Thursday, 23 February 2012

All My Favourite Singers Couldn't Sing

Poor old Whitney, eh?

In the end it was so easy for her to illicit a little public sympathy - all she had to do was die. Suddenly years of schadenfreude were magically transformed into a public outpouring of grief and exclamations about how she was the greatest singer ever and touched so many lives.

I'm not one of these people. I'll admit she had a technically brilliant singing voice, but is that really enough? If you deconstruct her songs they are basically bland AOR backings of safe standards with an (admittedly) exceptional singer appealing to the worst of 80s yuppie excesses.

I even think her signature tune 'I Will Always Love You' was performed better by the author of the tune Dolly Parton. It's much more simple and direct than Whitney's version which is overproduced and loses the sorrowful edge and intent of the song due to a ridiculously overblown vocal performance. Maybe I just abide by the less-is-more approach.

When I look through my record collection I notice there are quite a few artists that have at best limited vocal ranges and at worst simply terrible voices. I think the reason for this is because if an artist has a terrible voice then they have to make up for it in other ways: witty lyrics, an original point of view, well-written songs, competent musicianship or just a sexy swagger. Sometimes just being bat-shit crazy is enough to peak my attention. (Whitney wasn't crazy in an interesting enough way for me).

Someone I always return to as an example of an average singer with great songs is Silver Jews frontman David Berman. He's from the Lou Reed school of the speak-sing vocal and usually delivers his lines in a flat deadpan baritone. He's probably not as street-smart as Reed but has more of a sarcastic sense of humor and an eye for the ridiculous. the Silver Jews' 1998 album American Water is a bit of a landmark album in my opinion and has the rare honour of grabbing my attention from the first line of the album in the song 'Random Rules'. The line is - 'In 1984 I was hospitalized for approaching perfection'

It's a vague yet intriguing line that to me sums up the intersection between the bravado of youth and the sobering realization of mortality. I also think the year 1984 was chosen because it gives the line sinister Orwellian overtones. That's a lot to take in from just eight carefully chosen words! I wasn't surprised to later discover that Berman is a published poet and has a great collection of poems called 'Actual Air'.

To me, shows like Australian Idol would be much more intriguing if they were about song writing rather than singing. The only problem with this is audiences would soon discover that good songwriters are even more rare than good singers, but at least people would listen to the songs rather than the technicality of the delivery.

Mainstream audiences don't listen to songs. You need no further proof than Leonard Cohen's sublime but hideously over-exposed song 'Hallelujah'. A couple of years ago there was a campaign to make the song a Christmas number one in Britain. There were three versions vying for the title - Leonard Cohen's original, Jeff Buckley's and some talent show winner who is probably forgotten by now. I can't think of a less Christmassy song! It has vaguely atheistic overtones in lines such as 'They say there is a god above but all I ever learned from love was how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya' and is based on the old-testament story of King David who, despite all his power could not win the love of Bathsheba, leaving him feeling impotent and love sick. Hardly 'Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer'.

I suppose a Good performance of a song comes down to intent and on shows like Australian Idol it always appears to me like the performers are focused on creating a fan base and a career in the industry rather than interpreting a song. Young Talent Time is worse. I hate seeing the fear in the eyes of the young performers as they contemplate being beaten up at school on Monday or displeasing their pushy parents who are vicariously living their dreams through their children.

Ultimately I think there is nothing wrong with someone being a good singer as long as they interpret the song with some feeling, have a sense of understatement and can deliver a song with honesty. It's hard to think of anyone who is the whole package. Even if the performers possess all these criteria they end up being achingly attractive which makes it hard for me to buy the idea that they have ever been hurt in love. Maybe Susan Boyle should sing Silver Jews songs.

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