Too Real: Pop’s complicated relationship with bad singing

Presented at the 2016 EMP Pop Conference — From A Whisper to a Scream: The Voice in Popular Music

I’m going to start this off by plagiarizing my own very first EMP presentation from 2010, which I started off by playing this video. I came to the conclusion that it demonstrates a piece of this paper too well not to repurpose, so, enjoy.

Pitch Perfect doesn’t seem so cute anymore, does it?

So that 2010 paper was admittedly kind of a hit piece on contemporary a cappella. Not on vocal performance without instruments in general, much of which can be magnificent. I’m talking about the particular style of a cappella adaptation of pop music that has become hugely popular on college campuses, which I myself heavily participated in not just all through college but for three years afterwards in a “semi-professional” capacity. That’s what they called it when you were doing the same shit but theoretically paying your own rent. And while some of that piece was purging my own baggage, it did have a point. Which was, to illuminate the many problems inherent in leaving pop music to the total mercy of the ever-fallible human voice. Music that was written specifically for man-made instruments, and meant to be held to a certain standard of production, force and musicality that six to 20 minimally trained humans are physically incapable of replicating and sustaining, no matter how earnest their facial expressions. That video was not a case of me cherry-picking cheesy or flawed performances for effect — it was literally every video I found online of contemporary a cappella groups singing “Hazy Shade of Winter.” And yes, to their genuine credit, they all chose the Bangles’ cover version. Even if individual singers are generally competent, their compounded inconsistencies exceed legal levels of contamination of top-20 hits. The point is this: as the only intrinsically human, pitch-capable musical instrument, the voice cannot be trusted.

It is because of this very fact that I think popular music’s relationship with bad singing is so complicated. The voice is the most ancient and democratic of musical instruments. Most people are born with one and the physical capacity to use it, making everyone an artist and a critic at once. I mean the reason a cappella is such a hugely popular activity — as opposed to a popular commercial product, Pitch Perfect notwithstanding — is that while there are usually some standards of vocal skill, absolutely no musical training or songwriting is required beyond finding someone who can arrange, and performing music with other people is fucking awesome. Unlike playing bass or saxophone or drums, singing in some capacity — at camp, in your car, at church, at the supermarket without realizing it — is a nearly universal experience for anyone who can speak. Most performers who sing exclusively don’t get to call themselves “musicians,” because people are suspicious of a craft that doesn’t technically need to be learned. Someone wailing on a guitar solo is probably pretty good at guitar as far as the average audience member is concerned, even if someone with more training would say otherwise. But we all know bad singing when we hear it.

Now before I go any further, let me define what I mean by “bad singing.” This is not, to quote a great book, a journey to the end of taste. I personally abandon my shopping cart the moment Natalie Merchant pipes into the store, but I’m not gonna deny that she’s a talented singer. Morrissey is my all-time favorite artist but a lot of people find his technically proficient and melodic voice cloying and monotonous. I’m talking objectively bad on the attributes conventionally associated with technical vocal skill, like range, tone, tuning, and musicality. Emotional credibility is also important, but that’s a wildcard that I’ll talk about later. I think we can all basically agree on what these standards are, even if our affinities are all over the place.

While objectively “good singing” is a huge success factor in many genres of popular music, those same genres have a robust side hustle in exploiting people who can’t sing for shit.

Yes that is William Hung, laughing stock of American Idol Season 3, from his 2004 album Inspiration — which, by the way, sold 200,000 copies, hit No. 34 on the Billboard 200, and topped the U.S. Indie chart. Now of course, the nationwide fascination with Hung was largely a cynical, racist joke, and American Idol, may she rest in peace, attracted its astronomical ratings, especially early on, almost as much from the giddy rubbernecking of bad singing as from its far-flung quest for hidden stars. In the now-rich history of reality show competitions, no other skill — fashion design, cooking, ninja warrioring — has been mined for the crappy like singing has. Even So You Think You Can Dance keeps the gratuitous bad auditions to a minimum, because every minute given to someone falling over themselves is a minute we don’t get to see Twitch, and screw that. Again my theory is that this is because singing is perhaps the only creative skill that nearly everyone feels like they have the right to judge. Even dancing more than a step-touch requires study, vocabulary and physical conditioning that is way beyond a lot of people. We all know what it feels like to sing a song, and have our own internal calibration about how hard or easy it is to carry a tune. Most people think they’re a good judge of their own vocal skill, and that confidence is strengthened by seeing others miscalculate.

But here’s the thing. 200,000 records is a lot of records. They can’t all have been bachelor party gifts. For every impulse to cringe that William Hung’s popularity served only to reinforce Asian stereotypes and make people feel better about themselves, there’s another impulse to go “hell yeah dude, get it.” With his unrelenting unselfconsciousness and gratitude for the opportunity, at least as far as the public could see, Hung was the poster child for giving zero fucks about others’ ideas of his limitations. Singing in front of other people is an extremely personal and exposing thing to do. I’ve been singing in public for decades and I’d still rather have someone watch me parallel park. Hearing someone sing badly is so uncomfortably entertaining because it’s so relatable, and the bravery to take that ridicule can produce a weird kind of respect.

