Ten Million Words* About Pop Vocal Delivery (And Nick Jonas’ “Jealous”)
A while back, someone asked me what exactly I meant by “nuanced”…
A while back on the internet, I mentioned that I liked Nick Jonas’ nuanced vocal delivery on “Jealous,” and someone asked me what exactly I meant by “nuanced.”
This is a good question! Nuanced is kind of a slippery term — and of course, on the internet, no one knows you’re a dog. Or, in my case, a professional karaoke transcriber. Pop vocal performance is one of my all-time favorite topics, so let’s really get into it.
Jonas does a million little things on “Jealous,” which elevate the track in a million little ways, and I think it’s worth noting them in detail — specifically because of their littleness. Like zooming up-close on an oil painting to see the ridges and swirls of the brushwork, these tiny musical gestures blend together to produce a solid-gold pop banger.
But in order to do this, we should start by breaking down the general features of vocal performance so we can have a shared frame of reference.
If you’ve ever sung in a choir or taken voice lessons, some or most of this will be familiar — but these topics aren’t usually approached with an eye toward the odd particulars of pop.
Like Drake, We’re Starting From The Bottom
The most basic features of a vocal performance are time and pitch. In time, a vocalist can sing right on, lean into, or lay back on the beat (ie. anticipating or following the exact rhythmic center). The consonant and vowel sounds which form a word provide more options. For example the transition between the closed “n” to the open “o” in the word “now” can be used to create rhythmic distinctions. When the backing track has a strong or unusual groove, the vocalist needs to make a decision about how closely to follow it.¹
With pitch, a vocalist can sing right on, rise, or fall into the note. Once on pitch, they can use vibrato or other pitch inflections.² Transitions between notes are also important: You can slide between notes (portamento when smooth; glissando when chromatically distinct), and the start, end, and length of the slide are variable. Embellishments…