Why are pop singers so samey and sexless?

Essay27 June 2005
Why are pop singers so samey and sexless?
The critically acclaimed chansonnier wonders what has happened to her art.

by Barb Jungr

The Jazz Cafe, packed to the gills. From every rafter and occupying every inch of floor space, there are expatriate Brazilians of all ages.

The band walks on to the stage to tune and prepare. We cheer, then fall silent in anticipation. Finally, our effort is rewarded: on to the stage totters (and not only because of the shoes) an elderly lady, a singer of great repute. Elsa Soares has entered the building! For a good hour and a half she keeps us well entertained. She has done everything it is possible to do to look younger: she is dressed, incredibly, like a sort of erotic punk goth; her face is a testament to some superb surgeon’s artistry. But she sings, and sounds, like a woman, and all of the audience, young and old, love her for it.

Switch on the radio, grab a glance at MTV. Because something odd is happening, and it’s been going on for a while now. Here, it appears that there are few women or men anywhere to be heard. There are the breathy voices of ingenues; the mewling of babies; the shouts of a teenage tantrum; the whines of adolescent boys. BoyzIIMen? Please.

Nowhere, it seems, is there a Frank Sinatra – and please, please don’t try to sell me Robbie Williams in this context. Suddenly and like a breath of fresh air a couple of weeks ago – and only, it must be stressed, because a comedian helped it along the way – Tony Christie’s Is This The Way To Amarillo? was back in the British pop charts and all about the place. And it stood out a mile. Not because of the production or the song, but because even when it was first recorded, Tony Christie was no spring chicken. He has the voice of a real bloke! Deep, resonant, his full, open-chested, mid-range, solid, man’s voice rejoices in singing about a romantically-named Texas town. It’s a surprise because it appears that his is the only voice like it of its kind, in the public consciousness, at the moment.

Christie was 28 when he recorded that hit, in 1971, five years after he put out his first single. That same year Rod Stewart’s rough-hewn diamond of a voice beseeched Maggie May to get up, and Mungo Jerry’s growl spilled out from the midst of his massive sideburns; Tony Orlando, and Noddy Holder of Slade, alongside George Harrison (with My Sweet Lord) and Dave Edmunds, all sang their ways to the top of the charts. Yes, there was also the thrilling whisper of Marc Bolan, and the sweet harmonising of The Tams. There was also Benny Hill, and, with that kitsch classic Grandad, Clive Dunn. In short, there was a range of vocal timbres to be heard.

When Minnie Riperton sang Lovin’ You, we marvelled at her childlike vocalisings. That superb light bird of a voice, spiralling up into the stratosphere usually inhabited only by full-throated sopranos, thrilled. The Stevie Wonder co-production of her Perfect Angel album, and that defining track, made her a household name. Previously she’d been a backing singer, to Fontella Bass, Etta James and other Chess Records artists. In the early 1970s, Riperton’s unique vocal timbre was surprising. Suzi Quatro had success that year with her rasp, Abba were hardly girls singing. Pop voices, yes, but childlike? No. Think of the adult longing in Agnetha’s voice when she sang; ‘Where are those happy days? They seem so hard to find – I tried to reach for you, but you have closed your mind. Whatever happened to our love?’

What are we to make of this phenomenon of our times? All of us dressing, it appears, as teenagers; all of us, apparently, sounding like them too. Why are some cultures’ sounds instantly recognisable? Why and how do we hear the ‘open throat’ singing of the Balkans or the bel canto operatic voice and understand what it means, culturally, inside and outside the social space? Inside and outside our inner selves, deep in our own emotional landscapes. It is fascinating to note how narrow the parameters of popular vocal timbres in our culture have become in a relatively short space of time.

Timbre is endlessly interesting. Like a thumbprint, it distinguishes one voice from another. As with many aspects of music, words often fail to describe the subtle nuances that distinguish one voice from another, that enable us to recognise Tony Bennett as distinct from Sinatra just by the sound of their voices and not by the stylistic features which their art employs.

And vocal timbre, or tone, is learned. The ways that the human body manifests vocal sounds are similar in all singers. The larynx, the lungs, the diaphragm, tongue, lips, oral and nasal cavities all play their part, but how the singer manipulates these provides for a huge range of possibilities. In the West, for example, the span of vocal timbres encompasses everything from operatic bel canto to the vibrato-free nasality of the folk singer, the low and husky voice associated with jazz singing to the ‘belt’ commonly heard on the West End and Broadway musical stages, plus many more.

