hyperbolic exaggeration in pop culture and miss patsy cline

MISS PATSY CLINE may seem to be the focus of this ar­ticle, but she’s not—at least, not pri­marily. Pri­marily it’s about hy­per­bole in de­scribing the ac­com­plish­ments of pop­ular stars, even when the artist doesn’t need any em­bell­ish­ment to shine among the other stars. Fans of any field of artistic or ath­letic en­deavor are given to ex­ces­sive brag­ging about their faves, whether it’s rock bands or comic book artists or base­ball players.

But what is said in a friendly ar­gu­ment among friends over a few pints looks ab­surd if not in­sulting when stated by a writer whose opin­ions are given weight by being pub­lished in a book or posted on a le­git­i­mate web­site.

This brag­gadocio seems ubiq­ui­tous on the In­ternet, where fan-writers with no training (or even home studying) in common jour­nal­istic prac­tices seem like “real” ex­perts when posted on well de­signed web­site.

 

I wouldn’t trade my copy of Patsy Cline’s Greatest Hits for all the al­bums by all the other fe­male artists listed below.

 

The problem is that over-the-top claims often have the op­po­site ef­fect, an­gering those of us who like facts to back up brag­ging. To some of us, hy­per­bole comes across as des­perate.

And so this ar­ticle, where I use Patsy Cline as an ex­ample be­cause I hap­pened across some hy­per­bolic state­ments about her on Wikipedia.

Merriam-Webster de­fines the tran­si­tive verb form of ex­ag­gerate as “to en­large be­yond bounds or the truth” or to “over­state.” The MW lex­i­cog­ra­phers ac­tu­ally pro­vide a better de­f­i­n­i­tion for Eng­lish Lan­guage Learners: “to think of or de­scribe some­thing as larger or greater than it re­ally is.”

Hy­per­bole is a step above mere ex­ag­ger­a­tion, meaning “ex­trav­a­gant ex­ag­ger­a­tion.” As an ex­ample, Merriam-Webster gives “mile-high ice-cream cones.”

 

Hyperbolic Exaggeration: first printing of the front cover of Patsy Cline's first LP album from 1957.

Patsy Cline’s first album (Decca DL-8611) was first is­sued in 1957 with five song ti­tles in black print in the lower right corner of the front cover. As this was Pat­sy’s first album and she was es­sen­tially un­known, it did not sell well. Con­se­quently, this is a rather rare record!

Hyperbolic exaggeration in celebrity culture

As we are con­stantly re­minded, we now live in a Cul­ture of Celebrity, where every­thing and any­thing celebs do, or even dis­cuss doing—or where a celebrity “jour­nalist” im­plies a celeb might one day someday maybe just might think about doing—is dis­cussed and cel­e­brated by fans and fol­lowers.

Claims of great­ness are be­stowed daily on even the most mediocre tal­ents or modest ac­com­plish­ments: in books and mag­a­zines, on tele­vi­sion and radio, and now on the In­ternet. And in the mi­lieu of the world­wide web, once a claim is made—no matter how easily disproved—it be­comes like unto fact. And others fall in line and re­peat it, placing it in end­less cir­cu­la­tion among mil­lions and mil­lions of web­sites and blogs.

In pop­ular music, every fan or writer’s per­sonal fa­vorite album is “one of the greatest al­bums ever made.” Every artist out­does every other artist in sales, pop­u­larity, ac­claim, etc. Here are a few claims so often re­peated one would think they must be true! 1

•  ABBA sold more records than the Bea­tles!
•  Michael Jackson sold more records than Elvis!

The first claim was pop­ular in the 1970s when it ap­peared that every­thing ABBA touched turned to gold every­where in the world! While they did sell a hel­lu­valot of records, their tally isn’t close to that of the Fab Four.

The second is still ban­tered about by MJ’s fans, who even though it’s not close to being ac­cu­rate. (Es­pe­cially given that Pres­ley’s total will never be known due to the hi­lar­i­ously inept book­keeping of RCA Victor into the 1980s!) 2

And a state­ment that I re­cently hap­pened across in Wikipedia claims that Patsy Cline was one of the most “in­flu­en­tial,” “suc­cessful,” and “ac­claimed” vo­cal­ists of the 20th cen­tury. 3

 

Hyperbolic Exaggeration: ABBA's first album from Sweden in 1974.

