Friday, January 28, 2011

the dividend of years of improper vocal technique: train wreck

oh. em. gee.

You may or may not know that like several on me blogroll, I am a classically trained singer. Yes, it sounds frouffy and pretentious, but it's true. I can ho jo to ho with the best of them, baby. Or worst. For reals.

I started vocal training well into adulthood, and one result of my rigorous training was that while my enjoyment of non-classical music was undiminished, I brought a much more critical ear to the table and technical failings could impede my ability to hear a piece of music for its own merits.

I always found slightly askew music appealing and now I better understand why. I adored Richard Butler's vocalisation in the Psychedelic Furs. Same with David Gahan of Depeche Mode. Now I recognize that part of their wonky appeal is that each of these singers doesn't quite center their pitch over the note they are singing. Gahan is an example of a singer whose vibrato takes them a smidge away from the tone they are singing and makes it sound almost off-key, and this is part of his charm. Butler's technique is odd with a forced vibrato and this probably plays in to his pitch issues. But I love them. My affection for their sounds are firmly cemented.

I've generally balked at so-called-popular music. I always listened to music which was often technically and generally textually superior to the mass-marketed crap on the radio. I am exceedingly fond of P.J. Harvey (who has some interesting pitch issues going on occasionally, and on her, it's smokin' hawt) and Dead Can Dance and Imogen Heap. In the spirit of full disclosure, Whitney Houston makes me want to scratch my own eardrums out, and Bette Midler's The Wind Beneath My Wings made my skin crawl in a not-good way. Bette was a great cabaret act, but the belting is not something one can sustain for a lifetime, unless you're Ethel Merman. She is not Ethel Merman. Celine Dion I can handle in (extremely) small doses (there is a little good technique going on there, but I do feel she abuses her instrument) such as a background piece of music in a loud restaurant scene in a movie for, like 5 seconds(no theme songs, please), and then that's it. That's me done with Celine Dion for the next decade. Oogy-quotient aside, Michael Jackson, admittedly, wrote some very melodically compelling music, but I never bought it and I certainly did tire of hearing him everywhere, all the time.

There are good singers, and then there are good vocalists. Very few have the felicity to possess both qualities. Bruce Springsteen? Scary voice, good singer. Neil Young? Eerie, odd voice, decent singer, better songwriter. Get the idea? Dione Warwick, great voice, great singer, but some scary vibrato issues. Apparently Whitney took the wrong lessons from the work of her auntie. Dolly Parton, good but odd voice, brilliant singer. Ronnie James Dio, superb instrument, very fine singer.

I am awed by the melodies of Burt Bacharach. Remember the Martini&Rossi ad campaign he did in the 70s with Angie Dickinson? That's just hawt. Say yes! Anyhoo, about 10 or so years ago, Burt teamed up with Elvis Costello (odd voice, brilliant singer and also superb songwriter) and they penned one of my all-time favorite songs, God Give Me Strength, which was featured in the film Grace Of My Heart and masterfully sung by (great voice, great singer) Kristen Vigard. This song is extremely complex in composition and the range is a brutal one for the chesty, typical vocal style of pop music. This is a song that 99.999% of the singers on the planet should reserve for the sanctity of their own showers when they are home alone. In the middle of nowhere.

So, on TV, in front of me and everybody, Bette Midler had to take a whack at the beehive and the result is a vocal train-wreck that made me absolutely doubt my senses. This is so incredibly poorly done that-- like watching an exploding septic tank-- I simply cannot look away. If this had been my first hearing of this song, I would have thought it was never in the same room with Messrs. Bacharach and Costello, let alone penned by them. The fawning comments below make me want to spew. I expect the link will be killed about 5 minutes after I put this up, but I'm doing it anyway. What you hear in this clip is the dividend of decades of improper singing.

Bette, honey, just stop. Please. You're hurting the children. You're hurting me. You're spoogeing up my favorite song, lady. Remove this from your repertoire. Immediately.

That is all.

Come to that, stop listening to Bette and wash the bad taste out with the version of it properly done:


Auntie J said...

I sang in a semi-professional a cappella college choir for a year and a half, and I'm one of the world's rarities: a true contralto. As a result, I do not listen to many female singers, I have zero vibrato, and a range that startles my baritone father and tenor husband on occasion.

