By Michael E. Berumen
How did popular music become like the high school musical? Something happened after the 1980s, and while I like a good chorus line or glee club performance as much as the next guy, I get tired of too much Broadway and school auditorium music. It doesn’t get me out of my chair or make me want to dance, have sex, or drive my car fast. And it doesn’t take me to another place; indeed, after a while, it simply makes me want to go to another place just to get away from it. To be blunt, I have just about “had it up to here” with this infusion of Broadway, second-rate imitations of operatic technique, and soulless insertions of R&B in today’s bland, overproduced, under-talented, unoriginal, and formula-driven popular music. This is what we had prior to Rock ‘n Roll before the mid-fifties, that is, outside of non-sanitized jazz. Aside from hip hop (actually, we find it slowly corrupting hip hop, too), and with few exceptions, it is what we have yet again. I want more voices with breaks, pops, tics, guttural sounds, ughs, ahhs, grunts, growls, groans, hic-ups, and most of all, voices that project real emotional states that, in turn, conjure strong, evocative feelings in the listener. And please already, enough (!) of all the chirruping and warbling all over the note that with a better technique might be more suitable for a Puccini aria–––the endless melisma and runs causing one to lose track of what the lyric is, and the nauseatingly gratuitous high notes, including those infernal whistle notes, the ones that get fans who act like they’ve never heard a screeching tire in an orgasmic dither–––all overdone and, more often than not, completely gratuitous or out-of-place. Moreover, these pyrotechnics are often transparent to cognoscente as little more than covers for a lack of pitch control and a lack of precision, and, in the wrong hands, it simply sounds show-offy and contrived. Take a lesson from Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Elvis, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, and Louis Armstrong–––in their vocal work and phrasing there is nothing unnecessary–––nothing missing–––it all fits: every note, every breath, every pause–––everything is right ‘cuz it is sung the way it’s felt. Make it real. Stop with the pabulum and the insipidly bland talent-show stuff. Quit trying out for the chorus line.
It would be facile to blame Mariah Carey, personally, for the decline in the quality of popular music by many of today’s artists, but I will submit that her many followers have contributed to it by demanding and elevating her style. The singers who have tried to emulate her are particularly blameworthy–––entertainers whose fans characterize them as “vocalists”–––an appellation intended to distinguish them from the more ordinary and mundane practitioners of singing. Sorry, I want singing. I don’t mean this in a personal way. They are artists and they have to make a living, and I admire them for what they do, and I understand why they do it. There’s a market for it. Carey is of course not alone as an object of abject imitation, for it occurs in every era of music. Sinatra and Elvis both had many, as did the Marvelettes, Dylan, the Beatles, Madonna, and Michael Jackson. With few exceptions, outside of hip hop–––and even there insofar as singing is mixed with rap–––since the early 1990s people coming onto the scene have been greatly influenced by Carey. While it is true of men as well, it is especially and not surprisingly the case with women such as Britany Spears, Christina Aguilera, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Demi Lovato, and Ariana Grande, their many counterparts, and certainly various “girl” groups such as Fifth Harmony. There are exceptions, to be sure–––and some notable ones such as Amy Winehouse, Nicki Minaj, Halsey, Lorde, Taylor Swift, and Miley Cyrus, whose musical roots and influences seem to be rather different, and who have each shown greater originality than the legions of Mariah wannabes.
The problem is twofold. Firstly, very few in popular music have now or have ever had or ever will have Mariah Carey’s unusual anatomical gifts, her vocal cords, and most specifically her octave range and ability to control her voice, effortlessly jumping entire octaves. One can count people with these unusual natural abilities on one or two hands. Secondly, and on a more critical note, from my perspective, Carey’s vocal technique, especially her overuse of melisma and belting––as formidable as her natural gifts might be–––is not altogether satisfying, and in particular, it becomes stale when applied to nearly every song. If ever there were a case of someone over-singing by someone who needs to prove absolutely nothing vocally, it is Mariah Carey. Whether or not it is her intention, though, it seems as if she wants to demonstrate at every turn that she can sing with virtuosity, and that is often at the expense of conveying the intention and feeling of the song–––and therein lies the major difference between stylists such as Carey and her would-be imitators versus someone like, say, Aretha Franklin or Tina Turner … or among more modern artists, Miley Cyrus or the late Amy Winehouse. One feeeeels what they say to the bone, the technique is not the focus, they are not trying to show you how well they sing, but what they feel, what the emotion is. Her legions of imitators who attempt to use her style invariably fall short of her skills, thereby compounding the problem.
