"Oversinging" style creates awful earfuls

Sunday 18 March 2007

Mariah in the Emotions video
Bigger isn't better - particularly when it comes to pop music. Like a sinister disease that seems to infect every solo artist who steps onstage, the practice of "oversinging" has become rampant - from Christina Aguilera and Mary J. Blige to Josh Groban and Meat Loaf, plenty of powerful vocalists are bending, stretching and otherwise torturing notes that don't deserve such brutal fates.
The oversinging trend can be traced back to the '80s, to the sunny, elastic pop of Whitney Houston, whose soaring sonic gymnastics begat the glass-shattering pipes of Mariah Carey, who begat an entire generation of would-be divas who overwork the upper reaches of their vocal ranges, scraping the sky and searing the eardrums of listeners. It's not pleasant. Nor is it really singing - it's more like screaming on key.
In a nation infatuated with "American Idol" and overnight sensations, the phenomenon of oversinging has become increasingly visible. The three "Idol" judges - Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell - often spend a solid month of shows watching one hopeful after another destroy pop standards by racing to the big note and forgetting bedrock necessities like tone, pitch or the right lyrics.
While you can accuse "Idol" of spreading the wretched practice, I'd also lay blame upon a culture that prizes succinct sound bites over substantive art - it's tempting to try to make your impact in 10 seconds rather than over a sustained three minutes, particularly given radio's proclivity for catchy, brief pop songs. If you can deliver a big, meaty vocal performance that's easily distilled to one enormous moment, you're golden - or at the very least, YouTube-able.
Popular music has always had its brassy, outsized voices. People like Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan would power through one tune after another, blowing out the room - but they never did this at the expense of the song. Take a listen to Fitzgerald's reading of "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" or Vaughan's take on "Whatever Lola Wants", and you hear it: These performances are muscular and emotive yet never, ever out of proportion to the material. In the modern-day race to the splashy sound bite, we hear professionals and amateurs alike shoving aside everything else to get to that juicy high note; it seems that untrained ears too often think the ability to belt out choruses is a sign of high quality.
Frequently, music fans tell me that this "oversinging stuff" is all in my head: "What do you mean Christina Aguilera was no good at the Grammys? She sounded great!" is the kind of response I get, suggesting that not only is the phenomenon approaching epidemic levels and poisoning people's ears, it's leading them to believe that impossibly contorted vocal performances - Katharine McPhee's single "Over It", the whole of Kelly Clarkson's "Thankful", Clay Aiken's discography to date - are the new gold standard.
In an effort to convince myself that I'm not sliding down a critical rabbit hole, I consulted Melinda Imthurn, a voice instructor who teaches at Dallas' Mountain View College and is artistic director of the Women's Chorus of Dallas. "Since oversinging is not a technical term, it's hard to define," Imthurn writes in an e-mail. "To one person, it might mean pushing the voice beyond healthy singing technique, while to another it might mean embellishing a song too much, sometimes to the point where the melody is no longer recognizable."
Without a doubt, a popular target for critical derision is the omnipresent "American Idol". "I don't know that (oversinging) is necessarily more prevalent, but we are seeing more of it because 'American Idol' exists," Imthurn says. "We see more amateurs sing, so we see more over­singing. I think the tendency to do so is there because singers want to feel that their voice is powerful, and the only way they know how is to push it to the limit."
What's most aggravating - and what is often conveniently excised from most "Idol" broadcasts - is that with proper training and practice, people who constantly aim for the top of their range can be brought back down to earth and sing cleanly and coherently. Most, if not all, of these oversingers could be productive, pleasing artists whose music is a joy to hear rather than a nightmare to be forgotten.
"With proper singing technique, singers can have a powerful sound because their voice is resonant and free, but untrained singers often do not know how to achieve this," Imthurn says. "Another aspect is that singers do not necessarily have to be really great vocalists to gain fame these days - a good image ... can get you to the top. So, we may now be seeing more famous singers who might not be as talented vocally as the singers we heard in the past."
While many of the divas guilty of letting it rip in the higher registers - here's lookin' at you, Celine and Mariah - have sustained long, profitable careers as purveyors of staunchly middlebrow music, there's the possibility that over­singing can do some damage, not the least of which is losing the very voice that's raking in the bucks. Imthurn suggests that many of the "American Idol" finalists from recent seasons, who wrestled with vocal health and that dreaded "Idol" buzzword "pitchiness", suffered precisely because they'd pushed their instrument "beyond its limits".
But Imthurn doesn't think the show necessarily leads to vocal problems. "I guess it's a chicken-or-the-egg kind of thing," she says. "Do people oversing because they see it on 'American Idol', or do people oversing on 'American Idol' because they think it's what people want to hear? I don't know."
The cynic in me can't help but feel it's the latter; if one performer after another didn't succeed on "Idol" - Taylor Hicks, Justin Guarini, Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood - by singing tunes built to soar, the impressionable TV nation wouldn't latch onto the technique as viable. Just as industry types look at the ratings of "Idol" and salivate over potential sales, so do unknown wannabes who can taste that ticket to fame. It's a vicious cycle that perpetuates sloppy singing and clogs the marketplace with third-rate vocalists whose reductive work is pedestrian at best.
Yet Imthurn reminds us of a fundamental truth about music, be it professional or amateur, that often gets lost in all the discussion. "If you enjoy singing, sing, whether it's in front of people, in a chorus or just by yourself along with the radio," she says. "Music is to be enjoyed, and seeing so much criticism, very little of it constructive, can make us forget to enjoy it."
Great moments in oversinging "American Idol", any season: Throw a rock, and you'll hit someone oversinging. Most "AI" hopefuls show up at auditions figuring if they blow out their vocal cords, they'll land a trip to Hollywood. It's painful and hilarious, but ultimately unfortunate, since each season sees an exponentially greater number of oversingers vying for a slot. With Jennifer Hudson's blown-out turn in "Dreamgirls" (and its subsequent Oscar validation), look for next season's crop of wannabes to reach even screechier heights.
Whitney Houston, "I Will Always Love You": A sky-scraping standard that was inescapable on early-'90s radio, Houston's reworking of the Dolly Parton ode to fading romance builds, towers and threatens to collapse under the sheer stratospheric ambition of the ever-escalating vocals.
Mariah Carey, "Emotions": Carey, who can reach two octaves above the normal range of a soprano, has lately been slumming with R&B-pop ditties that don't come close to recapturing the garage door-opening infamy of "Emotions", one of her first smash hits. The glass-shattering vocal runs late in the song can still make you wince, more than a decade later.
Celine Dion, "The Power of Love": Before she helped usher "Titanic" to its watery grave with "My Heart Will Go On" (another epic of outsized, oversung fluff), Dion kicked off the '90s by saturating adult-contemporary stations with this gigantic, breastbone-cracking ballad that announced her as a fist-clenching diva to be reckoned with.
Boyz II Men, "End of the Road": It's a bit tougher to weed out the oversingers from the regular singers among male vocalists, but this Boyz II Men track features not one, but "four" fellas oversinging their hearts out. The finale of "End of the Road" devolves into so much sonic mush, the plaintive sentiment gets lost in the thicket of belted vocals.

(The News Tribune)

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