The Triumph of Vulgarity in Popular Singing
Of the many nefarious effects televised singing contests have had on American culture, the most harmful and lasting one is the debasement of musicality and the apotheosis of vulgarity. This syndrome has been simmering forever; lately, it’s boiling. We’ve been conditioned to embrace and celebrate the elements of popular music that are least musical and the most self-aggrandizing.
“American Idol” and its ilk have transformed what once was sublime art into a kind of athletic contest. Folks who don’t know much about music have been given a new (and flawed) paradigm. Popular culture has told them repeatedly that great singing is akin to great gymnastics: the higher you jump and the more ornately you twirl about, the better the experience. Professional singers jokingly refer to melisma (the rococo fioratura that turns one-syllable words into a run of twelve different notes) as “vocal Olympics.” Sadly, to unsophisticated listeners it’s no joke. They really think that the more a singer ululates and screams, the better the singing is.
My two word rejoinder: Shirley Horn.
Since most people read the preceding paragraph and ask, “Shirley Who?” perhaps it’s better to examine the singing of someone everybody knows and almost everybody loves, Aretha Franklin.
Since her landmark 20th Century recordings, Franklin’s chops have steadily eroded, which tends to happen when you’re doing all that yelling. Several years ago, at an NBA All-Star game in her native Detroit, she lip-synched the national anthem. Her alarming weight gain and reported fear of flying have made live appearances rarer, yet the public still considers her the “Queen of Soul,” although, to my ear, there is more soul in one Esther Phillips recording than in Franklin’s entire catalogue. Given the grandest stage of all time at President Obama’s inauguration, where millions gathered and possibly billions more watched on TVs and computers, Aretha Franklin had the opportunity to redeem both herself and the dwindling art of singing. Instead, she put into practice all that is horrible about modern popular singing: the unlovely shouting, the meaningless ornamentation, the utter disconnection between vocalist and lyrics. Fortunately for Franklin, none of the censors with their finger poised above the 7-second delay button bleeped out the opening line of her perfromance, which, because of poor breathing and nonsensical phrasing, came out sounding like an objectionable term for female genitalia: “Myyy cun [breath] treeee tis of thee”
Her out-of-tune arpeggios were awful, but not nearly as bad as someone named Keyshia Cole, whose version of our national anthem at the recent De la Hoya-Pacquiao fight was possible the most vulgar rendition ever delivered on live TV — which is saying something considering what Roseanne Barr infamously did to the song at a baseball game many years ago. Ms. Cole is young enough to have come of age in the Age of Idol, and you can tell by her utter ignorance of what she’s singing that it is the notes that count to her (and her fans), not the song. These musical infants would do well to consider what Mr. William Basie said to those who marveled at his minimalist right-hand plinking: It isn’t how many notes you play. It’s which ones.
The embrace of musical vulgarity isn’t limited to soul singers. Public Television, fulfilling a heretofore unannounced mandate to give viewers exactly what they can get on commercial TV, has been airing a concert special featuring David “Hitmaker” Foster, who has either written or produced dozens of the most popular songs of the age. The PBS concert consists of Foster playing piano while a parade of stars extol his genius and shout their hearts out, after which he extols their “amazing” and “unbelievable” talent. By “unbelievable,” I take Foster to mean “difficult to fathom how someone could be blessed with so much ability to wail in tune.” But his singing guests really are “unbelievable” in the simple meaning of the word. You don’t believe a word they’re uttering. For example, the producer’s latest cash cow is a 16-year-old sprite from the Philippines named Charice. This tiny girl has a huge, dark voice, an astonishing instrument. But, according to the Laws of Idol, Foster and her handlers think the best application of this gift is to have her shout adult songs (the content of which she can’t possibly understand) while teetering around the stage in a fully choreographed pantomime of arm waves and fist pumps, knee-bends and jumpy hops. The result is something between trained monkey and carnival barker — and, naturally, that kind of thing earns a genuine and appreciative standing ovation. For the audience’s expectations (Louder! Higher! Louder!) have been well met.
We are indeed all lying in the gutter, though some, as certain Irish poets would have us believe, are still reaching for the stars. Antiquated notions like sincerity and honesty have little place in our conception of great singing. So long as you deliver a torrent of notes with at least a few “money” fermatas in the mix, there’s no use in seeking the sublime. Not when your audience celebrates everything that isn’t.