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« One Size Doesn't Fit All | Main | Guest posting -- Chris Bertram »

December 19, 2002

Free Reads -- Kevin Michael Grace

Friedrich --

Have you ever marveled at how little conventional singing gal pop singers do these days? And how much outright whooping, trilling, sliding and warbling they do? I sure have. "What is this? A contest to see how many notes can be hit, and how many vocal effects can be shown off?" -- that's how I tend to react.

Kevin Michael Grace marvels at it too, and does so much more amusingly and articulately.

Sample passage:

Remember that woman who suffered seizures whenever she heard Mary Hart’s voice? I get like that whenever I hear any of the Melismatics—Christina, Céline, Whitney, Mariah. (When did emotion get conflated with trying to cough up a lung, anyway? I blame Barbra Streisand.) I don’t black out; I just want to vomit or howl like a beaten dog. (Much as Christina, Céline, Whitney and Mariah do, come to think of it.)

Let's hear it for intelligent, amusingly grumpy conservative cultural commentary. (Which isn't, of course, to say that we shouldn't also cheer for amusing and intelligent lefty cultural commentary. Hey, this is the arts. Disagreements should be fun and enlightening.)

Kevin's blog The Ambler can be read here.



posted by Michael at December 19, 2002


I couldn't agree more. That trend has been driving me bugf^@k for years now. Even my six year old has started copying my oft-heard shout at the radio, "Just sing the freakin note!" (Though she's not allowed to use the word "freakin" so she omits it.)

I think that's why I love the new pop song "Game of Love" from Santana sung by Michelle Branch - she just sings the song!

Posted by: Yahmdallah on December 19, 2002 12:12 PM

Hi, Yahmdallah, I'll track down "Game of Love," many thanks for the recommendation.

Any idea when the trend started? Is The Ambler right to suggest it began with Streisand? I hear lots of gospel in it myself, and part of what annoys me is that with gospel, the singers are in touch with the Spirit. (Supposedly, anyway.) Where with the warbling new popsters, they just seem to be in touch with -- well, who knows? Cocaine? Their own crotches? The possibility of big paychecks? It's like pop culture (glitz, fame, drugs) itself is goosing them into this kind of get-it-all-out-there-all-the-time behavior.

Thoughts here, anyone?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 19, 2002 12:33 PM

Here's a theory (I mean, aside from the It's-all-Streisand's-fault one, which I'm actually willing to entertain about virtually everything: trouble in the middle east, famine, pestilence, the works...)

With modern production magic, virtually anyone can be made to sound like they can sing. (Except Kelly Osbourne - I pity the technician assigned to make something out of THAT) Given that, maybe the singers feel like they have to load up on the vibrato and ear-shattering screeches in order to signal "Look at me! I'm really singing here!" Otherwise, how would we know?

Now, if I were dictator, I'd take all these self-styled "divas" and lock them in a room with a cd of Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra (and for good measure, Bob Dylan) and not let them out until they understand it's about the song, dammit...

Posted by: jimbo on December 19, 2002 12:47 PM

Streisand to blame for everything? LOL: Seems like a good working theory...

Listening to the tracks these gals warble on, I sometimes wonder if there's even a song to be found down underneath the production values and the vocal acrobatics. Do you think there is? Maybe before locking the singers in a room with Ella and Frank, you should give the songwriters a good tongue-lashing first.

Come to think of it, about ten years ago a friend who runs a little out-in-the-hicks recording studio told me something odd had happened. Local punk-band kids come to his place to cut their first CDs. They used to come with songs, my friend told me, and he could help them punch what they had into a better song, being a former pop musician himself. These (ie., starting ten years ago) days, the kids were showing up with beats and sounds. My friend would suggest ways of turning what they had into songs, and these new kids wouldn't have any of it. Songs, phooie. They just wanted to set the sounds to a beat.

