Thursday, February 10, 2011

K.I.S.S. - The Singing Edition

I'm a fan of simplicity. In pretty much anything I attempt, I live by the mantra of "KISS."

Keep. It. Simple. Stupid.

Now, I'm sure that this is why I like many things that operate on very simple levels. I liked Avatar, for example, as a basic, direct allegory about environmental responsibility. Yes, you could make a much more "realistic" and "educational" film on that subject, but, from experience, that leads you directly into a quagmire trying to impart knowledge, rather than impart emotion. Cameron has a rather direct, and, shall we say, "unencumbered" writing style. He gives you the info you need, and moves on to the next bit that info suggests.

Keep. It. Simple. Stupid.

F.Y.I. - This should not be construed as me making a case for Avatar as a work of unadulterated genius. It ain't perfect, but, man...You have to take it for what it is. It's direct, and you can tell Cameron has his heart very much in it.

Anyway, point is, I find directness, clarity of intent and execution, to be the true way to transcendent work. Take your material, believe in it, and express it in a direct, emotional way. Even the most "complicated" successful works of art or craft hew to that guide.

So, does this relate to singing? Well, I read Sal Nunziato's Burning Wood blog on a regular basis, and his entry today led me to this piece by John Eskow at The Huffington Post. I cannot tell you how much I agree with these guys, I can't tell you how man times CByrd and I will listen to somebody screech 234 notes into a 12 note melody like, and turn to each other with a "please, stop singing" look.

I liken it to being an actor. When you approach a role, you'll find so, so very often that, the less you do, the more effective it is. (Johnny Depp is the exception that proves the rule...sometimes.) There is something to Mamet's "speak the words, brave and true" in True and False.

What does your character want? How do you use the lines to get it? Once you understand how to answer those questions, and can mean it, you can play the role. The rest is paint and window treatments. It's frippery to prove to ourselves and others that we're "good." It's showing off. Sure, sometimes you can connect it, and make it real. However, those moments are most effective if you use them precisely and sparingly.

So, an actor has dialogue and intent. In a similar manner a singer has lyrics and melody. What's really annoying, as both Sal and Eskow point out, is that the standard practice now is to see how much you can "add" to the melody. Every line has become an opportunity to express the singer's range, and if that's not your thing, you're overshadowed.

Case in point, caught a bit of American Idol last night, saw a cute little gal named Emily Anne Reed. a Kewpie doll voice, plays guitar, and her apartment just burned to the ground. When she sang "You're Getting to be a Habit With Me," I really loved it, kind of a squeaky Billie Holiday vibe, but she just sang the song. No futzing around, no pointless runs around the melody line, just sang the song. Of course, the judges had to almost not send her on, with Steven Tyler "iffy" about it. Eventually they did, but CByrd and I looked at each other and said, "out in the first round."

And that is abysmally sad.

This girl had a solid voice, a unique style (for this crowd), and a direct delivery. I could see, with the right material, becoming a fan, but surrounded by these Mousekateer wannabes, with their all over the place sense of melody, SHE'S the one that seems "weak." Uniqueness is not valued, nope...just give us another 12 almost-off-key runs on the word "hope."

Of course, it's American Idol, what do I expect? Yet, it does reflect the sorry state of what our culture has come to see as "good" singing. If you try to critique, you'll get that "it's soulful."

Ray Charles is soulful. Stevie Wonder is soulful. Gregg Allman is soulful. Dug Pinnick is soulful. You aren't going to see any of these people turning a 2 note word into a 45 note phrase. Exclamations? Howls? Tangents between lyric lines? Sure! They're also singing these lines like they've lived them, like they're the single, most important words that could come out of their mouths. The commit to the song, they aren't committed to impressing people with how they can throw their voice around.

I've said before I'm a pretty poor vocalist. I stand by that, but I also know a good singer when I hear one. I know because I respond to the performance on an emotional level. God knows, I've got emotional over people who were clearly over-singing, too, but, more often than not, it's a good song, performed well that really hits me.

Of course, I'm into rock and roll, singer-songwriters, not this pop-diva-thing. I'm not the audience for American Idol, or Christina Aguilera, or any of that stuff. That said, I'd like to see a little more variety in what we're told is "great singing."

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