Take karaoke, the ultimate venue of respect for bad singing. Not because everyone who does karaoke is bad, but because people who would never sing publicly in any other context will do it, and unrestrained badness is perfectly acceptable. Encouraged, even — who likes the person who obviously rehearsed their jam at home first? Karaoke is a raw display of overcoming fears to perform and celebrate music with others for the sake of it. It’s a multi-billion-dollar global music industry that thrives on talent agnosticism.

But karaoke only exists because of the popular recorded songs of our shared culture, and many of those songs wouldn’t exist without pros who crush it, whose vocal talent and nuance give songs their power and far exceed what most of us can relate to doing ourselves. Small nations could be built on Adele’s ability to make you burst into tears in your car. There’s a reason “American Idol” was a singing competition. Pop singers who are merely good are called out — I mean, Madonna compensates for her medium-strength voice in more than enough ways to justify her superstardom, but she’ll still catch shit for it.

Now, I said earlier that the human voice can’t be trusted, and in most settings where vocals are central to performance, that fallibility is a liability. But that of course is not the case across popular music, and in fact the opposite can be true. In the Great Musical Authenticity Wars of Forever, flawed vocals are often seen as a truer reflection of humanity and its discontents. And I mean sure — the world is an infinitely better place for punk, and no one wants Ian Mackaye to sound like Freddie Mercury. Except possibly for Ian Mackaye, who is apparently a fan. And of course, the list of successful rock vocalists who are objectively bad singers starts and ends with the number-one most revered American rock musician of all time.

Again I’m not talking about the subjective appreciation of Bob Dylan’s voice and the art he has achieved not only in spite of but because of its imperfections. But I don’t care if the raw truth of Dylan’s singing inspires you to write the Great American Novel, he would still tank a recording of “Helplessly Hoping”.

Then there’s this.

Now, it’s not exactly innovative or brave to diss Phish. I think my crowning achievement as a rock critic occurred during my fourth unnecessary trip to the bathroom at a Phish concert with my husband when I decided the band’s sound could be summed up as “The Wheels on the Bus” played by Carlos Santana. But they are masterful musicians and improvisers and have built a following and a culture that overall can really only be mocked for the pretty weak reason that you don’t like it. But it doesn’t sit with me right when they perform a song that is focused on vocal harmony. Maybe they really do it because they just like to sing together, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But to me, it comes off almost as a mockery of vocal talent and the hard work it takes to support it. Like “we have all this doodly-doodly awesomeness, let’s play-act being real singers because these people will listen to us do literally anything.”

My struggle with rock’s embrace of bad singing has almost nothing to do with the actual resulting art, much of which life-giving. As the most democratic vehicle for musical expression, the human voice can be a conduit for every kind of human experience. But the awarding of value to this raw imperfection, like so many things associated with “authenticity,” actually isn’t very inclusive at all. Think of the most famous female artists in the world — not niche or underground but mainstream successful — and try to think of one who is known for being as technically bad a singer as Bob Dylan or Lou Reed or Jerry Garcia about half the time. I asked a few friends this question and then added “besides Courtney Love,” and in every case their faces fell useless. I’m sure some of you will have exceptions in mind, but by and large, women don’t get to be great musicians or songwriters or lyricists or performers and incidentally crappy singers, no matter what their untrained, unpolished, honest voices might want to tell us. Most women who do get super famous are required to have some conventional skill in singing, usually pop-leaning styles, and then are criticized for not being real musicians if that’s primarily what they do. And if they do more, it’s called into question or held up as exceptional. Profiles of St. Vincent have referred to the phenomenal guitarist and multi-instrumentalist as a “singer”. Even non-fantastic singers like Madonna, Taylor Swift and Gwen Stefani are this side of just fine, and they’re judged for how much better people think they should be. Like with so many aesthetic standards for women, there’s very little freedom to suck. And all of the above goes about double for artists of color. There’s little more ridiculous to me in this world than the line of argument that emerged when Beck went up against Beyonce for album of the year, which was basically that what she does isn’t real. Fucking BEYONCE. Beck is super talented but have you heard that dude sing?

A guitarist or a keyboardist without a certain level of technical learning is never going to be a successful artist because they can’t physically make the music if they don’t know the right things to hit. But a terrible singer can have a career with what god gave them, or at least get on TV. And that’s not really a bad thing, because people love to see other people laid bare and connect it to their own experience and fears. One of the best and worst things about the human voice is that it can’t be manually tuned or carved into the perfect acoustic shape, so we never really know what it’s going to do. Which is why your ’80s a cappella group is terrible. Thank you.