The professor who directed our choir was really particular, and you have to be when performing a cappella music, since you are relying solely on voices. There were days in rehearsal that he'd chastise us for being an eighth of a step flat, when we knew the song; we were just being lazy.

And right there, you have the reason why I simply *can't* watch American Idol.

Shannon said...

Wow. I just learn something new..everyday...seriously. I feel as though I just read a chapter from a text book.

Joe Allen said...

I wasn't looking at first - I thought the first one was Barry White with a head cold...

BTW, just saw on Regretsy some NSFW footwear for you:

Carrie said...

I just adore Elvis Costello, and Bette Midler's voice clearly does not.

Great post.

Anonymous said...

Classically trained = music snob. Nobody cares about your opinion.

Christina RN LMT said...

Ouch. Bette just doesn't have the vocal range to do that song justice. At all.

And I can't STAND Whitney and Mariah and Celine, and all those other overwrought, hysterical, shrieking harpies. Jesus wept, they make me want to plug up my ears like Odysseus, just to preserve my sanity.

To me, the worst is when someone with those "stylings" butchers our national anthem. I'd like to throw a boot at 'em, like I would any other yowling cat.

Joe Allen said...

Anonymous = cloth-eared nincompoop.

I'd always wondered what sort of idle slackwit heaves themselves off the couch to respond "no opinion" to phone polls, now I know.

I'll not bother to point out that even the most rudimentary instruction can enhance and increase one's appreciation and understanding of any art form - it's clear that you're not burdened with an overabundance of education of any sort.

I'll just ask that if you're going to be boorish enough to insult our fine hostess, at least have the decency to sign your own name to it.

While you're having a listen to your "fuzzy warbles", have a look at the shoe link I posted earlier. It's directly applicable.

phlegmfatale said...

Auntie J - Wow. I would LOVE to hear you! A true contralto is a delight to hear. The funny thing about American Idol is that Simon Cowell is promoting a particular style of singing, and he's not always wrong in his comments, but I disagree with the tack they take in shaping a voice and a performer. The Velveeta Quotient is, well, it's unctuous.

Shannon - I'm complimented you should say so.

Joe Allen - LOLz!!! I think Barry White couldn't have sounded that bad unless he were seriously addled by pharmaceuticals and strong drink!
LOVE those shoes!

Anonymous - On opinions: I don't want to hate on Bette Midler. I think she's a very talented performer. I just think she is in vocal distress and needs to find a reputable vocal coach who can help her salvage what remains of what was a decent instrument. And she needs to stay away from songs that are beyond the current state of said instrument. The sticky wicket of the vocal coach scenario is that voice teachers are a ruthless and straightforward lot and will say brutally blunt things to a singer. Celebrities often think they have arrived and no longer need to tweak or train their instruments. The finest opera singers in the world, however, who pray to have a 30 year (or any) career onstage, will continue to work with voice teachers and coaches throughout their career to ensure they do not allow poor technique to creep in by degrees. More fading pop stars would do wise to emulate their classical cousins.

As for mean things said by vocal coaches or music snobs-- to make a living wage as a classical singer is statistically less likely than one having a professional football career, and considering the scores of thousands of students who enter training programs and repertories throughout the country every year, this must necessarily mean that the refinement of one's technique and ability to enjoy music is of a merit greater than any wages might ever afford.

By all means, enjoy what you like and ignore the critics. As I said in the post, I am not swayed by the tide of popular appeal, and obviously a whole lot of folks think their favorite singer shits candy, so, go forth and enjoy yourself.

Because I am passionate about music, I will continue to opine here on same. You are free not to read.

phlegmfatale said...

CARRIE: Elvis Costello is a fabulous songwriter and a brilliant musician. And his wife is hot stuff, too. Love. Him.

Christina - Hear! Hear! Actually, you two coupled with Jennifer are the folks I was thinking of as classically trained in my acquaintance. I strongly agree that all that noodling is annoying and does not advance the form. And you strike at the heart of one of my ultimate pet peeves: noodling around with our National Anthem. People who take that stately anthem and turn it into a noodle-fest in which they say "look what I can do" bore the ever-loving crap out of me. It's hard to sing that song straight. Impress me and sing it as written, and I'll give you propers. Screw with it, and it's not even the same song.

Oh, and one more thing to Joe Allen: Thanks for the follow up. I laughed out loud. Srsly!

Auntie J said...

Thanks for the compliment...not everyone appreciates a contralto! (Thankfully, my husband does.)