Why are pop singers so samey and sexless?

The critically acclaimed chansonnier wonders what has happened to her art.

Barb Jungr

Topics Politics

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The Jazz Cafe, packed to the gills. From every rafter and occupying every inch of floor space, there are expatriate Brazilians of all ages.

The band walks on to the stage to tune and prepare. We cheer, then fall silent in anticipation. Finally, our effort is rewarded: on to the stage totters (and not only because of the shoes) an elderly lady, a singer of great repute. Elsa Soares has entered the building! For a good hour and a half she keeps us well entertained. She has done everything it is possible to do to look younger: she is dressed, incredibly, like a sort of erotic punk goth; her face is a testament to some superb surgeon’s artistry. But she sings, and sounds, like a woman, and all of the audience, young and old, love her for it.

Switch on the radio, grab a glance at MTV. Because something odd is happening, and it’s been going on for a while now. Here, it appears that there are few women or men anywhere to be heard. There are the breathy voices of ingenues; the mewling of babies; the shouts of a teenage tantrum; the whines of adolescent boys. BoyzIIMen? Please.

Nowhere, it seems, is there a Frank Sinatra – and please, please don’t try to sell me Robbie Williams in this context. Suddenly and like a breath of fresh air a couple of weeks ago – and only, it must be stressed, because a comedian helped it along the way – Tony Christie’s Is This The Way To Amarillo? was back in the British pop charts and all about the place. And it stood out a mile. Not because of the production or the song, but because even when it was first recorded, Tony Christie was no spring chicken. He has the voice of a real bloke! Deep, resonant, his full, open-chested, mid-range, solid, man’s voice rejoices in singing about a romantically-named Texas town. It’s a surprise because it appears that his is the only voice like it of its kind, in the public consciousness, at the moment.

Christie was 28 when he recorded that hit, in 1971, five years after he put out his first single. That same year Rod Stewart’s rough-hewn diamond of a voice beseeched Maggie May to get up, and Mungo Jerry’s growl spilled out from the midst of his massive sideburns; Tony Orlando, and Noddy Holder of Slade, alongside George Harrison (with My Sweet Lord) and Dave Edmunds, all sang their ways to the top of the charts. Yes, there was also the thrilling whisper of Marc Bolan, and the sweet harmonising of The Tams. There was also Benny Hill, and, with that kitsch classic Grandad, Clive Dunn. In short, there was a range of vocal timbres to be heard.

When Minnie Riperton sang Lovin’ You, we marvelled at her childlike vocalisings. That superb light bird of a voice, spiralling up into the stratosphere usually inhabited only by full-throated sopranos, thrilled. The Stevie Wonder co-production of her Perfect Angel album, and that defining track, made her a household name. Previously she’d been a backing singer, to Fontella Bass, Etta James and other Chess Records artists. In the early 1970s, Riperton’s unique vocal timbre was surprising. Suzi Quatro had success that year with her rasp, Abba were hardly girls singing. Pop voices, yes, but childlike? No. Think of the adult longing in Agnetha’s voice when she sang; ‘Where are those happy days? They seem so hard to find – I tried to reach for you, but you have closed your mind. Whatever happened to our love?’

What are we to make of this phenomenon of our times? All of us dressing, it appears, as teenagers; all of us, apparently, sounding like them too. Why are some cultures’ sounds instantly recognisable? Why and how do we hear the ‘open throat’ singing of the Balkans or the bel canto operatic voice and understand what it means, culturally, inside and outside the social space? Inside and outside our inner selves, deep in our own emotional landscapes. It is fascinating to note how narrow the parameters of popular vocal timbres in our culture have become in a relatively short space of time.

Timbre is endlessly interesting. Like a thumbprint, it distinguishes one voice from another. As with many aspects of music, words often fail to describe the subtle nuances that distinguish one voice from another, that enable us to recognise Tony Bennett as distinct from Sinatra just by the sound of their voices and not by the stylistic features which their art employs.

And vocal timbre, or tone, is learned. The ways that the human body manifests vocal sounds are similar in all singers. The larynx, the lungs, the diaphragm, tongue, lips, oral and nasal cavities all play their part, but how the singer manipulates these provides for a huge range of possibilities. In the West, for example, the span of vocal timbres encompasses everything from operatic bel canto to the vibrato-free nasality of the folk singer, the low and husky voice associated with jazz singing to the ‘belt’ commonly heard on the West End and Broadway musical stages, plus many more.

During the learning and acculturative process, every singer matches his or her vocal sound by ear to the sounds they wish to emulate. Eliza Carthy grew up in perhaps Britain’s best-known folk-singing dynasty; unsurprisingly she sounds like a folk singer. In rural and more ‘traditional’ musics in non-, or less, industrialised societies, timbre was and is learned from other singers. In our society, most usually, timbre is learned from recordings, with radio and. increasingly, television playing their parts.

