Thursday, February 10, 2011

It's Not Christina's Fault. It's Ours.

Christina Aguilera's mangling of the "Star Spangled Banner" last Sunday was in many ways, worse than any previous manglings, including Roseanne Barr's crotch-grabbing rendition. Well, from a musical point of view, anyway. This debacle should not have come as a surprise to anyone. Aguilera, a certified pop star, has made a career out of oversinging or, as legendary producer Jerry Wexler coined it, "oversouling." She is not the the sole offender.

I posted an article by John Eskow on The Huffington Post on my Facebook page. You could read his piece HERE. But one of my friend's comments on my FB struck me. He was addressing the term "melisma," which very simply is "a group of notes sung to one syllable of text."

"Stevie (Wonder) plays with melody but brilliantly....A James Ingram, again, good at it...but Ms. Houston made a cottage industry out of mutilating a song in this fashion....and now we're stuck with this seemingly forever, cross-generationally...."

Remember the scene in "Annie Hall," when Annie and Alvy are waiting on line for a movie, and that "guy" is "pontificating" about Bergman behind them. Alvy pulls Marshall McLuhan out from behind the movie poster, and McLuhan proceeds to tell this putz a thing or two. Woody Allen's character says, "If life were only like this."

Isn't it, at least to some degree, with music? Was there a moment, as far back as Aguilera's first recording session, where she hadn't been "oversouling?" I'd say no, since everything on her debut points to the contrary. My friend also went on to say that this phenomenon is "
the absolute destruction of popular music as we know it today, or what seemingly passes for it." Maybe a bit overdramatic, but I don't disagree.

I think the first really BIG act to melisma their way to stardom was Boyz II Men. Do you think Jerry Wexler would have allowed this if he had been at the recording session? Those Boyz barely sung in key. Listen to their hits. They sound like a 45 you had to try and center on your turntable because you lost your adapter. It was all downhill, with everyone from Mariah Carey to Whitney to the bane of my existence, Mary J. Blige, a singer who flings notes like shit against a wall, and hopes that some of it sticks.

I give credit to Whitney Houston. Her performance of "The National Anthem" was straight. And very moving, albeit pre-recorded. Marvin Gaye did the same. Even Seattle power-popsters delivered a remarkable version, in harmony. It was simple and made its point. Listen here:


It's too late now, but it's hard to blame Christina Aguilera for what people have been unfathomably praising for so long. It should have been stopped with MTV. We, the music buying public, should have said no from day one.


steve simels said...

Actually, I think it predates Boyz II Men.

If memory serves, the first big time singer to do it was Patti LaBelle.

And I've used Wexler's "oversouling" for ages, but when I do I always follow it with the proviso that "a less rarifed way of saying it is simply 'bad singing.'"

Sal Nunziato said...

Good point about Labelle. Even better one with "bad singing."

Anonymous said...

I missed this during the actual broadcast--fetching another beer. I love the WTF look on that Packer's face when she goes rogue on the lyrics.

Great line, Sal, about throwing out notes like shit against a wall. Perfectly describes this performance too. Her choices seem utterly random.

Bruce H.

steve simels said...

I must say though that until I looked at the photo you posted, I had never noticed that Ms. Aguilera has really enormous, uh, tracts of land, if you take my meaning.

Sal Nunziato said...

Whenever I mention Mary J, or Boyz, or R. Kelly or any of the new wave of soul singers not singing on key, I am often hit with something like,"Oh that's because you know so much about music. People who just listen to the radio don't notice it."

HOW is that possible? I don't know think you need to know much to recognize bad singing. We all laughed at Alfalfa Schweitzer, didn't we? What is is that so many do NOT see or hear with these inferior singers?

itsok2beright said...

The rules for singing The National Anthem:

Rule 1: Do not make it your song.
Rule 2: If you want to make it your song, see rule #1.
Rule 3: Don't forget the lyrics.

It seems simple enough to me.

Even Steven Tyler broke the rules when he sang it for the Indy 500. He actually changed the lyrics from 'The Home of The Brave" to "The Home of the Indianapolis 500". Even as a huge race fan, that pissed me off.

@Steve: Those tracts of land are unnaturally farmed.

Sal Nunziato said...

"If you want to make it your song, see Rule #1."


cooljerk said...

