I Knew They Were Terrible Singers! (Part Deux)

It’s time for another round of “I Knew They Were Terrible Singers!”, where I explain the bad vocal technique behind the songs I’ve never liked — and even some songs I do like. This week, I’m including some nominations from you, my Eight Blog Readers!

1. Benny Mardones, Into The Night: It was one of the few songs to hit the Top 20 twice in the same decade — 1980 and 1989. I liked the beginning of the song, but Mardones’ highest pitches were produced with scratchy strained vocal folds, and that really turned me off. It sounded like screaming then, and it still does today. It’s unfortunate, because when he sings “If I could fly, I’d pick you up,” he has a lovely head voice “oo” sound on the word you. Only a few notes later, he sings “and you a love” on the same pitch (B flat), and the vowel is gravelly and the throat is tight. Head voice would have sounded better. I couldn’t imagine any girl accepting an “Into The Night” serenade; maybe that’s why I didn’t date much in high school. (Watch the video, made a year before MTV started! It has an Aladdin concept and everything!)

Stay on pitch, Natalie!

Stay on pitch, Natalie!

2. When she was with 10,000 Maniacs, Natalie Merchant‘s voice moved unevenly between her chest register and mixed chest and head register. In “Like The Weather” you can hear how some notes sound very swallowed and dark while slightly higher pitches are bright and pinched. But it was her pitchiness that drove me nuts. Merchant always allowed a pitch drop-off at the ends of phrases, partly for effect and partly because she ran out of breath. Also, what are the words in “Like The Weather?” I still have no idea. This kind of lazy, louche singing happened a lot in the grungy ’90s. (I like Wonder. I can understand the words and she commits far fewer vocal sins.) (And I love her gray hair now.)

3. Aaron Neville was nominated by one of my readers. Good call! In order to extract a tenor range Neville has to engage in some vocal fracking, extracting a sound through a tense chest, neck and jaw. The tension is so great, his head and chin jerk with the effort of moving from note to note. Watch the clip with the sound turned off to see for yourself. Neville might not have enough air in his lungs to sing more than a few notes comfortably, so he sings lots of teeny tiny melodic lines instead and grabs a shallow breath between them. When you don’t have enough air in your lungs, your throat will squeeze to try to help you finish the phrase your brain started. (Oh, whatever. I still love this song and remember it from the movie The Big Easy! I just can’t watch Neville when he sings it!)

You don't need extraneous movements, Joe!

You don’t need extraneous movements, Joe!

4. Vocally, Joe Cocker is Aaron Neville to the infinite power, with some laryngitis thrown in. Joe Cocker’s voice proves again that a ruin can be charming. His raspy, breathy, gravelly voice is the result of damaged vocal folds not closing together completely and properly. Might be drugs, might be cigarettes, might be illness, might be all of the above. He swears the jerky body swings are not related to his singing or breathing, but how could they not be? Stiffness and rigidity in the limbs and shoulders is going to affect the voice. As with Neville, I think it’s a way of trying to force sound out through a very tight throat and damaged folds. Watch what John Belushi had to do to imitate him, back when Saturday Night Live was funny. Have you ever tried to imitate Joe Cocker? It’s exhausting. But millions of people are still happy to watch Joe Cocker be Joe Cocker. 

Each of these singers has had a great career while committing mortal vocal sins that I would try to remove or ameliorate in a voice lesson — shows how much I know, right? But young singers routinely come into my studio and imitate singers by imitating their vocal problems  . . and I have to tell them all the reasons why it’s not wise to do that. 

If you’ve ever wondered why a certain singer’s voice makes you want to plug your ears, you just might have an appreciation for good vocal technique, and a normal sense of outrage when standards are violated. Yay you!

The ballot box is still open . . nominate your least favorite singers or songs and I’ll tell you why your ears are crying.

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Eden’s On The Air: “Conducting Conversations” With Mike Maino of WCRI

Don’t touch that dial!

Eden with Mike Maino of "Conducting Conversations", WCRI

8. Eden with Mike Maino of “Conducting Conversations”, WCRI

Conducting Conversations has been a beloved radio show for years. Host Mike Maino has talked to Broadway stars, genius conductors, world-class instrumentalists and  . . . me. I’m the first voice teacher to be on Conducting Conversations! The program airs on WCRI 95.9 FM in the Rhode Island area on Sunday, October 12 from 7 to 8pm. It’s available on podcast afterwards at www.classical959.com.

