Bigger isn't better — particularly when it comes to modern pop music. Like a sinister disease that seems to infect every solo artist...
Bigger isn’t better — particularly when it comes to modern 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.
It’s not pleasant. Nor is it really singing — it’s more like screaming on key.
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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 soundbites 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 clear up confusion and convince myself that I’m not sliding down a critical rabbit hole, I consulted Melinda Imthurn, a local 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.” The ever-growing success of this glorified talent contest must serve as a barometer for not only aspiring performers but also for people in the music industry — after all, success begets success: If the kids fall all over themselves to vote for a consistent oversinger on “Idol,” they’ll no doubt queue up in massive numbers to buy a CD, right?
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. Speaking as a product of a couple years’ worth of high school choir instruction, I can certainly vouch for the results of taking it slow and learning the basics of vocal performance.
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 doesn’t think “American Idol” 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.