Technical virtuosity confused with quality
Friday 22 August 2003
Mariah Carey's voice is her not-at-all-secret weapon. Trilling through five
octaves, from the gut to that fantastic whistle that's at the high end of her
jaw-dropping range, she dominated video and radio in the '90s - the best-selling
female singer of that decade, the only artist to top the charts in each year.
And she reaped rewards of ubiquity, celebrity and ample financial security
along the way.
Unfortunately, all that exposure came at a cost. And not just a messy divorce
from Sony chief Tommy Mottola, a notorious nervous breakdown, a stillborn career
as a film actress and finally being unceremoniously bought out of her lucrative
recording contract with Virgin Records. No, Carey's crime is against the art
of American popular singing. She is a technical virtuoso, but her NutraSweet
style of soul - sugary and artificial songs, crammed with hundreds of gratuitous
notes - imparts nothing but self-interest.
"You have to maintain some level of control to sing my songs," Carey insisted
recently in her low and throaty speaking voice. She's touring behind her December
2002 release, "Charmbracelet". But to others, Carey's overblown vocals have the
emotional resonance of asphalt. "I'm opinionated because I'm old," Denver blues
and soul singer Hazel Miller said with a laugh. "Mariah Carey does not make you
feel that she believes in what she's singing. To sing that mindless 4/4-beat
R&B simply to make money and never use that amazing voice God blessed her with
for anything worthy of it - to me, I'm sorry, that's a sin."
Yet Carey's influence is glaringly apparent on the Top 40 airwaves and on TV's
"American Idol" and its spate of imitators. Young singers follow a tactic of
violent Carey emulation - don't hold back from trilling eight notes where one
would be enough. That particular vocal mannerism is called melisma.
"In the popular music sense, it's a series or group of notes surrounding the
original pitch, usually maintained by one syllable, that's used in a decorative
fashion," said Celeste Delgado, professor of vocal jazz and commercial music
at the University of Denver's Lamont School of Music. "A lot of people think
that melismatic singing, as in Mariah Carey's case, originated a few years ago.
In actuality, it started back in Europe in the days of classical music. But it
morphed into many different styles. There was the music of slaves, where it was
entirely improvised. They say some of the different melismas they used in songs
would be secret signals giving directions to the underground railroads."
Such singers as Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin carried the gospel music tradition
out of black churches and recast it as secular soul and R&B. But the expressive
power of those singers has been undermined. Melisma has been largely reduced to
an identifiable artifice. "Mariah Carey almost single-handedly brought that
sheer overuse to the forefront," Delgado said. "She became a role model for
pop singers of the current generation."
Indeed, Carey is the godmother of every derivative diva with a multi-octave range.
Christina Aguilera catapults across octaves with masterful control. R&B stars
such as Destiny's Child stack trills and melismas on beats and backing vocals.
And fans love this type of ornate, vocal-sandblast approach - it now defines
quality for an entire generation.
"There's definitely a talent to it that can be appreciated," Delgado said. "I have
a huge respect for Beyoncé Knowles of Destiny's Child - the melismatic runs that
she uses are incredibly precise, almost perfect in a classical sense. But at the
same time, I think they've taken away from the original melodies."
"All these little girls are trying very hard now to cram as many trills as possible
in one note," Miller said. "Unfortunately, they think that's soulful, that it
sounds black. And that makes me very sad. It is not pleasant to the ear. It is
simply a bad imitation of something that was once unique, that you only heard in
black gospel or down-home soul singers. But it has been subverted into something
that is so commonplace and unnecessary - how many notes you can put into one word
when one note sung gracefully will do."
If "American Idol" is any barometer, few of today's young vocal artists are aware
of such dissimilarities. The most frightening aspect of the show is that contestants
don't sing songs so much as tackle them - the difference between a musical
performance and an exhibition of vocal acrobatics. During the winning renditions
by Kelly Clarkson and male divas in training Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken, they
didn't explore the nuances and emotions of a lyric - their intention was to buffet
it into submission. "It used to be that the standard was how you interpreted the
lyrics," Miller said with a sigh. "But that's not the standard anymore."
Carey's take? "I don't watch American Idol - I never get a chance to watch TV -
but it's a great venue for someone with talent to make a name for themselves,"
she said. "Unfortunately, the show drives the industry. It assures that you're
going to sell a million records. But you know, after the show is over and you
make a record, that's when the real crunch time starts. You have to make something
with substance. Songwriting is what makes you an artist. Just being able to sing
the notes doesn't mean anything."
And Carey co-writes and co-produces nearly all her songs. Pat Monahan of the rock
band Train, whose full-throated vocals (currently heard on the hit "Calling All
Angels") may be a sign that a melisma backlash is rallying, is in her corner.
"The American Idol kids sound kind of same-y. There's a lot of imitation," he said.
"But Mariah Carey, in her defense, had quality songs at one point - Hero is an
incredibly good lyric. That's what I'm drawn to, what a person is about."
Ironically, Carey's musical director and bassist is Randy Jackson, one of the
judges on "American Idol". Jackson can look forward to another season of
celebri-wannabes who rely not on melody and artful performing but trite,
prefabricated trifles with zero melodic or emotional punch. "I'm teaching at a
jazz camp this summer, 75 high school students," Delgado said. "Extremely
melismatic singing doesn't have a place here. And the influence of shows like
American Idol and those singers on these kids is surprising. The other day, we
were trying out a small group for solos, and a girl had a totally pop, melismatic
solo - and everyone went, 'Oh, wow, she's going to get it - she's great!' And I
had to go, 'No, that's not really appropriate or tasteful.' But that's the
mentality that kids of this generation have."
For that evolution of pop vocalizing, we can blame Carey - she paved the way
(Arizona Daily Star)
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