As much as I enjoy the competitive talent TV show The Voice (I’ve become a big fan since being captured by the zeitgeist three seasons ago), there’s something going on with the presentations of the contestants that persistently irks me. Here it is:
There is a style of singing, practiced to great effect, usually but certainly not exclusively, by women – and represented frequently on The Voice – that has been growing in popularity, exponentially, over the past three decades. It is called, Contemporary Pop Style. Looking back, one soon discovers that this style of singing finds its genesis in the heralded Great Dual Principalities of Barbara Streisand and Patty Labelle. And here begins a somewhat murky and ever morphing diaspora, a stylistic spider’s web, always more macro than micro, yet represented, in specificity, at times, clearly enough to be recognized and diagrammed – by its incarnation in several well known, touchstone performers.
Let us now name names, as the saying goes, and let us name them chronologically so as to place that which they call, The Contemporary Pop Style, into historical perspective. Although, an illumination of its cultural place in the present is our true goal.
If point A (or A1 and A2, if you prefer) is Barbara Streisand and Patty Labelle (and if one is also willing to concede Miss Janis Joplin her own quasi-extraterrestrial tangent), then point B is, to be sure, Whitney Houston. At this juncture on the Contemporary Pop Style timeline, (1987) the Whitney Houston nexus, there is an emphasis on Pop; “Contemporary” has been deemphasized if only in an incidental way. With the development of MTV (now in full swing) pop really popped, both sonically and visually. Whitney Houston was pretty, marketable, Goody Goody (at the time) and her voice shattered windows. Barbara and Patty had been served, if not forgotten. Moving forward, we now find French Canadian import (and equalizing Fuddy Duddy to vintage Houston Goody Goody) Celine Dion, who has added a notable theatrical flavor (Broadway, with as yet unrealized, Vegas pretentions) to that which is, Contemporary Pop Style. Celine Dion attained superstardom by singing the title track to the late 90’s blockbuster film, Titanic. If you were alive in the late 1990’s chances are favorable that you’ve heard this song, or fractions of it, at least five hundred times. Celine…Dion. Who could ever forget the criminal European novelist, or the mid 80’s Goth new wave band? Well, everybody, of course; but if you put them both together, you get Celine Dion, and there is a Titanic Contemporary Pop Stylist not soon to be forgotten.
In the very late 90’s and early ought’s, things took a turn for the histrionic (and temporarily hyper-sexualized) under the auspices of Disney graduate and thigh-chap wearing, riding crop equipped, blue eyed ingénue, Christina Aguilera. In the attractive package of the demure Miss Aguilera, Contemporary Pop Style approached an uncharted, numinous dimension. The voice was bigger than ever, threateningly big. Octaves were not touched upon, but smashed asunder. Notes were not “nailed” (in singer jargon) but sledge hammered, melted, reconstituted and hammered in again sideways, all in one breath. Under Miss Aguilera’s vocal mastery, musical scales were shredded into shrapnel; oh, quaint melody, be you thoroughly damned! Additionally, her emotive gestures were more grandiose than anything we’d seen before; in fact, Miss Aguilera’s delivery often expressed itself in what can only a be described (if at all) as sheer bloody hysteria. Put bluntly, Christina Aguilera made Joe ‘You Are So Beautiful’ Cocker look like David Brinkley. At this point, many observers believed that Contemporary Pop Style had reached an apex, a gaudy maudlin mountain top, above which only an icy deoxygenated expanse could lay claim.
These skeptics were soon silenced. Competitive vocals television had arrived.
Enter American Idol, Season One (television’s first super successful – and since much imitated – competitive singing program), and its first crowned queen, the incredible Kelly Clarkson.
Kelly Clarkson was an unassuming, mid-western, girl next door, who could have, if she’d been so inclined, advertised herself to the public as the younger sister of another television made, blue jeans to riches star, present day Neo-Oprah/cook/media mogul, Rachael Ray. Benevolently pretty, if plain, freshly full-figured, soft spoken and shy, here was a contestant with no recognizable aesthetic lineage, and her chances, by all estimations, seemed grim- but when Kelly Clarkson unleashed her pipes and sang, the Contemporary Pop mountain peak we’d all thought etched in stone, suddenly and without warning, went totally Vesuvius on our asses (Youtube, ‘A Moment Like This’-Kelly Clarkson, to view her American Idol victory lap performance – but keep an eye on your pets, and don’t say you weren’t warned). Take that Christina Aguilera! And the rest is history.
Or is it?
Enter, The Voice.
