It seems to be that in popular music these days, if you are a female singer your style will fall into one of two categories. The first is the kind made famous by the likes of Beyoncé and Fergie, and mimicked by hopefuls on Idol and the X-Factor. The wavering, see-how-many-notes-you-can-fit-into-one-second type of singing which dominates the top forty charts. I think Christina Aguilera does a pretty fine job of it.
Coco Rosie: dress like a man, sing like a toddler.
The second category is something quite different: populated by artists such as Joanna Newsom, CocoRosie and Sarah Blasko, this style of singing is sometimes barely singing at all. While the previous category might be easily dismissed as mechanically skilled but lacking in originality, if you employ this latter category you need not be a skilled soprano. All you have to do is shape your vowels into strange, affected and overly cutesy shapes, which make you sound a little bit like you’ve regressed into your grade two, “Mum-I-wanna-be-a-famous-singer” days.
Now, I’m all for the power-to-the-people punk ethos of “Anyone can play guitar and start a band”, but that dictum can only ever go so far. People who don’t like punk will tell you something along the lines that it’s an anti-musical pile of rubble produced by untalented, obnoxious wastrels. Their opposition will argue that this view completely misses the political point, and fails to appreciate punk’s momentous innovativeness and continuing importance and influence on music to the present day. In other words, you can get away with being unskilled at your instruments (vocal cords included) if the sum of what you’re doing is breathtaking and groundbreaking. Case point: everybody knows Bob Dylan can’t sing.*
I don’t think this fashion for overly affected singing contributes anything innovative to our musical landscape. A particular affectation does not constitute a movement. (Or does it? As far as I know there isn’t a name for this trend, yet it could fall into cultural theories of cuteness.) If anything it is merely emblematic that many artists prefer to rehash what’s hip rather than develop their own meaningful style. But then, that’s no revelation.
Though this style has gone viral among “indie” bands and artists who write their own music, the very habit of defaulting into the mould of everyone else isn’t really so much better in terms of originality than, for example, Britney rehashing (or rather, just hashing) “I Love Rock’n'roll“. And apart from anything, to me – and I’m probably pissing off a helluva lot of Regina Spektor fans here – it just grates.
Imaginary Cities (image from mp3download.com)
I was privileged enough to see Canadian band Imaginary Cities this week at Melbourne’s fabulous 3RRR FM. They were tight, and showed key signs of a Serious Hipster Pop Band: some great vocal harmonies (that’s all the rage at the mo, dude – think Fleet Foxes, Akron/Family, Grizzly Bear, insert other indie band here), some cute keys, a lot of major chords and, yes, that unmistakable affectation to the vocal style. Only, that soft singing style usually goes with soft music, and somehow it didn’t all quite gel.
It’s unfortunate, because Singer Marti Sarbit, 25, has got a pretty damn good voice, and when she’s not busy trying to fit into that quaint little style, she’s reminiscent of gutsy singers like Beth Ditto, or dear Amy Winehouse (R.I.P.). Why hide behind affectation when you’ve got a decent voice on your shoulders?
I felt somehow let down by the experience, and that Sarbit was doing not only herself a disservice as a singer, but her band as well (a bunch of young men with glasses and nose rings, all power chords and loud snares). Not only does a cute, quaint lead vocal fail to carry a loud band, it reeks of submission. The band is busy making as much noise as they can, and you still wanna play the cute little girly?
It kind of reminded me of this:
Yes, that’s the woman who said, “I don’t mind living in a man’s world as long as I can be a woman in it.”
Dr Jekyll and Miss Hyde
In contrast, I was rapt when I discovered the inspirational Anna Calvi this week. Something like a cross between Siouxsie and P.J. Harvey, Calvi’s songs are straight from the heart. They’re moody, expressive, and evoke a touch of the gothic (and she’s damn good on that guitar, too).
Speaking to NME, Calvi revealed her love for singers like Edith Piaf and Nina Simone, “because they give so much in their singing and they’re so emotional, and that’s quite rare to find.” She says this “surrendering” oneself to music “seems like it’s almost gone out of fashion, but I personally really love it.” This is exactly the kind of ethos the music scene needs right now.
Calvi describes herself as a “quiet person”, but on stage transforms into a kind of all-powerful uber-femme. Though she has a large vocal range, she says she prefers to sing low because “I like the power.” In context, the demure, self-contained London girl seems all the more endearing, her musical vision all the more poignant and pure.
Anna Calvi. Official Cultured Animal Hero of the Week.
Where Did Our Love Go?
So girls, there are lessons to be learned: you are not second class citizens, so sing like you bloody well mean it.
I choose neither top forty cardboard cut-out A, nor faux-alternative cardboard cut-out B. I choose Neko Case‘s powerful vocals over Eilen Jewell‘s lazy, just-got-out-of-bed drawl. I will listen to Linda Ronstadt ballads on repeat but can’t stand Snorah Jones. Joan As Policewoman over J-Lo. Any day.
But hey. When it boils down to it, it’s probably all just a matter of taste.