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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.
The first time I saw American Idol was probably during it’s first season-the same year Kelly Clarkson,the shows first (and one of the view) bona fide commercial success stories was competing in the talent contest. My initial opinion of the show was that it was completely farcical. The auditions for the show had the flavor of a weak episode of America’s funniest home videos. The show itself,created by the founder of it’s UK peculiar Pop Idol name of Simon Cowell,also placed him in the role of main talent judge. Even in it’s first couple of seasons,which were also massively commercially successful,it was in fact Simon Cowell’s cynical and often cruel attitudes towards the contestants during auditions that made the show so popular with it’s viewers-at least the ones I talked to. Of course,number one fact of American Idol to me was that Randy Jackson,former bass player for the likes of jazz-fusion greats Jean-Luc Ponty and Narada Michael Walden,was obviously the judge with the most musical experience. And is still portrayed in the character of a catch-phrase spouting nincompoop. Why has such a program so deeply affected how the public perceives music in the post millennial world? And what’s happened within the show itself during that time as a synergy of this?
The most significant element of American Idol to me has been it’s consistent emphasis that popular singers,as opposed to songwriters or musicians,are what is supposed to be propelling the music world and industry forward. Even during the contestants auditions in Hollywood,they are portrayed singing rock,soul and country standards from the golden age of singing and songwriting in the 1960’s,70’s and 80’s. Yet once the contest is over,and the winner of that particular season releases their first album,it’s again only their vocals that are emphasized. Musicianship and song writing are almost always afterthoughts and therefore a lot weaker than the enduring songs they interpret on the show. Some of my personal favorite Idol contestants from the few times I actually watched the show,such as Taylor Hicks and Fantasia Barrino, suffered a great deal from this problem. Fantasia in part because she was only a singer and not a writer/publisher of her own material due to her semi literacy. And Hicks due to the fact his songwriting,while strong,simply doesn’t have the enduring quality of Michael McDonald’s or any of the other talents he clearly admires.
One of the most obvious elements of American Idol,and probably it’s most negative in terms of it’s effect towards music,is it’s celebration of high level sensationalism. A good example of that occurred just recently when the gender bending contestant Charlie Askew,whose emotionally charged rendition of Genesis’ “Mama” earned him criticism-especially from current judge Nicki Minaj,over his passionate and angry interpretation. Having been originally conceived by Cowell (himself no longer a judge on the program) as a combination of a reality show and talent contest,the show came to emphasize the personal issues of the judges and the contestants more than their actual function on the show. This was particular true to first incarnation judges Cowell and Paula Abdul. That sensationalism extends into the function of the show just as much. During auditions,singers with a jazzy or soulful phrasing who are inspired by vocalists such as Nina Simone,Phillip Bailey,Chaka Khan or Stevie Wonder are vocally dismissed (both literally and figuratively) as “old fashioned” and even “corny” by judges such as Cowell. This points to the programs continual advocating of musical neophilia.
In the past four or five years American Idol has changed a lot. Only Randy Jackson remains of the original judges,as Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez were generally seen as failures during their time as judges on the show. Many of the shows detractors in it’s original incarnation spoke of Simon Cowell’s legendary meanness towards contestants as shattering their hopes and dreams of music careers. While many of the contestants of the past have in fact been next to talentless,auditioning only for their fifteen minutes of televised fame,American Idol at it’s core seems to be a continual reminder of the fact that society remains completely cynical about music’s ability to change people’s lives-through instrumentation or lyrical message. The show makes it appear as if music’s glory days are only part of a museum exhibit and history books. And the only way music can function at all now is for new artists to be seen,make a lot of money,and be influenced only by music’s more creatively productive past. If American Idol is to be a significant force for music,it really should start to emphasize the idea of musical futurism a bit more and less to none of the interpersonal reality show-cased media hyperbole present largely to receive ratings. It’s solid proof that in terms of presenting creative talent,that the line between television being a force for change or a force for the status-quo is a fine line to walk.