So what happened? After the huge influence of crooners and jazz singers, which successfully challenged the light opera voice, the 1950s and 60s brought further changes to the ways we heard popular singers.

Suddenly it was open house. From country and western, through to soul and the blues, anything was possible; and, of course, with the arrival of Elvis Presley, became so. Even as a young man, that’s what Presley sounded like – a man. And from that first single on Sun records, That’s Alright Mama, a very sexy man; that voice oozed sexuality.

When John Lennon stepped to the microphone, Presley’s and Chuck Berry’s and Little Richard’s voices ringing in his own head, he brought himself, all of his Liverpool upbringing, hopes and dreams, to the mix. He had, even through all those boyish lyrics, a man’s voice. Likewise in the young Mick Jagger’s singing voice, though his influences are clear, an individual, adult sexual identity shines through.

Tom Jones’ voice burst through the radio much as his hips seemed in danger of bursting through the TV screen, and though he may have been marketed as ‘a British Elvis’, you could never have mistaken the one for the other. Through punk, the new romantics, soft rock, all through the 1970s and 80s, the personalities, the bodies and souls, the ‘grain’ of the voices (as Barthes had come to name this subtle, sonic, physical quality), resonated through endless recordings, their span of timbres and associated meanings ever widening.

After the big-voiced singing of disco (the falsetto-voiced Gibb brothers being an exception here) came the hard beats of house. When house started (think of Black Box’s Ride on Time) the sampling process created new ‘shouts’ or ‘hollers’ outside of the context of the emotional and dynamic musical framework of the original source material. Session singers were then employed to ad-lib these ‘shouts’ with no traditional song/emotional structure.

The djs who made these records were producers and not musicians; they were simply playing with sounds, but that act of separation of context from timbre was to have a profound effect. Where timbre was not dissociated in that way, for example in Moby’s use of the early Alan Lomax recordings, the raw beauty of the sampled singers was noticeably different, and sales soared.

In trance music, the wispy voice found its true niche, and from that scene spread into pop. Those wispy, breathy, airy, disembodied female sounds worked very well indeed alongside the roar of the electronic drum. They spoke of humanity confined by electronics. And the breathy voice has become associated with sex. Paralleling the rise of AIDS and HIV, trance kept the sex way above the body and well in the throat, where it couldn’t do any harm.

Alongside this, in soul music, a set of vocal gymnastics was becoming a new indicator of authenticity within the genre. Without doubt drawing influence from earlier great vocalists whose stylistic traits and tone easily identified them, changes in the way music was written and recorded provoked a highly stylised vocal production. These song structures were designed in studios, not on pianos in Tin Pan Alley. They did not have the breadth of harmonic and melodic architecture that ‘confined’ singers to delivering the song. These new structures abandoned the rigidity of traditional melodic and harmonic shapes. The singer, thus ‘liberated’, must now vocally gyrate around the repetitive patterns of the musical frame, making their mark through elaborate ornamentation. This style has become so prevalent that it appears it has now permeated other musical genres.

In a recent New York Times article, theatre critic Ben Brantley proposed that ‘the style of vocalising that is rewarded on American Idol – by its panel of on-air judges and by the television audience that votes on the winners – is both intensely emotional and oddly impersonal. The accent is on abstract feelings, usually embodied by people of stunning ordinariness, than on particular character. Quivering vibrato, curlicued melisma, notes held past the vanishing point: the favourite technical tricks of Idol contestants are often like screams divorced from the pain or ecstasy that inspired them’.

This separation of ‘authentic’ emotion from its performed facsimile links these two ubiquitous phenomena in contemporary singing – the breathy child and the gymnastic vocaliser.

Ben Brantley argued that the influence of American Idol had infiltrated musical theatre voice production, provoking a fascinating debate about singing styles and the ways that they have changed. He suggests a way forward: ‘We must cherish such performers. Good, well-trained voices that can carry a tune and turn up the volume come cheap. What does not is the voice that identifies a character as specifically and individually as handwriting.’

And herein lies the problem. It doesn’t ‘come cheap’ to develop voices. It doesn’t come cheap to invest in talent, to allow it to mature, to support its development and cherish its blossoming. We ‘find’ our voices, over time, experience and understanding. The young Aretha Franklin made many recordings between 1960 and 1965 at Columbia before finding her greatest successes on Atlantic Records. Ella Fitzgerald readily acknowledged the debt she owed to her mentor, Chick Webb.

