Tag Archives: Marketing

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.


Front On

9 Oct

I am totally baffled by the disgusting quality of Australian television advertising.

I was enduring the long ad breaks they seem to have in this country and couldn’t help but remark at how mind destroying-ly bad the ads were to my 14 year old brother. Being the tack that he is, he pointed out that the reason most of the advertisements in Australia are so bad is because most of them use the exact same production technique of filming the entire ad from a camera placed directly in front of the subject person.

No panning, no profile shots, nothing of the like. A dolly shot? – you must be joking! You are lucky if you are indulged with a zooming shot.

It begs the question what the marketing company’s are paid for by the corporates in this country. The quality of dreck they force viewers to sit through to get to the next slither of programming shows just how cynical the advertising agencies are here. Although it is hard to see where to draw the line between the advertising agency and the client when attributing the blame.

I don’t know if it makes the outlook better or worse whether the corporate client was complicit in filming techniques. Obvioulsy they would have had to give it the go-ahead at some point so lets just say they’re in on it.

But why so many? Where’s the imagination? Advertising agencies have massive departments called simply CREATIVE. I can only imagine the creative department must be the place artistic souls go to die of mediocrity. At least in this country.

I dated a marketing exec from one of the big three advertising agencies for some time so I have a pretty good insight into how cynical an industry it really is. 18 months of being intimately involved with people in the industry did nothing to dispell my Hicksian view of the franchise.

A New Zealand audience wouldn’t have a bar of it. You can bet your bottom dollar ratings would drop through the floor if someone tried to spill that shite into their loungeroom. It got me thinking “What is the difference between NZ and Australia that would allow such a low quality of advertisement to be industry standard”?

I think that that there are probably a couple of interconnected factors at play here. First are the obvious cultural differences, and second is the some degree of social conditioning.

To view Australian television advertising’s lack of diversity, it would help to see why NZ is so much better (please don’t interpret this as a suggestion I think NZ advertising is good! There are varying degrees of terrible).

NZ as a culture has a sense of creativity at its very core. Whether it be in the arts, or making the most from a length of number 8 wire, kiwi’s are creative people and expect, on some level, to be challenged by new ideas. They also bore easily. Given its small population and remoteness NZ has done pretty well in spite of other culture killing factors like – not having any money. As a result New Zealand almost completely lacks a defineable mainstream culture.

Sure commercial radio still plays the same tunes it plays everywhere else in the world; The newspaper runs the same stories in essentially the same format as their foreign counterparts, and TV plays the same episodes of desperate housewives a week after they air in the States – but try and appeal directly to the “Mainstream New Zealanders” for anything and you find them out to lunch. Just look at Don Brash’s 2005 election campaign if you need any proof.

But I digress; What I’m basically trying to say is that if you are being forced to sit through a set of ads to get to the next section of programme you shouldn’t be insulted with a creative and mentally stimulating vacuum for 5 – 7 minutes. It’s cynical beyond words, but if that is the general level of quality that passes for an ad, you can hardly make a complaint to the AMCA.

I suppose the most frustrating aspect of all of this is that we are expected to vote with our remote, and by NOT buying the products in question. The effect of switching the channel and not patronising the companies who’s products are advertised in such a mind numbing fashion, is so far removed from the creatives that make the ads that you can’t really expect the advertising companies to connect the dots; particularly when we’re talking about the status quo. The only way to turn it around is for there to be a significant and prolonged shift in creative style and for that, I’m not holding my breath.

PS: I tried to find some video links to examples of the ads that I was talking about but couldn’t find any. Apparently they’re too inane to even bother posting on youtube.