During the learning and acculturative process, every singer matches his or her vocal sound by ear to the sounds they wish to emulate. Eliza Carthy grew up in perhaps Britain’s best-known folk-singing dynasty; unsurprisingly she sounds like a folk singer. In rural and more ‘traditional’ musics in non-, or less, industrialised societies, timbre was and is learned from other singers. In our society, most usually, timbre is learned from recordings, with radio and. increasingly, television playing their parts.

So what happened? After the huge influence of crooners and jazz singers, which successfully challenged the light opera voice, the 1950s and 60s brought further changes to the ways we heard popular singers.

Suddenly it was open house. From country and western, through to soul and the blues, anything was possible; and, of course, with the arrival of Elvis Presley, became so. Even as a young man, that’s what Presley sounded like – a man. And from that first single on Sun records, That’s Alright Mama, a very sexy man; that voice oozed sexuality.

When John Lennon stepped to the microphone, Presley’s and Chuck Berry’s and Little Richard’s voices ringing in his own head, he brought himself, all of his Liverpool upbringing, hopes and dreams, to the mix. He had, even through all those boyish lyrics, a man’s voice. Likewise in the young Mick Jagger’s singing voice, though his influences are clear, an individual, adult sexual identity shines through.

Tom Jones’ voice burst through the radio much as his hips seemed in danger of bursting through the TV screen, and though he may have been marketed as ‘a British Elvis’, you could never have mistaken the one for the other. Through punk, the new romantics, soft rock, all through the 1970s and 80s, the personalities, the bodies and souls, the ‘grain’ of the voices (as Barthes had come to name this subtle, sonic, physical quality), resonated through endless recordings, their span of timbres and associated meanings ever widening.

After the big-voiced singing of disco (the falsetto-voiced Gibb brothers being an exception here) came the hard beats of house. When house started (think of Black Box’s Ride on Time) the sampling process created new ‘shouts’ or ‘hollers’ outside of the context of the emotional and dynamic musical framework of the original source material. Session singers were then employed to ad-lib these ‘shouts’ with no traditional song/emotional structure.

The djs who made these records were producers and not musicians; they were simply playing with sounds, but that act of separation of context from timbre was to have a profound effect. Where timbre was not dissociated in that way, for example in Moby’s use of the early Alan Lomax recordings, the raw beauty of the sampled singers was noticeably different, and sales soared.

In trance music, the wispy voice found its true niche, and from that scene spread into pop. Those wispy, breathy, airy, disembodied female sounds worked very well indeed alongside the roar of the electronic drum. They spoke of humanity confined by electronics. And the breathy voice has become associated with sex. Paralleling the rise of AIDS and HIV, trance kept the sex way above the body and well in the throat, where it couldn’t do any harm.

Alongside this, in soul music, a set of vocal gymnastics was becoming a new indicator of authenticity within the genre. Without doubt drawing influence from earlier great vocalists whose stylistic traits and tone easily identified them, changes in the way music was written and recorded provoked a highly stylised vocal production. These song structures were designed in studios, not on pianos in Tin Pan Alley. They did not have the breadth of harmonic and melodic architecture that ‘confined’ singers to delivering the song. These new structures abandoned the rigidity of traditional melodic and harmonic shapes. The singer, thus ‘liberated’, must now vocally gyrate around the repetitive patterns of the musical frame, making their mark through elaborate ornamentation. This style has become so prevalent that it appears it has now permeated other musical genres.

In a recent New York Times article, theatre critic Ben Brantley proposed that ‘the style of vocalising that is rewarded on American Idol – by its panel of on-air judges and by the television audience that votes on the winners – is both intensely emotional and oddly impersonal. The accent is on abstract feelings, usually embodied by people of stunning ordinariness, than on particular character. Quivering vibrato, curlicued melisma, notes held past the vanishing point: the favourite technical tricks of Idol contestants are often like screams divorced from the pain or ecstasy that inspired them’.

This separation of ‘authentic’ emotion from its performed facsimile links these two ubiquitous phenomena in contemporary singing – the breathy child and the gymnastic vocaliser.

Ben Brantley argued that the influence of American Idol had infiltrated musical theatre voice production, provoking a fascinating debate about singing styles and the ways that they have changed. He suggests a way forward: ‘We must cherish such performers. Good, well-trained voices that can carry a tune and turn up the volume come cheap. What does not is the voice that identifies a character as specifically and individually as handwriting.’

