard print and toting a smoking skull on a stick â€” stayed with him throughout his career. It did plunge itself into the questionable territory of racial stereotyping, consumed with glee by white audiences (see this 1966 performance on the Merv Griffin show, for instance.) Hawkins said, again in the LA Times, that he did it â€œto be different â€” putting on a cape and putting a bone in my nose and acting like a lunatic.â€ His performances were met with scorn by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
But was Hawkinsâ€™ performative identity â€” especially through this particular song â€” just as much a confrontation of white audiencesâ€™ perceptions? Was it not in some ways both an indictment of those who wanted to consume the music of black artists, or more egregiously, music appropriated from black artists (Elvis was, after all, just releasing his first recordings at the time), without acknowledging Americaâ€™s backwards relationship to its black population? If racism and oppression were fueled by fear of the black man, then was it not an immensely bold statement to confront white audiences with their own preposterous fears, as opposed to trying to appease them by performing whatever they deemed to be acceptable for black people in the public eye â€” i.e. passivity and whiteness?
The fact that the song was a chart-topping single in 1968 for white singer Alan Price, but not for Hawkins a decade earlier, speaks to this level of â€œacceptability,â€ and to Hawkinsâ€™ boldness in setting himself outside of it. At a time when civil rights were questioned because white people wanted to keep the black population in check, was it not a huge statement to make public the unprecedented sound that was Hawkinsâ€™ vocal rage and lust? (The ambiguous statement of Hawkinsâ€™ aesthetic was surely later once again brought into question by his satiric album title, Black Music for White People.)
As was previously mentioned, the song was thereafter covered ad infinitum, a phenomenon likely sparked more by Nina Simoneâ€™s cover (the song became such a known part of her repertoire, and so quintessential to her own artistic image, that she named her autobiography after it) than Hawkinsâ€™ original. Simoneâ€™s performance, apart from the sheer awesomeness of its mordant seductiveness, is powerful in its affiliation with the singerâ€™s known activism, as it was a potent assertion of black, female power. Though it in no way attempted to imitate Hawkinsâ€™ unhinged belch-operatics, Simoneâ€™s version began as matter-of-fact â€” pronouncing the first lines â€œI put a spell on youâ€ with spoken certainty, before waxing melodic, then escalating in a sexy battle with an invigorated sax, which ultimately surrenders to Simoneâ€™s climactic scat.
Usage of the song later became humorously (and self-awarely) literal with witchy goth-comedies like Elvira and Hocus Pocus, where Bette Midlerâ€™s un-seductive, buck-toothed witch hypnotizes listeners with a spell â€” none other than the song â€œI Put a Spell on Youâ€ â€” which she hopes will lead them to â€œdance until [they] die!!â€ Marilyn Manson and Black Sabbath likewise reapplied the songâ€™s dark-fantasy lyrics to their own dark, fantastical images, in ways that were at once fitting and utterly bizarre. While these were intentionally literal, dumbly smart extensions of the songâ€™s transforming cultural path, other covers were less inspiring. Most tended to recast the song merely as a saucy standard, a vessel for powerful, if not particularly unique, vocal performances aided by generic instrumentals (She and Him did it! Queen Latifah did it! Joss Stone did it! Even Van Morrison did it! Now Annie Lennox did it!). It seemed to suddenly provide artists who might lack edge with an instant dash of fire.
Now, its inclusion on the Fifty Shades of Grey Soundtrack â€” as part of a white story whose diluted BDSM sexuality â€œrelies on a patriarchal asymmetryâ€ â€” brings the song oh-so-much further from its origins. This is, of course, inevitable with a famous old song, which is as vulnerable to the passage of time as anything else. It shouldnâ€™t be lamented too heavily, because whatâ€™s the point?
However, we can remind ourselves of the songâ€™s more powerful, less hackneyed origins, of its raw and astonishing boldness, and of its having belonged to a series of loaded statements before having evolved into something of a meaning-devoid, innocuously â€œnaughtyâ€ standard. As we saw at the Grammys, itâ€™s undeniable that Annie Lennoxâ€™s vocal performance is towering, but the songâ€™s meaning is stripped. The â€œpatriarchal asymmetryâ€ in which Fifty Shades of Grey exists (and in which a great deal of our lives exist) will surely continue to pluck and brand art (as weâ€™ve seen in this songâ€™s use in commercials and Shades) to adorn its products and increase its capital. Thereâ€™s no avoiding it, and hey, it even sounds pretty catchy. But sometimes itâ€™s worth remembering the more fraught and even ethically murky histories of these works before allowing them to convince us to buy a hamburger or an official â€œFifty Shades of Grey Twitchy Palm Paddle.â€