De­spite the hype, the market for LP al­bums out­side of the US and the UK was not large. Only a few artists re­leased al­bums in the ’60s that con­sis­tently sold a mil­lion copies each: the Bea­tles and Herb Alpert & The Ti­juana Brass were the most promi­nent. But every­thing changed in the ’70s when multi-million selling al­bums be­came common. One group that reaped enor­mous ben­e­fits from the ex­panding global market was ABBA, here on their first Swedish album (Polar, 1974) known by their first names. ABBA sold more al­bums in any one year in that decade than Patsy Cline sold during her life!

Why pick on Patsy Cline?

To re­peat my­self, I am not picking on Patsy Cline here. Nor am I in any way de­meaning her in­cred­ible talent or her ac­com­plish­ments. In fact, I have been a Patsy Cline fan since I in­her­ited sev­eral of her 45s as part of the leg­endary Aunt Judy Col­lec­tion when I was 12-years-old. (But that’s a story for a rainy night and a few hot-buttered rums).

I’m using Patsy be­cause of her entry on Wikipedia, where she is lauded as “one of the most in­flu­en­tial, suc­cessful, and ac­claimed vo­cal­ists of the 20th cen­tury.” But first, here is her ca­reer in a nut­shell:

1954-1960

In Sep­tember 1954, Patsy Cline signed with tiny 4-Star Records, who leased her to Decca. In six years with 4-Star, she re­leased six­teen sin­gles, only one of which made any real noise.

In early 1957, her fifth single was a double-sided hit: Walkin’ After Mid­night reached #2 on Billboard’s Country & Western chart. The flip-side, A Poor Man’s Roses, made it to #14 on the same survey. Walkin’ After Mid­night was also a pop hit, peaking at #12 on Billboard’s Top 100.

Over the next three years, 4-Star was un­able to follow-up that hit, and none of her sides made any na­tional survey. 4

1961-1963

In late 1960, Cline’s con­tract with 4-Star ended and she signed with Decca. Her pro­ducer, Owen Bradley, was then able to hook her up with Nashville’s best song­writers, and changed her style from honky-tonk to the pop-oriented Nashville Sound. Her ca­reer took off!

•  In 1961, I Fall To Pieces was a #1 C&W hit and a major hit on the pop charts. Crazy only reached #2 on the country chart, but was her biggest pop hit, peaking at #9 on Bill­board’s Hot 100.

•  In 1962, She’s Got You was her second #1 C&W hit and an­other major pop hit. When I Get Thru With You reached #10, and So Wrong reached #14 on the country chart.

•  In 1963, Leavin’ On Your Mind reached #8 on the country chart. On March 5, 1963, Patsy Cline died in an air­plane crash.

•  In 1963-1964, three posthu­mously re­leased sin­gles were Top 10 hits on the C&W charts.

 

Hyperbolic Exaggeration: later printing of the front cover of Patsy Cline's first LP album from 1957.

 After the suc­cess of her single Walking After Mid­night, a blurb was added to the cover of PATSY CLINE (Decca DL-8611) to call at­ten­tion to the hit. Sales picked up and copies of this album are much easier to find.

That’s all there is

That was it: seven hits in nine years. When looked at that way, such modest suc­cess rarely spelled “S-T-A-R” in the C&W music field. But if we look at it an­other way—six hits in her last two years—then it’s fair to say that at the time of her death, she was in­deed a star in the country field. As the con­cept of the “su­per­star” didn’t re­ally exist then, that’s all we can re­ally say.

Those few hits belie her pop­u­larity, which grew ex­po­nen­tially in the wake of her death, as did her im­por­tance. And she in­flu­enced the next few gen­er­a­tions of C&W singers. Her rep­u­ta­tion grew, and in 1973 she be­came the first fe­male solo artist in­ducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. 5

 

Hyperbolic Exaggeration: front cover of Patsy Cline's third album, SENTIMENTALLY OURS, from 1962.