And record companies in times past had very different understandings of A&R, or ‘Artist and Repertoire’. Recently a friend and ex-A&R man told me that times had changed. ‘A&R’, he said, ‘now stands for absent and redundant’. In times past, an A&R man – because they were, pretty much exclusively, male – would help an artist to find songs, perhaps put them with specific musicians and arrangers. The role was creative and at its best, led to relationships which fostered the performer’s growth, over time. If a company had a great success with something, other people would look for someone to equal that success, sure, but they wouldn’t be looking for something identical, because what was appreciated was difference. If you couldn’t hear an artist’s sound as distinctive, who would want it?

Add to this heady mix the present expertise of studio operators and the expansion of digital recording techniques, and what you have is the possibility to take voices and render them apparently in tune and significantly altered in tone. This is achieved by using the auto tuner, which effectively flattens out the vocal to the exact tonal pitch, removing all the idiosyncrasies that make a voice special into the bargain.

Then factor in a society where people in their mid-twenties live at home – for endless reasons, unable to make the steps into adulthood. A culture of fast-fix, where it seems that what is best required for commercial success is to be the most like, the closest to, the nearest approximation of, something already on the market. Add to that a reluctance to engage in real emotion, but to emulate what appears to be ‘sound-alike’ emotion, and what you get is a wall-to-wall carpet of similarity of either tone or vocal styling and increasing youthfulness.

Dido and Katie Melua exemplify this model for endless replicants of a thread of breathy vocalising. Soul sisters gyrate on MTV cunningly sounding wildly improvisational and yet curiously indistinguishable from one another. Where is the new Aretha? The new Ella or Billie? Well, I’d hazard a guess that the young Aretha wouldn’t have got past the door of any of the major record companies today. They wouldn’t know what to do with her. Whatever one now thinks of Donna Summer, it’s curious to note that when she was singing her early disco hits, she always sounded like Donna Summer. When she teamed up with Stock, Aitken and Waterman, she just sounded like anybody else on their roster; they managed to expunge the sex even from Donna Summer – hell, that’s some achievement!

The voice has come to mean so much more than its sound. ‘Feminists’, Leslie C Dunn and Nancy A Jones tell us, ‘have used the word “voice” to refer to a wide range of aspirations: cultural agency, political enfranchisement, sexual autonomy, and expressive freedom, all of which have been historically denied to women’. They examined the audible voice and found that ‘it, too, has been a site of women’s silencing, as well as an instrument of empowerment’.

The ‘embodied voice’ brings with it a number of associations: the full voice of the mother, the soaring song of the siren, the voice of seduction and the voice of death. The idea of the ‘diva’, in this case, draws on a very different understanding of vocality than perhaps is suggested by Britney Spears. Voices that stay in the throat, that operate above the sexual body, bring a very different and specific message, and even if we don’t consciously know all of this, we understand it on a deeper level. There are contemporary parallels of course with fashion, movement, politics, economics.…

And record companies do play their role in this. The legendary producers who worked with the great voices of even recent years played a longer game. The turnover of artists now is faster. They are not necessarily any younger (though some are), but they are never given the time to develop.

Current television ads sell a couple of new, young singer-songwriters. One is hailed as ‘the soundtrack to your summer’. Sorry to point this out, but it can only be the soundtrack to my summer after the event. Selling it to me as such beforehand seems slightly premature, or unbelievably optimistic! And he sounds like a mewling babe. On hearing the young Dylan, a fan, interviewed in CP Lee’s Like The Night (Revisited), recalls that Dylan sounded like a ravaged old blues singer and not the young man he then was. But instant hyperbole and big campaigns with TV advertising cannot make a new Dylan or a new Aretha. Time, and talent, does that. That young audiences can be fooled is not a cost-effective game plan. When they realise they have been taken, they will not come back. There’s a reason that singles sales have fallen and Top of the Pops has lost its cultural value.

And so the voices we hear seem to speak only of, and only to, youth; of sexlessness or of simulated sexuality, neither of which somehow connect with us on deeper levels. They form a fascinating part of a much bigger picture.

Bling! goes the jewellery. Bling! go the footballers’ wives’ false breasts and the skimpy strapped tops. The aspirations of the young are changing: it’s an ‘anyone can do it’ culture. According to a recent radio report, a group of 10-year-old girls, asked in class what they wanted to be when they grew up, answered ‘famous’. Fame, it appeared here, was measured by one’s photograph appearing in heat magazine. Fame must be achieved at all costs, and one very easy route to the red carpet is pop stardom, because anyone can sound like today’s singers.

And anyway, everything can be fixed in the studio (or on the operating table) and it doesn’t require any actual ability or any need to communicate. And more voices that all sound alike pour from radios and download on to telephones. And we, and they, are cheated of something. Only time will tell what the price of that will be.

Barb Jungr is a musical performer, composer and writer, best known as a chansonnier or singer of chansons. Her most recent album, Love Me Tender, features a repertoire of Elvis Presley songs and is available from her website.

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Topics Politics


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