Do you suppose that's what the new pop music is? Sounds laid over beats, with a lot of warbling on top? All of it made to shimmer, fwoof and sparkle, and then decorated with copious helpings of thighs, piercings and bellybuttons?

I haven't followed pop music in 15 years, so you can be frank with me if all I'm displaying here is my out-of-it geezerhood...

Posted by: Michael on December 19, 2002 12:59 PM

I noticed the trend started in earnest when Mariah Carey's career took off. She would do those canine-torturing notes to show of her range at first, but when even she must've realized doing that for every song was getting silly, she started in with the melisma. Soon every hip-hop group started doing the same thing. By the time Ms. Spears hopped onto the scene, it was the standard form of style and phrasing - kinda like the way Sinatra's popularity transformed the pop music of his day and everyone started singing and phrasing the way he did.

Streisand did it occasionally, but as a nice touch and not the constant show-offy way it's done now.

The only place I saw that kind of vocalization happen before in the pop world (outside of spiritual singing as you mentioned, of course) was the video/song "We Are the World" where the USA's biggest musical egos of the day where packed together in one room for the event. It was clearly showing off and one-upmanship there, too. But thank God most of the artists didn't continue to sing like that on their own recordings.

At least, that's how I remember the early days of this egregious fad.

As for noises over beats (not real song structures), yeah, that's a solid trend. Electronica, raves and rap have foisted that horror upon our older ears. There are still bands out there, but clubs and companies prefer the DJ/sample freak over a group because the sample freak is cheaper to hire, easier to control, and the samples are often from a label's back catalogue, so they rake in even more bucks from the old songs, while making money on the "new" one, too.

However, thanks to the White Stripes, the Strokes, Sleater-Kinney, and the Foo Fighters, rock is about to have another rebirth.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on December 19, 2002 1:57 PM

"We Are the World"... Mariah Carey ... That does kinda bring something back, doesn't it? Warble, warble, swoop, trill... Though I'm not sure I should be saying "Thanks for the memories."

Hey, any votes on whether this new style will show any staying power? Or whether it's just a passing fad?

Yahmdallah, I admire your continued interest in pop music. Once I got into my 30s, keeping up (and doing the necessary sifting and sorting) just got to seem more and more tiring, and less and less rewarding. I found myself barely even listening to pop or rock. These days, it's all jazz, classical, blues, c&w.

Do you find that your listening tastes are changing as you (ahem) age?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 20, 2002 8:25 PM

This would be why the female groups I listen to tend to be folks like Melissa Ethridge and the Indigo Girls. That throaty three-pack-a-day singing voice is much easier on the ears. (And, to my tastes, the singers are also much easier on the eyes...)

Posted by: Cybrludite on December 20, 2002 10:59 PM

I think Gospel has something to do with the current pop tendency to hit 27 notes when one or two might suffice, although I don't really know enough about the genre to say anything too deep.

Couple that with the fact that pop music is much more about beats than anything else (although I think this is the continuation of a trend that has been going on in pop music since rock in the 50s) and you basically have your contemporary pop music: beats, with gospelly/R&B/Hip-hip on top of it.

Re getting older. I must admit, all the midriffs of the moment sound EXACTLY THE SAME to me, namely boring/annoying. Can't keep up and don't know why I should bother. It's music for 12 year old kids.

So it's jazz and electronic music for me pretty much. (The latter is not all crude dance music - although there's nothing wrong with that if you want to dance). Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada, etc.

I do think people mistake (or present) histrionics for emotion. I dunno why exactly. The music is so dull real emotion is unavailable? I think you're on to something with your Streisand Hypothesis too.

Posted by: me on December 21, 2002 1:52 AM

Dave's Law of Pop Music: If all the people doing a particular art form are beautiful, then the art form can't be difficult.

All you need are album-cover looks, some dance moves, and a nice belly. What's worse is that there are no adult voices in pop these days.

Posted by: Freezing in Chicago on December 21, 2002 8:30 PM

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