And herein lies the problem. It doesn’t ‘come cheap’ to develop voices. It doesn’t come cheap to invest in talent, to allow it to mature, to support its development and cherish its blossoming. We ‘find’ our voices, over time, experience and understanding. The young Aretha Franklin made many recordings between 1960 and 1965 at Columbia before finding her greatest successes on Atlantic Records. Ella Fitzgerald readily acknowledged the debt she owed to her mentor, Chick Webb.

And record companies in times past had very different understandings of A&R, or ‘Artist and Repertoire’. Recently a friend and ex-A&R man told me that times had changed. ‘A&R’, he said, ‘now stands for absent and redundant’. In times past, an A&R man – because they were, pretty much exclusively, male – would help an artist to find songs, perhaps put them with specific musicians and arrangers. The role was creative and at its best, led to relationships which fostered the performer’s growth, over time. If a company had a great success with something, other people would look for someone to equal that success, sure, but they wouldn’t be looking for something identical, because what was appreciated was difference. If you couldn’t hear an artist’s sound as distinctive, who would want it?

Add to this heady mix the present expertise of studio operators and the expansion of digital recording techniques, and what you have is the possibility to take voices and render them apparently in tune and significantly altered in tone. This is achieved by using the auto tuner, which effectively flattens out the vocal to the exact tonal pitch, removing all the idiosyncrasies that make a voice special into the bargain.

Then factor in a society where people in their mid-twenties live at home – for endless reasons, unable to make the steps into adulthood. A culture of fast-fix, where it seems that what is best required for commercial success is to be the most like, the closest to, the nearest approximation of, something already on the market. Add to that a reluctance to engage in real emotion, but to emulate what appears to be ‘sound-alike’ emotion, and what you get is a wall-to-wall carpet of similarity of either tone or vocal styling and increasing youthfulness.

Dido and Katie Melua exemplify this model for endless replicants of a thread of breathy vocalising. Soul sisters gyrate on MTV cunningly sounding wildly improvisational and yet curiously indistinguishable from one another. Where is the new Aretha? The new Ella or Billie? Well, I’d hazard a guess that the young Aretha wouldn’t have got past the door of any of the major record companies today. They wouldn’t know what to do with her. Whatever one now thinks of Donna Summer, it’s curious to note that when she was singing her early disco hits, she always sounded like Donna Summer. When she teamed up with Stock, Aitken and Waterman, she just sounded like anybody else on their roster; they managed to expunge the sex even from Donna Summer – hell, that’s some achievement!

The voice has come to mean so much more than its sound. ‘Feminists’, Leslie C Dunn and Nancy A Jones tell us, ‘have used the word “voice” to refer to a wide range of aspirations: cultural agency, political enfranchisement, sexual autonomy, and expressive freedom, all of which have been historically denied to women’. They examined the audible voice and found that ‘it, too, has been a site of women’s silencing, as well as an instrument of empowerment’.

The ’embodied voice’ brings with it a number of associations: the full voice of the mother, the soaring song of the siren, the voice of seduction and the voice of death. The idea of the ‘diva’, in this case, draws on a very different understanding of vocality than perhaps is suggested by Britney Spears. Voices that stay in the throat, that operate above the sexual body, bring a very different and specific message, and even if we don’t consciously know all of this, we understand it on a deeper level. There are contemporary parallels of course with fashion, movement, politics, economics.?br class=”NetscapeDummy”/>

And record companies do play their role in this. The legendary producers who worked with the great voices of even recent years played a longer game. The turnover of artists now is faster. They are not necessarily any younger (though some are), but they are never given the time to develop.

Current television ads sell a couple of new, young singer-songwriters. One is hailed as ‘the soundtrack to your summer’. Sorry to point this out, but it can only be the soundtrack to my summer after the event. Selling it to me as such beforehand seems slightly premature, or unbelievably optimistic! And he sounds like a mewling babe. On hearing the young Dylan, a fan, interviewed in CP Lee’s Like The Night (Revisited), recalls that Dylan sounded like a ravaged old blues singer and not the young man he then was. But instant hyperbole and big campaigns with TV advertising cannot make a new Dylan or a new Aretha. Time, and talent, does that. That young audiences can be fooled is not a cost-effective game plan. When they realise they have been taken, they will not come back. There’s a reason that singles sales have fallen and Top of the Pops has lost its cultural value.

