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-generational
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.