I'm glad you brought this up...and I'm glad your readers agree...somthing about the anthem--when I hear it done well, it can bring tears to my eyes (hey, you got a problem with that?)...on the other hand when it gets butchered like Christina's version, I feel insulted...(maybe it's just me). This souless singing style which has sickened me since I first encounted it on Ed McMahon's Star Search has somehow maintained it's popularity. Today it is the style de rigeur of nearly all the vocal gymnasts appearing on American Idol. Can we unite to stop the onslaught? Is it too late? I'm sure it is the right and freedom of vocalists to sing in whatever style they decide, but if we ban together, seek out the perpetrators, bring them to light, create a united backlash...I think we can do this...I think......I.........I.............

Anonymous said...

Actually, I blame the NFL. How could they possibly have hired her and not have expected the NA to get mangled? Like Mariah Carey (and oh, so many others), this bird can't pass a note without getting goo all over it.

Guess it was just another one of those warbler malfunctions.

big bad wolf said...

yeah, you right

Leslie said...

I can't believe I am going to comment on this but, Steve, I think that picture was taken shortly after she had given birth. If you take my meaning.

steve simels said...

Anonymous Leslie said...

I can't believe I am going to comment on this but, Steve, I think that picture was taken shortly after she had given birth. If you take my meaning.


My bad.

Rushbo... said...

Kudos for choosing the Posies to illustrate your point. Now THATS the way you do it.
Last night in the UK a fascinating documentary was aired on 'Without You' and Ms Carey got a real kicking from the great and the good over her "50 notes for the price of 1" approach. Here's my tips for a successful vocal performance:
Find a note
Make sure it's the right note

Thanks for being a sensible voice in a choir of crap.

Sal Nunziato said...

Just watched Marvin Gaye's version from the 1983 NBA All-Star Game.

It's here.

Gotta say @itsok2beright, he made it his own.

JB said...

When I hear the kind of overblown vocal gymnastics that are being discussed here, I am reminded of how I feel when I see a dog that is licking it's... self.

Perhaps the dog is enjoying it, but it does absolutely nothing for me.

In fact, I'd say the same thing to the singer that I say to the dog on those occasions:

"Show Off!!"

vanwoert said...

I like to call it "urban yodeling"

Brooklyn Girl said...

I give credit to Whitney Houston. Her performance of "The National Anthem" was straight. And very moving, albeit pre-recorded.

Yes, it was.

Just sing the damn thing straight, please. The less embellishment, the better.

I didn't realize how awful Aguilera really is until I saw "Shine a Light", where she tried to out-sex Mick Jagger ... epic FAIL.

And my word is "burable" ...

Leslie said...

@Steve, I posted a link to this in a Facebook group. The only comment was also about her "real estate". :)

Ya, I watched the Marvin Gaye vid, too. Tried to sing along but had no idea where he was going. :(

I once saw someone comment that Shania Twain and Cindy Lauper are the best female singers EVER! Holy bejeebus! I bet they love Winter, too.

Sal Nunziato said...

Leslie, not sure if "not being able to sing along" means you liked it or hated it. I think it's quite amazing. I am moved everytime.

Leslie said...

I don't love it. I don't hate it. It's not offensive. I don't explode with pride upon hearing it. But THIS one: gave me goosebumps. That's my national anthem. What's wrong with that?

Anything Should Happen said...

Somebody mentioned oversouling to me yesterday and now I find Sal explaining it all.

All this Mariah wailing led to X Factor versions of Hero infinitum and that's surely a good thing because it ensures that ITV in the UK doesn't put on another show about selling all your stuff to go on a cruise or celebrity gurning or My Mother is a cruise missile.

Always thought that Star Spangled thing was a bit overrated personally.

BTW Mariah's version of Without You haunts me still and to think it may have been the first time da kidz heard the song.

Albert said...

Personally I dislike The National Anthem as a song...I'd like to see it replaced with Shaddap You Face by Joe Dolce....if do-able....

Eric said...

and she has the chutzpah to be on stage with the stones/Scorsese----

"my Keith would never allow that"
Doris from Eastlands-LIFE

i think r. kelly does have the pipes---- his "closet" movie-video-cum opera is genius.

Finally, I did sit through a mets-pirates game in 99' where Piazza's guitar buddy, zakk wylde, delivered such an awful version of black francis scott key's song, that the players covered their ears

jimbo said...

Is it still melisma if the singer simply can't hold one note and quavers all over the place? Or does melisma require intent? So it would be manslaughter instead of murder, but the net of it is an innocent song has been killed. And you don't kill a national anthem. Ever.

To me, it should be an honor to be asked to perform a national anthem, not an invitation to create your next hit single. Aguilera bugged me with her little wave at the beginning, then proceeded to raise my ire as we tumbled our way through the rest of her 'performance'. She should have been booed outta there, IMO.