15 December 2006

Wherein Bill at So Quoted Gives Me an Excuse to Expound Upon Dreamgirls, Laura Nyro, Patti LaBelle, and Kylie Minogue Among Other Things

I feel inspired by this post where Bill at So Quoted felt inspired by one of my posts (he's so entirely right about Sinead O'Connor, that I can't possibly add more, also her Wiki mentions she's due to deliver her fourth child Christmas Eve, God could do worse for his latest Mary (and the Devil could do worse as far as his first Mary, for that matter)). The blogosphere is full of these sort of self-referential feedback loops, I didn't want to be left out.

I'm trying to trace back in my mind where all this horrible Whitney, Mariah, Celine, Xtina crap started and I think I know where.


I was going to do a review of the album from the new film, but I loathed it so much, that I figured I couldn't possibly be fair towards it. Then I listened to a cast recording of the original musical, and it was just as bad, if not worse.

That song, the big show stopper, the big moment, the one that supposedly made Jennifer Holliday a star, that song is a wreck, especially at the end. Jennifer Hudson does an equally horrific job with that crappy song, warble for warble, oversung note for oversung note.

It may be enough to earn her a Supporting Actress Oscar. Good for her, I guess.

Needless to say, you'd have to pay me to see that film, and pay me well, like getting Prof. Althouse to eat an egg salad sandwich type money (current price seems to be around $1,000 US, but as she seems more prosperous lately, the price may have risen).

Dreamgirls first hit Broadway very early in the 80s, before Whitney had her hits, and before Patti LaBelle went from being a powerfully voiced singer into being a ridiculous parody of a warbler. It is a play about girl groups from the sixties but it applies a bombastic Broadway sensibility to the lyrics and song style. It's a match made in hell, if you ask me. Listen to Motown, listen to Mary Wells' velvety vocals, or Diana Ross' sexy whisper. That's not what Holliday does in that stupid musical. Dreamgirls is as if you mixed girl groups with the demonic presence that is known as Andrew Lloyd Webber. To paraphrase Hugo Chavez, whenever ALW leaves a room, the smell of sulfur lingers for days.

So why did that crappy vocal style catch on, and why do consumers continue to eat it up?

I don't have a precise answer, but I think it has something to do with the idea that folks have a tendency to believe that things that seem hard take more talent than things that seem easy. The shortstop who's always in the right place never has to make a spectacular play to get the easy out, while the guy who doesn't know what the hell he is doing, but has amazing physical gifts gets to make spectacular play after spectacular play as he dives in the dirt, wheels and throws. People assume the diver is the better shortstop, when really it's the fella who does his homework, and does the job as it should be done.

I think pop music consumers have fallen in a similar trap. They hear vocalists doing runs and singing in a couple octaves and keys within one song, and they think to themselves, "self, I could never do that, therefore this here that I'm listening to must take real talent, and therefore is well worth my time, even if it sounds like a bag of cats drowning".

What's that have to do with Laura Nyro? Everything, I've been listening to her album of soul covers, Gonna Take a Miracle, and it's amazing. That was a vocalist who knew exactly what she was doing and used her instrument in surprising and exciting ways. Her voice wasn't always pleasant sounding, and she brought a shocking emotionality to those songs that tended to uncover a dark undercurrent in the sunny lyrics she was singing. This is especially true on Nowhere to Run, her take on that song is absolutely enthralling. At the end when she repeats "I've got nowhere to run to" it sounds as if she's really being stalked by something sinister. It's a fascinating change from the original, and it's all done through how she uses her voice.

As it so happens (I was going to edit that needlessly conversational phrase from this post, but instead I'll link to this Althouse post as penance), this album is a joint project between Nyro and Labelle, Patti LaBelle's group at the time. It's amazing, and somewhat hard to believe now, that Patti used to be able to use her voice in the service of the song rather than as turning each song into glorified vocal exercises.

What has Kylie Minogue have to do with this conversation?

She's a thinly voiced singer who has perfected the art of using that thin voice to maximum effect. She is that shortstop who is always in the perfect position to make the easy throw. Her last album, Body Language, is just about the most perfect pop album released in the past 5 years. It's a sublime creation, and it doesn't matter that she can't power through a note, what matters is that she's able to interpret songs, and present something pleasing and beautiful within the context of light, confectionery pop. It's one of the easiest albums you'll ever listen to, and that's a big compliment in my opinion.

Folks don't always get it, but Easy is Hard, it's Hard that's Easy.

1 comment:

bill said...

Damn fine post. Nice improvement over my middle of the night, ham-fisted effort. I think I left out about half of what I wanted to mention.

The Laura Nyro sounds interesting. Speaking of--are you familiar with Laura Love? One of my favorite singers, she does an excellent cover of Nyro's Stoned Soul Picnic. Not really sure where she falls in this discussion as her vocal style is just unique.