I know that older people always complain about “the youth of today” and praise the good old days. Now that I am an older person, I don’t want to do that, but it is hard not to look back at what I learned and think that much of it is gone. To me, that’s a loss.
What people think of now as “good singing” is very limited. It consists of what is found on The Voice or The X Factor, particularly here in the USA. It is what is found on the top 40 stations or maybe on certain YouTube or internet sites. Much of this singing is loud, pressed and emotional only in the loudness. On the other side of the equation there are the Celtic women who sing in a light, delicate head register that is pretty and only pretty. A lot of jazz gravitates to soft breathy phonation for no particular reason and many pop singers emulate the people with two or three separate kinds of sound in their singing, even though that doesn’t add anything at all to the impetus of what they are singing. It’s more a novelty factor.
There is electronic manipulation and physical manipulation of the sound and we are inured to this as being “normal.” If you listen to singing from the 40s, 50s, 60s, or maybe early into the 70s, you will hear many individuals with “voices” that are not just like the pop/rock model we hear today. If you watch old episodes of the Johnny Carson show, you will see Broadway singers, opera singers and jazz vocalists as a normal part of his programming. If you go back to the 50s on the live TV shows you will find a good deal of excellent singing of many styles, but most particularly opera.
A freely produced, live, unprocessed voice, conveying deeply felt, honest emotion through singing is a rare commodity and young people may not ever get to experience what it is like to see and hear such singing. That, folks, is a loss. Period. If you happen to also hear a great voice — a Stradivarius throat as it were — you can be literally blown away by such an experience.
I do appreciate many of today’s young stars in various styles but I lament the dearth of singing that has to do with being a living breathing person. The point of singing at a high level is to convey deeply felt emotion without struggle in various styles while sounding personally unique. This is without auto-tune, over-dubbing, sampling, or any help from machines. It is produced by two lungs pumping air across two vocal folds and only that.
Over-darkened sound, caused by a larynx cemented to the bottom of the throat, or shouted squawked sound emitted by a larynx pulled up somewhere into the top of the throat are very typical sounds of 2018. It’s true there is some value in each but what’s lost is just as important, if not more so, than what is kept. Mostly, the sound is not expressive at all. Rap music is energized and can communicate but it isn’t a substitute for a fluid, smooth and attractive sung sound that magnifies what a human throat can do.
I know we can’t go back to the past. I know people who do not have educated musical ears don’t hear the difference or care. I know that only those who have learned to hear and to see will understand what I write here. Still, it hurts to know that music education is nearly gone, that vocal education in public schools is virtually nonexistent and that the main factor behind all commercial music is money — if you can make money the people who promote the music don’t really care if it’s good or bad. What makes money is that which is sensationalized. The weirder or the sexier the better.
What appeals to the average person is extremism. That’s because what is “out of the ordinary” is exciting. If you do not have the capacity to appreciate subtlety in an artist, if you cannot comprehend something when it is profound and significant, explaining what you are missing is a waste of time. This kind of listening is justifiable in young children or those who have limited capacity to comprehend complex information for biological reasons, but shouldn’t be found in grown adults. For those who are sophisticated both culturally and musically the multiple colors of diversified artistic output are enthralling. That output, however, may not be commercially successful. People who like Andrew Lloyd Webber might consider him an equal of Stephen Sondheim but those who are familiar with music theater, the cognoscenti, wouldn’t ever dream of putting the composers in the same sentence. Of the two, Sir Lloyd Webber has made far more money and been more popular than Mr. Sondheim by a very long shot. They are not the least bit equal.
Things are certainly not going to reverse under the present Administration in Washington. That is sad but there are other things that are worse than the lowering of musical standards. Perhaps some day in the future when people realize how essential the arts (all of them) are to civilization, things might change. In the meantime, the continued downward spiral of more and more lousy singing continues. It’s hard to watch and to hear.