Really Bad Singing

We are living in an age when education, sophistication, refinement and elegance are suspect by a large portion of our society. When kids emulate “gangsta” types and think that using incorrect language is not only cool but a very good idea, everyone suffers. Honoring cultural differences in a pluralistic society is necessary and beneficial, but allowing cultural, religious, social, racial or gender  differences to override what is for the general good of all people, regardless of background or lifestyle, is not.

Recently  I encountered on YouTube a young girl (looked to be about 11 or 12) screaming her way through a horribly over-ornamented pop/rock version of “O Holy Night”, with the claim underneath the clip that this child had a larger vocal pitch-range than anyone else (which is not true). The clip represents what is really bad about pop culture in this moment.

It’s just as wrong to turn every song into a screamy pop ballad as it is to turn every song into an opera aria. It is equally disrespectful to the intention of the composer and to the lyricist or poet. Yes, arrangements are fine, but when the arrangement strays so far from the song as to trash it, something is wrong. “Mood Indigo” as a bouncy swing tune would not work. A screamed, belted, over ornamented “O Holy Night” doesn’t work either.

Secondly, the teacher is using this child to promote himself. His self-aggrandizement at the expense of this youngster has to have had the cooperation of her parents (or guardians). Three adults have sold this child down the river, vocally speaking, but not just in this way, either. She is being denied the opportunity to encounter any kind of self-knowledge through her singing or any kind of respect for music and how it can open her heart.

Her voice does, indeed, cover a very wide range, but that, as a goal in itself, is a stupid goal, for anyone, but particularly for a young person. It would be much better to teach her to sing with a relaxed free sound, one that also allows her throat to remain relaxed. It would be better to be lead to create a deeper, more meaningful relationship to her body and her capacity to breathe easily and fully. It would be better for her to learn to express lyrics for their inherent meaning. When was the last time you were moved (the true purpose of singing) by someone screaming in your face? The idea that you could actually hear angels singing would indeed make you fall on your knees in awe and silence.

Very high belting pulls the larynx way up into the throat, tightens the upper constrictors and hardens the base of the tongue. It stiffens the back of the neck and pulls the head forward and restricts both inhalation and exhalation. Repetition of this kind of singing would lead to profound tension in the entire physical system and vocal folds, making the likelihood of vocal injury much higher. If you were to compare this example to that of a young Judy Garland singing “You Made Me Love You” you would find that Garland’s voice was natural, authentic and emotion filled. If you listened to this young woman, you would not hear anything that resembled natural vocal production. She is a circus act, something for the Guinness Book of Records for all the wrong reasons. I am not going to cite the actual example but you might find it if you look for renditions of “O Holy Night”. You can probably easily find others that are quite similar.

The saddest part of all this is that the opinion I am expressing here is absolute NOT the opinion of most of the rest of the world — not even of the vocal musical world. My late singing teacher colleague called this kind of singing “bullfight singing” and in this case I have to agree with her. There isn’t anything musical about such singing but it can be exciting (like watching an actual bullfight) if you are easily impressed by what is essentially a form of violence and aggression, whether it be against a bull or against a child.

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Just because human beings do damage to themselves doesn’t mean that we should encourage it. Just because adults are parents doesn’t mean that they always have the best interests of their child at heart. Just because someone teaches doesn’t mean they have anything to teach.

Really bad singing exists at the very highest levels of commercial success. Just because it’s out there doesn’t mean it deserves support. Learn to be discerning. Educate your tastes. Find out what you do not know. Expand your horizons. See past the smoke and mirrors. The Guinness Book of Records is not the Metropolitan Opera, Carnegie Hall or Broadway, nor the Jazz, Rock or Country Music Hall of Fame.

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4 thoughts on “Really Bad Singing”

  1. I searched for it, and yikes–it is indeed a sideshow performance. And not only is it overly sung, it’s overly produced. I cannot imagine that this poor child could replicate these sounds live. What a travesty.

    Your reference to Judy Garland made me think of this cut “Over the Rainbow” reprise from The Wizard of Oz that I recently discovered. Her voice is so raw, and her heart so present.

  2. Thank you for voicing what many do feel and know. We all have to speak up more. I especially like your first sentence “we are living in an age when education, sophistication, refinement and elegance are suspect…”

  3. Your article is right on. I would like to expand. As voice teachers we work in the times we do. These times have been coming and many of us have cooperated in the process unwittingly. Our young students come to us with the same inspiration that they ever did as they look for guidance in how to move forward musically. We need to stay the course in helping them discover artistry through demonstration and good teaching. We must debunk fame, notoriety and financial gain as the true goals of and artist. Great vocal art is about the amazing communication that comes from the union of musical principals, text and emotion. It is not a zero sum sport to be won or lost. The achievement isn’t in the number of notes, proper musical style or functional correctness of the mechanism. I believe the magic of song has been given to us to move our souls to feel, more than our intellectual need to compete and achieve.

    As musicians and teachers we need to rededicate ourselves to help inspire our students to feel the magic of songs sung from their hearts intended to connect with other hearts. We must drop the labels of good and bad music, high and low art
    . That invites resistance. We have to nurture them through respect for their sensitivities, so that they will learn the same respect for others. Our students will then feel the satisfaction that this deep communication delivers and they will help us educate an ailing, competitive, materialistic society of childish adults!

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