Invisible in Plain Sight

Each week millions of people watch American Idol, The Voice, Glee, The X Factor and MTV. That means that millions of people watch others sing. In fact, there is a lot of singing on TV right now, but it doesn’t cover very much ground. You don’t hear Broadway songs, you don’t hear much folk music, you don’t hear a lot of country music, you don’t hear too much jazz. You do hear lots of pop/rock, R&B, and maybe some rap music (now and then), but you never ever hear classical singing (at least not in the USA), unless you watch a PBS station. The narrowness of the styles chosen by the people who run these shows is based on what sells the most –what brings in the most money from the marketplace. That’s how they sell the advertising time to sponsors. It’s a double bind, of course, in that the audience might start buying the other styles of music if they had a chance to hear them, but we’ll never know because no one wants to take a chance.

The problem with a lot of pop songs is that they are relatively simple, musically speaking. They rely on few chord changes or simple melodies with lots of repetitions. They have a “hook” that usually is considered “catchy” so you remember it, and sometimes there are key changes for the sake of “excitement”. Because the music listening public is so completely uneducated musically speaking, their tastes seem to reside in music that does not take a lot of “figuring out”. What happens is that a lot of pop songs end up sounding like a lot of other pop songs and pop singers end up sounding a lot like other pop singers. It is really unusual when someone who is truly different comes along and changes things. It happens once in a while, but less frequently than it did decades ago.

The way pop music works is that the song usually has a “high part” which is usually sung very loudly in a belt sound. This is supposed to convey emotion, but often it isn’t clear what emotion. The vocalist is supposed to sound good, but this can now be done through electronic/acoustic enhancement. Most people who listen don’t know who has been enhanced and who has not but they probably wouldn’t care even if they did know.

In this atmosphere, someone with a truly great voice (a unique distinctive instrument) who is emotionally open and musical, hasn’t got much chance unless he or she learns to do a good job in R&B or pop/rock music. If that’s not what the person wants to sing, they might (like Susan Boyle) break through with Broadway songs, but that would be the one in a million person (as she was) and not the norm. Mostly, the good singers are invisible, and are placed alongside the not so good singers as equals and hardly anyone knows the difference. They’re in plain sight but no one sees them for what they really are.

Since we have no easy way to educate the general public about what good singing is or isn’t, from the standpoint of a general or overall understanding of what makes a great voice great, of what’s makes a great voice in a great song great, this situation isn’t likely to change any time soon. Nevertheless, it is a worthy goal for those of us who teach singing to do our best to educate anyone whom we may encounter because having the information out there is better than not. Yes, things change, and yes, everyone has their own take on what they like, but some of the things that have allowed singers to be recognized for at least 100 years are the same as they ever were and those things should not be ignored. Those of us in singing have to keep trying to pass on what we know to those who don’t know so that we can keep the art of singing, in all its styles, going in the best possible way.

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