Song 251: Billie Holiday, “You Go to My Head” (1938)

Photo of Billie HOLIDAY

I have been putting this off for ages, because what’s left to be said about Billie Holiday? Even if I just write about what she’s meant to me personally over the years, how could it possibly be any different than anybody else’s experiences listening to Billie Holiday? But what the hell. I, like millions of others, love Billie Holiday.

I generally don’t believe in “x vs. x” music debates, even the immortal “Beatles vs. Stones” argument. Why bother pitting two artists against each other? Aren’t their own merits enough to judge them individually? The differences between Ella Fitzgerald an Billie Holiday, however, seem to invite such a debate. They’re the two titans of vocal jazz, but they couldn’t be more different: Ella Fitzgerald’s voice was sunny, light and nimble (though not without depth); Billie Holiday’s was dark, haunting, and heavy (though capable of joy and lightness).

I respect Fitzgerald’s crazy talent, but Holiday always seemed like the more honest performer. On “You Go to My Head,” for example, she absolutely nails the song’s mixture of happiness, sadness, and disorientation. She also sings as if she’s under the influence, slurring some words and deliberately mispronouncing others (listen for the delightful way she sings “bubbles”). It’s by far my favorite version of the song.

And what a song. “You Go to My Head” compares love to intoxication, in all the good, bad, and confusing ways. Sure, lines like “The thrill of the thought/That you might give a thought/To my plea” make love sound like a wonderful thing, but there’s often a downside to getting one’s hopes up. So what matters more, the exciting idea of romance, or the knowledge that it will never work out? Billie Holiday doesn’t sound like she knows, and the ambivalence (and excitement) in her voice is what makes this a masterful performance.

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