Only wait a second now, let’s get serious – this isn’t singing we’re talking about here, is it? Not if we’re discussing, Contemporary Pop Style. In truth, if we can be a bit objective, Contemporary Pop Style may more accurately be described as, ‘Athletic yelling’ or ‘Shouting in key’. Whatever it is, the judges on The Voice (handsome Maroon 5 crooner and Stevie Wonder carbon-channel, Adam Levine, perpetually wide-eyed twerk inventor and ubiquitous Disney alum, Miley Cyrus, token country music artist/representative and Gwen Stefani porking near-giant, Blake Shelton, acclaimed actress and modern day Athletic Yeller-not to mention, competitive vocals game show winner!- Jennifer Hudson), seem to love it. Oh do they Love it!
Ah… Me? Not so much.
I can only imagine that if Kelly Clarkson were to step unnoticed into the same room as I, and suddenly, without warning, begin ‘singing’ as it were, my first knee jerk reaction would be – let’s see, hmm- pull the fire alarm? Call the police? Seek amnesty in the nearest available panic room? What is this woman yelling about? I’d want to know. Is she homicidal? Having a semaphored seizure? She isn’t singing, is she? Good Grief!
My, admittedly archaic, understanding of singing – at least that brand practiced by the fairer sex – is that it should be, firstly, pleasant to the ear; sonorous even. The sweet, humane objective of the lullaby is called to mind, as is the adjective “soothing” as in; to soothe. One may even be so bold as to presume that the act of listening to somebody sing should place the listener in a finer frame of mind. It should be…well… enjoyable!
Ask yourself: would you agree?
If you haven’t watched The Voice, or listened to very much top 40 Radio in recent years (and you agreed), you may now drop your illusions into whatever noble receptacle you have reserved for that purpose. In the 21st century, it is generally agreed upon (certainly amongst The Voice judges and people inside the music industry) and accepted that the most esteemed brand of singing is, Contemporary Pop Style. Contemporary Pop Style is also, if one may belabor the point, not so much singing – that ol’ happy-go-lucky pastime of the musically inclined Philistine – as a special kind of contrived Shakespearean nervous breakdown, writ larger than the sky, and louder than your mothers (or anyone’s mothers) worst temper tantrum.
The induced psychosis, multi-octave, “I been done so damn wrong”, Nuremberg oratories of a Kelly Clarkson or a Jennifer Hudson do not lull one into a sweetly dreamed sleep – as Tinkerbell might have it – so much as extemporaneously inspire the filling of a fresh Xanex prescription and the booking of a flight to an equatorial island – anywhere, in fact – so long as it’s a thousand miles removed from an artist who is practicing this high variety of “singing”.
“Doesn’t it take talent, though?” So goes the question.
Answer: Yes. It does, certainly.
One could make the case that strangling a wild boar to death with ones bare hands also takes talent, and while a moronic and senseless endeavor, to be sure, such a spectacle might be a more valuable (and pleasant!) experience than bearing witness to the next, ‘Celine Dion’s Vegas Extravaganza: A Virtually Melodious Hissy Fit’.
But ours is an age beguiled by the sonorous, impatient with nuance and subtlety, deaf for the softly spoken, even more so for the softly sung. If something (or, more to the point, somebody) doesn’t blow up, or at least bitch up a good cathartic storm? Bor-ing! Be that as it may; could there be a more practical explanation for the rise of this phenomenon we call ‘Contemporary Pop Style’?
It has often been said about arguments (political, religious, philosophical and other) that regardless of content and value, ultimately, he who yells the loudest wins. Bombast and volume rule the day. This is, certainly, a slice of obvious wisdom not lost on the producers of competitive vocals television, and it is practiced, consciously or otherwise (that point would be moot – if not, ahem, mute) by their contestants, The New Athletic Yellers, to ever more alarming effect, from sea to shining six foot flat screen sea as the live audience claps their hands and pulls the woodchips from their hair.
To bang my own little drum and shamefully advertise my refinement, let me, in closing, say this – I will continue to watch – and to intermittently enjoy and rue – The Voice, Monday and Tuesday nights at 8:00 p.m. on NBC, but I will never pay one red cent for a concert ticket to listen to some apoplectic aspiring diva yell at me in key (contestants, hear me roar!)
I will be listening, however, on my own time, to these rarer birds; Ella Fitzgerald, Feist, Colby Callie; and any number of other performing artists who can stir one’s emotions or improve one’s frame of mind by placing their voices harmoniously in the company of a musical arrangement; those artists who can and do ( to appropriate the quaint 19th century definition), you know, ahem…sing?