School of rock: Hearing strange voices
There are many singers whose outstanding vocal qualities are almost universally acknowledged. But what makes us love those voices that are far from perfect?
After closer listening I was mildly surprised that, a couple of yelps aside, the vocal to the Smiths’ This Charming Man only uses five notes. The fantastical polyphonic interplay of the guitar and bass subsidises the comparative vocal monotony, but Morrissey is still a joy to listen to. The mournful dourness of his voice, which lights up many a life just as a grey Lowry landscape would, does not require a great range to communicate. It is this individuality that draws as many people to him as it repels. But he’s in good company: the pop landscape of the past is littered with barkers, yodellers and warblers who wouldn’t stand a chance on X Factor. So what does it take to avoid the banalities of the universally revered?
That low yo-yo stuff
The preponderance of relatively high-pitched male vocals in popular music is extraordinary. Leonard Cohen, Don Van Vliet and Barry White are exceptions in a world when even the most macho music, from metal (witness King Diamond’s Mosquito™ Teenage Deterrent impersonation to lady-wooing R&B adopts a higher = better policy. Those who dare to rumble, from Nina Simone through Tom Waits to Tindersticks, are more likely to fill pop’s backstreets.
That said, the acceptance of the higher male register has allowed a strange phenomenon: the flowering of the falsetto. That everyone from Muse to Pharrell Williams thinks they can get away with a Prince impersonation is actually rather fantastic and liberating. Come on guys, let’s all throw off our shackles and sing If I Was Your Girlfriend to each other. You be Prince, I’ll be Camille …
There is nothing like the muck of an impure voice to get the blood racing. From Kurt to Dirt McGirt (aka Ol’ Dirty Bastard), many of us genuflect to the corrupt. This love of filth is nothing to be ashamed of, despite the protestations of some singing teachers.
Musicologist Christopher Small is spot on when he compares the medieval instruments (crumhorns and shawms) of the common folk that produce a large amount of non- harmonic noise to rock and blues singers. According to Small people get down to the dirty “not, it must be emphasised, because they did not know how to produce ‘smooth’ sounds, but because they liked ‘rough’ sounds.” Take that Michael Buble!
Tone – the “grain” of the voice
So why would people prefer, ahem, a bit of rough? At a basic level, we are talking timbre. In the same way that a flute and violin can pitch the same note yet sound utterly distinct, each human voice also carries its own bodily imprint. For Roland Barthes this goes beyond mere timbre. Barthes identifies what he believes is the thrill of the voice in its “grain”; decrying technically perfect voices where “I seem only to hear the lungs, never the tongue, the glottis, the teeth, the mucous membranes, the nose”. This is not just the timbre but the physical collision, the friction created where the vocals meet the language. Within this “grain” we identify with the physicality of the singer, the relation of our body to theirs, and thus can gain more from their communication with us than words and melody alone. So with mucous ringing in our ears, let’s celebrate the glottis and croak the praises of the weird and wonderful.