Home » American Idol
Category Archives: American Idol
When I started this blog in November of 2012,there was more of a firm concept about the subject matter than the blog itself. I didn’t know how long it was going to last,or if it would even be of interest to anyone. After all a blog usually isn’t something self satisfying. Its the same as with literature. Books are written to be read,and so are blogs. That firm concept I started with was basically to show people how that rhythmic pattern people heard in Congo Square in New Orleans before the American Civil War has continued to be at the core of every popular music-even up to the most modern dubstep electronica music. About how building the melody and everything else on that basic “rhythmic nucleus” is the point where music parallels how people build their own lives. Not entirely sure if what was written here always fully transmitted that intention. But one thing I do know for sure is that,to many readers it was successful on that level.
As I mentioned on the anniversary on this blog,I have decided to close down this blog after its 100th post. As mentioned at that point,this particular subject matter seems to have been reflected very thoroughly here. Also as I went on writing on this blog,the topics began to become quite a lot broader than merely scholarly discourse on the jazz/funk/soul spectrum of music. Themes of generationalism and the human perception of music,as well as the sociological conditions surrounding that,also began to play heavily into it. So the other day as this blog was coming down to the wire,I had a conversation with my friend and inspiration for this blog-Mister Henrique Hopkins,about what I am announcing to you right now: after much thought,I realized that I don’t want to do away with a music based WordPress blog. So he and I have agreed to a partially collaborative blog with Henrique.
I will not be posting on the blog as often as I did with this one. And every other blog will be a music-based contribution from Henrique as well. The subject matter of the blogs will be in the musically eclectic arena-expanding on the themes that this blog had begun to explore as it evolved. Funk,jazz and soul will of course continue to play a huge part in it. However much much more will be discussed as well. Some of what this new blog will talk about may or may not have the same level of personalized content as this. It will be about consistent growth and evolution. One of the things that helped me define this more expansive approach to music related blogging is the return to genuine musical diversity I’ve noticed within the year I’ve had this. Sometimes its appropriate to be balanced even in how much of a non conformist one is. After all each of us have different aspects to our personality over time. They are like whole different people. As actor Matt Smith said during his final appearance in Doctor Who,we all have to keep moving so long as we don’t forget all those people we used to be.
In conclusion I would of course like to thank my father and Henrique for being the main sources of inspiration in my blog. Though I have disagreed with both on many occasions,for many different reasons we have all continued to learn new things from each other as time goes on. The presence of these two knowledgeable and experienced male figures in my life have really bought the whole spectrum of emotion one gains from new knowledge they receive: the joy,the excitement,the surprises,the hope,the wonder and sometimes even the disappointment. And the best parts are when it all happens at once. Life is like music. To make it all go well,you need to be well rounded on some level at least-both in the way you critique it and the way you deal with it. A lot of people today would like to think they know everything. But we cannot know everything if we are to truly become ourselves. Additionally I’d like to thank Thomas Carley and Henry Cooper who have also been extremely helpful in inspiring this blog. For the year or so of The Rhythmic Nucleus,it’s been fun. Happy 2014 to come every one around the world. Good evening everybody!
In 1981 Gil Scott-Heron recorded a song entitled “B-Movie” on his album Reflections. The brilliance of the song comes not so much from it’s subject matter of Ronald Reagan’s presidency,but from the fact that Gil’s typically pointed observations on America becoming “the consumer rather than the producer” came so early on in the Reagan administration. Even before the term Reaganomics was ever coined in the first place. This song continues to stand as an example to humanity that,sometimes, the best qualified person to make an accurate sociopolitical commentary on a give time period is a visionary futurist who can effectively communicate with the common human being. Since Gil referred to himself as a “bluesologist”,that would seem to go back to the original meaning of the music: singing the blues to release ones inner blues,not (as illustrated by fictional Simpsons character Bleeding Gums Murphy might say) to make people feel worse and making a few bucks while your at it. That’s the easiest misconceptions of the blues even Miles Davis had to contend with: the music as exploitation. And to some,that misconception lies in some of the appeal of the blues for some people to this day. Considering how generationally oriented this blog has tended to be? Just how far have these types of cultural misconceptions gone?