Pat­sy’s third album, Sen­ti­men­tally Yours (Decca DL-4282/DL-74282), was is­sued in mid-1962. It was the last album re­leased in her life­time. While there was an out­pouring of grief for her loss—especially in the country music field—country al­bums did not sell in large num­bers in the early ’60s, so this album sold mod­estly at the time.

Wikipedia and hyperbole

To para­phrase me: For those of fans and writers with some sem­blance of bal­ance, the pres­ence of ex­ces­sive praise in a de­scrip­tion of a record, book, or movie can be a turn-off. When I read that someone or some­thing is “the greatest this” or “the biggest that,” I re­flex­ively take an op­posing po­si­tion! For ex­ample, the opening para­graph in Wikipedia’s entry on Patsy Cline reads:

“Patsy Cline was an Amer­ican country music singer. Part of the early 1960s Nashville Sound, Cline suc­cess­fully crossed over to pop music and was one of the most in­flu­en­tial, suc­cessful and ac­claimed vo­cal­ists of the 20th cen­tury. She died at the age of 30 in a multiple-fatality crash of the pri­vate plane of her man­ager, Randy Hughes.”

There are seven basic state­ments of fact in that para­graph:

•  She was a country music singer.
 She was part of the Nashville Sound.
•  She had cross-over hits on the pop charts.
•  She was one of the most in­flu­en­tial vo­cal­ists of the 20th cen­tury.
•  She was one of the most suc­cessful vo­cal­ists of the 20th cen­tury.
•  She was one of the most ac­claimed vo­cal­ists of the 20th cen­tury.
•  She died at the age of 30.

State­ments a, b, c, and g are un­de­ni­ably true, while d, e, and f are open to all manner of ar­gu­ment. They re­quire dis­cus­sion and re­search. It was those three claims that caught my at­ten­tion and caused me to re­flex­ively take an op­posing po­si­tion.

And look things up.

And write this ar­ticle.

 

Hyperbolic Exaggeration: poster for Barbra Streisand in the movie FUNNY GIRL from 1968.

By the time that Barbra Streisand made the enor­mously suc­cessful movie Funny Girl in 1968, she had al­ready es­tab­lished her­self as one of the most suc­cessful recording artists in the world, who sold out all her per­sonal ap­pear­ances, and had made it on Broadway. And she was just get­ting started! De­spite being #1 in RIAA cer­ti­fied album sales in the US, her global sales don’t come close to those of the fe­male stars that have fol­lowed her since the 1980s.

One of the “most successful” artists?

In al­most every field of en­deavor, there are ways of mea­suring suc­cess with some sense of ob­jec­tively. In the recording busi­ness, the ul­ti­mate sign of suc­cess is record sales. As a per­forming artist, there are ticket sales. Was Patsy one of the most suc­cessful artists of all time based on ei­ther? 6

Wikipedia lists the Highest-Certified Music Artists in the United States. This list is based solely on sales of al­bums cer­ti­fied for Gold and Plat­inum Record Awards by the RIAA. It does not in­clude al­bums that did not qualify for those awards, nor does it in­clude EP al­bums or sin­gles. Here are the top ten fe­male singers on this list. 7

Barbra Streisand:   69,000,000
Madonna:                65,000,000
Mariah Carey:         64,000,000
Whitney Houston: 57,000,000
Ce­line Dion:            50,000,000
Shania Twain:         48,000,000
Reba McIn­tyre:       41,000,000
Britney Spears:       34,000,000
Linda Ron­stadt:     30,000,000
Enya:                        27,000,000

As al­ready dis­cussed above, the first 6-7 years of Cline’s ca­reer were ones of fu­tility as a recording artist. Things only hap­pened in a big way for a brief pe­riod prior to her death. That is, she didn’t sell a lot of records while she was alive. Posthu­mous sales have been better:

•  two al­bums have re­ceived a Gold Record Award
•  four al­bums have re­ceived a Plat­inum Record Award
•  one album has re­ceived a Di­a­mond Record Award

These seven records ac­count for 15,000,000 sales cer­ti­fied by the RIAA, which doesn’t make her close to the Top 10 list above.

