[Susan Andrews is a frequent reader of this site. We got into an email exchange about the state of today’s music which resulted in me inviting her to write up her thoughts in a guest blog. If you have an opinion on anything, lemme know and maybe we can arrange something. -AC]
My name is Susan and I’m an opinionated bitch in my late 40s. I’ve lived in Canada for most of my life, and have followed and been intrigued by all of the musical trends since the early 1970s to the present. I was never in a band, as I was a) somewhat shy and b) have no musical talent whatsoever. The opinions expressed here are mine alone, and Alan has been kind enough to let me turn an email into a guest blog. Address any pissiness to me, please, and kudos too. *pause to listen to the sound of a few million devices googling what ‘kudos’ means*
I like listening to new music and picking out not songs which have legs, and which will be no more than dazzling one-hit wonders. The best songs are built on a solid foundation of good music and, unless the act is a DJ like Moby or Fatboy Slim, or a multi-instrumentalist like Joe Satriani or Mike Oldfield, a good vocalist is needed to deliver the song.
Whether or not the lyrics and music are theirs, a band’s singer has to have a vocal style that is distinctive, so they don’t get lost in the shuffle – yet it has to be distinctive in a way that is appealing to the audience. Turn to any radio station and listen to your favourite female DJs. Listen to the pleasant lower register virtually all of them use. Now keep that in mind and read on.
Music is not much different from photography. In much the same way that PhotoShop can be used to improve an already good image, too much use of PhotoShop can also destroy that image. And NO amount of PhotoShop can save a bad image; the best thing to do with a poor image is to hit the delete button. The best photos out there don’t look like anything has been done to them. (The exception here is PhotoChop, as the practice of blending several different images together is generally called by those in the visual arts.)
But if the first thing you notice about a photo is the PhotoShop, the photo has failed. No, that is NOT a wax doll of a Kardashian on the cover of People magazine; it’s a heavily PhotoShopped, skin-smoothed photo of a Kardashian.
Now to get to my point. Autotune and studio tricks are audio versions of PhotoShop, and like PhotoShop, are being badly abused. And yes, I am going to pick on women here, mostly because I am a woman and have long been annoyed by certain female vocalists and their singing styles.
Let’s start with the ones that use their own voices to create vocal effects. The short list of women who annoy me with their own natural voices include the Stevie Nicks and Gwen Stefani; no matter what song they sing, they both sound like constipated sheep. For the longest time I thought the song Zombies, by The Cranberries, was by Alanis Morrissette as both singers use the effect of singing like a hyperventilating donkey.
Anyone else apart from me and your parents remember how Mick Jagger likened the breathy squeals of early Madonna to Minnie Mouse on helium? I don’t mind FUN and Carry You Home Tonight, but just try listening to Some Nights on my car radio. Before that annoying ‘Who I – Who I – Who I – Who I – aaaahh-aaahhh -aaaaahhh- ahhmmmm’ phrase kicks in, I’ve already switched to another station. And pulled over and kicked you out.
And the sad thing is that the painful vocal delivery of these songs, by these singers, is that they completely kill the song altogether. I know these are all successful artists and many have won all kinds of awards. Still. I don’t give a damn about how meaningful or well-written the lyrics might be and how well the rest of the band is doing – if the singer sings in an unappealing fashion, off goes the radio.
Of course, there are male vocalists who do all kinds of weird things in their songs – Elton John’s joyfully campy falsetto of ‘LAAAAAAA-la-la-la-la-laaaah, la-la-la-la-LAAAAAAAHH’ on Crocodile Rock is epic and fun to wail along to. Sir Paul McCartney could, and probably still can, go from crooning gently a song like Maybe I’m Amazed to Helter Skelter. I probably will never understand why the half-spoken, half-sung delivery of Mark Knopfler and David Wilcox works so well, but it does. Mind, the fact that they are both excellent lyricists also makes up for a lot. Michael Jackson’s voice was high and of course he did his signature ‘heh-heh’…but the man was a helluva performer and let’s face it, with Thriller, both song and album, he singlehandedly saved the recording industry from total collapse. Hell, I’ve seen one-time Metal Queen Lee Aaron singing torch songs in a little bar called the Railway Club in Vancouver; she was amazing. No tricks there.
So why, when it comes to Britney, Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera (any of them still around?) Lady Gagas and Bjorks and Nikki Minajs and most of the rest of the top-40 crowd do all the more in-studio vocal effects get layered on? Why do they all sound virtually the same? I don’t hear a lot of crap like that being done to the Jonas Brothers, One Direction or Justin Beiber. (Yes, that was the most painful 12 minutes of my life).
That’s why I could listen to voices like those of Whitehorse, Annie Lennox, kd lang and Metric’s Emily all day. Emily has a clear strong voice that can sound eerily little-girlish, like on Youth Without You, without turning into a pitchy screech. Can you imagine Madonna in her early years pulling off that song? Or something with real meaning to it like Amy Winehouse’s sulky, poignant Rehab? Never. The girls of Mother Mother have fun doing pitchy vocals on The Stand, but they can afford to – everything else I’ve heard from them shows a lot of talent and range.
Give me the tortured howl of Janis, or Gin Wigmore, whose aptly named album, Gravel and Wine, which may well be what she gargles with in the morning, and that’s a good thing. I didn’t care for her and Black Sheep at first, but she grew on me, much in the same way Radiohead has, because Thom York does so much vocally. I can even listen to Shania, Bette Midler and pre-Autotune Cher, which came in handy several years ago when I was hanging out with drag queens in Vancouver. And to give Madge some credit, at least she was allowed to eventually outgrow the drugged-out mouse voice and develop some range and actual dance moves.
But then there are those who are pure genius. And to me that means the one and only Cyndi Lauper. She’s So Unusual was the best-named album ever; she was a cartoon come to life. She could and did joyously yelp her way through Girls Just Wanna Have Fun and She-Bop (hilariously bizarre video, too)…then sing a tortured rendition of I Drove All Night. Time After Time and True Colours also show the extent of that amazing little woman’s range.
So as I was driving home today and heard Gwen Stefani caterwauling away on the radio, I couldn’t help but think that I should give her a break. I’ve never heard her regular speaking voice before, so I scared up a youtube video of her on the Ellen Show. Maybe she had no choice. Maybe that was all she has.
A few seconds of listening to Gwen were more than enough to convince me that yep, she’s just a one-trick pony. That voice is all she’s got. Out of curiousity, I scrolled down to the comments below. And there was this comment:
why is she 40 and still sounds 20?!
Finally, another voice in the wilderness, someone after my own heart. So maybe, just maybe, it’s time to drop the little-girl breathiness, Gwen? Hmm? And grow up and act like a mommy of three, instead of one of your kids?