Growing up, at least one or two weekends a months, I would visit my grandparents for the weekend. In the summer months these visits would often include a peaceful picnic lunch to the coast. On these weekend trips the radio would usually be turned to one place and that was WABI FM. This radio station played popular songs from the 1940’s up through the mid 60’s. They would play some of the great artists such as Nat King Cole, Rosemary Clooney and Peggy Lee. However they would only ever play people such as Eddie Arnold,Jim Reeves,Kay Starr and Teresa Brewer aside from them. I never heard people such as Miles Davis,Count Basie,Benny Goodman or even Glenn Miller. Later on I learned something important about music. My grandfather was a strong GI generation man: solid,constructive and resolute. My grandmother was a silent generation lady born five years later and she was ruled by a great deal of complex fears and neuroses. I believe this shaped the way such bi-generational WWII era couples such as them perceived music.
What I learned is that after WWII a lot of the big bands as led by Count Basie,Duke Ellington and even the Dorsey brothers Tommy and Jimmy found trouble finding work for their big bands,who once had admiring fan clubs and groupies the same as a rock star would today. Suddenly the focus of musical celebrity had shifted from popular instrumentalists to popular singers. One of the most famous examples is,somewhat ironically the suddenly iconic super-stardom in the immediate post war years of a skinny baritone from Hoboken,New Jersey named Frank Sinatra. One day I actually followed a historical tract, based on my own knowledge of music and different things I’d learned from other people, in my own mind and it occurred to me that the popular musical dominance of singers over instrumentalists has continued to be the base of the modern mainstream of pop music-as it were. Although strong singing and vocal ability is a very difficult and challenging musical art form if done in a vital and innovative manner, has the “singers only” musical dynamic gradually done harm to the music world itself?
One of the reasons one might think that too much emphasis on singers over well rounded musical talents has to do with a certain evolution in paranoid thinking. If one views the past two decades of pop music editorialism/criticism objectively, there is a lot more emphasis in these prose on production over process. In terms of music being an art form, the artist is generally consumed with the musical process; perfecting their art as much as possible and continuing to improve conceptually. The production or what one does in the studio and mixing booth is more about commerce; re-imagining the sounds said artists create in order to satisfy a financial bottom line. In the modern soul world particular, this has resulted in a number of singers themselves having to grab further for attention as the producer became more and more the star of the show. This resulted in a syndrome of soul vocal soloists,particularly in the 90’s onward, singing with too high a degree of melisma-a term meaning that a single lyrical syllable is sung over a series of many notes. Stevie Wonder was famous for this by virtue of his unique vocal phrasing. However too many modern solo soul singers have utilized melisma mostly as an attention-getting tactic.
The proliferation of reality TV-based musical talent contexts,American Idol in particular has also continued to emphasize the enormous exposure of the singer over the musician. As a matter of fact these programs not only shun instrumentalists, but often focus more on the contestants outward grooming and attire than their vocal talents. But these could all round out to playing the blame game basically. Every American generation of music fans after the second world war have continued to view all popular music within the context of the vocals. Perhaps it adds an extra human dimension to their enjoyment of a song. Or perhaps somewhat more cynically, most pop music fans only go the with the general ebb and flow of the music they enjoy. Its important to realize that I, along many of my music loving acquaintances and friends, are actually on the fringe of society in a way for our enjoyment of jazz and funk: two still more thoroughly instrumental oriented styles of music. Especially in the case when the singer celebrates a humanistic viewpoint with their lyrics and expression of them. Of course everyone sings their own different song everyday. Why does it not seem to matter so much that,unlike with music, whether we do so with either our hands or our voice?