UPDATE: CLICK TO LISTEN!

Mike was a genial, generous host. I brought a mixed bag of music to share and he enjoyed the variety — he asked if he could keep the CD I burned for the show, so he could listen to all the tracks again! I started with my own performance from last April, to prove my bona fides. We talked about how I accidentally discovered that I was a coloratura, and then we played some Beverly Sills and Natalie Dessay, who are far more bona fide than I.

When Mike and I talked about teaching voice lessons to children, I presented two contrasting versions of O Mio Babbino Caro, one by Maria Callas and one by Jackie Evancho. Many of my younger students imitate Jackie, who is imitating Charlotte Church, who was imitating Kiri Te Kanawa. No one imitates Callas. (Is such a thing possible?)

Mike and I talked about opera stars singing pop, and pop style in opera. As a voice teacher, I have to help singers figure out what is appropriate and healthy for them vocally and stylistically, and what’s better left unsung. I brought two examples for fun: Placido Domingo singing the Beatles and “Catch Our Act At The Met,” a great show tune by Comden and Green. Note that Comden and Green do not actually try to sing opera, and that’s why the song works. I almost brought Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballe . . .oh well, next time!

Thanks Mike, for a great hour of conversation and shop talk! I love helping singers find their real voices. Singers can stretch themselves to stylistic limits and imitate other singers as they try to find their own sound, but every singer sounds wonderful when they are true to themselves.

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I Knew They Were Terrible Singers!

Michael W. Smith can't sing without hurting someone

Michael W. Smith: Doesn’t it hurt?

Back in the 1980s I listened to pop music just as much as any other teen. My favorite singers included Olivia Newton-John, Linda Ronstadt, Al Jarreau and the Manhattan Transfer. I also developed a blacklist of songs and singers that just sounded wrong to me. Back then, I probably dismissed the offender with a casual, “Eew! I just hate that song!” and turned the dial. Now I can see that my teen ears were often just reacting to some very bad vocal technique. Here, a few of the few songs I couldn’t stand when they first came out, and the vocal reasons why. The awful videos are just a bonus!

Place In This World: Michael W. Smith was a very popular Christian artist in the 1980s and 1990s and this was a crossover hit for him. Listen to that raspiness, especially on the choruses. This sound is the vocal equivalent of a three-day beard — it could be totally on purpose, or just a lack of (vocal) hygiene. He pronounces place as “pleece” because if he sang “place” he’d never hit the pitch. Try and do it yourself. Once.

Madonna has Lived To Tell

Madonna has Lived To Tell

Live To Tell, Madonna: Her first hit, “Borderline,” featured a very bright, nasal voice and a light timbre — so light, I could sing it easily and often did, and I really liked her for that reason. That, and the neon heels with socks. In this song, the melody is about an octave lower and Madonna is singing with a very dark, covered, almost swallowed sound. She’s also trying to carry her chest voice higher and is straining to do so. At the slumber party we could all sing “Borderline” with a brush for a microphone, but no one wanted to sing “Live To Tell.” I heard her sing it live on a concert video few years back, and she has improved. Keep up the lessons, Madonna, you may get somewhere!

Keep On Loving You, REO Speedwagon: I’ve hated this song “fereverrr.” Every choir teacher on earth begs their singers to drop the final ‘r’s in words, because if you sing an ‘r,’ it sounds like nerdy and immature and sort of like .  . . . Kevin Cronin of REO Speedwagon.

Heaven Is A Place On Earth, Belinda Carlisle: Vibrato tighter than her jeans. (But very cool eyeliner.) A too-fast vibrato can be an indication of vocal tension, or inadequate breath support. Carlisle’s veers very close to tremolo, which sounds almost like a vocal tremble. At least it does to my ears. She sang that way when she fronted the Go-Gos too, but she sang in a higher range then. As a solo artist, she sang in lower keys and the fast vibrato was more noticeable to me.

Oh, there are more. And you have your own vocal transgressors to accuse. Tell me what you hate, and I’ll tell you . . why.