Is More Always Better in Music?

Last week on The Voice, a singer named Erin Martin landed in the Bottom 3 on Team Cee Lo. She was sent home after a last chance ballad performance that showed off her vocal timbre and unique musical interpretation. She had some pitch problems on the chorus, but at least got to show off why she should have been one of the breakout stars of the season. Erin had perhaps one of the better developed artistic identities in the contest. The night before, Cee Lo decided the way to showcase her assets was to flash her body and have her sing the ever-gimmicky "Walk Like an Egyptian" by The Bangles. The no-note pop song did nothing for her voice and made the judges all focus on her appearance.

Erin said during her first appearance on the show that she auditioned to be judged on her vocals alone. As soon as she was put up for public voting, she was displayed as a piece of meat to eye and not as a musician. When she stepped back into a song that gave us a glimpse of what she can do, she was sent home. Erin has been critical of her time on the show for this very reason.

Each of the judges on The Voice got to save one singer from their team after the first round of public voting. Blake Shelton was the only one who did not choose the loudest and most melismatic performer to stay in the contest. Unfortunately for Jordis Unga, she, too, was booted last night in favor of more exaggerated singers.

This trend on The Voice is a microcosm of an interesting dichotomy in the Top 40/Contemporary Hit Radio market. On the one side, we're inundated with young singers who are encouraged to oversing every song. Performers like Adele and Kelly Clarkson have faced serious vocal health issues from the popular performance school. Katy Perry is belting all her records and scooping into every high note for style. If it doesn't sound like you're struggling to get all the notes out, you're not really singing. Their music is simpler, driven by small arrangements and a focus on lyrical content.

On the other side, we're seeing an influx in the number of singers who have an odd tone being pushed to sing over-produced dance music. When I first heard Neon Hitch, I didn't expect her to be doing a single like "F U Betta." Sia, who possesses an amazing voice and sense of style, is stuck singing hooks for rappers and DJs in the US market. Neither artist is really getting the chance to show off their tone or range at all. Both are forced into this dubstep/super processed sound that has overtaken pop in the last two years.

There appears to be a bit more leeway with distinctive male artists in this regard. I wouldn't say Gotye has the best sounding voice in the world, but he's allowed to release quirky singles like "Somebody That I Used to Know" that show off what he can do as a musician. Adam Levine gets away with his super relaxed jazzy vocal on every Maroon 5 track and Adam Lambert has carte blanche to belt every song he's on like it's the 11 o'clock anthem in a new rock musical. Even in those cases, the songs become quite repetitive so the melody gets stuck in your head ASAP.

Is there a way in today's market for a less than cookie-cutter rock/pop voice to break through in an interesting way? Sure, if they're willing and able to add riffs to every line of a song and push their tone so hard they suffer vocal damage. But is this melismatic style the best? Does being able to sing all those tricky runs make you a better, more desirable musician? I'm not so sure.

One of the hardest things for a singer to do is stand still and deliver a song. No tricks, no gimmicks, just sing. You become the vessel for the music and are judged by how good the song sounds. For young singers, who have been raised on reality singing competitions like American Idol, you can add on "sing the melody as written" as an extra challenge.

There's a pervading media message through these shows that straight singing--staying on the melody--is karaoke, bad, or boring. If you have a natural vibrato and vary up a performance with dynamics, you're labeled "Broadway" with the same tone someone might have used in the past to describe a leper or plague victim. The competitors willing to change up the melody, scream, and not hold a note for longer than a second are the ones praised as true artists. Is this really what we want music to sound like now?

This is not to slag on any competitors on these shows. You do what you have to in order to win. Kelly Clarkson, for example, got dumped with a lot of mediocre pop music before she was allowed to go back into her pop/rock wheelhouse and pull back on the screaming. What I'm saying is that this "power vocal or nothing" approach to packaging artists is troubling.

Why should a musician with a distinctive voice be forced to rely on an image or a producer to succeed? Different is not a four letter word and should not offend the delicate ears of listeners. Having rasp, vibrato, or brightness in the voice is not necessarily a bad thing. It all depends on how the singer uses it. I think it would be nice to turn on the radio and not hear a singer in the Erin Martin-vein disguised by thirty layers of synthesizers and autotune to fit into Top 40/CHR vernacular.

Thoughts? Love to hear them.

The Link Rally: 17 April 2012

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