And so the voices we hear seem to speak only of, and only to, youth; of sexlessness or of simulated sexuality, neither of which somehow connect with us on deeper levels. They form a fascinating part of a much bigger picture.

Bling! goes the jewellery. Bling! go the footballers’ wives’ false breasts and the skimpy strapped tops. The aspirations of the young are changing: it’s an ‘anyone can do it’ culture. According to a recent radio report, a group of 10-year-old girls, asked in class what they wanted to be when they grew up, answered ‘famous’. Fame, it appeared here, was measured by one’s photograph appearing in heat magazine. Fame must be achieved at all costs, and one very easy route to the red carpet is pop stardom, because anyone can sound like today’s singers.

And anyway, everything can be fixed in the studio (or on the operating table) and it doesn’t require any actual ability or any need to communicate. And more voices that all sound alike pour from radios and download on to telephones. And we, and they, are cheated of something. Only time will tell what the price of that will be.

‘마릴린 맨슨’ 결혼!

팝 아티스트 마릴린 맨슨이 오랫동안 사귀던 여자친구와 결혼식을 올렸다.

미국 사회단체들로부터 청소년에게 가장 유해한 아티스트로 지명되어 더욱 유명해지기도 한 팝 아티스트로 결혼과는 어울릴 것 같지 않던 그가 결혼식을 올렸다고 해 눈길을 끌고 있다.

피플지에 의하면 지난 3일(토) 60명의 팬들과 친지 그리고 친구들이 참석한 가운데 유럽의 아일랜드에서 결혼식을 올렸다고. 올해 36세인 싱어 마릴린 맨슨(본명 브라이언 워너)과 댄서 출신 디타 폰 테즈(본명 헤더 스위트(33))는 오랫동안 연인 관계로 지내왔었다.

마릴린 맨슨은 평소 독특한 얼굴 분장과 음악으로 큰 화제를 일으키는 가수로 원색적이고 냉소적인 노랫말 그리고  파격적인 스테이지에서의 퍼포먼스 등으로 공연 때마다 항상 화제를 불러 모았었다.

평소 안정적인 가정에 대해 부정적인 견해를 보여 온 그가 이번 결혼으로 향후 어떠한 모습으로 보여줄지 많은 팬들과 언론들이 궁금해 하고 있다.

지난 90년대 한창 섹시 컨셉트의 마돈나가 숀 팬과 결혼 이후 한동안 이전과 다른 얌전한 모습으로 활동을 했듯이 이번 맨슨의 결혼 이후 행보에 많은 이목이 집중되고 있다.

사진설명  :결혼식을 올리는 신랑 마릴린 맨슨과 신부 디타 폰 테즈

최인갑 기자 / master@reviewstar.net

나는 마릴린 맨슨의 광팬이다.
이는 그가 진정 왜 저런 모습으로 일관하는지에 대하여는 중요하게 생각치 않으며,
나름대로 사상과 철학이 있고 또는 없고에 대하여는 나와 상관없다.
나는 단지 그의 음악에서 보여주는 집중도에 놀랄 뿐

When Rockers Show Classical Chops

Jimmy Ienner Jr.
Roger Waters, late of Pink Floyd, recording “Ça Ira,” his new opera.

September 28, 2005
When Rockers Show Classical Chops

With “Ça Ira,” his new opera about the French Revolution, just released on a Sony Classical recording, Roger Waters joins a parade of rock stars who apparently harbor dreams of tuxedos and podiums. Sir Paul McCartney has written a handful of orchestral and choral works, large and small. Stewart Copeland, of the Police, beat Mr. Waters to the punch with his own opera, “Holy Blood and Crescent Moon.” Billy Joel has recorded an album’s worth of piano pieces, and Elvis Costello, with a ballet behind him, has written an opera as well.

It seems to be a part of the human condition that having established a specialty, we hanker to do something else. And far be it from me to say that we shouldn’t. But speaking as a classical music critic who also listens to lots of rock – and who wishes that more rock fans found classical music exciting as well – I must confess that I find many of these crossover incursions dispiriting.

For one thing, rock stars who become interested in classical music are bizarrely conservative. They may play the most electrifying, guitar-thrashing, edge-of-the-seat stuff with their own bands, but when they decide to write classical music, or what they think of as classical music, they reach for a quill instead of a pen. With the notable exception of Frank Zappa, whose reams of classical music reflect his fascination with Edgard Varèse and other modernists, rock musicians seem to think that the conventions of the 19th century are classical music’s current language.

