Reduced to the Fundamentals

21 Nov

I watched the final of the Australian X Factor last night. Actually it was probably a combined  six minutes of the final, but that was about as much as I could stomach and was plenty to set my neural pathways on a course towards this blog. I don’t want to pick on an easy target, that’s not what this is about. This is about what happens when the development of a cultural value nears its logical end. The approach of the far end of a polar scale. It is a subject I haven’t seen discussed anywhere (specifically), yet once I explain it, I’m sure you will notice it everywhere.

I am talking about the value that mainstream western culture places on the pure fundamentals of the human voice to the exclusion of its timbre.

It’s easier if I explain it how most people would experience it: Like I did.

So I turned on X factor. Some pretty teenage girl was singing a run of the mill pop song. She was pitch perfect. She hit every note high and low without so much as a hint of vocal stress, emotion or character. I was unimpressed. I mute the TV until the next contestant comes on.

The next contestant is some guy in his early to mid twenties wearing a dinner suit and singing (what I’m guessing is) a Michael Bulblé song. Once again pitch perfect, no audible effort, no character, no emotional connection between the singer, the lyrics and the audience. Terrible. This guys was playing dress ups. I mute the TV ahead of the last finalist’s performance.

You can guess what happens here. The next contestant was a boyband. I thought they were One Direction making a guess appearance. They looked and sounded exactly the same, except I was apparently wrong. Absolutely inflectionless. No defining character was to be found in any of their voices. I turn the TV off and now I’m sad.

In audio engineering there are essentially two aspects that an engineer is attempting to capture and shape:

  1. The fundamental; and
  2. The timbre

The fundamental is essentially the key aspects of the sound that allows the listener to identify the core elements of the song they are listening to. The melody, the chords. We’re basically talking about pitch, but it can cover other things such as lyrics. It is what you are left with when you remove the timbre of the sound. The fundamental is what helps us identify a song even when no-one is singing it. Like an instrumental version of a popular song.

Timbre is the aspect of the sound that gives it its character. The reediness and airy hiss of a saxophone, the imperfect oscillations of a bowed violin string and those characters of the human voice that help us tell one person’s from another.

It is no secret that audio engineers have long been able to master the fundamentals of the human voice via the use of pitch correction – more popularly known as auto-tune. The fundamental is easy. It is in all music. Without the fundamental there is no music.

At the other end though we have the the timbre of the voice. Infinite techniques and effects exist that effect timbre. It is possible to remove the timbre characteristics of a person’s voice, but you can’t add them in. For instance there is no effect that can make anybody’s voice sound just like Elvis. These are therefore the collective characteristics on which we base our preference of one singer over another. Well that’s how it has traditionally worked. I am not sure it’s like that anymore.

I have noticed over the last decade that the kinds of pop singers that rise to A list status have had less and less distinctive voices, or rather the lack of character in their voice has been the closest thing to a defining characteristic. For me it started with Adam Levine of Maroon 5 and Akon, and has spread to the point that I am hard pressed to think of a pop star today that has a voice of true character in their timbre. Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Pink, Carly Rae Jepsen, Taylor Swift, Kelis; These artists might appear on the odd decent track, but their voices could be interchangeable.

I’m preparing for the wrath of Beyoncé fans at this point, but I think that one need only look at the central conceit of her role in Dream Girls (that her character was picked out for solo stardom by Jamie Fox’s character because her voice lacked character – it was good enough, but not great, and certainly not the best in the group) to see her career mirroring that of her character’s and also Diana Ross’.

