I Knew They Were Terrible Singers! Part 3

Lana Del Rey, cockeyed optimist

Lana Del Rey, cockeyed optimist

And so we continue with I Knew They Were Terrible Singers!, where I explain the vocal sins committed by the singers you can’t stand to hear.

One of my eight blog readers begged, “Do Lana Del Rey. Please.” Okay. All I knew of Del Rey was the media coverage of her lackluster appearance on Saturday Night Live several years ago. So I watched a bunch of her videos on YouTube. Her videos are mini-epics that are superior to her pedestrian voice, which reminds me of Mama Cass in range but not in musicality. I wonder if Del Rey is popular because she is one of the few girl singers who’s not belting and autotuning to the high heavens. In that way, she is a welcome relief. Every morose maiden can sing Del Rey with little to no effort, for that’s how she sings too — undersupported and under energized. I’d bet money that she told her first voice teacher she was “really more of an alto.” Her range is low, small, and finite, which means every song sounds the same. While her tone is clear, her lack of vocal hustle results in some chronic nasality. Lana Del Rey sounds like she needs cheering up.

Kim Carnes: A voice as pure as New York snow.

Kim Carnes: A voice as pure as New York snow.

“Bette Davis Eyes” is unsingable unless you are recovering from laryngitis, which is what Kim Carnes sounded like on her best day (But oh, she could whip that hair!). That gravely, wooly sound is her vocal folds coming together unevenly. It must be an injury from a long time ago. It seems to be happening throughout her range — I don’t hear a clear sound anywhere, except in a few brief head voice moments. She struggles to sing many interval leaps — but in this song, I think it’s less of a vocal problem than a conscious choice. Carnes’ disabled voice got her a Grammy for Record of the Year in 1981. Call me contrary, but Carnes’ quirky, weathered voice suited lyrics that celebrated a one-of-a-kind actress. Gwyneth Paltrow sang the song in a movie once — her rendition is clear and controlled, her pitch is accurate . .. and it’s totally unmemorable. Carnes has been married to the same guy since 1967 and she’s still writing songs in Nashville, isn’t that great? Terrible singer, but hopefully a happy songwriter.

Rod Stewart: Do Ya Think I'm Scratchy?

Rod Stewart: Do Ya Think I’m Scratchy?

Carnes is often compared to Rod Stewart, the uncrowned King Of Raspy Singers. To me, Joe Cocker sounds like a hot mess, but Rod Stewart sounds far hotter. It’s his material, of course — the vocal range of his songs is higher, the tempo of many songs is faster. Stewart readily admits his voice is fragile, and when I listen to him I mostly hear the damage. I can listen to his early stuff but not his newer recordings. I like reading about Stewart, far more than listening to him. Stewart is a thyroid cancer survivor, which is of course wonderful — but he has also admitted to taking loads of manhood-shrinking steroids to soothe his swollen throat after abusing it in performance. Don’t let it happen to you, kids!
Cher really is more of an alto. That’s fine, but she also drawls her vowels, which leads her to sing with a very swallowed sound. You either love her or . . .you don’t. Compare Cher to Tina Turner in this clip from Cher’s solo variety show (after she divorced Sonny). They sing the same notes, but the sound is totally different. That’s not just because they’re two different singers, it’s also because there are two different approaches to singing a particular phrase. Tina keeps her voice in a more “forward” sounding position and nasalizes words, while Cher goes straight back. If I could turn back time, I’d never hear her version if “It’s In His Kiss.” Ever.

Proud Mary with Half Breed

“Proud Mary” vs. “Half Breed”

Who should we talk about next? Jewel? Stevie Nicks? Shakira? Cat Stevens? Contact me with your nominations and I’ll commence this Very Important Research.

 

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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