When you live with a song long enough, it becomes part of your memory-scape. In our column One Song, One Story, our writers share a song, and the story it evokes in them.
I like to tell people that the piano solo from Nina Simone’s version of “My Baby Just Cares for Me” is one of the greatest moments in the history of recorded music. I say this because I believe it, and because Nina Simone’s greatness, her importance within the pantheon of popular music, is accepted enough and large enough for the real pleasures of her music to be overlooked. “I Put a Spell on You” and “Feeling Good” are perhaps slightly more lodged in the popular consciousness, with the latter used as a convenient shorthand for decadence in chocolate adverts, not to mention Muse’s straining, turgid cover version (Muse are fairly typical in pop music these days in that they confuse bombast for feeling). “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life” has been somewhat twee-ified by yogurt ads, though it remains lovely.
Not to say that “My Baby” isn’t well-known. It was introduced at large to the British public in a 1987 ad for Chanel No. 5 perfume. My introduction to it as a child wasn’t in a perfume ad (I missed out on that experience, being born in ’92) but the Aardman animation video made for the subsequent single re-release. Aardman, who are better known for Wallace and Gromit, had “My Baby” sung by a sultry, grey plasticine cat in a sort of noir clay nightclub.
What caught my imagination wasn’t the cat, however, but the abstract sequence accompanying Simone’s piano solo, which switches between live action film of double bass strings, brushes on a snare, and an internal view of the piano’s keys as the solo is played. All filmed against a black-lit backdrop, no human player visible, as if these instruments had their own internal life driving the song onwards. In particular, watching the white keys jump up and down in time with the notes made a powerful impression on my mind. I believe it forged an association between the musical and visual which has shaped the way I listen to music ever since. It’s the way the keys seem to dance, argue, make conversation with each other that makes it the perfect visual accompaniment to an instrumental run that encompasses a whole human drama of joy and amusement in miniature.
Nothing is as frustrating to me as is lacking the technical knowledge of music to describe the journey of this solo. It is a beautifully controlled piece of playing by Simone, without a single superfluous note: each one complements or comments upon its predecessor. It’s delivered in sections which suggest a kind of narrative, beginning hesitantly, almost peering over the bed of double bass and snare. The bass and snare, apparently, make for welcoming terrain, and the solo goes walkabout, proceeding with a kind of playful self-fascination. It seems incredible that a piano could take on such human qualities as daring, curiosity, or playfulness, but then what is music for if not to present us with moments like this, where it seems to take on a quality of life celebrating itself?
Of course, it’s unsustainable: it has to make way for the return of the song proper, make way for Simone’s gorgeously restrained vocals. It could take over the song if it didn’t expend itself in that one final ecstatic crescendo of notes, represented in the music video by a fractured explosion of ivory keys. This is the moment which I think elevates the song into one of the greatest music recordings ever produced. Every time I hear it, it transmits almost unbearable human joy. It is a piece of authentic musical virtuosity. In love with the process of its own being, it makes a playground of music’s tension and release.
It was intuitive brilliance on the part of Aardman not to show human performers in their video. It focuses attention on the human qualities which find expression in the music. Unlike so many of today’s performers, Nina Simone knew how to let emotion develop through the physical act of playing, rather than attempting to play emotionally.
I heard “My Baby Just Cares for Me” at a very young age (I can’t remember exactly when), before I knew who Nina Simone was, before I had any idea of its context. I consider myself lucky to have heard it so young, without the weight of its canonical baggage, when I was most open to the raw experience of it. It shows up every now and again, on the sound systems in stores or coffee shops. I always welcome hearing it with love and affection. Sitting in my local coffee shop on the morning of the American election results, I was nervously sipping my cappuccino, trying to find some sense of comfort, when, in between the fey folk pop and Postmodern Jukebox lounge covers of Nirvana, I heard that familiar descending piano line, and the sweeping snare drum. Knowing what was to come, it made me smile. I exhaled.