September 22nd 2018

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Water, water everywhere, but not for the farmers

EDITORIAL Power companies in clover after closures

CANBERRA OBSERVED Liberals in need of an internal peacemaker

ENERGY Solar, wind dependence will add $1300 to power bills, engineers, scientists warn

LIFE ISSUES Queensland life march busts media stereotypes

ENVIRONMENTAL POLITICS Unmask activists disguised as nature lovers

FOREIGN AFFAIRS China takes up challenge to imitate and overtake America

CHINA AND AUSTRALIA Paul Monk thunders at kowtowing former pollies

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Hawaii: Pearl of the Pacific

BOOK EXCERPT From Patrick J. Byrne's book, Transgender: One Shade of Grey

FREE SPEECH University of Western Australia blinks again

LIFE ISSUES Queensland law will open floodgates to sex-selective abortion


MUSIC Pop and singing: A certain antagonism

CINEMA Christopher Robin: The best something comes from nothing

BOOK REVIEW A so-called industry with only a dark side

BOOK REVIEW Population see-saw changes direction



EUTHANASIA No concoction can kill peacefully

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Pop and singing: A certain antagonism

by David James

News Weekly, September 22, 2018

There is a comedy skit about a music manager who eyes a potential performer.

“Hey kid, can you sing?” the manager asks. “No,” the young man replies. “Good, come with me, I’ll make you a star.”

For many successful pop music performers, that is not too far from the truth. Some of the most famous names couldn’t sing at all. The worst offender is Neil Young, whose whiny, weirdly discordant vocals are the sonic equivalent of fingernails running down the blackboard.

To this writer there is a very good case that he should be registered as unacceptable noise by the environment authorities and a restraining order taken out on him. Yet he is one of the most successful performers in the history of American music, and when I express my view that listening to him is painful, fans of Young look at me with blank incomprehension. To them, his voice matches the lyrics; it is the words they seem to be listening to, not the music.

Bob Dylan is not as bad as Young, but he, too, has a hideous whine that makes listening to him anything but pleasant. David Bowie said he had a voice like “sand and glue”, which was not too far from the truth. Dylan may be a peerless songwriter and an exceptional lyricist, but it is usually a relief when somebody else is singing his songs – a nasal drawl is not singing.

Dylan copied country singers who also had a very nasal sound, but they were actually singers. Dylan is not.

There are many others on the list of non-singers. Another is Bowie himself, who did admit that he was not very fond of his own voice. With good reason. It was thin and lacked tone. If you heard someone singing like that in a karaoke bar, you would advise them not to give up their day job.

Once again, though, the actual singing was not necessarily the point. Bowie was an imaginative songwriter and a clever enunciator of words: not so much a singer as an actor.

Next on our list of famous singers who can’t sing is Bruce Springsteen. He acknowledged as much in his autobiography, saying he has a “barman’s power, range and durability”, but that his voice lacked tonal beauty or finesse.

The self-assessment is instructive. “My voice gets the job done. But it’s a journeyman’s instrument and on its own, it’s never going to take you to higher ground. I need all my skills to get by and to communicate deeply … I am a sum of all my parts. I learned early that this is not something to fret about.”

Springsteen’s emphasis on “commu­nication” is the key. Pop singers in the first instance are performers, not singers. Their task is to communicate an emotion, not to be musical. And to stand out they need to do it in a distinctive way. If they can achieve that without singing well, then that is not really an issue. They are mostly actors, performers, and only secondarily musicians.

Some even gain attention by being anti-singers. Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols was probably the clearest example of this. He was, true to his name, a rotten singer. But that was the point. The band’s assault on musicality was meant to be emblematic of its attack on British society and Thatcherism. More vaudeville than a concert.

It is harder to find bad, but successful, female singers. Tracy Chapman and Joan Armatrading spring to mind as possible candidates, but they are more mannered than awful. This writer does not have a great fondness for Joni Mitchell’s voice, although on some songs she does sound musical. She, like Dylan, is such an outstanding songwriter that her voice is almost a secondary consideration.

Female pop singers, for the most part, tend to have musical voices and to have become famous because of that. There is a great emphasis on performance as well, especially their look and dress, but the ability to sing tends to be more important.

The success of Adele, for instance, is largely down to her singing. She has an excellent tone, is powerful and rhythmic and does not even use auto-tune in her recordings, which is one reason why they sound so authentic.

Pop music, it seems, is not so much music as cultural performance. If the music is good, that is a bonus. But an absence of musicality is all too common.

David James is a Melbourne writer and musician.

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