Of course, charisma, like vocal style, is ultimately in the eye of the beholder. But it is an important and ineffable element of performance that separates the good from the great. It seems to me there is a kind of pure charisma that only certain singers can project to a great many people as opposed to a narrow fan base––-an ineffable quality that transcends the standard descriptions of vocal virtuosity, something that is embodied and exuded by the performer himself or herself in a way that others with great vocal ability or beautiful appearances cannot. It is much more than voice or striking physical appearance that makes Elvis, Janis, Madonna, and Michael different and legendary. I mention this because I think it is difficult for some to understand what it is that makes many prefer an artist such as, say, Madonna, over another whose technical vocal abilities are so obviously superior. Of course production values and physicality are factors, but I think the biggest one that is often overlooked is simple animal magnetism. Charisma. Take Mick Jagger. No one would argue Jagger has the vocal chops of, say, Jordan Smith, the fellow who won The Voice a couple of years ago, But Jordan is unlikely to fill stadia and arenas year after year for decades well into his 70s … and I would argue the difference is in part the fact that his voice exudes a kind of visceral emotion added to the fact that you can’t take your eyes off Jagger when he performs … he exudes magnetism through his recorded work and on stage to both men and women, and it’s something that very few artists have in such quantities, and it trumps pure technical ability every time. Charisma matters. When the rare person comes along with both charisma and extraordinary technical ability, so much the better.
Of course, Jagger has more going for him than just charisma. His voice “fits the lyric. Among the most overlooked things about singing and singers are the importance of the singer’s natural voice, cadences, and intonations in terms of being appropriate for the lyrics, and thereby conveying the intention of a song. One cannot imagine Celine Dion singing a Bob Dylan song with nearly the same effect. Or Justin Timberlake managing Gershwin’s “Bess You is My Woman Now” the way Louis Armstrong can. I don’t see the formidable vocal talent of Christina Aguilera doing justice to Amy Winehouse’s music. Not to mention Pavarotti singing Willie Nelson’s greatest hits. With that said, Dylan, Armstrong, Winehouse, and Nelson can be counted as among the greatest singers there are. And yet not one of them would be likely to pass an audition for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir or get beyond the first round of a talent show, whereas, each of the others I mentioned by way of contrast surely would. By the same token, we probably would cringe at the thought of Dylan singing Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.” The point is that there are a multitude of ways to approach a lyric, but there are certain voices that are especially equipped to convey its meaning in an impactful and evocative way, and often these voices are not good for every genre, and they do not fit the more formulaic mold of the kind of person one is likely to find doing Broadway or singing in the church choir. It is simply wrong to say that Bob Dylan is not as good a singer as Barbara Streisand, or that Mariah Carey is better than Amy Winehouse. Dylan singing “People” or Carey singing “Rehab” does not make any more sense than Streisand singing “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” or Winehouse singing “Hero.”
Today’s talent shows, the heirs of Star Search and American Idol, have fostered this Broadway cum poor man’s opera style of music to a fare-thee-well. Carey’s influence is on full display in such shows. And as I say, it is not her fault. I admire her extraordinary abilities even though her style usually does not appeal to me (I prefer her first two albums when she was young and not influenced as much by her fan’s expectations over her subsequent work). But the influence she’s had on popular music has largely been negative in my view, and it is writ large on shows like The Voice and X Factor. There have been some exceptions, notably in the country genre (though its influence, the penchant for over-singing the lyric, is felt even there in recent years), but by and large the warblers, run mavens, and the high-note show-offs (as though a soprano shouldn’t hit a high note? It’s much more impressive when she gets low to a sonorous contralto with clarity, resonance, and timbre!), and with only few exceptions, get the top slots as runners-up or winners in these shows. What is interesting, too, is that with two notable outliers, Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, none of the winners of these shows has become a superstar. Jennifer Hudson did not win (nor should she have won, speaking of over singing), but she is a special case and did manage to do very well in both the movies and recordings. Several others did reasonably well as second stringers, but they did not make the big leagues like these three did.
I suppose to a large extent I just lament the decline in popularity of rock music and the kind of R&B and soul music that one had with the Temps, Tops, Aretha, James, and Marvin. Sorry, as talented as they are, Bruno, The Weekend, Ariana, Selena, and Demi are just not in their league in R&B, that is, not when it comes to authentically conveying the emotion behind the lyric. Most of all, though, I regret the overproduced, synthesized, sanitized, and just formulaic approach to popular music. I understand the need for standards and technical proficiency in choral music where harmony and not standing out are important, and in staged musicals where the song is only a part of a greater story, and certainly there is the need for technical proficiency in opera where virtuosity is a must, and where too much variance from the composer’s intention is discouraged. Formula-driven music covering others’ work is necessary and fine for the glee club … but, I do not want to drive to it, hear it at the club over a vodka martini, or dance to it. There I want to feel the music under my skin. In the final analysis, much of what we hear today is proverbial elevator music, background noise that I hear but don’t notice while I hover over the freezer confusedly in the grocery store, or wait thumbing aimlessly through magazines I’d never buy at the dentist’s office. I am waiting for the breakout and breakaway from this dominant form over the last nearly two decades. I have a couple of artists in mind who are showing the way … but the question is, will the public-at-large follow? That is for another discussion at another time.
Michael Berumen is a retired business executive and published author on diverse topics including economics, mathematics, music, and philosophy. He resides with his wife in Colorado. Among other things, he is the author of the book Do No Evil: Ethics with Applications to Economic Theory and Business.