The Technology That Made Nathalie Cole So Unforgettable

The late singer's massive 1991 "duet" with her dead father foreshadowed a world of musical mashups.


The singer Nathalie Cole died on Thursday at the age of 65. In 1991 she released a song that I think presaged the growth to ubiquity of mash-up culture, where all sorts of things from past, present, and future (?) are given new life in often-radically different forms.

For the album Unforgettable…With Love, Cole recorded versions of songs that had been made famous by her father, Nat "King" Cole, a huge figure in mid-20th-century popular music and culture. Among other things, he became the first black to host a TV show in 1956 and his versions of "The Christmas Song," "Route 66," and "Mona Lisa" and other songs are still standards. On that 1991 album, which ultimately sold around 7 million copies worldwide, Nathalie Cole used various types of overdubbings on the title track to sing a "duet" with her father, who had died in 1965.

At the time, some critics branded the track as ghoulish and the most-unsettling father-daughter number since Serge and Charlotte Gainsbourg's "Lemon Incest," but it also showed there was an immense audience for using technology to resurrect the past and repurpose it for the living (a few years later, an undead version of Fred Astaire would be dancing with a Dust Devil vacuum).

That's the world we live in now: If you can dream it, you can do it, typically with a production quality indistinguishable from the stuff coming out of the big entertainment companies.

Popular culture—otherwise known as culture—has always been a "perpetual meaning machine,"

a forum for glorious mongrelization and wild synthesis–a place where borders are crossed in all sorts of different and interesting ways: Marvel Comics quote John Milton, for instance, Bugs Bunny retells Wagnerian opera, and Elvis (!) enters the stage to the strains of Strauss's Thus Spake Zarathustra, which itself was popularized through Stanley Kubrick's use of it as the theme to 2001: Space Odyssey.

And now it's all easier than ever, for each and every one of us, to do.

Here's the Coles' "Unforgettable."