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 for over-singing.

(Arizona Daily Star)

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