February 12, 2020: Understanding BB King’s “The Thrill is Gone”
This afternoon, I listened to the live performance of “The Thrill is Gone”, a blues song performed in 1970 by BB King. My dad is a huge fan of the genre of blues. I understand that blues music is a unique and artistically genius genre of art, but I never really liked the sound of it. However, I was captivated by BB King’s all-around performance of “The Thrill is Gone”.
As we talked about in lecture during Week 6, there are many relationships that constitute the voice of a song. “The Thrill is Gone” was not written by King, but he takes on several roles when performing the song. He is the singer, he is the performer, and he is the musician. His singing is so heartfelt that it is clear he has applied events and emotions from his own life to find serious and deep meaning in the lyrics and music of the song. The meaning of the song to King translates when he shifts from singing to playing the guitar. He is displaying extreme emotion throughout. As Simon Frith writes in “The Voice”, “We have to approach the voice under four headings: as a musical instrument; as a body; as a person; and as a character.” King takes on all four of these roles with great excitement and passion. They are not separate by any means but rather very much intertwined. There are many tensions and conflicts between these roles and King’s voice and body movements reflect his understanding of this complexity.
One of the unique things about this performance is that it is one of the first successful fusions of pop music and the blues. These two genres are so contrasting and their general goals are different. Pop songs tend to be about love and the complexities of love. “The Thrill is Gone” is very much about love: the main lyric (“The thrill is gone”) refers to a relationship in which the fun and spontaneity has been lost. King sings and moves his body as if the honeymoon phase is over and all of a sudden there is nothing left. Blues songs are more broad in their content, often lamenting injustice or expressing desire for better things. Maybe more importantly, however, blues is also a wild dance music that celebrates successes in life. King fully takes on the raucous element of the blues in this performance. He is moving his body to the beat and pounding his feet throughout. Even when he is playing the guitar and not singing, his mouth is moving up and down. There is a long stretch during which no words are sung, but King does not lose any emotion and neither does the music. The feelings and emotions that come out during King’s performance are overwhelming and I think a huge part of this is his successful embodiment of two very contrasting genres.
The way that King took on the main features of two genres during this performance is fascinating to me because of my background as a pianist. I started taking classical piano lessons when I was four. I love playing classical music; it is one of the most important things about me. However, recently, I have really gotten into jazz piano and improvisation. I have been experimenting with combining classical patterns with improvisation and I have been very happy with some of the sounds I have been able to produce. The masterpiece that King produced when performing “The Thrill is Gone” is really inspiring to me, but especially so because of my love for the piano.