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!)
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!)
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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