Mr. Waters ought to have escaped that conservatism. His former band, Pink Floyd, was known for its almost symphonic experiments in timbre, structure and controlled dissonance. Its quasi-operatic magnum opus, “The Wall,” was thoroughly Mr. Waters’s baby.

Yet the overture to “Ça Ira” (“So It Will Be”) is couched in Brahmsian moves and sonorities, and the work rarely lurches forward. A listener soon bumps into orchestral effects that have their roots in Beethoven’s “Egmont” or, in more adventurous passages, Puccini’s “Tosca” or the Battle on the Ice from Prokofiev’s “Alexander Nevsky.”

Maybe Mr. Waters is mistaken to call this an opera. Yes, there are operatic things about it. The vocal writing is lyrical and often attractive, even if there is little in the way of full-fledged aria writing. There is a hefty amount of choral music, and it is supported by a rich orchestral score. (Mr. Waters had some help in the orchestration from Rick Wentworth, who conducts the recording.) And there are recognizably operatic voices: the baritone Bryn Terfel, the tenor Paul Groves and the soprano Ying Huang each sing several roles.

But if you were to walk into a room in which the CD happened to be playing, you would be far less likely to say, “Hey, it’s an opera” than “Hey, it’s one of those overblown musicals that have taken over Broadway” – or words to that effect. If you were feeling charitable, you might add, “At least it’s a few steps closer to Stephen Sondheim than to Andrew Lloyd Webber” – although if you stay long enough, you’ll go back and forth on that one, possibly settling on Claude-Michel Schönberg’s score for “Les Misérables.”

From a purely theatrical point of view, “Ça Ira” has a few nice touches: not least, the idea of presenting the early stages of the French Revolution as a three-ring circus, with the Ringmaster (one of Mr. Terfel’s roles) as a kind of singing history book and commentator. And it deals artfully with serious issues like tyranny, power, liberty and the difficulty of preventing revolutionary passions from being transformed into a form of terror that threatens to negate what has been gained.

No doubt there are some in classical music circles who see a sterling opportunity here, and a decade ago, I would have been one of them. In theory, rock stars who write classical works are telling their audiences that they see something special in this music, something inspiring in the old forms and in the idea of writing for orchestra and unamplified voices. And it isn’t unreasonable to expect that a new audience might be enlisted from fans who want to understand what drives their heroes, and who want to like what their heroes like.

When rock fans in the United States bought the first albums by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Kinks, they encountered cover versions of American rhythm-and-blues hits that white American listeners had ignored, and they quickly sought out the originals. Linda Ronstadt’s excursions into the worlds of Gilbert and Sullivan and cabaret standards in the 1980’s had a similar effect.

But rock fans barely tolerate classical music adventures by the musicians they admire. Sir Paul’s fans snapped up his “Liverpool Oratorio,” “Standing Stone” and “Working Classical” albums out of curiosity or because they were completists, but you suspect that few who weren’t already interested in classical music actually play those discs. When Sir Paul presided over a program of his orchestral music at Carnegie Hall in 1997, the place was packed with people who sought a glimpse of him but who nodded off during the performances.

These crossovers tend not to do well from the other direction, either. Classical listeners find Billy Joel’s piano tinkling embarrassing and have been brutally critical of other musicians’ efforts as well. They may find it offensive that these musicians can get their baby steps recorded by major labels while trained, experienced, eloquent composers who don’t have rock affiliations have to pass the hat.

So here’s where rock stars enamored of classical music can make a difference. When they make their first classical albums, they might consider devoting their royalties – a pittance, compared with those generated by their other work – to a fund that would support recordings by actual classical composers.

“Yeah, right,” you say, but there is a precedent of sorts. In 1989, Elliott Carter received a telephone call from Phil Lesh, the bassist for the Grateful Dead. Mr. Carter had no idea what the Grateful Dead was, but when he and Mr. Lesh met, the following May, Mr. Lesh brought a stack of Mr. Carter’s music, which he knew intimately.

Mr. Lesh, it turned out, wanted to underwrite a recording of Mr. Carter’s music through the Grateful Dead’s Rex Foundation, which has quietly given grants to other composers as well.

Now that’s doing something useful. If Mr. Lesh wrote and recorded an opera, I’d happily give it a spin.