But look again. Billie Holiday is pure pain. True: Because of Holiday's apparent pop superficiality, her early music has been adopted in recent years as ubiquitous coffee house and hip clothier background music, but the irony of this is almost too much to bear. That a woman who lived through abandonment, racial abuse, sexual abuse, and heroin addiction has come to soundtrack the bubble-bright culture of the leisure class, resigns me to putting away my Solitude, my Songs for Distingué Lovers, at least for the time being. I just don't want to associate Holiday with commerce. After all, she was originally banned from white clubs and was never paid for her early recordings. Her most famous venue was New York's Café Society (the only integrated club outside of Harlem), where WPA murals adorned the walls alongside a sculptured 3D caricature of Hitler.
Café Society was, according to Vanity Fair's David Margolik, a place that "mocked empty celebrity worship." It seems that hardly anyone would be less susceptible to being reduced to an emblem than the openly wounded Billie Holiday, but here we are. Somehow, Lady Day has become the lady of the day, when she's really the torchlight of the night. Somehow she's remembered as the singer of "Moonglow," and not as the singer of "Strange Fruit."
So forget Billie Holiday for a while. This year, the 40th anniversary of Holiday's premature death, take a holiday from Holiday. I'm willing to give up Billie if it means a break from hearing her subsumed beneath idle chatter, that ache in her voice made as unremarkable as the passing rumble of a truck.
Or, maybe I'll listen only to the later stuff. Lady in Satin, perhaps, the last studio album. Here, Holiday's voice is stripped of its glad-wrapped veneer. Wholly un-satiny, it scrapes with fresh emotion, splintered in self-abuse. No one can deny her humanity, her anti-celebrity, on Lady in Satin. Lady in Satin is an album for home, where it invites intimacy and hard drinking. And that's the kind of holiday Holiday would have condoned.