As has been stated here before, I’ve all too often had to contend with a great deal of difficulty in being a funk admirer. Of course that comes from the fact I personally process the music from a very different standpoint than many of those around me. But ever since I heard Gil Scott-Heron talking about America being a nation of consumers and not producers,that line has grown to have continual resonance with me. Seeing life from this end from the outsider looking in perspective,a good vantage point to notice this would be in the types of employment people have. More people seem to have and seek employment in some variation of retail/sales positions than anything that involves creativity. And if creativity is embraced,its often the most masochistic end of it where something is being tirelessly manufactured for retail purposes. Of course those who control the nations finance do much the same thing-eliminating the middle man and creating an anti foreigner attitude by producing goods and services mainly in other nations. The end result is that many people I know see anything outside of their own social network of friends,family and (if applicable) employees much like concentric circles-all the same shape but diminishing in size,and therefore significance,the closer one gets to the center of it. Therefore the perception of one of our most human forms of social communication,creative arts and culture,have had similar fates.
Some people,even some family,have spoken of me in terms of being a person who has a cultural aestetic closer to that of someone who,at present is in early/late middle age. That would mean that I have the attitude of a baby boomer era American somehow displaced in time. Its a source of great discomfort sometimes, at least outwardly. Inwardly though I’ve come to think of it as something I am proud of. Funk music is actually a good way to measure that aestetic. In fact the history of that has been mulled over on many different levels on this blog already. However one thing I have learned of late is that Gil Scott-Heron is very right about America becoming primarily a consumer-both industrially and culturally. The end result of that is cynicism which,as I’ve learned from personal experiences,runs anathema to creative potency. Its hard not to feel it necessary to repeat this. However when you base a society on ideas such as “keep it simple”,”keep it real” and “keep it economical” the thrill of creative innovation will inevitably begin to disappear. Its hard to believe,even now as popular music is currently improving a great deal, that funk music of the type made by Stevie Wonder or James Brown were once the culturally driving force of creativity-the way often foul mouthed and even ignorant mainstream hip-hop and heavy metal has been for so long. Since it is more a visually than aurally based culture still,there may be an even better way to articulate this impulse: the public perception of film and television.
Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who,a British science fiction television show about an extra terrestrial space/time traveler whose time/space craft has larger dimensions inside than on the out. From the very beginning,people who’ve traveled with him don’t (and often refuse) to understand how an object can be larger within than without. The entire program is like that: it revolves around bending reality and stretching your imagination. Since it’s height of popularity was in the 60’s and 70’s,I can certainly see how a funk oriented person such as myself could be interested in the show. Yet the same applies. With a television show especially,the majority of the public are all too fast to condemn something that was not given the financial focus that it deserved-focusing in on the most superficial element of what they see. As with the original Star Trek series and other science fiction of its era,the perception of such things are very much like what I once observed here about the perceptions of funk. The phrases “so bad their good”,”cheesy” and “kitsch” are terms that are often used. Personally I doubt that,in the example of Doctor Who,that people at the BBC working at a lightening fast pace with barely any money at all to produce forward thinking and socially progressive television would see such attitudes towards their work as more than,at best ostentatious condescension. At worst,flat out bullying.
It is very easy to become cynical. That’s easy enough to admit. The true exploitative low quality television,ironically musically based such as American Idol and the many other series based on it,have been elevated to certain people as a major event-some waiting an entire television season for themselves to be completely exploited into thinking the types of musical talent presented by these types of show personify America’s ideal cultural consciousness. Extending the metaphor even further I don’t conceptualize funk or television science fiction such as Star Trek and Doctor Who as being in bad taste at all. Rather the reverse. If one appreciates these things only on an ironic level,chances are they may find themselves in the contradiction of elevating the cultural importance of what is truly designed to be exploitative and insignificant. Did Simon Cowell ever go out of his way to help prevent violent rioting the way James Brown did following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination? Did Justin Bieber ever sacrifice his musical career and even his citizenship for matters of social principles as John Lennon did during the early 1970’s? No more than… say a movie about weeping women being jilted by unfaithful husbands and boyfriends will inspire female audiences as an eccentric alien travelling through time allowed the women he traveled with to be better people. Or even a starship peacefully exploring space where class,religion and race are something to celebrate-not something to fear. Are Americans seeing funk as a producible art form? Or are they merely consuming what from their perspective might be seen as something bad?
