Wednesday, June 01, 2011

I Can Already Hear Your Tune

I am weirdly fascinated by the current crop of singing shows, mostly because they don’t map onto my own musical approach at all. I think a song interpreter needs to be guided by two maxims simultaneously:
  1. Make it your own, and

  2. First, do no harm.
Occasionally, of course, these two guidelines will contradict each other. But that’s the fun part; that’s where the creative tension of interpretation comes in.

For most of the singers on American Idol and The Voice, the second rule never seems to occur to them. Part of that comes down to a cultural difference; most of the interpreters I love best come out of the traditions of folk and jazz, where the central creative activity is the writing and collection of songs, and the performer is generally conscious of his or her role as a keeper of the canon. (This is true also in rock, though to a lesser extent.)

In the modern R&B model, though, the division of labor is different. The focus is all on the individual singer—her flash, her melisma, her technical chops and outsized personality. The songwriter, who is often also the producer, tailors the material to suit the artist with whom he is working. A song is never just a song—it’s a part of the total packaging of the singer, and as such is almost unworthy of consideration as an object in itself.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with this, and sometimes it can work spectacularly well. The songwriting and production teams behind Beyoncé or Katy Perry or Rhianna have created bodies of song that convey distinct personas. The flipside, though, is that the song is inextricable from the performance. It is less an artistic statement in itself than a vehicle; it’s not about letting the song shine through—it’s about letting the singer shine, period.

The problem comes when the two models collide. Given material not specifically tailored to them, most performers in the diva mode—male or female—will respond by trying to pummel it into submission with sheer technical brilliance, and the results can be ghastly. Mary J. Blige was never going to disappear into U2’s “One,” but her attempt to turn this thing of solemn beauty into an explosive celebration of her own fabulous Mary J. Blige-ness sounds, to my ears, just cringeworthy.

On the other hand, when a great song and a great singer do come together in the right spirit, amazing things can happen. But it takes audacity, and the greater the potential for genius, the bigger the risk of an utter trainwreck. So whenever a show like Idol gets close to a song that I love as a song, I go to a default position of horrified optimism—hoping for something transcendent, steeling myself for a hot mess. It’s especially true of theme nights and guest mentors. I didn’t catch any of this season, but memories of the Beatles night from a few seasons ago are still fresh. The music of the Beatles, of course, is incredibly sturdy, and has already put up with a lot of abuse; but the threat of hearing an all-time favorite mauled gave the evening a real charge.

(The disaster never occurred, really, which was in some sense a disappointment—none of the contestants showed the fearlessness necessary for a real overreach, and the whole thing left me fantasizing about how much more daring they could have been both in song choice and approach. I remember there was a beatboxer guy that year, and I started thinking about what Beatles songs, if any, could stand up to that kind of extended vocal techniques. Imagine a performance of “Tomorrow Never Knows” that segued into a prolonged break of Mongolian-style throat singing…)

And, y’know, it’ll never happen, but I still hope for (and fear) a Richard Thompson theme night. With a songwriter of such tremendous range and versatility, with such a vast catalogue in such a multitude of styles, a careful musical director could find something to suit any conceivable kind of voice and performing style. Bonus points if Thompson himself could somehow be persuaded to appear on the show as a coach; what a splendidly awkward two hours of television that could be, all blank stares and simmering contempt.

Even better is The Voice, which announces the supremacy of the performer over the song right in the title. What’s interesting is the insight that it gives us into the coaches—this season it’s Christina Aguilera, Cee-Lo, C&W cipher Blake Shelton and that scumbag out of Maroon 5. They pick the initial group of singers, select material for them, and work up arrangements. Shelton and Christina tend to stay in their respective wheelhouses, while Cee-Lo is almost ridiculously eclectic in his tastes and has a sure hand across genres.

Maroon 5 guy, though, seems overwhelmed. It took him forever to assemble his team, and now, saddled with young R&B style singers, he keeps saddling them, with ill-fitting rock material. Last week, he had two big-voiced divi facing off on a rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep.” It was ambitious but spectacularly wrong-headed. I’ve written before about the pitfalls and temptations of covering Radiohead in general but “Creep,” man, “Creep”—how deaf to nuance do you have to be to take a song so steeped in self-loathing, such a visceral expression of low self-esteem and shattered self-confidence, and turn it over to singers whose default mode is swagger, to be transformed into a vehicle for showboating?

That’s the problem with most of the alt-rock canon—there’s an element of chill and vulnerability that’s going create an inevitable emotional disconnect between the singer and the song, and it’s going to be embarrassing for both parties. That being said, I cast my mind over thirty years to the New Wave, looking for something that would combine the cool factor of an unexpected song choice with the emotional maximalism that would best showcase these singers, and I came up with this…

…which is so crazy that it just could work.

Oh, and one last thing, not precisely related—maybe it’s just me, but I think the Glee kids could absolutely tear up this one:

I am old, I know. But is this just the Alzheimer’s talking?

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