Why It Doesn't Matter If Singers Can't Sing
It might seem like a stupid question but does it really matter if singers can't sing well. Most people would say that's their job, so of course they should be able to sing. But many will quickly change their minds if Bob Dylan is brought up. They'll say he can't sing well but it doesn't matter because he's a great songwriter. We all value different things in musical artists and whether we think someone is talented or not depends on what we personally expect from them.
I was amused when The Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne retweeted the following tweet:
One of the things I love most about @waynecoyne is that he really doesn't have a great voice. Imperfection is the best kind of perfect
Very few singers would want to admit that they aren't great vocalists. Wayne obviously feels secure enough in his many musical talents that being a powerhouse vocalist probably means little to him. The Flaming Lips are one of my favorite bands, so I listen to them a lot. I had never even thought about Wayne's singing ability. I enjoy the band's creativity and love their sometimes cacophonous creations.
Voices As Instruments
However, some people can only enjoy the songs of great vocalists like Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey and can't really appreciate even a good singer. They can't enjoy a singer who isn't a powerhouse vocalist. For them, a great voice is like a musical instrument. Imagine an 88 key piano but someone can only play a couple of dozen keys. Maybe they play those keys very well, which many people will enjoy. But others can only appreciate someone who can play all 88 keys.
For people like this not only is being able to sing important but being able to sing at a very high level is important. They can really only appreciate a vocalist whose voice can do amazing things. In fact, they often don't have much interest in the story of a song. They're interested in vocal technique and put a lot of emphasis on vocal ranges, high notes hit, belts, melisma and vocal runs.
Listening to a great singer can be a lot like listening to a piece of classical music. You generally don't listen for a story. You listen purely for the beauty of the music.
The Story of a Song
I generally tend to dislike great vocalists because their songs usually bore me. All my favorite artists are singer/songwriters who have decent to good vocals. I love Ben Folds Five, Ke$ha, Nanci Griffith, The Flaming Lips, and Bob Dylan because I think they are great storytellers who write great melodies. A great voice is nice but not necessary for me. They can all play instruments as well, which is an important part of being able to write a song.
Ben Folds Five Brick
Ben Folds is a fantastic songwriter and composer. When I listen to him singing Brick, I can imagine the fear of the teenagers in the song who are going behind their parents' backs to have an abortion. Ben Folds may not be a powerhouse vocalist but I can feel the emotion in his voice when he sings about a painful personal experience early in his life.
Up the stairs, to her apartment
She is balled up on the couch
Her mom and dad went down to Charlotte
They're not home to find us out
Ben Folds said about the song:
I didn't really want to write this song from any kind of political standpoint, or make a statement. I just wanted to reflect what it feels like.
And he succeeded in my opinion.
Ben Folds Five
I think Ke$ha is one of the best in today's music business when it comes to writing heartbreaking songs. Unfortunately, due to how she's marketed by her shortsighted record label, few people outside of her fan base know about her numerous ballads and emotional songs. In Wonderland, Ke$ha sings about the carefree times and friends she left behind when she became famous and moved back to her hometown of Nashville. She wants to recapture a time in her life that meant a lot to her but she knows she can't go back.
Ain't it funny how time flies,
Fades into gold
Now, I wanna do a drive-by
but I can't find the road
Feels like it was a movie
That plays in my mind
Shadows of a past life
Wish I could rewind
Ke$ha talked about her life changing so much when she became famous, saying:
I'm so lucky and blessed, but there are moments that are just so incredibly lonely that it's indescribable.
Every time I listen to Wonderland memories of my late mother come flooding back because I want to go back to those times when my mother was alive but I can't.
Nanci Griffith Late Night Grande Hotel
Country/folk artist Nanci Griffith has songs like Love at the Five and Dime and Gulf Coast Highway about lifelong love. Yet she was unable to form long-term relationships in her own life. Late Night Grande Hotel is one song where she describes this:
And maybe you were thinkin'
That you thought you knew me well
But, no one ever knows the heart of anyone else
I feel like Garbo in this late night grand hotel
Cause living alone is all I've ever done well
Griffith's boyfriend was killed in a motorcycle accident after he took her to their high school prom, she had a failed marriage, an engagement that ended and she struggled with health issues like depression and cancer. A sense of loneliness is palpable in many of her songs.
The Flaming Lips The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song
And great songwriters can make us think. The Flaming Lips ask what kind of choices we might make in The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song:
If you could blow up the world with the flick of a switch
Would you do it?
If you could make everybody poor just so you could be rich
Would you do it?
Bob Dylan asks us a series of questions in Blowin' in the Wind:
Yes, how many years can a mountain exist
Before it's washed to the sea?
Yes, how many years can some people exist
Before they're allowed to be free?
Yes, how many times can a man turn his head
Pretending he just doesn't see?
The answer my friend is blowin' in the wind
The answer is blowin' in the wind.
The Flaming Lips
Ultimately the meaning, story and what I feel when I hear the songs is what matters the most. Ben Folds, Ke$ha, Nanci Griffith, Wayne Coyne and Bob Dylan aren't doing any vocal gymnastics in these songs but it doesn't matter to me.
Which do you prefer?
Many people actually do enjoy the tones of their favorite singer's voices and may not care too much about overall vocal ability and technique. This can drive the lovers of powerhouse vocalists crazy. But every singer is a package. We all weigh the ability to sing, perform, play instruments and write songs differently.
Were the Musical Artists of the Past Better Singers?
Some people claim that many of today's singers can't actually sing. Record labels are basically handing recording contracts out to anyone who wants them. It's true that technology like autotune and melodyne can expand a singer's range and correct their pitch in the studio. However, today's young artists are held to a higher standard than singers in the past. Lip synching during TV performances used to be the norm. We saw most singers giving vocally perfect performances not because they were superior to today's singers but because they often weren't singing.
With YouTube, singers can no longer get away with lip synching because people will watch them repeatedly on the web and call them out for cheating. Now almost everyone sings live. Few singers will give perfect performances 100% of the time. If a singer screws up and goes off key in a TV performance, their detractors will happily take to the web to denounce their lack of talent while their good performances go largely ignored.
I watched some videos of John Denver performances a while back. His voice cracked sometimes during a couple of the songs. Would John Denver's vocal ability be questioned if he was one of today's young artists rather than a legend from the past? In our overly critical Internet age where people can easily voice uninformed opinions online, it's likely that he would be criticized even though he was clearly a good singer even if his vocals weren't always perfect.
Of course, some singers really can't sing that well but it's hard to know if there are more of those singers today than in the past. Singing on noisy stages is very different than singing in a quiet studio. A singer who can't sing well live may actually sound good recording their albums.
People also tend to romanticize the past when they say that singers in the past were all somehow great singers. I love artists from the 60's and 70's who were nothing more than decent singers. People often overlook this simply because they were great artists who made great music.
So, musical talent really is hard to measure. What makes a person a great singer is a matter of opinion. Songwriting ability is subjective depending on what we value in a song. Maybe it's best if we all just enjoy the artists we personally love and leave others to enjoy the artists they love even if they aren't our cup of tea.
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