Call me a masochist. I was reading this morning's Los Angeles Times and espied an item about a new single by the one and only Christina Aguilera, a one-woman, walking definition of the word Over-Singing. Aguilera's gifts as a vocalist are undeniable, but her lack of taste or restraint is equally evident. She's never met a note she could sing without jiggling the pitch into a million fragments, the supposed mark of a "soulful" singer. Not.
I suppose we could blame Christina's predecessor Mariah Carey for turning pop music into an extreme sport a few decades ago. Taking her cue from bellwether African-American r&b singers like Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight, Carey one-upped those venerable artists by routinely displaying her prodigious, five-octave range and her ability to turn a note-as-written into ten different pitches, a technique called melisma by musicologists.
Anyone who has watched an episode of American Idol or The Voice (for whom Aguilera sits as a celebrity judge and "mentor") knows whereof I speak. Singers as young as 12 or 13 years old do their level best to impress by never singing the actual melody, instead preferring to show off their vocal gymnastics without regard to the expressive demands of the music or lyric. I've heard Christina Aguilera break up a single syllable into eight tones, as if the word "to" or "through" had a hidden emotional meaning she was desperately trying to elucidate.
When I think back to an even more distant past in American popular music, to the time of Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and Memphis Minnie, I wax nostalgic for a time when singing was primarily about expressing emotion, and not given to pyrotechnic displays of technique for its own sake. I once interviewed jazz singer Carmen McRae, who lauded her mentor Billie Holiday with these words: "Billie sang the note that meant the word." She didn't improvise out of habit or boredom, but to wring new meaning and feeling out of a song.
One other point to make while we're ragging on modern pop music: high-tech recording and production techniques have found a way of turning anybody's vocal into a pitch-perfect, flawless performance through the use of studio skullduggery like "pitch-correction" software. So when you hear Christina Aguilera's new single, "Your Body," on the radio and think it's Katy Perry, it's not your fault — blame it on the producers and mixers who bleed the humanity and expression out of a performance by processing it into a robotic sameness.
A footnote: Aguilera's video for "Your Body" features her flaunting her copious curves in front of a series of poor, good-looking young saps, who follow her, eager and panting, like lambs to the slaughter. The hook? She woos them with her golden locks and bodacious bahoongas in order to literally knock them off, murder them — some idiot video director's idea of a provocative plot-line. It's not painful enough to just hear her sing, we have to witness her killing her prey in the name of titillation and shock. This is a role-model??
Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, Dionne Warwick, Karen Carpenter, Patsy Cline, Joni Mitchell, Dinah Washington, et al — where have ye gone? Please come back, all is forgiven. The lunatics are running the asylum!!