Of course, sales of pre-recorded music have grown ex­po­nen­tially around the world since Cline’s death. If she’d had her ca­reer in the 1990s, she would have sold con­sid­er­ably more records!

But she didn’t, and we are left to deal with the facts as they are.

You may want to argue that the stan­dard for suc­cess in Pat­sy’s day was sin­gles sales, and you’d be cor­rect. Un­for­tu­nately, not one of her hits re­ceived an RIAA Gold Record Award for do­mestic sales. Ac­cording to Joseph Mur­rells’ Mil­lion Selling Records From The 1900s To The 1980s, none of them even sold a mil­lion copies glob­ally.

I couldn’t find a rea­son­able source for an es­ti­ma­tion of her sales of 78 and 45 rpm sin­gles, but it may not have even reached 10,000,000 world­wide.

Just as record sales have ex­ploded, so have ticket sales for per­sonal ap­pear­ances. I’m not going to hunt those num­bers down, but the re­sults would be sim­ilar. During the late 1950s and early ’60s, touring was a dirty, gru­eling busi­ness that pro­duced a modest in­come for even the bigger draws in the busi­ness.

Today, artists like Madonna and Lady Gaga can have mil­lions of people pay to see them in one twelve-month pe­riod. Today, a single tour can gen­erate mil­lions of dol­lars in profit. Need­less to say, the com­par­isons be­tween Cline’s day and today are mean­ing­less. Still, it’s all we’ve got that can be con­sid­ered some­what “ob­jec­tive.”

So, using record sales and tickets sales as rea­son­ably ob­jec­tive fig­ures of suc­cess for a com­mer­cial recording artist, is it ac­cu­rate to say that Patsy Cline is one of the most suc­cessful artists of the 20th cen­tury?

No.

 

Hyperbolic Exaggeration: poster for the 1985 movie DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN with Rosanna Arquette and Madonna.

In 1985, Madonna co-starred in a Des­per­ately Seeking Susan, ve­hicle that should have made Rosanna Ar­quette a star. In­stead, Madonna stole every­one’s thunder with a per­for­mance that looked like she had been acting for years. Few could have pre­dicted that she would be­come one of the most suc­cessful, in­flu­en­tial, and ac­claimed recording artists in history—or that she would never make an­other worth­while movie.

One of the “most influential” artists?

Once upon a time, we could argue that Pat­sy’s way with a song—simple, di­rect, honest with just the right touch of emotionalism—was in­flu­en­tial on other C&W and pop singers. That in­flu­ence was im­por­tant for singers of the 1960s and ’70s.

But as both fields have been dom­i­nated for decades by fe­male singers with styles that are any­thing but simple, di­rect, or honest—and for whom er­satz over-emoting is the core of their ap­proach to a song—Cline’s in­flu­ence can be ar­gued to be all but non-existent today. So she was once, but she hasn’t been for a while and may never be again.

She did have a huge in­flu­ence on the way that women in country music han­dled their ca­reers and their pro­fes­sional and per­sonal com­port­ment, but that’s an­other story.

So then, is it ac­cu­rate to say that Patsy Cline one of the most in­flu­en­tial artists of the 20th cen­tury?

No.

 

Hyperbolic Exaggeration: front cover for the 2016 edition of Vegas Player magazine celebrating the achievements of Celine Dion.

Per­haps the quin­tes­sen­tial over-emoting pop diva, Ce­line Dion is cer­tainly one of the most ac­claimed singers of the past three decades. In 2003-2007, she head­lined A New Day at the Colos­seum at Cae­sars Palace in Par­adise, Nevada. A fu­sion of song, per­for­mance art, stage­craft, and state-of-the-art tech­nology, it be­came the most suc­cessful res­i­dency show of all time, grossing up­wards of $400,000,000. Ms Dion’s ini­tial con­tract was for three years, for which she re­ceived ap­prox­i­mately $100 million-plus 50% of the profits!

One of the “most acclaimed” artists?

