Not Authentic

Each style has its own set of parameters that people who are expert in that style know. They have a kind of “feel” for what’s right, what works and what belongs. They can tell if someone is really part of the style or just “trying hard”. They can tell if a person is really excellent and doing unique and special things that most people, even professional level people, couldn’t replicate or if the singer is “just getting by”.

Why did the classical community not embrace Michael Bolton’s classical album? What was wrong with his “Nessun Dorma”? Why is it that they mostly don’t like Andrea Bocelli? And why did the rock community not rush to celebrate Renee Flemings’ Rock Album or the jazz community jump up and down about her jazz records, or the Broadway community absolutely love her Broadway songs? Why is it that Alison Kraus isn’t regarded as a great country artist by other country artists? I don’t know anyone who liked the album of standards recorded by Rod Stewart, even though it sold well enough for him to try another one. And why would these any of these artists go where angels fear to tread? All of them had recognition in their “home” styles. Why not stay put?

One reason is because they are successful enough and wealthy enough to do whatever they want, whether or not it makes sense. Another reason is because they probably don’t have anyone close to them to say to them, “What, are you kidding?”

It’s very interesting to “hang with” people who have lived with a certain style for decades, sometimes for many decades, and who understand pretty much everything there is to know about it. Who were the important artists? Who were the influential people who left a permanent mark? Who is still revered even if they are gone? Who are the people who became legend in their own communities? Who were the people who broke the rules so that others, who came after them, were playing in a brand new game? These experts take their art form seriously. They don’t like the idea that people who don’t know what they are doing can come in and trash it, camp it up, disregard its forms and traditions or generally walk all over the parameters that have been passed down one generation to another for over one hundred years here in the USA.

We all know that if you aren’t an expert in any given endeavor, you can only pick up the most general information about it. If you took me to a tennis game, I probably wouldn’t be able to see the strategy of the players. I would be impressed at how often they could hit the ball, and not miss like me, and how fast they could send it back and forth. Same with almost any other sport. I can follow baseball (mostly) but I wouldn’t know much about which player was the best at hitting or stealing bases or saves. My cousins, on the other hand, would be able to fill me in on the smallest details, as they have followed baseball intently since they were kids.

If I played you several opera singers singing the same operatic aria, and you were not familiar with opera, you might think they all sounded the same, especially since that form doesn’t like too much variation from what is written by the composer. If I played you old style country vocalists, a lot of them would also sound the same if you were not used to listening to that style. They would certainly sound different than the classical people, though, and you would probably be able to tell that even if you didn’t have much interest in or experience with singing of any kind. If I played you some female Broadway belters, doing mostly older shows, you would think they sounded similar, but different from the opera singers and the country singers. And if I played you some jazz females, doing songs in a similar feeling and tempo, you might think there was some similarity, particularly if I was careful to pick singers I knew to have similar vocal and musical characteristics.

On the other hand, if I played the same exact selections to a group of people who were expert in any of those styles, within seconds they would know which vocalist and maybe whether it was from an early time in their careers or a later one. They would know the song or the show or the particular arrangement and when it was done. They would know if the rendition was one for which the vocalist had become famous or whether it was a more obscure selection. They would also know what the differences were between the singers, which might be too small for the inexperienced listener to hear, but which would loom large to those who had sophisticated listening skills.

I don’t think I have ever seen this topic written about anywhere. I want to know what the “it” is that those in a profession recognize that others do not. It has to be there, but we don’t know exactly how to define it.

If you have any ideas, post them here.

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2 thoughts on “Not Authentic”

  1. A local always knows who the out-of-towners are. It’s so much more than their accent. It’s their manners, speech volume, gestures, clothing, etc. I would think this would be a similar study to one about dialects and social stereotypes, only involving many more sound elements such as pitch bending, vibrato use, vocal fold vibration patterns, etc. I believe the same struggles that humans have in attempting to become a part of a culture other than the one into which they are born is very directly connected to the struggles singers have in trying to fit into other singing styles. The styles are born out of specific cultures, after all, and images of those cultures are still stamped on even the oldest styles. As a starting place, I would like to look more into existing studies about efforts to assimilate into cultures other than the one of origin.

  2. Good points, Jeanie. Clearly in any singing tradition (or any artistic tradition at all) there are trends and innovations and changes as well as people who resist any of those trends, innovations and changes. The Everly Brothers (for example) had a difficult time breaking into Nashville because the chords they were playing went beyond the standard changes, and they preferred a softer vocal sound, but eventually they found an audience and went on to make mega bucks in the industry (influencing a generation of harmony-based pop and rock groups on the way). But of course they continued to alienate a lot of people wanting that hard-edged three-chord country sound. The key here is acknowledging what’s been while still allowing room for change … a difficult balance to achieve.

    But for me the real dilemma is tradition versus training. Too often training means “correcting” the traits that lie at the heart of a sound, and too often music teachers have one sound in mind, usually a “classical” vocal tone or instrumental voice, and for them all other sounds are “less than” … second rate in some way. Thus people come to me because they want to sing (they crave singing, in fact) but they don’t want to sound like an opera singer or even the current glitzy (and trained) Nashville singer. They’ve heard something else and want that.

    I don’t disparage training (since I both seek it and do it), and there is a place for training in forms of music where traditionally there is no training tradition. It’s obvious that the artists in any genre who are recognized as great have got there through a good instrument and a certain amount of natural geniosity … and they’ve also done whatever they do a lot, through obsession and practice and often getting help from someone further on the road … a teacher or a mentor. These people are hard-wired to express their talent, and training (hopefully the right training) helps them along. For the many more non-genious musicians (like me), who are fairly talented and capable and can find a place in the workaday music world, training takes a stronger role, since there are typically more problems and obstacles. The trick is finding a teacher who will help them overcome obstacles and expand their capabilities and still allow them to pursue the sound that drove them to the music in the first place. This is something you do really well.

    One slight tangent: I think one of the reasons people don’t like “modern” country but are drawn to the rawer sounds of earlier times is that training and technology have homogenized the sound to such an extent that it’s difficult to find that gut/heart connection that you felt so strongly with Pavarotti. There has to be a point where both because of and despite training the artist at the core bursts forth. It’s what happens on the other side of a huge amount of training and also sometimes just naturally without any training at all.

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