Christina Aguilera’s photograph is shown here because she perfectly exemplifies the entire topic of this article. Recently I wrote an article here about singing hinting at what I am about to say tonight. But I wanted to expand on that more. All of my adult life, soul music has always been a passion of mine. In fact its come to a point where I flat out tell everyone that, rather than focusing in on the dreary instrumentation and dry singing that permeates a lot of alternative rock type music its that quality of soul, in whatever genre I find it in, that peaks my aural interest more and more. Basically soul singing could be easiest described as a quality of singing directly from your heart but,most importantly carefully controlling the way in which your voice projects these emotions. Its basically a matter of tension and release. Aguilera has an enormous performance charisma and the image of a classic Hollywood movie starlette, which is ideal for the image conscious music world of today. In terms of depth and richness, her vocal instrument is actually quite a powerful one too. It is the way in which she, and many others present that voice of which I am about to speak of.
Whenever I’d travel with my father during the beginning of my rising adulthood, we would often play music on the car CD player for each other and talk about it among ourselves. One thing we often discussed was the phenomenon of oversinging. It is a term that means what it says, and a very common one too. Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson have all oversung at one time or another. And sometimes, it does actually enhance a song. But you have to know when to use this technique. Yet especially in the modern R&B genre, oversinging has gone to a whole new level since the ringing in of the new millennium. At the root is singers making themselves the center of attention-pushing themselves and their voices out front and center and generally over emoting. I had no particular name for this modern variation of so called “soul” singing. So I am about to do something very out of character for me: quote another writer because John Eskow of the Huffington Post defined this vocal phenomenon so wonderfully in an article he wrote on February 8th,2011. The word he coined was oversoaling, a term originally conceived by Atlantic Records Jerry Wexler . Here is what he said about that way of singing:
“To me, the horrific part of Christina Aguilera’s rendition of the National Anthem — and “rendition” is an apt term for it, because she kidnapped the song and shipped it out to be tortured — was not her mangling of the words, but her mangling of the tune itself: to paraphrase the great Chuck Berry, she “lost the beauty (such as it is) of the melody until it sounds just like a (godawful) symphony.
This is the same grotesque style — 17 different notes for every vocal syllable — that has so dominated the pop and R&B charts for years. Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston are relatively minor offenders, but singers like Aguilera — who admittedly possesses a great instrument — just don’t seem to know when to stop, turning each song into an Olympic sport as they drain it of its implicit soul, as if running through the entire scale on every single word was somehow a token of sincerity.
It’s called melisma — the bending of syllables for bluesy or soulful effect — and what’s creepy about the way it’s used now is that it perverts America’s true genius for song, as evinced by its creators in the world of gospel and R&B, like Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. You will hear more of this tonsil-twisting insincerity — to your eternal sorrow — if you watch any episode of American Idol. The great Jerry Wexler — who produced both Ray and Aretha — coined a great term for it: “oversouling.” He described it as “the gratuitous and confected melisma” that hollows out a song and drains it of meaning. “
Jerry’s words as translated by Mr. Escow rang extremely true to me. Again it speaks of someone who has the basic elements of a soul singer, yet they allow themselves to lose control over their vocal emoting to an near piercingly theatrical degree. The result is the quality of Olympic singing Escow speaks of in his article. In all honesty, this phenomenon did not originate in the 1980’s: a decade that tends to be a pop culture whipping post for critics to this very day. Even pop artists who practiced soul singing of the time such as George Michael and Rick Astley had very careful control of their vocal projection and presentation. It seemed to start in the early 1990’s during a time when every R&B/soul artist looking to release uptempo music seemed to have to do so using the new jack swing hip-hop/funk hybrid started by people such as Teddy Riley in the late 80’s. Dancing frenetically in colorful parachute pants under heavy lights and sweating a lot, these newer singers had to find a way vocally keep pace with the faster music and dances. The result was a phenomenon of “oversouling” vocals, in particular with gospel influenced male vocal groups-many of whom sang through their noses in a therefore nasal fashion that only heightened that quality.
During the time with Christina Aguilera was ascendant in the music world, the patter was reversed. Male singers influenced by neo/retro soul tended to be influenced back in the direction of controlled vocal expression. Whereas female soul oriented singers began to take the oversouling style to new heights. Now just to be aware of my own writing, you probably noticed my constant repetition of the word “control” in this writing. That’s because that seems the most appropriate word for the most vital element in genuinely soulful singing. How to keep vocal qualities such as melisma from completely overwhelming one’s dynamic as a singer. There’s no question about it-it is still very much a singers world in music today. They are the most celebrated in the media. And people such as myself might bemoan that. But if it is to be this way for now a degree of shading,insinuation and nuance to ones vocal expression will likely have the affect of making said vocalist more likable. And their voices will be more appreciate if they are just themselves rather than forcing their singing in desperation for attention. After all those who cannot hear an angry shout may strain to hear a whisper.