Back to Wikipedia, who piles on some sta­tis­tics with more brag­gadocio to es­tab­lish Cline’s status:

“Mil­lions of her records have sold since her death. She won awards and ac­co­lades, causing many to view her as an icon at the level of Jim Reeves, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley. Ten years after her death, in 1973, she be­came the first fe­male solo artist in­ducted to the Country Music Hall of Fame. In 1999, she was voted number 11 on VH1’s spe­cial, The 100 Greatest Women in Rock and Roll, by mem­bers and artists of the rock in­dustry. In 2002, country music artists and in­dustry mem­bers voted her Number One on Country Music Tele­vi­sion’s The 40 Greatest Women of Country Music and ranked 46th in the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time issue of Rolling Stone mag­a­zine.”

Broken down into plain state­ments, that reads like this:

1.  Mil­lions of her records have sold since her death.
2.  She won awards.
3.  Many view her on the level of Jim Reeves, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley.
4.  She was the first fe­male solo artist in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
5.  She con­tinues to win awards.

Let’s ad­dress each point:

1. Patsy Cline has sold 15,000,000-20,000,000 al­bums in the 54 years since her death. This is the equiv­a­lent of one best-selling album by to­day’s biggest artists.

2. During Cline’s ca­reer, the ap­pa­ratus for uni­versal ac­cla­ma­tion simply did not exist. The awards given her during her life­time were rel­a­tively minor no­tices from trade pub­li­ca­tions:

1957  Most Promising Fe­male Country Vo­calist (Cash Box)
1957  Most Pro­grammed Up and Coming Fe­male C&W Artist (Cash Box)
1957  Most Promising Fe­male Artist (Bill­board C&W Disc Jockey Poll)
1957  Best New Singer (Country & Western Jam­boree)
1961  Fa­vorite Fe­male C&W Artist (Bill­board)
1962  Most Pro­grammed Fe­male C&W Vo­calist (Cash Box)
1962  Star of the Year Award (Music Re­porter)
1962  Fa­vorite Fe­male C&W Artist of the Year (Bill­board)
1963  Most Pro­grammed Fe­male C&W Artist (Cash Box)
1963  Fa­vorite Fe­male Country Artist of the Year (Bill­board)

There is no com­par­ison with all the sources for public and in­dustry procla­ma­tion that have ex­isted for the past few decades.

In the 21st cen­tury, any suc­cessful artist has a shot at more pub­licity and its at­ten­dant ac­co­lades and re­wards with a single record than an artist of Cline’s cal­iber has ac­cess to in her en­tire ca­reer. It’s even hard to argue that she was one of the most ac­claimed vo­cal­ists of the 20th cen­tury even while she was alive.

3. No doubt there are “many” who view her on the level of Jim Reeves, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley. Of course, they’d all be mem­bers of her family or her fan club.

4. Her elec­tion into the Country Music Hall of Fame was de­served, but being chosen ahead of Kitty Wells (“The Queen of Country Music”) never made much sense.

5. Her se­lec­tion by VH1, CMT, and Rolling Stone are de­served and thank­fully in­di­cate that ap­pre­ci­a­tion of Patsy Cline con­tinues to this day.

So then, is it ac­cu­rate to say that Patsy Cline is one of the most ac­claimed artists of the 20th cen­tury?

No.

 

Hyperbolic Exaggeration: original front cover of LP album PATSY CLINE'S GREATEST HITS from 1967.

Re­leased in 1967, Patsy Cline’s Greatest Hits (Decca DL-4854/DL74854) sold rea­son­ably well in the country mar­kets but didn’t make a dent on the na­tional pop al­bums charts. By 2005, it had of­fi­cially sold 10,000,000 copies in the US and was awarded an RIAA Di­a­mond Record Award. It holds the du­bious dis­tinc­tion of being the biggest selling album never to have found a spot on Bill­board’s best-selling LP chart!

Patsy Cline needs no hyperbole

Patsy Cline was a great singer who left an im­por­tant legacy of recorded music be­hind that will bring joy to lis­teners as long as human singing is ap­pre­ci­ated. She is not the only pop­ular artist of the pre-global market for en­ter­tain­ment to have her ac­com­plish­ments dwarfed by modern tech­nology and media.

And there is no need to make hy­per­bolic and de­bat­able claims about her ac­com­plish­ments.

 

Hyperbolic Exaggeration: photo of wax figures of Patsy Cline with hank Williams and Johnny Cash from Tussauds.

FEATURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of this page con­sists of wax fig­ures of Hank Williams and Johnny Cash with Patsy Cline cour­tesy of Madame Tus­sauds Nashville. The figure of Patsy is cur­rently on dis­play at the Patsy Cline Mu­seum in Nashville. Founder Bill Miller brags, “What is ab­solutely in­cred­ible about Madame Tus­sauds’ figure is that our pa­trons will be able to touch, snap photos and ex­pe­ri­ence an exact like­ness of the icon. We are hon­ored to work with their team to create this unique of­fering.”

 


FOOTNOTES:

1   Ac­cording to the US Of­fice of Strategic Ser­vices, one of Hitler’s pri­mary rules was that people will be­lieve a big lie sooner than a little one, and if you re­peat it fre­quently enough people will sooner or later be­lieve it.”

2   And Garth Brooks and Led Zep­pelin have not sold more al­bums than Elvis in the US—they’ve just had more album sales cer­ti­fied by the RIAA.

3   The state­ments at­trib­uted to Wikipedia were found on the Patsy Cline entry in Feb­ruary 2017, when I first started writing this. They may have changed or been deleted since.

4   So, under her 4-Star con­tract, Patsy com­pleted fifty-one mas­ters in eigh­teen ses­sions in five years. Her first ses­sion under her Decca con­tract took place in No­vember 1960. Over the next fif­teen months, she did six­teen ses­sions that re­sulted in fifty-one mas­ters! For de­tailed in­for­ma­tion on Cline’s ses­sions and record re­leases, refer to G.E. He­witt’s Patsy Cline Discog­raphy.

5   While it’s easy to be­lieve that Cline would have con­tinued having hit after hit on the country charts, it’s just as easy to be­lieve that the Top 40 pop hits would have be­come less frequent—especially after the British In­va­sion of early 1964. But we’ll never know.

6   Sales of pre-recorded music on “hard copies” (records, tapes and com­pact discs) were the stan­dard of suc­cess for the hun­dred years be­fore down­loading changed every­thing.

7   Wikipedia has an­other list that tal­lies global record sales, “List of best-selling music artists.” It in­cludes 101 artists. Patsy doesn’t even come close to making this list.

 

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Great ar­ticle Neal.

1. While what is com­monly re­ferred to now as “So­cial Media” can be en­ter­taining, the ve­racity of what is pre­sented on many of these sites can be ques­tion­able. For better or for worse, much of what gets written about an artist like Ms. Cline who dies early in their ca­reer be­comes a ha­giog­raphy.

2. As you have pointed out, we don’t know if her ca­reer tra­jec­tory would have con­tinued up­wards. It could be that she had al­ready peaked, and that while she would have con­tinued to sell records, she would just be an­other C&W artist.

3. I feel the same way about the Doors. I have never felt that the group in gen­eral and Jim Mor­rison in par­tic­ular were worthy of much of the adu­la­tion they have re­ceived since Mr. Mor­rison’s un­timely passing. How­ever, that is what hap­pened and how the group is viewed.

4. Maybe that is the fault of cer­tain music critics, maybe music in­dustry hype (al­though I have al­ways been some­what du­bious of the ability of the in­dustry to ac­tu­ally “create” a star).

5. Ms. Cline was a tal­ented artist in her field who should be re­mem­bered as that. I concur with your opinion how­ever on the puffery that ac­com­pa­nies her ac­tual im­pact on the music scene of which she was a part.

great ar­ticle neal but you failed to an­swer one im­por­tant ques­tion, why was Bar­bara Streisand al­lowed to make so many records? the first thing i do when i buy a col­lec­tion is sort all the crap [like Streisand] out and do­nate it to the nearest thrift store, Patsy Cline records just about have to be broken in half be­fore i give them away.

A few years ago, I heard a jazz singer, recording artist (I wish I could re­member her name as well as I re­member her voice); who stated in an in­ter­view that a lot of the fe­male singers she knows study Patsy Cline to try and learn her ‘place­ment’. That refers to where she pro­duces her tone when singing. The better the place­ment, the truer the tone and pitch. That is in­flu­ence, and not solely tied to ‘country’.

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