I recently read Underrated Overground by Noah Berlatsky, an article defending modern R&B as an artform. In which the writer had this to say:

“Take one of the most common contentions — the argument that the performers’ voices are lousy. I’ve seen this said of Ashanti, Ciara, Kelis, Teairra Mari — even, bizarrely enough, of Mariah Carey. And it’s undeniably true that few of those performing R &B can belt out a tune like Aretha. The thing is, they’re not supposed to. Contemporary R &B has very little to do with classic 60s Southern Soul. Instead, it’s rooted in the high-gloss production and intensive harmonies of Motown and Gamble and Huff. There are a couple of exceptions: Shareefa’s debut deftly combines old school grit with new school gloss, and Faith Evans unbelievable“Mesmerized” sounds like Stax on steroids. In general, though, a big voice and giant production add up to a faux- Broadway disaster (hello, Christina.) Contemporary R&B just works better with less dramatic singers. Tweet and Monica, for example, both use smooth, creamy deliveries that swirl languidly into the backing tracks. And then there’s Cassie, whose vocals might be kindly described as wispy. That doesn’t hurt her a bit, though; on her debut, her voice is so processed and multi-tracked that the singer becomes just one more electronic blip among many — part of a robotic, flawless glucose-delivery system that makes Pizzicato Five sound clumsily robust.”

I added emphasis in the above passage. I’m not arguing that there is no artistic merit in mainstream music (a friend of mine performed on one of the biggest worldwide hits of the past two years, and I think it was a genuinely great song), but the inclusion of the character of one’s voice and high production values are not mutually exclusive ingredients in a pop song. The writer of the above passage is an informed and willing participant in the shift of cultural values, whereby the fundamental is the only element of the human voice that is of value, and it’s character has none. In fact  a voice that lacks character but is capable of carrying off the fundamental without inflection is more likely to be successful than a voice that is both proficient and full of character.

It wasn’t always like this. Most any of the enduring pre-millenium vocalists possessed very distinctive voices with unique characteristics – regardless of genre: Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Dusty Springfield, Dione Warwick, Lennon and McCartney, Aretha Franklin, Harry Nillson, Mick Jagger, Lou Reed, David Bowie, Peter Gabriel, Joe Strummer, Johnny Rotten, Arri Up, Michael Jackson, Cindi Lauper, David Byrne, Debbie Harry, Frank Black, Henry Rollins, Kate Bush, Glen Danzig, James Hetfield, Axl Rose, Kurt Cobain, Eddie Vedder, Trent Reznor, Perry Farrel, Chino Moreno, Chris Cornel, Damon Albarn, Jarvis Cocker, Björk, Thom York etc. etc. Even Christina Aguilera and Ronan Keating had distinctive voices.

I struggle to come up with a list of singers that have distinctive voices from the past 12 years. Here’s an attempt: Brandon Flowers, Adele, Kimbra,Feist, MIA, Lily Allen, Julian Casablancas, Daniel Rosen, Lykke Li, Jack White, Lana Del Ray and… I’m out. I hate lists, and I’ve essentially incited a pissing match by writing these two, but you get my point.

It used to be that you identified the artist performing the song by the voice, now the voice is literally just another instrument, and the holder of it is merely name-checked as a hangover from a previous cultural structure. Vocalists are no longer even associated with the writing of the song. It’s all about the producer featuring [insert name here], and if you are lucky enough to be releasing music in your own name you’re also lucky enough to possess a voice bland enough to appeal to the masses.

The best explanation I can give as to what I think has caused this shift has to do with the convergent nature of electronic music. That electronic music and the wealth of technologies creates a natural gravity in song writing and production whereby purely electronic sounds are manipulated to approximate natural sounds and natural sounds are manipulated to sound artificial and electronic. These developments have been at play since the early days of electronic instruments in the 1950s when analogue synthesizers were endowed with as many features as possible to approximate natural instruments, and samples of real world things were recorded and manipulated to sound unreal (the original Dr Who theme is a really good example of this). What tends to happen is that the more manipulated natural sounds meld well with electronically generated sounds that imitate real instruments and sounds. I’d say that the preference of character deficient voices is the result of this production technique that has been employed to such an extent over the last 20 to 30 years, that it now forms a cornerstone of mainstream taste.

So yeah, next time you are watching a TV talent quest (X Factor, Idol, The Voice et al.) you’d have a better chance of predicting the eventual winner by picking the contestant with the blandest voice. So good luck. I’m changing the channel.

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One Response to “Reduced to the Fundamentals”

  1. Kailee Debirred November 21, 2012 at 5:11 pm #

    I love lists but get your point(s).

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